No one assigned angels in the ethics class. I blundered though Vol 1 by mistake and landed on Part 1, 50-64. Here are smart people who for some reason are reading the Summa all the way through. They reflect more fully on Aquinas' angels. Aquinas i,s after all, the "angelic doctor."
But at that moment in grad school, I thought: what happens to moral theology when you account for celestial intelligence? Or: what would it be like to reconsider our ecosystem with an indigenous creature more intelligent than humans (not a cyborg, not extraterrestrial)? Or: how does the calculus of the immaterial affect our material life? Haven't we dethroned Descartes, who helped us separate matter and spirit, mind and matter? (And in Descartes' defense, he was most concerned about this because of his dreams, a matter we will return to.) How prosaic, our life.
But Aquinas' world of angels is set in its own hierarchy - the Great Chain of Being. I know a more abbreviated version (see below), but found this online. Actors down there with the pirates and gypsies.
(from this site)
Of course we ardently believe in our own classification systems. Foucault, in The Order of Things, begins with Borges' Chinese Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge where animals are classified as:
- those that belong to the Emperor,
- embalmed ones,
- those that are trained,
- suckling pigs,
- fabulous ones,
- stray dogs,
- those included in the present classification,
- those that tremble as if they were mad,
- innumerable ones,
- those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
- those that have just broken a flower vase,
- those that from a long way off look like flies.
Now, Foucault laughs, but it is Borges' last laugh, since it is one of his imaginary classifications which Foucault took to be authentic.
This might help us re-imagine the imaginary potential of these classifications that Aquinas borrows from Aristotle, who also loves to classify: Mineral, Plant, Animal, (Hu)Man.
Aquinas defines these four kingdoms/classes as
(a) those which just are – as stones;
(b) those which are and live – as plants;
(c) those which are and live and move – as animals; and
(d) those which are and live and move and think – as men (forget women at the moment) *
He does not include (e) angels because they are immaterial and are each a species. In Islam, this might be different since there are two immaterial creatures Jinn and Angels. All these entities too have a hierarchy (so many versions of this, but here's The Celestial Hierarchy of pseudo-Dionysius).
Given the absence of Angels in America and elsewhere, Malcolm Godwin considers them an Endangered Species.
I will return to this because this classification relies on Aquinas' understanding of the immaterial, and distinction btw essence and existence in creatures. Through the immaterial, the invisible. What is a theory of the invisible - material or immaterial creature, realm, space? How does Merleau Ponty help us with this in his The Visible and Invisible?
*Irrelevant note: Schumacher likes this hierarchy of being and he writes about it in Guide for the Perplexed. (He's the guy who wrote Small is Beautiful, not 12th century Jewish rabbi Maimonides, "the Ramban" who wrote THE Guide for the Perplexed). Google this yourself.
When I first became interested in the "absence of angels," I though of this as the absence of the invisible (creatures, world) in modern life.
How did we get to this absence?
There are many ways to tell the story of the death of angels, which is related but not entirely fixated on the death of God. This trajectory is often explained as the emergence of science, modernity and the secular.
Conditions of the "immanent frame"
In A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues we've lost a permeable self, a self that spirits enter; our selves are buffered, hermetic entities. If we dream of our dead grandmother, for example, it is a wish to see her, not a visit.
In this materialist sense, our the world bounded by three (or four if you include time) dimensions, is flat. But there is an invisible world of matter buzzing with activity -- bacteria and quarks, and molecules, DNA, dead stars. It is made visible aided by technology. So invisible matter makes up the visible.
Is there an Immaterial
How then do I distinguish the "invisible worlds" from each other?
I returned to Aquinas: what did he call celestial creatures; were they immaterial. What is this incorporeal; is it the same as immaterial? What is this stuff if it's not matter? Is it substance? Does it exist?
I had to learn something about medieval ontology which still included celestial creatures. And then, what is metaphysics? And is this incorporeal the immaterial; can it also be a form of matter? What do any of them (Aquinas forward) mean by substance? I still have to unpack the early arguments about existence and substance, to learn something about medieval ontology, to understand a world which still included celestial creatures.
Incorporeal: Lacking a physical or material nature but relating to or affecting a body. Lacking material form or substance. God, spirits, souls are incorporeal. So are intangible properties such as copyrights and patents in the law. Greeks considered air incorporeal. But then, there was Ether, the fifth essence differing from four elements (air, fire, water, earth) and then there was Ether as a matter sublimated by the four elements, a finer form of fire and air. So, in this case the invisible and visible creation are made up of the same stuff: 'celestial bodies' of planets, stars composed of a thin, attenuated purified form of the elements. The purest of matter, but matter nonetheless. There was a long standing theory of "thin attenuated matter." 1
Here is a quote from Dale Martin from The Corinthian Body which is concerned about hierarchy and pollution within the Greco-Roman world in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. In it, Martin also helps our modern minds understand Aristotle's view of the nonmaterial.
Whereas modern readers often take "incorporeal" to be equivalent to "nonmaterial," this is not Aristotle's view. Having outlined [in De Anima] various philosophical accounts of the soul, all of which identify it with some kind of stuff, Aristotle concludes: "But all, or almost all, distinguish the soul by three of its attributes, movement, perception, and incorporeality" (I. 2. 405b). In other words, the soul could be incorporeal and still be composed of "stuff". One could believe that the soul should not be called "body" but still understand it as occupying space, as having a "place" (I. 3. 406a). This means that the soul, though neither hyle nor soma, cannot be placed in the Cartesian category of nonmatter, since for Descartes (and for the traditional modern understanding) something is "matter" or "physical" if it occupies space. Furthermore, elements like water and air, taken by Aristotle to be what we would call "matter", are nonetheless "noncorporeal" (On Sense and Sensible Things 5.445a22-23). When Aristotle uses the word hyle, therefore, we misunderstand him if we translate it as anything like the modern term "matter".
Martin illustrates this confusion by contrasting translation of W.S. Hett with his own direct translation Aristotle. In this case, Aristotle explains a theory of the soul as fire.
...W. S. Hett proceeds, "for this is composed of the lightest constituents, and of all the elements is the nearest to incorporeal" (I. 2. 405a, Loeb edition). The Greek, however, is kai malista ton stoicheion asomaton, more literally translated: "it is the most (or especially) noncorporeal of the elements." Hett's translation implies that Aristotle took fire to be corporeal (that is, material) but almost incorporeal, consisting of very "thin" matter. Aristotle actually seems to be saying that fire is incorporeal—even though he believes that fire is constituted by matter (in the modern sense of the term—that is... "stuff" of some sort). Elsewhere, Aristotle records the opinion of others that the soul is "composed of very light parts." Hett's translation continues: "or as corporeal but less so than any other body" (I. 5. 409b20). Aristotle's Greek, however, is to asomatotaton ton allon: "the most incorporeal of the others" (to translate woodenly). In other words, Aristotle is saying that certain people believe the soul to be composed of very light parts and yet still to be incorporeal. Hett's mistranslation is due to the fact that he reads hyle as "matter" in a Cartesian sense and sees "incorporeality" as belonging to the "immaterial" side of a material/immaterial dichotomy, which does not accurately reflect Aristotle's own categories. 2
1. Stanford Studies in Language and Literature, 16-21.23, Stanford University Press, 1958, 117
2. Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body, Yale University Press, 1995