"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

 
REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.

CH23: ANGELIC NATURE AND KNOWLEDGE

1. Nature Of Angels

St. Thomas [596] teaches clearly that the angels are creatures purely spiritual, subsistent forms without any matter. Scotus says they are composed of form and incorporeal matter, without quantity, because, being creatures, they must have an element of potentiality. The Thomistic reply runs thus: This potential element is first the angelic essence, really distinct, as in all creatures, from existence. Secondly, the real distinction between person and existence, between quod est and existence. Thirdly, real distinction of substance from faculties, and of faculties from acts. All these distinctions are explicitly formulated by St. Thomas himself. [597].

From their pure spirituality St. Thomas concludes that there cannot be two angels of the same species, because the only principle by which a substantial form can be individualized is matter, matter capable of this quantity rather than any other. Thus, to illustrate, two drops of water, perfectly similar, are by their matter and quantity two distinct individuals. But angels have no matter. [598].

Scotus, on the contrary, since he admits a certain kind of matter in the angels, maintains also that there can be many angels of one and the same species. Suarez, in his eclecticism, admits this conclusion of Scotus, although he sides with St. Thomas in maintaining that the angels are purely spiritual and immaterial beings. Thomists reply: if the angels are purely spiritual, you can find in them no principle of individuation, no principle capable of multiplying within one and the same species.

Form unreceived in matter, they say with St. Thomas, is simply unique. Whiteness, for example, if conceived as unreceived in this or that white thing, would be one and unique. If you deny this, then you simultaneously deny the principle which demonstrates the unicity of God, the principle, namely, which St. Thomas thus formulates: [599] Existence unreceived is necessarily subsistent and unique.

2. Angelic Knowledge

There are three orders of knowledge: human, angelic, divine. The object of knowledge in general is intelligible reality. The proper object of human intelligence is the intelligible being of sense objects, because the human intellect has as its proportioned object the lowest order of intelligible reality, the shadowy reality of the sense world. By opposition, then, the proper object of angelic intelligence is the intelligible reality of spiritual creatures. Hence, the proper intelligible object of each particular angel is that angel's own essence, just as God's proper intelligible object is His own divine essence. [600].

This position granted, let us see its consequences. The human idea, by which man knows, is an abstract and universal idea, drawn forth, by the intellect agent, from particular sense objects. But the angelic idea, not being drawn from external sense objects, is a natural endowment of the angelic intellect, infused into it by God at the moment of creation. Hence the angelic idea is at once universal and concrete. The angel's infused idea of the lion, say, represents not only the nature of the lion, but all individual lions that either actually exist or have in the past been objects of the angel's intellect. Angelic ideas are thus participations in God's own creative ideas. Infused ideas, then, which Plato and Descartes falsely ascribed to men, are, on the contrary, an angelic characteristic.

Thus these angelic ideas, at once universal and concrete, represent whole regions of intelligible reality, and each angel has his own distinctive suprasensible panorama. The higher the angel, the stronger is his intelligence and the fewer are his ideas, since they are more rich and universal. Thus, with ever fewer ideas, the higher angels command immense regions of reality, which the lower angels cannot attain with such eminent simplicity. [601] A human parallel is the sage, who, in a few simple principles, grasps an entire branch of knowledge. The stronger is the created intellect, to say it briefly, the more it approaches the preeminent simplicity of the divine intellect.

A further consequence. The nature of his ideas, at once universal and concrete, make the angel's knowledge intuitive, not in any way successive and discursive. He sees at a glance the particular in the universal, the conclusion in the principle, the means in the end. [602].

For the same reason his act of judging does not proceed by comparing and separating different ideas. [603] By his purely intuitive apprehension of the essence of a thing, he sees at once all characteristics of that essence, for example, he simultaneously sees all man's human and created characteristics, for instance, that man's essence is not man's existence, then man's existence is necessarily given and preserved by divine causality. [604].

Why this immense distance between angel and man? Because, seeing intuitively, the angel sees without medium, as in clearest midday, an immensely higher object, sees the intelligible world of spirits, whereas man's intellect, the most feeble of all intellects, having as object the lowest order of intelligibility, must be satisfied with twilight glances into the faint mirror of the sense world.

A further consequence is that the angel's intuitive vision is also infallible. But while he can make no mistake in his natural knowledge, he can deceive himself in the supernatural order, on the question, for example, whether this or that individual man is in the state of grace. Likewise he may deceive himself in forecasting the contingent future, above all in attempting to know the future free acts of men, or the immanent secrets of man's heart, secrets which are in no way necessarily linked with the nature of our soul or with external physical realities. The secrets of the heart are not fragments of the material world, they do not result from the interplay of physical forces. [605].

Contrary to this view, Scotus holds that the angel, though he has no sense faculties, can still receive ideas from sense objects. This view arises from his failure to distinguish intellects specifically by their proper and proportioned object. Thus he goes on to say that, had God so willed, the unmediated vision of the divine essence would be natural to both angels and men. Thus the distinction between uncreated intelligence and created intelligence is, for Scotus, a distinction not necessary, but contingent. A fortiori, then, he denies any necessary distinction between the proper object of the human intellect and that of the angelic intellect.

Scotus further denies that the ideas by which higher angels know are less numerous and more universal than those of lower angels. Perfection of knowledge, he says, derives less from the universality of ideas than from their clearness and brightness. Here Thomists distinguish. In the empiric order, yes, clearness does not depend on the universality of ideas. But in the order of perfection, in the order of higher principles, themselves concatenated with the supreme principle—in this order doctrinal clearness most certainly depends on the universality of its ideas.

Scotus holds also that the angel can know discursively, can engage in reasoning, a view which notably depreciates the perfection of the pure spirit. On the other hand, he holds that the angel can know, naturally and with certitude, the secrets of man's heart, though God, he adds, refuses this knowledge to the demons.

Suarez, again eclectically, admits with St. Thomas that the angelic ideas are innate, but holds, with Scotus, that the angel can use reasoning, and can be mistaken regarding the characteristics of the object he knows.

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Footnotes

596-605

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