Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Question 62 - The Perfection of the Angels

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas is moving towards the culmination of the “Treatise on the Angels” where he will address the puzzling question of how such naturally perfect creatures could possibly have fallen from favour with God by their own choice. Having dealt with the creation of the angels in the previous question, and aiming to address the question of the fall of the bad angels, it is quite natural that he continues to prepare the ground by asking about the elevation of the good angels to grace and glory. If one is to answer the question of how the bad angels fell from grace, it is necessary to understand the mechanism and movement of grace ordered to the beatific vision.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: All rational or intellectual creatures naturally desire their ultimate perfection; that is, all such creatures naturally desire their beatitude. But, Aquinas argues, there are two sorts of perfection for such creatures. On the one hand there is the perfection that follows on from the nature of the creature and which the creature is naturally capable of attaining. One recalls Aristotle in the Ethics concluding that the ultimate human happiness lies in the contemplation of God. But this is contemplation of God considered as first cause rather than contemplation of God in the vision of the divine essence. This latter is the seond perfection of the rational or intellectual creature, when we look forward to seeing God as He is. As we saw in Ia.q12.a4 this sort of perfection lies beyond the natural capabilities of the creature.

Angels seem so wonderful that one might ask whether they were created in beatitude. Aquinas, making the distinction above, answers that they were created in the first sort of natural beatitude. They do not have to go through any sort of discursive reasoning to get to their natural end; it is immediately present to them. However, their supernatural end exceeds the power of their nature and they were not created in the state of contemplating the divine essence.

A2: The ultimate beatitude of the rational creature lies in the vision of God through His essence. If we enquire into how the rational creature can have a movement of the will towards such beatitude, we have to realize that the will’s natural movement is towards what is naturally fitting for it. Hence if the rational creature is to have a movement of the will towards supernatural beatitude he requires the assistance of a supernatural agent; this is what we call grace.

Therefore, despite their many perfections, even the angels need the assistance of grace in order to turn towards God.

The third objection and its reply contain an interesting discussion of the first movement of the will towards God. Zecheriah 1:3 can be read as suggesting that the first movement of the will towards God, preparing for grace, can be within the natural powers of the rational creature. The objection argues that to suggest, on the contrary, that such a preparation for grace requires grace itself would lead to an infinite regress. In answering, Aquinas makes an important distinction between three different types of “turning towards God”. The first type consists in the turning towards God that occurs in the creature that is already enjoying the beatific vision; this is facilitated by the gift of consummated grace. The second type corresponds to the gift of God that justifies the rational creature, making them pleasing to the eyes of God; this is the gift of habitual grace. The third type corresponds to the preparation for grace which is itself a gift of God (sometimes called prevenient grace); God’s gift makes all of this happen and therefore there is no infinite regress. Zecheriah must be interpreted in the light of Lamentations 5:21.

A3: Even though the angels were not created in supernatural beatitude and require grace to turn towards God, it might be the case that they were created in grace. This might appear to be a difficult proposition to argue for, since one would then have to explain how it was possible for some of the angels to fall from grace, given that grace is that supernatural gift that inclines the rational creature towards God.

Aquinas admits that there are different theological opinions on this matter, but favours the opinion whereby the angels were created in habitual grace. The argument that he puts forward is rooted in St Augustine’s notion of the seminales rationes (“seminal reasons”) implanted in creatures. Creation not only creates things in a certain state but also gives to them their developmental direction and the powers with which to go off in those directions; a modern physicist might refer to the initial conditions imposed upon, and the differential equations obeyed by, physical systems. Habitual grace is that grace which is directed towards beatitude but it does not necessitate beatitude (in contrast to consummated grace).

A4: The concept of merit has been controversial in the history of theology, especially in the polemical battles between the Catholic Church and other denominations. Aquinas raises the question of whether the beatified angel merited its beatitude. In order to answer this question in the affirmative, he has to clarify the notion of merit.

The beatific vision of God is the ultimate end of the rational creature. Now, once the rational creature is in a position to be able to attain to the beatific vision (through the gift of sanctifying grace) they attain that ultimate end through their own operation. Now, an operation can be of two kinds: it can either have sufficient power to achieve the end or it does not, in which case it requires further assistance to reach the end. The power of achieving the beatific vision is of the latter kind; even if it is operating for the ultimate end the rational creature requires that end to be given to it as a gift. That gift is given as a result of the merit attributed by God to the rational creature cooperating with sanctifying grace. It is vital to remember that the actions of the rational creature cooperating with sanctifying grace are themselves gifts of God, sometimes called actual graces.

Applying this reasoning to the angels it is clear, pretty much by the definition of the terms involved, that we must say that they do merit their own beatitude. Indeed, Aquinas spends some time in his answer showing that alternative explanations of the relation of grace, merit and beatitude are simply muddled.

A5: We’ve seen (Ia.q58.a3) that the angels attain natural perfection immediately through their natures rather than having to acquire it through some sort of process. A similar thing is true of their attainment of beatitude: an angel is ordered to glory by its merit in the same way that it ordered to natural perfection by its nature. Therefore, as soon as an angel has merited beatitude, it attains it. As the title of the article suggests, the angel attains beatitude immediately after just one meritorious act. Although Aquinas does not discuss here what this single meritorious act may be, he goes on to discuss (in Ia.q64) the fall of the bad angels arising from their refusal to accept the gift of beatitude as gift. From this we may infer that the meritorious act of the angels is to accept that gift as gift.

A6: Given that the angels were created in a hierarchy, one might wonder whether that hierarchy is respected when considering God’s gift of grace and glory to them. In other words, do angels receive grace and glory in proportion to their natural gifts?

Aquinas gives arguments to support the affirmative opinion. The very fact that God created the angels with diverse grades of the angelic nature together with the fact that they were ordained to the beatific vision suggests that the hierarchy would be respected in the consideration of the supernatural gifts. Why else would God have created them in a hierarchy? A second argument is based on the fact that human beings are impeded in the movement of their intellective part by their sentient part; there are plenty of sensuous temptations out there for us. This doesn’t happen in the angels and their intellectual nature is not impeded in its movement which will therefore move with all its strength. Therefore those angels with better natures will turn towards God more firmly and efficaciously. As with humans, angels will receive grace and glory in proportion to the intensity of their conversion to God. Hence the better angels will receive greater grace and glory.

A7: Asking the question of whether natural cognition and natural love remain in the beatified angels allows Aquinas to reiterate his fundamental axiom that grace does not destroy nature, rather it perfects it. So, the natural cognition and love of the angels remain and are perfected when they are raised to the beatific vision of God.

A8: In Ia.q63 Aquinas is going to turn to the difficult question of sin in the angels. As with the other articles of the current question, this article can be seen as laying the preparatory foundation for the later enquiry. Once an angel is beatified, are they able to turn away from God and to sin? Of course not! The beatific vision is the vision of the absolute good; as the will is inclined to the good, so is it impossible for the will to turn away from the good as good.

The third objection claims that to say that the angels cannot sin once they have the beatific vision is to deny them free will. Aquinas parries this argument by claiming that the perfection of free choice lies in the ability to choose whilst maintaining the order imposed by the end. (Recall that free choice is a choice amongst means to an end.) Therefore the fact that the angel is unable to sin means that the choices available to the angel are all truly good (rather than a mixture of true goods and only apparent goods). Therefore the free will is actually perfected in this situation.

A9: Once a creature has achieved beatitude, it is possible for it to progress to a higher level of beatitude? Although Aquinas casts this question in the case of the angels, the answer applies more generally to all rational creatures. Every creature moves towards an end and it is impossible for this end to be indeterminate. It may be that an ultimate end is broken down into a sequence of intermediate ends, but each of these must be determinate or else they simply could not function as ends. If we consider the ultimate end of the rational creature in the beatific vision of God, then it is clear that the creature cannot attain this without the help of God. God provides this ultimate end and, as an end, it must be determinate. This determinacy of end demonstrates that the rational creature attains that particular end in beatitude and no more; God’s predestination for the rational creature determines where they end up.

Aquinas makes the clarification that the degree of beatitude does not lie in what is seen in the beatific vision (the essence of God) but rather the mode by which it is seen. It is only for God to see His own essence in the highest mode; for the rational creature, by nature finite, only a finite mode of the vision of God’s essence is possible. As there is an infinite distance between the creature and the creator and the creature may only have a finite mode of the vision of God’s essence, there are infinitely many finite modes of such vision.

Handy Concepts

  • There are two ends open to the rational creature. On the one hand is the natural end in the contemplation of God as first cause; on the other hand there is the contemplation of the very essence of God. The first is naturally open to the creature; the second is the supernatural gift of God. Angels are created in natural beatitude; to achieve supernatural beatitude, they like humans require the grace of God.
  • Even the first movement of the will towards God requires grace.
  • Habitual grace (gratia gratum faciens) is also called sanctifying grace and sometimes justifying grace. Habitual grace is ordered towards, but does not necessitate, beatitude.
  • Although Aquinas admits of diverse opinions on this matter, he takes the position that the angels were created in habitual grace.
  • The rational creature operating in the friendship of God with the gift of sanctifying grace requires actual graces to co-operate with sanctifying grace in order to merit the beatific vision. Angels, like humans, merit their beatitude.
  • An angel achieves beatitude by means of just one meritorious act.
  • The natural hierarchy of the angels in their creation is reflected in their supernatural hierarchy.
  • Rather than destroying nature, grace perfects it. So the angels’ natural cognition and natural love are perfected in beatitude rather than destroyed.
  • The rational creature in beatitude in unable to turn away from God and sin; rather than representing a constraint on free will this represents its perfection.
  • Angels, like humans, make no progress in beatitude once they have attained it.


  • The first article makes reference to the two ends of the rational creature. This is an important text used in the twentieth century debate over the supernatural.
  • Commentators have noted that the positions that Aquinas takes in the fifth and sixth article are especially speculative.
  • In the ninth article one may ask whether God might have determined intermediate ends in beatitude. Aquinas’s answer discounts the possibility of such intermediate ends by appealing to the predestination of the creature. It seems slightly curious that Aquinas doesn’t attempt an answer based on showing that there could be no means by which the rational creature could progress whilst in beatitude. For the angel, they are all they can be at their creation (they are comprehensors) and only one meritorious act attains their beatitude; for humans, their progress in grace lies in their earthly course as viators. It is worth noting that in the reply to the third objection Aquinas admits that the angels may progress in joy whilst in beatitude.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Question 61 - The Creation of the Angels

Why this Question Matters.

This question summarizes a number of questions about the creation of the angels and ties up a few loose ends about their creation, allowing us to turn in the next question to consideration of grace and glory in the angels.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: After all that Aquinas has said about God being the source of the being of all things, it might seem strange for him to ask whether angels have a cause for their being. The question does, however, allow Aquinas to summarize the argument so far and to clear up one or two loose ends. For we have seen that there is a unique self-subsistent existence and that therefore if anything else exists, it can only participate in existence and this participation must have come from the self-subsistent existence.

One might have tried to argue that there is no composition of matter and form in the angels as they are pure form, so there is no call for anything to cause a non-existent composition. Aquinas argues that neither do they have any agent transforming their matter from potency to act. But this is irrelevant; they do not have an agent cause or a formal cause, but they do have an extrinsic efficient cause that creates their whole substance.

A2: Are the angels co-eternal with God? They seem such perfect beings that it might be thought fitting that they exist with God from eternity. Aquinas dismisses this as simply contrary to the Christian faith. Referring back to Ia.q19.a3 and to Ia.q46.a1, we recall that God produces creatures by His act of will and that will is not necessitated. God can create whatever creature He wishes whenever He wishes it. As with the previous article, this one seems somewhat superfluous in the light of what Aquinas has already shown. Perhaps, this is included here as a recollection; perhaps it is aimed at Averroism, which was growing in popularity at the time Aquinas was writing.

A3: Were the angels created before the material world was created. The account in Genesis “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” would seem to suggest that the angels were created at the same time as the material world. This is the position that Aquinas argues for; the angels should not be considered as a separate universe of things. However, Aquinas is not willing to condemn the contrary point of view, because the great Father of the early church, St Gregory Nazianzen held this latter opinion. Aquinas indicates that if this opinion is to be held then the opening words of the Genesis account have to be interpreted differently; “in the beginning” as “in the Word” or as “at the beginning of time”.

A4: The empyrean heaven is the highest reaches of heaven. Aquinas asks whether this is where the angels were created. Aquinas argues that as angels were created with material creatures in one universe and as they preside over the whole of the material part of creation, it is fitting that they were created in the highest part of heaven.

Handy Concepts

  • The angels, like all other created entities receive their being from God.
  • The angels are not co-eternal with God.
  • Whether the angels were created at the same time as the material part of creation is open to theological opinion, but the most probable opinion would affirm this.
  • The angels were created in the highest reaches of heaven, reflecting the ordering they have to preside over the material parts of creation.

Question 60 - Angelic Love

Why this Question Matters.

In Ia.q59.a1 Aquinas divided appetite into three classes: the natural, the sensory and the intellectual. What characterized the natural appetite was the lack of any presupposition of awareness. Sensory appetite involves the movement towards what is sensed and intellectual appetite (or will) the movement towards the good, perceived as good. In appetite there is a certain affinity between subject and object; and back in Ia.q20.a1 Aquinas insisted that this affinity, when it is in act, is love “the primary movement of the will and of every appetitive capacity”. In this question Aquinas is going to look at love in the angels from the point of view of what is in act prior and posterior to the act of free choice. Thus in the five articles of this question, we get a refinement of the notion of “natural” love preceding free choice; the idea of love as after a free choice; an enquiry into the egoistic and altruistic aspect of love; and finally, the most profound aspect of love in its orientation towards the creator.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The first article asks whether there is a “natural love” in the angels. One’s first thought might be to attempt to take this question as referring to the idea of a natural inclination as defined in Ia.q59.a1. Doing this would lead to the denial of a “natural love” as angels are purely intellectual and therefore inclined to things purely by their wills. But here Aquinas is actually asking whether there is a love that follows on from the nature of an angel, before any free choice of the will. The answer to this question is in the positive. Aquinas quotes St. Augustine in the sed contra to the effect that there is natural knowledge in the angels (they don’t have to learn everything in the way we do) and love follows on knowledge. Then he argues that every nature is the subject of some tendency, which is its natural appetition, or love. The mode of this differs in different creatures according to their mode of being; in the angels their mode of being is intellectual and therefore their natural love takes the form of willing.

A2: One might also ask whether angels can choose to love something. After all, their knowledge of natural things is infallible and they don’t have to go through a process of working things out, so it is unclear what choices might be left to them (c.f. Ia.q59.a3).

Answering in the affirmative, Aquinas makes a comparison with humans. Our natural willing is for our ultimate end. On the other hand, our willing by choice is of those things that help us attain that end. So, our natural love is of the good which we desire as our end; our love of choice is of the goods that we desire in view of that end. Now, the human intellect does not, by its nature, know all that it is capable of understanding; we have to work things out. There’s a sort of duality going on here: our wills proceed from the general (the good in general) to the particular (individual goods that will help us attain that end) whereas the intellect works from the particular towards the general. The intellect makes speculative judgements about what is true and false, but also practical judgements about how particular things or actions stand in relation to our final end. In the angels the speculative judgements are infallible and do not involve any cogitation, but as they are creatures falling short of perfection, some choices may still need to be made with respect to practical judgements. There may still be pro- and con- to consider for any practical judgement relating to their ultimate end. Therefore we can say that angels do love by choice as well as by nature.

A3: This article and the next form a pair and may also be seen as preparatory to the fifth article. This article considers the love that an angel has for itself, the next considers the natural love an angel has for other angels and the fifth considers the natural love an angel has for God. Here Aquinas asks whether angels love themselves both naturally and through choice.

Aquinas starts his answer by making a distinction: one the one hand we have love considered as desire (or concupiscence) and on the other hand love considered as friendship. In the latter we love a thing as willing the good for it (or as a subsistent good); in the former we love as willing it for some other (or as an accidental or inhering good). So, for example, we desire knowledge because we wish to have it for ourselves, rather than willing that knowledge may itself be good.

In humans, as in angels, there is a natural desire for fulfilment; but so also are there choices made in reaching for our fulfilment. So in angels and in humans there is both a natural and a chosen love for our own selves; but this is the love of friendship rather than the love of desire.

A4: The types of natural love that exist between individuals will depend on the actual bond between those individuals. So, the nature of the love of friendship between family members may be seen to be different than that between citizens of the same city or between human beings in general. If we consider only the natural love that exists between angels then we can see that they must love each other because they are of one kind. One may doubt that this shows that they love each other as themselves. However, the sense that Aquinas is using here is shown by the answer to the first objection. An angel knows himself as having the nature of an angel and recognizes another angel as having the same nature; the type of love of friendship that Aquinas is using here follows upon this knowledge. If we try to take a wider sense of knowing and loving the other as self, we have to recognize that an individual knows himself through his own essence and cannot know another through their essence. Therefore, in the wider sense defined by this knowledge, one individual cannot love another as self as the individual does not possess the knowledge required for this love.

A5: Finally Aquinas argues that an angel’s natural love for God is stronger than the natural love that it has for itself. His argument is based on an analogy of the natural movement of those things that lack reason. For such things that belong by their very nature to something else move more intensely towards that thing than they move towards themselves. As an example of this Aquinas claims that a part naturally exposes itself to danger for the sake of conserving the whole; a principle of altruism is embedded naturally within such things. As “reason imitates nature” we also see that an individual citizen is willing to lay down their life for the good of the community in times of war, for example. Now, God is the universal good containing within Himself all creatures and therefore all creatures have a natural inclination towards Him stronger than they have towards themselves. In particular, this applies to the angels.

The first objection claimed that since the nature of God is utterly different from the nature of an angel, therefore the love of friendship of an angel based on the similarity of nature cannot be stronger towards God than towards even another angel, let alone itself. Aquinas replies that the idea that love of friendship is based on similarity of nature applies only within creation; God is the whole reason for the being of things and the natural love that things have for God is based on them being a part of this whole.

The fourth objection makes the important argument that it would appear that it is supernatural charity that allows us to love God more than we love ourselves; in other words, it is a supernatural grace, given to us by God, rather than a natural movement that lies behind such love. Aquinas demurs; God is the universal good upon which everything depends and that is the basis for the natural love of creatures for their creator and sustainer. The supernatural love that creatures have for their creator is based in the beatific vision as end that creatures may be gifted by God.

Handy Concepts

  • In this question, “natural love” refers to the inclination of the creature that follows on from the nature of the creature.
  • Even though angels have an infallible knowledge, they love through choice as well as naturally.
  • There is a distinction between the love of desire and the love of friendship. The first is egoistic; the second altruistic even though it may be directed towards the good of the self. Humans and angels have both a natural love of friendship and chosen love of friendship for themselves; the latter constituted by the choices made to promote individual good.
  • The fourth article differentiates between the type of love one individual may have for another. If we recall the gospel injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself”, we must recall that once we have considered the question of “who is my neighbour?” we must consider the question of “how can I love someone that I know nothing about?” Aquinas’s answer is that we must distinguish between types of love; in general the love we have for neighbour is, by default, love of neighbour as being of the same nature as ourselves.
  • The natural love of angels (and of humans) for God is stronger than natural love for self. This is based on the fact that creatures are but a part of creation depending utterly on God for being.
  • In the reply to the first objection in the fifth article Aquinas makes much of the natural inclination of a part towards the whole; for example the individual naturally loves its species more than itself.


  • The distinction in the third article between the love of desire and the love of friendship, identifying self-love as the love of friendship, might be compared to those with certain personality disorders. One symptom of these might be self-love considered as love of desire.
  • In the fourth article Aquinas identifies that angels have a love of friendship for each other based on a likeness of kind. What he does not consider is the fact that angels are individual within their own species; does this have an effect on the strength or nature of the friendship between angels?
  • The reply to the fourth objection of the fifth article distinguishes between the natural inclination that creatures have for their creator as creator and the supernatural inclination that rational creatures have for their creator based on the beatific vision of God as end. This idea of the two ends of humans, the natural and the supernatural, underlies the theological argument over the supernatural in the twentieth century.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Question 59 - The Will of the Angels

Why this Question Matters.

Having dealt with knowledge and the angelic intellect, Aquinas now turns to the question of angelic will. Are angels like humans in having a will distinct from their intellect? If so, is this will distinct from their intellect and is this will free in the sense that humans have free will.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The attentive reader will have observed that, in asking whether angels have a will, Aquinas posits two of the same objections that he put forward in Ia.q19.a1 where he asked whether God has a will. In the case of the angels, the answer that Aquinas gives has a distinct neo-Platonic feel about it: all things emanate from the divine will and therefore everything has an appetite for goodness. All that needs to be done to sort out the answer to this question is to inquire into the nature of this appetite for goodness in different classes of things.

Aquinas distinguishes between three classes of the appetite for goodness. The first two of these are natural appetition and sensible appetition. Harking back to the “fifth way” in Ia.q2.a3, the first of these refers to the movement of things like inanimate objects or plants towards their natural ends. The second refers to objects that sense their environments, moving towards sweetness for example. In both of these first two cases the direction towards the good derives from some external power supplying the end-as-good. In contrast, the third class of appetite for goodness lies in those beings who move towards the good and at the same time know it to precisely to be good. This tendency of moving towards the good as known to be good is precisely what is meant by the will; hence angels (and, of course, humans) have such a will.

A2: Following the pattern set in Ia.q54. we must distinguish between the will and intellect & nature in the angels. The strategy for distinguishing between nature and will applies more generally than to just the angels: a nature is by definition included within the thing itself, whereas the will extends to things (identified as good) outside the thing. This argument applies to all creatures that have a will, and therefore to the angels. We do recall, however, that in God the object of the will lies within Himself and therefore, for God, this argument does not work; in God, we can only make an intellectual distinction between God’s nature and His will.

When it comes to the distinction between the will and the intellect, Aquinas observes that the intellect knows things that exist outside the knower insofar as that external thing can exist within the intellect. The will, on the other hand, involves an inclination towards something outside the one who wills. The power by which the creature has some exterior thing within must be distinct from the power by which it tends to something exterior.

A3: Part of the function of the intellect is to inform the will, so that the latter may take decisions based on this information. The will tends by its nature towards the good, but if it is presented by a number of different possible courses of action in some circumstance, each of which is equally good, then it has to take a decision between these choices. This is the basis of what we call the freedom of the will, the ability to choose between apparent goods.

Aquinas has built up a picture of the angels that identifies their intellects as being extremely powerful (Ia.q58), even to the extent of their knowledge being infallible. Can we make any sense, then, of the idea that angels have free will? As the second objection implies, if their intellects are so powerful, it would seem that there is very little scope for there being any indifference between alternate goods and therefore no choice for them to make!

The answer is swift and sweet: wherever there is intellect, there is freedom of the will. Replying to the second objection, Aquinas concedes that an angel would be imperfect if it did not know all it was able to know naturally. However, as we saw in the second article, the knowledge of the intellect is internal to the knower whereas the will reaches out to things external to the one who wills. Tending to things that are better than the angel will move the angel towards perfection, therefore non-determination of the will in the contemplation of higher things would be indicative of an imperfection. However, if the angel contemplates things lower than it, indifference between choices offered to the will is not indicative of imperfection.

A4: In Ia.q81. Aquinas will identify the irascible and concupiscible appetites in humans and will go into detail about them in the “Treatise on the Passions” (I-IIae.qq22-48). For the moment it is sufficient to note (I-IIae.q23.a4) that the irascible appetite is to do with our inclination towards objectives that are arduous to achieve; so that hope, despair, anger, courage and fear are passions of the irascible appetite. The concupiscible appetite is to do with our simple inclination towards things that are attractive; so that love and hatred, desire and aversion, joy and sadness are passions of the concupiscible appetite.

Aquinas asks whether these irascible and concupiscible appetites are found in the angels. He justifies his negative answer by arguing that angels only have intellectual appetites and that as the division into irascible and concupiscible appetites applies only to sensible appetition, therefore this division does not apply to the angels. The fact that this division applies only to the sensible appetite follows from the fact that distinct powers of appetite arise only from formal distinction between their objects rather than a material distinction. So, for example, the formal object of vision is colour; therefore there are not two separate powers that correspond to sensing black and white respectively, but only one. The formal object of the will (or intellective appetite) is the good considered generally; it is not split up into particular goods as considered by the will. Therefore there is no division in the intellective appetite such as happens with the sensible appetite.

Handy Concepts

  • In creatures the appetite for goodness is divided into three classes. Of the first two, natural appetition corresponds to the movement of inanimate objects and plants towards their end; sensible appetition corresponds to the movement of a sense towards its object. The third class, the will, corresponds to a movement towards the good as known as good. Angles and humans, as intellectual creatures, have such a will.
  • Despite the infallibility of angelic knowledge, angels still have choices to make and they have free will in making these choices.
  • There is a similarity between the third article and the question of the necessity of God’s will in Ia.q19.
  • There are no irascible or concupiscible appetites in the angels, as their appetites are purely intellective.


  • It’s unclear to me that Aquinas’s answer to the second objection in the third article actually addresses the problem, which is that the infallible intellect of the angel would know the (unique) right thing to do and therefore would have no choice to make. Aquinas chooses to address the consequences of choices involving lower beings. It seems odd that he hasn’t considered the possible objective indifference between choices, or the uncertainty of the prediction of future consequences or the possibility of incommensurability between different goods.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Question 58 - The Mode of Angelic Knowledge

Why this Question Matters.

This is the last question in the series on angelic knowledge. If the previous questions have their centre of gravity in distinguishing God from his creatures, this question looks forward to the “Treatise on Human Nature” in distinguishing the angels from humans. We will see in this question that Aquinas attributes to the angels processes of thinking that many of us would wish for ourselves! Angels simply so not have to grind through information to arrive at a conclusion; they have a direct intuition of everything that is implicit in their premises.

Articles 6 & 7 refer to the morning and evening knowledge of the angels. These strange names, referring to the mornings and evenings of the days of creation, come directly from St. Augustine’s account in his commentary on the book of Genesis. Indeed, these two articles can be seen as St. Thomas’s summary of a section of this book.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: When we think of something, whether we perceive something new and come to an understanding of it or whether we contemplate something brought forth from our memories, our intellects move from potentiality to actuality. Is the same true of the angels? To answer this question, Aquinas has to distinguish between learning something anew and thinking about something we already know.

In the first case, angels do not have any potentiality as they have been brought into being by God with all the intelligible species that are connatural to them. In this sense, what they know, they know from the first instance of their creation. However, Aquinas observes that there may be an exception to this general rule: God may choose to illuminate an angel with some particular divine revelation and in that case their intellect will be moved from potentiality to actuality.

In the second sense, an angel need not be thinking about everything that it knows at the same time. Therefore, in this case, it is true to say that its intellect moves from potentiality to actuality. Aquinas notes that angels are always contemplating the Word of God for “it is this vision that the angels’ beatitude consists in”.

A2: Multitasking or thinking of more than one thing at once is seen as being a very valuable gift. Humans are capable of very complex tasks that involve many simultaneous considerations, but we tend to be best at these tasks when we have learnt them; when they have become habitual to us. Similarly our minds are capable of flitting from one subject to another with great rapidity; however, can we truly think of more than one thing at the same instant?

In this article Aquinas is asking this question of the angels; in order to answer it he has to be specific about how we can understand complex matters. He observes that we do contemplate complex things but he claims (with the backing of a long philosophical tradition) that in understanding such complex ideas we understand them as a unity. So, for humans beings things cannot be understood all at once insofar as they are distinct, but they can insofar as they are taken as a complex unity. Translating this into the language of intelligible species, this means that if a complex idea can be grasped by means of a single intelligible species then all the sub-ideas within that idea can (in a sense) be grasped at once; if, however, multiple intelligible species are required then the complex cannot be grasped all at once.

Applying this reasoning to the angels, Aquinas searches for those things that could be the principles of unity for complex ideas. For angels the special principle of unity that they have lies in their contemplation of the Word of God; things they know through this vision they know all at once. But for things known through intelligible species, the same considerations apply as for humans: if there is a single unifying intelligible species then knowledge can be all at once; if not, it cannot be.

A3: Human reason is capable of coming to a knowledge of things through a direct intuition (intellectus) and though a process of discursive reasoning (ratio). In the latter the process of reasoning proceeds from point to point by logical inference. Do angels think the same way or is their thinking all by a process of direct intuition?

Aquinas argues that lower intellects of their very nature attain perfection in their cognition by a process of movement and discourse; higher intellects have no need for this process. It is the weakness of our intellects that necessitates the process of discursive reasoning as we cannot see immediately the consequences inherent in first principles. The angels have a “fullness of intellectual light” that gives them all the consequences of these first principles.

A4: Continuing the theme of the previous article, Aquinas asks whether angels know things through composing and dividing (see Ia.q16.a2). Aquinas observes that if the intellect were capable of seeing every possible conclusion implied by a first principle (or set of first principles) then there would be no need for a process of composing and dividing. In a similar way, if an intellect upon apprehending an object were able to fully comprehend the what-ness of the object, then there would be no need of discursive thinking or of composing and dividing in coming to know about that object.

Since the intellectual light in angels is perfect, they comprehend all that is virtually contained (i.e. all that which is implied) in anything that they apprehend. Therefore they have no need of composing and dividing.

A5: The preceding articles of this question make it clear that angels have an extraordinarily powerful means of knowing things. They simply do not have to go through all the painful and mistake-prone steps that we do to arrive at knowledge; they know things through a direct apprehension of those things. But now an obvious question rears its head: however can such a being make a mistake? Christian doctrine, when it contemplates the fallen angels, is quite clear that the angels can be mistaken, and can be mistaken in a thoroughly spectacular way.

We came across the idea of the first act of the intellect (or simple apprehension) in Ia.q17. Like a correctly functioning sense organ the intellect is infallible in this first act; it is in the second act of the intellect (also called judgement) that mistakes are made. In us, with our processes of composing and dividing and of discursive reasoning we are prone to erroneous judgement, making a mess of what the first act delivers accurately. In the angels, on the other hand, all they have is the act of simple apprehension; as they don’t make judgements in the way that we do, they cannot make mistakes in this way. However, Aquinas identifies that they can still make mistakes; it is just that the mistakes that they can make are precisely the big ones! Their natural cognition is perfect, but their supernatural cognition, their cognition of things ordained supernaturally by God, is fallible. We will see more about the fall of the angels in Ia.q63., but for the moment, the consequences of this are that the good angels do have infallible knowledge both of natural and supernatural things. On the other hand, the fallen angels have infallible knowledge of natural things but can only make judgements about things based on their natural knowledge. Therefore if some object of knowledge combines the natural and the supernatural (such as whether a dead man may rise from the grave) they will be mistaken.

A6: In his commentary Super Genesim ad Litteram St. Augustine interpreted the Genesis account of the six “days” of creation not as literal solar days but as the creation of six different types of thing as made known to the angelic intellect. He called that primordial knowledge of things as they exist in the Word of God morning knowledge and the knowledge of things as they actually exist in themselves evening knowledge. In asking the question of whether angels have both morning knowledge and evening knowledge, Aquinas is summarizing Augustine’s teaching and making it his own.

A7: St. Augustine taught that there is a big difference between knowing something in the Word of God (morning knowledge) and knowing it as it is in its own existence (evening knowledge). Aquinas argues that since angels do not receive their knowledge of things from the things themselves (Ia.q55.a2) one has to be careful with the notion of evening knowledge. The object known by the angel does not make itself know to the angel, so to speak, but rather the knowledge comes via the intelligible species implanted by God. This means that evening knowledge is the knowledge of the thing as existing in its own nature.

Aquinas goes on to argue that angels have this latter type of knowledge in two ways: in the first case through their innate intelligible species; and in the second case through the ideas of things in the Word of God. This means that they know things in the word of God in two ways. They know things as they are in the Word of God (morning knowledge) but also in seeing the Word of God they see things as they exist in themselves. It is as though they not only see the plan for the thing in the Word of God, they also see the thing itself as constructed from that plan, in its own existence.

This means that we have to be careful in differentiating morning and evening knowledge. Morning knowledge and evening knowledge are the same in essence if by evening knowledge one is referring to knowledge of things in their own existence known through the Word of God. On the other hand, if we consider evening knowledge in the sense of knowledge obtained via intelligible species, then evening knowledge and morning knowledge are distinct.

Handy Concepts

  • Angels come into being knowing all that is connatural to them; but they do not necessarily think about everything all the time.
  • However, they are much better at integrating complex ideas into a unity than us; moreover, when they contemplate what they know through the Word of God, they contemplate it as a unity.
  • Angels know things through direct intuition; they have no need of discursive reasoning or of composing and dividing.
  • Angels’ natural cognition is infallible but their supernatural cognition is fallible.
  • St. Thomas assimilates St. Augustine’s ideas about morning and evening knowledge into his teaching about the angels. Morning knowledge is the primordial knowledge of things in the Word of God; evening knowledge is knowledge of things as they actually exist in themselves.
  • Aquinas will say more about intellectus and ratio in Ia.q79.a8-10.


  • In the first article, Aquinas does not explicitly differentiate between angels in the state of grace and glory and those who fell as to the constant cognition of the word of God. His answer seems to suggest that he is excluding the fallen angels from the constant vision of God.
  • When Aquinas talks about the unifying of ideas into a complex idea, he does not go into any details of how this really works. There’s probably a lot more to say about focussing the attention on one thing as it occurs in itself and as it occurs in a complex.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Question 57 - The Angels' Knowledge of Material Things

Why this Question Matters.

Having discussed the angels’ knowledge of immaterial things in the previous question, it seems quite natural that he now asks about their knowledge of material things. The general answer to how angels know of material things is that God puts the knowledge there as part of their natures. Aquinas is not satisfied simply with such a deus ex machina answer and insists on spelling out how this knowledge comes to be in a number of particular cases that would at first seem to be awkward.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The intellect of an angel is simple in the sense of not having all of the components that the intellect of a human being has. Angels do not know things through sense data nor do they have an imagination. How then can they know material things? The objections and the sed contra of this question hold in tension the ideas that “of course angels know about material things because they are higher beings than us” and “but they lack the means by which material things are understood”.

It is no surprise that the former observation wins out: the mistake in the latter position arises from thinking that angels must perceive material things in the same way that we do. Angels participate more perfectly in God’s goodness, as they are higher in the order of creation. This means that material things pre-exist in the intellects of angels (having been put there by God). As angels are purely intellectual beings and because the existence of a thing is in the mode of that in which it exists, this pre-existence of material objects in the angels must be an intellectual existence (an esse intentionale as we saw in Ia.q56.a2). Hence angels do know material things.

In the reply to the second objection, Aquinas reinforces the point that the intellect apprehends the essence of a thing, the what-it-is-ness of the object. In contrast, the senses apprehend the some of the exterior accidents of a thing (from which the active intellect derives the intelligible species, which in turn allows the intellect to infer the essence of the thing). Likewise the imagination apprehends likenesses of sensible things rather than the essence of the thing. Therefore it’s important to note that the angels’ knowledge of material things is a very direct knowledge of unmediated perception.

A2: Returning to a theme raised in Ia.q56.a1, there would seem to be a tension between the angels’ guardianship of singular individual human beings and the possibility that angels can actually have any knowledge of singulars. That the latter might be a problem, recall that Aristotle argues that intellectual knowledge is the knowledge of essences and thus of universals whereas sensation is the knowledge of singulars; as angels only have intellectual knowledge, they surely cannot have knowledge of individuals.

Aquinas gives a surprisingly long answer to this question, a fact that probably reflects the diversity of philosophical opinion at the time. He is, however, quite uncompromising; to deny completely the knowledge of singulars to the angels would be to deny the Catholic belief that angels minister to singulars lower in the hierarchy of creation. He also alludes to an intermediate position that the angels have knowledge of singulars but only through knowledge of the universal causes of these singulars. Aquinas discards this position as inadequate as it fails to do justice to what it means to have knowledge of singulars; predicting that an eclipse will happen by analysing the motion of the sun and moon is not the same as experiencing the eclipse as it happens here and now. Aquinas will return to the theme of knowledge through causes in the next article when he considers the angels’ knowledge of future things.

Aquinas observes that humans know things by a diversity of cognitive powers. For example, we know immaterial and universal things through the intellect; singular and corporeal things through senses. Angels, however, have a more unified and integrated intellective power. We can see something like this in the common sense of human beings; although we identify five different senses, we also recognize that these senses work together and are integrated to the extent that we can meaningfully differentiate between whiteness and sweetness.

Returning to the theme of Ia.q56.a2, Aquinas recalls that things flow forth from God in two modes: as existing in themselves but also as existing in angelic cognition. Just as God knows the things that He creates both in their universality and in their individuality, so also does he communicate this knowledge, universal and singular, to the angels.

A3: If angels are so smart what do they know of the future? Do they know future things to the extent that God knows future things? After all, God exists in eternity in which there is no notion of future and past; so, angels exist in aeviternity and similar considerations must apply.

Aquinas identifies that the knowledge of a future thing can be considered under two types: it can be considered as knowledge in its cause and as knowledge in itself. We know future things in their causes when we can predict what will happen based on what has happened; we see two cars skidding towards each other at high speed, we can predict that there will be a crash. Such knowledge is not infallible but probabilistic. We may simply not know of intervening causes that issue in a different outcome to that which we predict; at the last minute the driver of one of the cars may regain control and steer away from the other car. In contrast, we know things in themselves (to the extent to which we can know them) when we have cognition of them. So we do not have knowledge of future things in themselves but God does. In fact, only God has such knowledge of future things in themselves; the angels have a more perfect knowledge of future things in their causes that we do, but they do not have the knowledge of future things in themselves.

Angels may exist in aeviternity, but that does not mean that there is no change for them. There can be a succession of intelligible conceptions in the intellect of an angel as their intellect moves from potentiality to actuality.

A4: Aquinas attacks the question of whether angels can know the thoughts of our hearts in a manner that might seem dual to the approach that he took in the previous article about the angels’ knowledge of future things. There are two ways in which the thoughts of our hearts can be known by another. In the first instance they can be known by their effects: from the expression on someone’s face to their exterior acts, what lies behind may be inferred to a greater or lesser extent. This is the type of knowledge that the angels have of the thoughts of our hearts; but they are much better at it than we are! They have a much deeper insight into our hearts via externals that we can possibly hope for.

The second way that the thoughts of our hearts can be known by another is as they actually exist in our intellects (as far as thoughts are concerned) and in our wills (when it comes to affections). This type of “interior” knowledge is restricted to God.

A5: Finally in this question, Aquinas asks whether the angels know the “mysteries of grace” (or “all the mysteries of grace” if one reads the prologue to this question). By this he means those supernatural effects produced by God in creation; the effects in creation of the economic Trinity rather than things to do with the immanent Trinity.

To answer this question Aquinas distinguishes between the natural knowledge of the angels and their beatified knowledge. Natural knowledge is the knowledge that they have through their essence and the innate intelligible species implanted in them by God. On the other hand, their beatified knowledge is that which comes to them by their being raised to the supernatural (see Ia.q62 for more details of this). As so raised, they do not know all the mysteries of grace but only those revealed to them by God. Furthermore the higher the level of the angel, the more the angel knows of such mysteries.

Handy Concepts

  • Material things pre-exist in the intellects of angels as an intellectual knowledge.
  • The intellect (be it human or angelic) apprehends the essences of things.
  • God communicates the knowledge of things in their universality and their particularity to the angels.
  • God has created the angels as intellectual beings that know stuff as part of their being.
  • Angels know the future only insofar as they know the causes of things; they do have this knowledge to a degree of perfection much higher than ours.
  • Angels know the thoughts of our hearts only insofar as they know the effects of that flow from what is in our hearts; again, they know this much better than we do.
  • Angels know the mysteries of grace only insofar as they are raised to the supernatural level and only insofar as God reveals them.


  • It is curious that Aquinas does not raise Ephesians 3:10 in the discussion of the fifth article. The discussion that he gives in his commentary on the book of Ephesians expands on what he writes here.
  • One might identify synaesthesia as a failure of the common sense.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Question 56 - The Angel's Knowledge of Immaterial Things

Why this Question Matters.

It’s now time for Aquinas to become more specific about what the angels know. In the next question he discusses the angels’ knowledge about material things, but here he turns to the topic of the angels’ cognition of immaterial things. Since we’ve already seen that angels know things through intelligible species that are connatural to them (Ia.q55.a1) it might at first seem puzzling that Aquinas would tackle this question, as one might simply argue that what angels know is determined by what God lets them know. But the point of this question is to make a principled enquiry into particular categories of the angelic knowledge of immaterial things. The division of the articles follows these categories: what do angels know of themselves, of each other and of God?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: To ask whether an angel knows itself might appear to be a strange question. But what Aquinas is really concerned with is the metaphysical mechanisms underpinning the fact that an angel must know itself. As far as Aquinas is concerned, self-knowledge is the primary knowledge that knowing things have and which follows pretty much immediately upon the being of the knowing subject. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum would have appeared to Aquinas as simply begging the question; it assumes the existence of the thinking “I” within its premise. One cannot really get started on metaphysics without the recognition that the most immediate act of apprehension of the knowing subject is of the being of the knowing subject itself.

Aquinas’s argument proceeds by observing that knowledge is an immanent action caused by a form in an agent, and that this form (the intelligible species) is united with the agent. In the case of material beings knowing material objects (even parts of their own selves), the active intellect constructs an intelligible species from sensory phantasms; this intelligible species is united with, rather than exterior to, the knowing subject. The second step is to notice that knowledge, especially in the case of humans, often involves this form bringing some potentiality within the intellect to actuality, but that it doesn’t have to involve this. In fact, a form of intelligence higher than that of humans would not involve the actualization of a potential but would correspond to the forms informing knowledge always being present to the intellect. Angels don’t have to learn these sorts of things; they always know what they know. Finally, Aquinas argues that there is no inherent reason to suppose that a form that informs knowledge in the knowing subject has to be accidental (even though it is in the case of human knowledge). In fact, an angel is a subsistent intelligible form and it understands itself thorough this very form.

The second objection raises an important issue about cognition: it makes the striking claim that no singular is intelligible. What lies behind this claim is the idea that, when we apprehend something, our apprehension starts at a general level and then proceeds to the more specific as we gather more data about the object. Our knowledge of something that comes into our field of attention starts out the universal level (“that’s an animal”) and then proceeds to become more specific (“that’s a cat” and then “that’s my cat Felix”), but never reaches the level of complete knowledge of the individual. In the case of this objection, it would seem that since angels are singular within their species, they cannot be intelligible (to themselves or to anyone else). Aquinas answers that it is not the singularity that makes things unintelligible but rather their principle of individuation. In the cases of material objects this principle of individuation is their matter. Singular things that exist without matter, like the angels, are intelligible.

A2: As with the first article, the question of whether angels know other angels seems quite uncontentious. The issue is how and what do they know? Aquinas takes his lead here from St. Augustine. Augustine had argued that things that existed from eternity in the Word of God “flowed” forth from Him in two ways: firstly as existing in their own intrinsic natures and secondly as existing as known. So when we consider one angel, this flow of being terminates in it as its nature and its intelligibility but also terminates in all other angels as it is known.

In using this distinction in the answer to the third objection, Aquinas introduces in passing the difference between natural being (esse naturale) and intentional being (esse intentionale). The idea is that the angel both exists in its natural state but also “exists” in the intellect of other angels as known. This is similar to the idea that the intelligible species of an object that exists in our intellect is a form of the object perceived that is not instantiated in matter but only exists in the intellect.

A3: Right back at the start of the summa, Aquinas proved that humans have a natural knowledge of God (however weak and inadequate that may be). Our knowledge of God is gained by inference from our knowledge of sensible things. Angels do not have sense organs, therefore they do not have sensible knowledge of things, and therefore one might doubt that they have natural knowledge of God.

Aquinas answers that there are three ways in knowledge of God may be had. The cognition of God through His own essence is the first way, and of course this way is reserved for God Himself. The way we know God is a way of knowing in which we receive a likeness of Him not directly from Him but indirectly through what He has created. The third way, which lies “in between” these two ways, is to receive a likeness of God directly from Him and this is the way in which the angels know God. This is a “natural” knowledge of God inasmuch as the image of God is stamped on the very nature of the angel.

Handy Concepts

  • Angelic knowledge (in this case, of self) is different from human knowledge and more perfect in the sense that it doesn’t involve the reduction of a potency to act. What seems essential to knowledge is the existence of an immaterial form (that can, in the case of humans reduce a potency to an act of knowledge or in angels can inform from the very moment of their creation).
  • Natural being and intentional being account for the existence of an angel and for it being known by other angels.
  • Angels receive a likeness of God directly from God and thus have a natural knowledge of God impressed upon their nature.


  • It seems odd that Aquinas has not tackled the question of the knowledge that angels may have about the separated souls of the faithful and the damned. After all, they are the other example of created pure spirits.
  • The question of intentionality (or of intentional being) is a substantial one in philosophy. One of the major proofs of the immateriality of mind derives from the fact that minds have meanings for things (and meanings are not things that material objects have). For Aquinas, the knowledge of things goes deep into his theory of being; and hence the importance of the notions of natural and intentional being.