The Angels and Us (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. The Angels and Us. New York: MacMillan, 1982.

This is not a theological-exegetical treatment of angels. That is neither a criticism or a compliment. Adler’s purpose is to give a philosophical explanation, not a theological proof for angels.  One might ask, “Why can’t we just go by what the Bible says on angels and leave it at that?”  There are several problems with that idea.  I learned the hard way that people really do not want to deal with what the ancient Near East, including the Bible, says about malakim and dark spirits.   Moreover, logical deductions from sound premises are just as binding.  Philosophy is inescapable.

Mortimer Adler limits his analysis to that which philosophy allows one to say about angels.  This means at best he can give only an explanation of x, not a proof.  This is frustrating at times, but I understand why he does it. The philosophical benefit to such an approach is that it allows him to focus on the mind-body problem, since an angel is a mind without a body. One more preparatory note: I am not necessarily convinced of the Chain of Being model. I grant Adler’s rebuttal to Lovejoy, but I am not so sure he adequately dealt with Samuel Johnson’s criticisms.

Ptolemaic societies had an easier time with philosophical approaches to “planetary intelligences.” For Aristotle, these moved bodies which in turn move others seem a lot like what we would call angels. Quite obviously, “an incorporeal agent could be nothing other than a mind or intelligence.”[1] Even though angels are minds without bodies, they can assume corporeality in their missions to earth.[2] The biblical text itself is quite clear, as Abraham’s visitors ate with him and later grabbed Lot and his family.  (We will leave aside, of course, Genesis 6:1-4.)

Not surprisingly, Adler’s main guide is Thomas Aquinas, and his main guide to Thomas is Etienne Gilson.  This is as it should be. Beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius, Christian reflection saw the angels as a hierarchy. I do not think Pseudo-Dionysius is correct in his taxonomy, but the underlying principle bears reflection.  Adler notes: “The descending order of hierarchies…consists in grades of creaturely perfect…The perfection referred to is not moral, but metaphysical—a perfection in the mode of being.”[3] This is the Great Chain of Being, or one series of links in it, anyway.

This chain marks a intellectual mode of perfection. The fewer the ideas, the higher up.  This is simplicity in its classical sense.  A Seraph, for example, has fewer ideas than a malak, but he comprehends more in those fewer ideas. Is this Chain of Being really necessary?  Aquinas thinks so.  There would be a gap in reality without them. But can the Great Chain of Being survive modernity’s attacks on it, particularly in the fine book by Arthur Lovejoy?[4] Lovejoy’s actual, if not intended, target is Leibniz, not Aquinas.

When the Great Tradition speaks of a chain of being, it does not have something like arithmetical sequences in mind. Each links differs in kind, not in degree.[5] Moreover, each angel differs with the next by species, assuming, of course, that one accepts Thomas’s account of the angels.

Hell’s Angels

This is where Scripture is largely silent.  We know Satan fell.  We just do not know when. We know it was before man’s fall but after the “Everything is good” pronouncement. Angels, like Adam, were created mutable. If angels were created perfect, then some could not have fallen for obvious reasons. As best as we can tell, the angels that fell, in choosing evil instead of good, did so in the second moment of their existence. Their wills were then locked in place. The angels who obeyed were confirmed in grace.

The Substance of Angels

If a substance is a conjunction of form and matter, and angels are immaterial, then either all their forms are the same, and hence all angels are the same angel, or they must differ in some other way.  They do so by species. Each angel is its own species.[6] Each angelic species is a conjunction of form and its individual act of existence.

That angels interact with physical matter is clear.  How they do so is not as clear.  Since they are not physical, they cannot do so physically (except when they assume bodies). It does so by means of spiritual power. An angel “occupies its place intensively by surrounding it with its power.”[7] This might make more sense if we contrast it with humans.  When a man fills a place, he does so extensively, by physically occupying that place.  Not so with angels.

An angelic mind is purely intellectual.  It does not know discursively. When a man knows something, he does so by forming concepts and judgments.  Angels know with one act of intuition, but not all angels have the same knowledge. They know by virtue of infused knowledge.

Conclusion

Theologians and biblical scholars will wince at some of Adler’s conclusions. His philosophical reticence to affirm theological truths is annoying at times.  On the other hand, his analysis is on point and he avoids getting off topic. For those who read the Great Books, this is required reading.


[1] Mortimer Adler, The Angels and Us, (New York: MacMillan, 1982), 6.

[2] Adler, Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 45.

[4] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971).

[5] Adler, The Angels, 62. This also eliminates any fear of pantheism between God and man.

[6] Ibid, 126.

[7] Ibid, 130.

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