Friday, 22 July 2011

Question 51 - Angels and Bodies

Why this Question Matters.

We have seen in Ia.q50 that angels are incorporeal and that they are not compositions of matter and form. However, the testimony of revelation relates the appearance of angels as messengers of God to men; this would seem to imply that angels are using bodies in some way or are related to bodies even if they are not bodily themselves. Perhaps we should think of these appearances of angels purely in visionary terms; their being is directly placed in the mind of the seer. In this question Aquinas seeks to sort out the questions that such appearances raise with the metaphysical treatment that he has developed so far.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas asks first whether bodies form part of the nature of angels. This is a question distinct from that answered in Ia.q50; here we are concerned with a relationship to bodies looser than that implied by the claim that angels are corporeal or that they are composed of matter and form. Even in this looser form, Aquinas answers in the negative: the possible use of a body by an angel for a particular task need not imply that the presence of a body is natural to an angel but rather it should simply be considered incidental.

Later in the summa, in Ia.q75.a2, Aquinas will argue that the act of understanding is not an action of a body or of a bodily power and that therefore the possession of a body is not in the nature of a purely intellectual being. Now Ia.q75 is in the section of the summa dealing with human nature and we immediately notice that humans are intellectual creatures that are united with bodies! Here Aquinas anticipates the later argument by pointing out that the union of soul with body in the intellectual creature man is due to the weakness of human intellect; we need our bodies in order to inform our intellects. In the case of angels, this is not so: the angel intellect is so powerful that is has no need of a body.

A2: Having argued that angels have no need of bodies as regards their natures, Aquinas now turns to the question of whether they might “assume” bodies for some particular purposes such as to appear in bodily form to humans. This is precisely the position that Aquinas takes with respect to the scriptural accounts of such appearances. He dismisses the suggestion that they might simply be “visions” occurring within the imagination of the recipient, as the appearances are not restricted to the intended recipient. Angels do not assume bodies for their own purposes but for our benefit; moreover this assumption, as it is recorded in the Old Testament, is a symbol of the future assumption by the Word of God of a human body. This “assumption” is not as a union of form and matter nor yet is it simply like a puppet master pulling the strings of a puppet. Rather it is a representation of them that represents what is intelligible in them.

A3: Angels assume bodies for some particular purposes, but what is the nature of these bodies? We’ve seen that Aquinas argues that at one extreme they are not simply lumps of matter that are manipulated by the angel nor, at the other extreme, are they a union of the form of the angel with the matter of the assumed body. Still, can we go so far as to attribute life to these bodies? Aquinas argues against a wooden literalism in the interpretation of the scriptural texts. Although the latter are phrased as though angels perform many bodily tasks, their function is figurative. As the reply to the first objection puts it: “these bodies are assumed only in order that the angels’ spiritual properties and their spiritual operations might be depicted by means of human properties and human operations.”

Handy Concepts

  • It is not of the nature of angels to have a necessary relationship to bodies.
  • Angels may assume bodies for particular purposes such as the communication of God’s will to men.
  • The bodies that angels assume provide representations of the angles spiritual natures in corporeal form.

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