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Early Modern Angelology (V): The Theology of Angels and Its Philosophical Relevance

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In this postscript to my previous posts on early modern philosophical angelology (on Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, and the ‘fundamental angelological problem’) I want to provide some theological context for the question of whether angels have a body. Early modern theology is written from the point of view of the Christian believe. Nevertheless, it provides valuable insights for the historian of early modern philosophcial angelology.

In this post, we will see that, for Christians, the idea that angels may be corporeal is not in itself heretical. If conversely the immateriality of angels is a tenet of religious belief, theologians that do not want to hold on to an Aristotelian view of the world must accept that there are created entities that exist nowhere in the world.

1. Why the corporeality of angels is not heretical

As far as I can see, historians of philosophy are by and large unaware of the fact that a minority of early modern theologians affirmed the corporeality of angels - an insight that may help to put the ‘naturalising’ tendencies of early modern philosophical angelology into perspective: The immateriality of angels is no theological dogma. To defend their corporeality is no heresy.

Both Hobbes and Leibniz accept what I have called the ‘principle of locality’: Only those things are part of the world (Leibniz) or universe (Hobbes) that are (Hobbes) or stand in a relation to (Leibniz) a body. Both, Hobbes and - to a lesser extent - Leibniz, deny the immateriality of angels. Descartes defends it.

For readers of Hobbes and Leibniz, the belief that angels are corporeal was in itself neither an indication of atheism nor of heresy. So Curley seems to be in error, when he reads arguments for the corporeality of angels as implicit arguments for a corporeal Deity (see e. g. his 'I durst not write so boldly' [Word DOC]). It certainly is true that the overwhelming majority of early modern theologians accepted the immateriality of angels. But dissent did exist, so denial of angelic immateriality was not equivalent to denying the existence of immaterial substances alltogether.

Hobbes’ acknowledgement of the weakness of reason in this context is in fact quite close to the views of the Dominican theologian Sisto da Siena (Sixtus Senensis) who recommended an agnostic stance in this matter in his Bibliotheca Sacra (first published in 1566, cf. the 1610 edition, p. 329). And even in Britain, Hobbes’ views on angels were not heretical (see the 'Ordinance for the punishing of Blasphemies and Heresies, with the several penalties therein expressed' from  1648, which does not mention angelological matters at all).

The Reformed theologian Girolamo Zanchi (De operibus Dei intra spatium sex dierum, p. 62) agreed with Sisto that certainty in this question may very well be unachievable. Nevertheless the conflicting authorities are dutifully reported: Sisto mentions the Platonists, Aristotle, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Vives, Peter Lombard, Lactantius, Basile, Michael Psellus, Ficino, Caelius Rhodiginus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory of Nazianzen, Theodoret, Bede, John Damascene, and Dionysius the Aeropagite. Without further argument (ingenue) he concludes that the corporeality of angels may be more probable. But any error in this respect will not lead to heresy, because we do not know for certain what the right answer may be.

Cajetan had a less sceptical attitude. In his commentary on Ephesians 2,2 (fol. 260r) e argued that evil spirits (daemones) do have bodies. And this can be shown by sound philosophical reasoning (crediderim […] id consonare verae philosophiae rationi).

His argument is based on the assumption that corporeal spirits fill a lacuna in the order of being: There are living things that have only vegetative functions, but no sensitive capabilities (namely plants). Others, like sponges, are stationary like plants, but they are endowed with sensitive faculties (De part. an. 681a ff). At least one substance in the world has intellective, but no locomotive powers (namely God). Hence it makes sense to presume that there should be things that can change their place without requiring sensitive faculties: demons.

It is remarkable that Cajetan bases his argument on purely natural premisses. This suggests that, although he limits his argument to evil spirits, it should be applicable to angels as well: It would be difficult to accept that only evil spirits contribute to the perfection of God’s creation. So even though it is certainly true that the overwhelming majority of early modern theologians accepted the immateriality of angels, there were dissenting voices in the debate even within theology - the most radical position being articulated by a very influential Catholic thinker arguing from a philosophical point of view which anticipates to some extent Leibniz’s later insights.

2. Why supernatural angels may be superfluous

Leibniz did know Senensis (A IV 465). And he did know that ecclesiastical authority in this matter was inconclusive (G II 319). Why then did he shy away from fully naturalising angels, as we have seen in the third blog post of this series?

One conceivable answer may lie in a letter by Des Bosses (G II 321) that quotes the Jesuit Martin de Esparza in order to suggest that there might be a way to make Leibniz’s angelology compatible with Jesuit teachings. Esparza’s Quaestio V deals with the question how to distinguish angels from each other. The details of this intricate problem are irrelevant here. Esparza states that angels on the lowest level of the angelic hierarchy stand in a relation to a determinate body, even though these angels are not the form of such a body (which distinguishes them from the hypostatic union between soul and body of a human being). Des Bosses quotes only selectively, and bravely states that the same should be true for the two higher-ranked groups of angels as well. This, however, is not what Esparza himself says:

Quia vero Angeli supremae, et mediae hirarchiae referuntur in ratione illuminantis ad Angelos tertiae hierarchiae, ad eum modum, quo dictum est, posteriores istos referri ad homines, et ad caetera corporalia in ratione directoris, ac motoris: concluditur, Angelos etiam supremae, et mediae hierarchiae posse similiter esse ediscernibiles invicem, atque logice indivuatos, […] (p. 109)

So in fact, the individuation of angels from the two highest ranks of the angelic hierarchy is based not on them standing in relation to a body, but rather on standing in a particular relation (‘illumination’) to angels which in turn stand in a relation to a determinate body. Hence, if Leibniz wishes to make his own angelology compatible with Jesuit doctrine, he must concede that it is supernaturally possible that there are angels which stand in a particular relation only to their prime matter, whereas their relation to bodies is mediated by other angels (leading to the difficulties mentioned in the third post of this series).

3. Why immaterial angels are nowhere

Even though Descartes’ angelology may have shown how immaterial angels can be efficient in space in spite of their immateriality, Descartes seems to avoid studiously any answer to the question where angels belong in the world: The fact that every region of space - i. e. the world at large - is susceptible to acts of angelic agency does not in itself give us any hint about the customary place of angels in the world. But the answer Descartes should have given is obvious: Since Cartesians must accept the ‘principle of locality’, they must acknowledge that angels as such (‘in themselves’) are in fact nowhere.

This consequence is discussed by the Dutch theologian Christoph Wittich in his Theologia pacifica (all quotes in the following can be found on p. 147).

For Wittich, angels can only be present in space, if they are bodies:

Substantialis praesentia angelorum non potest definiri spatio, nisi statuant angelorum substantiam esse corpoream; […]

The first argument brought forward for this thesis is an explicit formulation of the ‘principle of locality’:

[…] 1. quia locus sive spatium non differt a corpore, ergo posito corpore ponitur, negato corpore negatur: […]

The notions of space (or place) are coextensive with the concept of a body, so that everything present in space is a body and incorporeal entitities cannot be a part of space: The same had been said by Hobbes.

Even though this argument may suffice, Wittich brings forward a second one:

2. Angelorum tota natura consistit in cogitatione, unumquodque autem est praesens per id quod possidet, non autem per id quod non habet; cogitatione autem non potest esse praesens, nisi quando per cogitationem suam aliquid efficit.

Here we see why Wittich makes a claim about praesentia substantialis: Thought is the essence of an angel. When we ask, how an angel can be ‘substantially present’ in space, we want to know how thought can be spatially present. Thought can be present in space only insofar, as it has spatial effects. But all spatial effects are effects on bodies, because the principle of locality implies that body and space are identical.

So angelic thought can be present in space if and only if an angel acts on bodies (the reverse question, whether angelic minds can be present in space by being acted upon is not adressed by Wittich). In other words, anyone subscribing to the ‘principle of locality’ must accept that angels are only in a place, when they act on this place - a consequence Descartes apparently had chosen to ignore:

sunt ergo angeli in loco, quandocunque operantur in loco respectu istius operationis; sed quando non operantur, sed tantum cogitant intra se, opus non habent loco; […]

Angels are in a place, whenever they act in relation to a region of space. If they do not act in a region of space (i. e. if they are ‘just thinking’), angels are not in a place and hence no part of the world.

4. Conclusion

We have seen why early modern philosophical angelology can only be understood fully, if its theological counterpart has been taken into account: Whether a claim is heretical in a given confessional context, depends on this confessional context (Hobbes). What philosophers believe may depend on what theologians require them to believe (Leibniz). Theological writings may furnish insights into ‘rational theology’ that cannot be found in the philosophical texts themselves (Descartes).

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

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