Saturday, 23 July 2011

Question 52 - Angels and Space

Why this Question Matters.

In the material created world that we see around us, we’re quite comfortable with the idea that things occupy a certain delimited portion of space; in the jargon of medieval philosophy, we say that they are in place. For the more reflective, the only difficulty with this picture might be the question where am I? When we think about ourselves, we might ask about where our souls are, about where the seat of our being is. Despite the rare reports of “out of body” experiences, we are probably most comfortable with the thought that our souls are intimately connected with our bodies (even if we demur from being more specific than that). We are in place, because our material components, our bodies, are in place. What about a purely spiritual being like an angel? We’ve seen above that Aquinas considers that, although angels may make use of a body for certain functions, they are incorporeal and not composites of matter and form. How does such a pure form interact with the material world? Can we say that an angel is located in space and in time? Is an angel in place?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas doesn’t have a lot of material upon which to found an answer to the question of whether we can say that angels are located in space and time. Indeed, this is one of those occasions where he attempts to take the scanty data provided by revelation and to build a coherent answer to a question not directly addressed by that scripture. Here we have the information that angels are present in some way to the people that they appear to and that they exercise some sort of “power” in space and time; we also know that they are not matter-form composites and therefore the category of “quantity” does not directly apply to them. When we think about how material objects are in place in space and time, we think in terms of their quantity; for example, this much being in this place gives us concepts such as volume and density. Aquinas claims that we should think of the presence of angels in space and time in terms of what he calls their power quantity. What he means by this is that it is only by the exercise of their power at a particular place that we recognize that they are present in that place; therefore the exercise of such power (or the potential to exercise such power) in a place provides an analogue to quantity that allows us to say that angels are in place.

Aquinas is very careful to warn about how the parallels between how an angel is in place and how a material body is in place have to be understood. For example, we can’t say that an angel is currently two metres wide or that he is at particular coordinates in the space time continuum or that he is contained in this room. Rather we have to understand the angel as acting upon this region of space and time, from outside of space and time as it were. It is by this acting (or power to act) that the angel is present in place, not by his being in that space and time in the way material objects are in space and time.

A2: God is omnipotent and omnipresent in that omnipotence. Seeing that pure spirits like angels seem to be more like God than we are, and are localized in a place by the act of power, we might ask whether angels can exercise that power in more than one place at a time. In other words, can they be in several places at once?

Aquinas is careful to point out that it is easy to be misled by thinking of the being-in-place of angel in the same way that we think of the being-in-place of a material object. We mustn’t think of an angel “being here” and “being over there”, rather we must think of an angel being where he is by where his power is directed. As such, we must think of his act of power as being determinate to a particular task; God’s power acts everywhere in everything, but an angel’s power acts on a particular determinate task. As an example, our Guardian Angels are present to us at all time; they don’t moonlight on some other task at the same time. Therefore, in the sense that an angel is in place, he is in only one place. However, the exercise of an angel’s power cannot be localized in a material sense to a particular point in space and time but rather is associated with wherever the exercise of power is occurring. Therefore an angel may be exercising his one determinate act in a region of space that may be extended (and which may even be disconnected).

A3: Dual to the question of whether an angel can be in more than one place at one time is the question of whether more than one angel can be in one place at one time. Because Aquinas has defined the notion of place for an angel in terms of the power that the angel exerts in a place, his answer to this latter question is immediate. One and the same thing cannot depend entirely and immediately on more than one cause, therefore two angels cannot exercise their power in the same place at the same time and therefore there cannot be more than one angel in a place at one time. We must be careful to understand that this does not preclude, for example, two angels being present in the same room. What it bars is the two angels “overlapping”; they cannot both carry out the one determinate action.

Aspects of this answer may seem puzzling. In the material world, we are quite used to the idea of causes collaborating or coming together in some other way in some action; can’t this be true of angels as well? Aquinas appears to be arguing a very subtle point here. If we think about two people pulling on a rope attached to a boat in a canal then in one sense we are quite justified in thinking of their causality acting together in some way to pull the boat along. But in another sense we might think of the power of one person acting on one segment of the rope and the power of the other acting on another segment. The power of these two pullers may be considered to act through the rope to form one power acting on the connection between rope and heavy object. Aquinas seems to divide any possible collaborative activity this way when it comes to angels. The power of acting of an angel is a determinate power of acting and at such a level of determination it is not shareable.

So if we think of examples such as the possession of someone by many evil spirits (e.g. Mark 5:9, where the spirit is spoken of in singular and plural terms) we might wish to consider the possession as a singular thing, but we should more rightly consider it the action of a multitude of spirits each acting in its determinate way, each different within the subject of the possession.

Handy Concepts

  • Angels are “in place” only in the sense that their power acts in a determinate fashion in a particular place in space and time. We must not think of their being in a place as suggesting that the place circumscribes or contains them.
  • Consequently, angels are localized to being in one place at one time in the sense that they carry out determinate acts of power at particular places.
  • Angels cannot “overlap”; the power of each angel acts to a determinate end that precludes more than one angel being in the same place at the same time.


  • In the summa, Aquinas appears to associate the notion of “being in a place” for an angel with the actual application of an act of power in that place. This would seem to limit an angel to being present in a place only when it is acting on that place; would this be true, for example, for our Guardian Angels that are always present to us? In what way are they always actually acting? In the later Quodlibetal Questions Aquinas appears to loosen his definition to allow that it is the power to act in a place rather than the actual exercise of that power that defines the notion of “in place” for angels.
  • In article 3, Aquinas’s reasoning that two angels cannot be in the same place at the same time is crying out for a more extended treatment of causation in general.
  • The post-medieval mocking of the scholastic age for allegedly debating the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin simply demonstrates the degeneracy of post-medieval thinking.


  1. I've been doing some thinking on this question (how can angles be in a place), and had the following thought: If existing as such is an act (as opposed to potency) could the angel be in a "place" by his "act" of existing?

    Rather than saying an angel is in a place by his power, or potential power, why not say he is in a place by his act of existence?

    Any thoughts?

  2. The immediate thought that strikes me about this idea is that it seems too restrictive.

    In what way would the act of existing specify "where" the angel is? How would an angel move? (i.e. wouldn't the act of existing root the angel to one spot?)

  3. Regarding in what way the act of existing would specify where the angel is: Could we say that an angle can simble "be" in a particular location? For example, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Mother at the Annunciation, could we not say his substantial form was indeed located in the Holy House, in some ways similar to how our soul, although spiritual, is located within our body at the present time?

    Regarding movement, could we not say that "movement" for an angle is not necessarily traveling from one point to another, but rather existing in one point, and then existing in another, without having to travel "through" anything?

    For example, St. Gabriel could have been in the Embyrean Heaven, and then immediately be in the Holy House. Is it necessary for a spiritual substance to travel through a medium? Can they "move" as we know movement, or also simply change locations at the blink of an eye? I wonder if these two distinctions are both possible for a spiritual substance?

    Consider bi-location. For example Ven. Mary of Agreda would bi-locate from her convent to the regions now known as east Texas in order to catechise the pagan Indians. Did her soul travel from Spain to east Texas, as through a medium, or was it placed there instantly? It seems like it was the latter. Yet after it was placed there, she was able to move as we know movement.

    I wonder if a similar distinction (being transported to one place instantly, and also being able to move as we know it) is possible for angels?

  4. I think that one might attempt to put together a theory of angelic position (and motion) along the lines that you are suggesting. But in order to do so, you’ll have to develop the metaphysical machinery that ensures that the theory is internally coherent (i.e. doesn’t contradict itself) and externally systematic (i.e. fits in with the rest of metaphysics).

    Aquinas takes the line that he does here (and in the next question when he is dealing with the motion of angels) because he considers that the notions of “place” and “motion” are derived from our sense data. When we talk about “place” (and when later philosophers talk about “space”) we derive our concepts about it from material bodies. As soon as you start considering things that are not composites of matter and form (like God and angels), you have to explain what it means for such a thing to be “in place”. For most things of our experience, matter seems to be the thing that gives form determination to be a particular individual substance, “in place”. If you have a determinate subsistent form without matter, you’ve got to give an account of how such a thing can be “in place”. Aquinas chooses to give an account of angelic position by latching on to what little we are told about them in the sources of revelation; their power acts in the place when they appear to us. The big advantage of this approach is that it is coherent and systematic in the senses I have indicated above.

    If an angel is “in place” by its act of existence, and if it undergoes “motion” by a new act of existence at another point, it’s not clear to me that you have the same angel at the two different points! To fix this up, it would seem to me that you have to tell me more about what you mean by “act of existence” – is it the same as Aquinas’s use, for example? BTW, in the next question Aquinas will argue that the motion of an angel can be continuous, but can also be discontinuous.

    The problem with using bilocation as an example is that it is a poorly understood phenomenon. There’s been some useful discussion of it on the “New Theological Movement” blog recently, if you’d like to look that up. It’s not clear, for example, if the two “presences” of someone bilocating are of the same mode. Perhaps (and this is entirely speculative) the one bilocating is materially present in one location and present “in power” at the second location (a bit like an angel).

  5. I appreciate this discussion. I have only recently begun thinking about how a spiritual substance can be in a "place". I've only read a little bit of St. Thomas on this point, but I do plan to look into it further.

    I recently wrote an article on heaven, and used the following quote from St. Thomas. This quote deals with the Empyrean heaven, which is the "third heaven" St. Paul speaks of. It was this quote that got me thinking about the subject:

    “The empyrean heaven is a corporeal place, and yet as soon as it was made it was filled with the holy angels, as Bede says. Since then, angels, even as separated souls, are incorporeal, it would seem that some place should also be assigned to receive separated souls. Further, this appears from Gregory's statement (Dial. iv) that souls after death are conveyed to various corporeal places. ... Therefore after death souls have certain places for their reception. … And though after death souls have no bodies assigned to them … nevertheless certain corporeal places are appointed to them…”.

    Then, in answering an objection in the same article, he wrote the following: “Incorporeal things are not in place after a manner known and familiar to us, in which way we say that bodies are properly in place; but they are in place after a manner befitting spiritual substances, a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us”.

    Any thoughts on the above quote?

  6. Well, the key here is “a manner that cannot be fully manifest to us”! The underlying question that Aquinas is addressing here (Suppl. q69.a1) concerns what heaven and hell are: for example, are they places is the sense known to us on earth? Or are they purely “spiritual” modes of being? If we just address the issue of heaven, the tricky thing is that it’s got lots of spiritual things in it (angels, the souls of the blessed, for example) but it also contains Mary, body & soul. Furthermore, after the general resurrection, there will be a lot more body/soul composites there as well.

    Since purely spiritual beings are not “in place” in the same sense that material things are “in place” there would seem to be a fundamental incongruity between having both spiritual substances and material substances present in heaven in the same mode of presence. Aquinas’s solution here is to claim that although spiritual substances are not present “in place” in the same way that material bodies are, there is still some notion of “congruity” between material places and spiritual “places”. So, by analogy, we can say that heaven is a sort of “place” where it makes sense to say that things can be “in” heaven, but we must be careful not to push the analogy with material places too far.