The Substance of Angels Considered Absolutely
- General comments:
First of all, pay attention to the introduction to question 50, where
St. Thomas gives us an outline of questions 50-64. Having
discussed the divine nature and the Trinity of persons in God
(questions 2-43), and having treated general questions about creation
(questions 44-49), St. Thomas now turns to the three main divisions of
created things, viz., purely immaterial substances, purely corporeal
substances, and human beings, who lie in between.
As for the treatment of angels, it is divided into questions pertaining
to the substance of angels (50-53), questions pertaining to the angelic
intellect (54-58), questions pertaining to the angelic will
(59-60), and questions pertaining to the creation of angels (61-64).
As for the substance of angels, we begin by considering it in itself
(50) and then in its relation to corporeal things (51-53). This
set of questions is the most conceptually difficult, since it involves,
at least by implication, a lot of heavy-duty Thomistic
metaphysics. But this material is also pretty fascinating to
those who have some familiarity with the metaphysical notions St.
Thomas is operating with
By the way, the main authorities for this question, in addition to
Sacred Scripture, are Damascene, Ambrose, Dionysius, Gregory, and
Augustine among the Fathers, Maimonides, and, among the philosophers,
Plato, Aristotle, Avicebron, and even Empedocles. These are St.
Thomas's main interlocuters in this question.
- 50,1: St.
Thomas here in effect gives a two-part argument for the existence of
wholly incorporeal substances. (Notice that these arguments do
not invoke the role of angels within Aristotelian physics. St.
Thomas does not of course deny this role. It's just that his main
arguments here do not depend on them.)
Question 51: The
Relation of Angels to Bodies
- General comments:
Question 52: The Relation of
an Angel to Places
- General Comments:
Question 53: An Angel's Local
- General Comments: St.
Thomas argues that angels are capable of either continuous motion or
non-continuous motion. It's up to them. Here are some
thoughts on the nature continuous and non-continuous motion.
Aristotle argues quite forcefully -- and St. Thomas agrees -- that
continuous quantities are not composed of indivisibles.
The argument is simple. Take the case of lines: not even
infinitely many indivisibles, in this case points, can make up
something with length, since each indivisible point is of zero
length. So what, then, is the relation of points and lines?
A genuine point is the actual terminus of some line. But there is
no actual point until the line is actually divided in such a way that
one segment of it ends in that point. To put it somewhat
differently: Even though it is true that the line could be
divided in any of infinitely many ways, so that an actual point could
come into existence anywhere along its length, any such point exists
only in potentiality as long as the division has not been made.
("What are lines composed of if not points?", you ask. The answer
is: They are composed of extended line segments.)
The same thing holds of other extended divisible quantities, including
three-dimensional magnitudes, time, and motion.
With this in mind, we can distinguish continuous from non-continuous
motion as follows. Continuous motion is undivided motion along an
undivided path. So, for instance, a continuous motion from A to
B would trace an unbroken path from A that
terminates only in B and nowhere before B. That
is, the movable thing is in motion from the time it leaves A until
the time it reaches B, with no rests at any points in
between. (Of course, we can imaginatively break this motion up
into as many parts as we please, but if the motion had actually
terminated anywhere between A and B, so that a
certain point in between served as an actual terminus of the motion,
then the movable thing would have been at rest at this point and the
motion from A to B would not have been continuous.
Now a non-continuous motion from A to B could be a simple case of
a thing being at A and then at B without passing through any middle
places at all. Another possibility is that the motion stops at
one or more points in between A and B. If it does so, then it
traces a path, but not a continuous path, from A to B. Well, you
object, why couldn't it stop at every point along the way? Then
the motion would be continuous, right? Wrong -- such a motion is
impossible, since it would have to stop at infinitely many points along
the way. Or, as St. Thomas puts it, "all the parts of the motion
would be numbered in actuality."
So the response to Zeno is this: The stadium argument works
only if every local motion from a given point x to a given point y had
to be such that it stopped at every point between x and y, i.e., only
if every local motion had to be non-continuous in the sense just
delineated. For then every local would indeed be impossible, or
better, it would be impossible for there to be any local motion.
But not every local motion is like this. (In fact, no local
motion is like this.)
There is undoubtedly more to be said here, but that's it for now.
54: An Angel's
- General comments: Substance (or
essence) ----> power of understanding (intellect)
----> act of understanding (via intelligible species)
----> power of willing
----> act of willing
In a creature the actualized substance (or essence)
is distinct from the powers that naturally flow from that
essence, and the powers in turn are distinct from the acts (or
operations) which constitute the actualization of
those powers. In fact, St. Thomas gives us the following analogy:
An angel’s esse is the actualization of his substance (or
essence) in the same way that an angel’s act of understanding (or act
of willing) is the actualization of his power of understanding (or
power of willing).
What follows is that an angel’s act of understanding is neither his
substance (or essence) [art. 1] nor the actualization of his substance
(or essence) [art. 2] nor his power of understanding (or intellective
power) [art. 3]. (Note, by the way, the distinction between an
action the passes into something external to the agent (transeunt action)
and an action that remains within the agent (immanent action).
All cognitive and appetitive acts are immanent actions.)
In both cases, there is an actualization of a potentiality -- though in
the case of the angels neither is an actualization that temporally
precedes the potentiality it actualizes.
By the very fact that angelic being is ‘participated’ and ‘received’ esse,
it is, according to St. Thomas, rightly considered to be the
actualization of a finite and circumscribed substance. (This is
just what he means by saying that in such beings there is a distinction
between esse and essentia.) Note, though, that
the substance or essence does not preexist its actualization and, in
addition, is in no way presupposed by its actualization (since an angel
can come into existence only by creation ex nihilo and not by
generation from previously existing stuff); and so the notion of
potentiality is being stretched a bit here.
In the case of an act of understanding, the power of understanding is
fulfilled or actualized or brought to perfection in its act.
Notice in the case of the angels, who are always actually understanding
and who never forget, the potentiality never preexists temporally as
a mere potentiality (in the way that the existence of the human
intellect temporally precedes a human act of understanding). For
angels are engaged in understanding at all times at which they exist,
including the very first moment. However, the actualization does
in this case conceptually presuppose the potentiality in
question as its subject, even though that potentiality is always being
By contrast, in God the substance (or essence or nature) and the esse
are not distinct from one another, since God’s essence is
unlimited and unreceived. What’s more, God’s essence is not
distinct from His act of understanding, since there is in God no
potentiality that is brought to perfection or actualized by His act of
understanding. (The same holds for His act of willing.)
Furthermore, through knowing Himself (i.e., His own essence) God knows
everything that can be known, whether necessary or contingent.
This, then, is the way in which St. Thomas gives a meaty
characterization of the metaphysical gulf between God and even His most
Lastly, a quick note on human acts of understanding [art. 4]. In
us the power of understanding (intellect) has both a passive side and
an active side (passive or possible or potential intellect
vs. active or actual intellect). Aristotle uses
the analogy of form and matter in corporeal substances to try to get at
the way that knower and object are united in intellectual cognition.
Since understanding presupposes a union between known and knower,
material things have to be capable of being united to our immaterial
intellects in some way. Our intellects are naturally capable of
fashioning from the deliverances of the senses a formal nature that is
an abstracted version of the material nature being sensed. By
'formal' here I mean that various individuating conditions of the here
and now are set aside as it were, and we latch on to what makes, say,
Fido a dog. Then the intellect as passive is shaped, as it were,
in this doggie way, analgous to the way in which matter is shaped or
formed into Fido. This is the union of known and knower which is
presupposed by the ensuing act of understanding. So our
intellects have to make material things intelligible. This is not
so in angelic cognition, since angels do not begin with sensory
cognition [art. 5].
Question 55: The Medium of Angelic Cognition
Question 56: An Angel's Cognition of
Question 57: An Angel's Cognition of
Question 58: The Mode of an Angel's
Question 59: An Angel's Will
Question 60: An Angel's Love or
- General Comments:
- 12, 2-11:
Question 61: The Production of Angels
with Their Natural Esse
- General comments:
62: The Perfection of Angels in the Esse of Grace and Glory
63: The Sinful Wickedness of the Angels
64: The Punishment of the Demons