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.

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