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The Metaphysics of Angels

Robert A. Boileau

Dr. Atherton Lowry

PHL 304: Natural Theology
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It is apparent that human beings vary from one another in numerous ways.

Noticeable differences that are more obvious than others would include those of gender,

ethnicity, weight, and height. These apparent distinctions among the human race have

long been observable since man’s creation; regarding the knowledge we hold within our

intellect that is taken in through the senses, these differences are what we know to be true

about our species – no two human beings are exactly identical. However, the human race

is comprised of matter and form, and only in observing the two together as a whole can

the true essence of what it is to be “human” come to be realized.

“God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and

female He created them1.” It is from the book of Genesis in which the Creator reveals

that man is created in imago Dei, meaning in the image of God. This “image” includes

both the form and matter of which a human being is composed. Therefore, although

humans differ in appearance, their form and matter, along with their act and potency, is

what unites them into the same species. However, what if man did differ in not only

matter, but form as well? What if man was not created in the image of God, but rather

each man bore his own individual “image”, or form, along with his distinctive matter?

Naturally, this was not how God had chosen to create man. Nevertheless, such a creature

does indeed exist. A creature not only with distinct act and potency, but form as well.

These creatures are, in fact, the angels.

A substance which is composed of potency and act is a composite substance. The

form of a substance is what makes that particular substance the kind of thing that it is,

and the matter of a substance is its material potentiality2. For St. Thomas Aquinas, the

angels are composed of both potency and act3, thus they qualify as composite substances.
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This is demonstrated by the fact that every thing that is either is a pure act or pure

potency, or is something composed of act and potency4. A spiritual substance, in this case

an angel, is not a pure act, because pure act is a characteristic of God alone, nor is it pure

potency. Therefore, it must be composed of a combination of potency and act. The very

essence of an angel is the form of that angel. The esse of an angel is finite, for only God

has an infinite esse, which is pure act, as was previously stated. The finite esse of an

angel is that angel’s act of existing, which determines the angel to be, since angels do not

exist materially. The matter of a human being, however, consists of the physical body.

An angel is not confined to the physical limitations that a human would be, such as space

and time. Although they are composite, an angel is a pure spirit endowed with intellect

and will, and is not a static or fixed being5. While they have no material limitations, no

two angels can be in the same place at the same time, nor can one individual angel be in

two places at once6. An angel is not in a place such as a human would be, rather, the

angel exists in a place by the application of his power there; he is where he acts7. This

freedom from the limitations of space is a characteristic in angels which allow them to be

ever present to aid mankind in their everyday endeavors. By switching the application of

his power from one place to another, an angel does not need to pass through the

intervening space, though he may if he wishes8. By falling into the category of composite

substances, the angels share in a similarity with mankind, in which both creatures are

composed of potency and act. Yet, as all human beings are categorized into a single

species, the Angels of God are most certainly not.

Each angel is a separate species9; no two are alike, or have the same abilities and

capacities. For St. Thomas, there are two kinds of limitation of form. Considering man,
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for instance, the form of the species is limited to the individual, and this kind of limitation

of form comes about through matter10. This limitation is precisely what classifies

mankind as categorized under the same species, on account of matter. Conversely, the

angels are pure spiritual creatures, entirely devoid of matter. The form of the genus of a

spiritual creature is limited to the nature of the species11. As a result of this, the limitation

of form that is evident in the angels does not come about through matter, but rather

through a more determinate form, from which the difference is derived; for the difference

when added to a genus narrows down this latter to the species12. This is the kind of

limitation that is found in spiritual substances, therefore it can be concluded that each

individual angel is entirely its own species. Unlike man, who falls under the same

species attributable to matter, the form of a spiritual creature allows that creature to

posses a unique limitation of form, thus enabling that spiritual creature to exist entirely

under its own classification of species.

Man attains knowledge primarily through the senses. Through a combination of

the observation of the natural world, and absorbing and retaining information through the

mind, man will advance his intellect and further his education, in turn receiving

knowledge. Angels, on the other hand, do not acquire knowledge in this fashion. While

they do posses an intellect, it is unlike that of man’s insofar as the angelic participates in

universal forms13. These universal forms are likenesses of the ideal characters whereby

God knows both universal things and singular things14. While man must study a thing

and attempt to grasp its concept through his senses to attain knowledge of that particular

thing, the angels reside in the presence of the fullness of wisdom, this being Jesus Christ.
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The angels are able to intuit an object simply by seeing it, and do not require nor rely on

the sense knowledge that humans do.

Free will, sin, and evil are three things that concern both men and angels. For

man, free will is something he is instilled with by God at his very creation. Free will is

the agent through which man falls into sin. Therefore, if the angels also possess free will,

are they able to sin as well? For St. Thomas, “there is a greater liberty of will in the

blessed angels, who cannot sin, then there is in ourselves, who can sin15”, thereby proving

that angels cannot sin for the very reason that they see God’s essence, which is ultimate

and infinite goodness16. God’s essence, in His very form of existing, causes the created

will to be oriented towards the good, therefore ultimately compelling man and angel alike

to always seek out the good. When man uses his free will to sin or turn towards evil, this

is only because he is choosing something that appears good to him, which at times may

include sin and evil things17. God created a certain necessity in the will, prohibiting it to

seek evil as evil; however it can choose to do evil under the appearance of good. In the

case of the angels, they are presented with the fullness of goodness, which is God, face to

face. For this reason, they are wholly and irrevocably drawn to it18.

After making their one and final choice for God, the angels in heaven see His

essence19. Hence the angels, although they have free will just as humans do, are not

deceived as humans are in what the “good” is. Since God is the supreme and ultimate

good, and the angels are fully aware of and participate in this, the deception in the natural

orientation towards the good is not present in them as it is in humans. Consequently, an

angel cannot sin, yet still possesses free will.

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The angels are constantly at work, fulfilling their missions or tasks given to them

by God. Among these tasks, one in particular given to the angels is to guard mankind,

and act as an aid to man’s salvation. “For God commands the angels to guard you in all

your ways. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a

stone20.” In this relationship the angels share with man, it is evident that man must

always be aware of the presence of angels in their everyday life, and to allow the angels

to assist them in their earthly journey to the Heavenly Kingdom of God.

Donald Senior, The Catholic Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), Genesis 1:27.
Brothers of the Christian Schools, Christian Philosophy (New York: O’Shea & Co., 1898), 216.
St. Thomas Aquinas, De Spiritualibus Creaturis (Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 1981), 18.
Aquinas, 18.
Pochin Mould, The Angels of God (London: Clonmore and Reynolds Ltd., 1960), 29.
Mould, 29.
Mould, 29.
Mould, 29.
Mould, 26.
Aquinas, 24.
Aquinas, 24.
Aquinas, 24.
Aquinas, 71.
Aquinas, 71.
Mould, 84.
Mould, 85.
Mould, 85.
Mould, 85.
Mould, 85.
Senior, Ps. 91:11-12.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. De Spiritualibus Creaturis. Wisconsin: Marquette University

Press, 1981.

Brothers of the Christian Schools. Christian Philosophy. New York: O’Shea & Co.,

Mould, Pochin. The Angels of God. London: Clonmore and Reynolds Ltd., 1960.

Senior, Donald. The Catholic Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.