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.

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