Adler On


Most people who use the word "angels" have before their minds the image they derive from paintings of winged creatures robed in white. This is far from the proper meaning of the word "angel" to denote an immaterial substance -- a spiritual being.

In taking this view, Thomas Hobbes employs a eulogistic and dyslogistic criterion of meaningful speech. He says, in effect, that when anyone speaks of immaterial substances, such as angels, they are making no sense whatsoever. A name denoting that which does not and cannot exist is nonsense.

There is no philosophical proof of the existence of angels. It is an article of religious faith for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. But the denial that angels exist and the further statement that they are impossible is sheer dogmatism on the part of materialists.

What the materialists do not understand is that we cannot prove a negative assertion, such as angels do not exist. What is affirmed without proof is dogmatically asserted if it is not self-evident that angels are impossible and cannot exist. It is not self-evident that the immaterial is impossible; hence the dogmatism of materialists remains.

The discussion of angels properly belongs to theology as an exposition of the articles of religious faith. The philosophical interest in angels is mainly concerned with what I have called "angelistic fallacies." Blaise Pascal tells us that man is neither angel nor brute. It is unfortunate that he who would act the angel, acts the brute.

Those, who like Plato and Descartes, are dualists affirming that there are both material and immaterial substances -- body and soul, for Plato; res extensa and res cogitans for Descartes -- cannot avoid committing angelistic fallacies by attributing to the human intellect properties it does not have. Thinking that the human intellect is an immaterial substance, they cannot avoid thinking of it as if it had angelic properties.

There are four angelistic fallacies. The first is angelistic politics, Alexander Hamilton tells us that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary." What he should have said is that if men were angels, coercive force would not be necessary to sustain the rule of law.

There are other reasons for government that apply to angels as well as to men. It is the philosophical anarchist who commits this angelistic fallacy thinking that some principles of government -- either the rule of a leader or majority rule -- are not indispensable for making decisions. Even a peaceful society of angels or men involves deciding matters that are morally neutral -- neither right or wrong -- and so require some rule to decide. (See Anarchy)

The second fallacy is in psychology. It is telepathy. Angels, if they exist, communicate with one another through nothing physical, such as human speech. Angels communicate with one another telepathically. There are parapsychologists who claim that one man can read the mind of another by telepathy. that is, without the intervention of spoken or written words. Telekinesis is another phenomenon that some parapsychologists describe. It consists in moving a physical thing without touching it, nor using any physical means to do so.

The third fallacy is angelistic linguistics. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz committed this fallacy when he conceived the possibility of inventing a language, which he called a "Universal Characteristic," from which all ambiguities are removed. By using this language, human beings would be able to communicate with one another as angels do, without any chance of misunderstanding.

The fourth fallacy is angelistic ethics, Plato asserts that knowledge is virtue -- that if one know what one ought to do, one will also do it. This assertion may hold true of angels who do not suffer from an intrinsic conflict between their lower and higher faculties, between their sensitive appetites and their reason, but it is not true of human beings, who have such faculties.

Not being angels, human beings can be incontinent in Aristotle's sense of that term. They often allow their passions to prevail over their reason, and so they often confess their remorse about having done what they know they ought not to have done, of failing to do what they ought to do. Such remorse does not affect angels.

Aristotle is not a dualist as Plato and Descartes are, but he does assert that the human intellect is distinct from all the sensitive faculties. It is an immaterial power:. This assertion poses for Aristoteleans the problem of where humanity stands with regard to the boundary that separates the material world from the spiritual -- the realm in which God and angels exist.

An easy solution to this problem would place man in both realms -- in the physical by reason of his body and the senses; in the spiritual a realm by reason of his intellect. But that is not quite correct. Man stands at the dividing line with both his feet and the rest of his body planted in the material or physical realm. Standing thus, he manages to lean over that line looking into the spiritual realm by the powers of his immaterial intellect.

The Reality of Angels:
(1) Why Try to Prove the Existence of Angels?
(2) The Reason God Created Angels
(3) The Great Chain of Being
(4) The Best of All Possible Worlds
The Angels and Us, Chapter 4
The Possibility of Angels:
(1) The Crux of the Matter
(2) Who Says That Angels are Impossible?
(3) Reasons for Affirming Their Possibility
The Angels and Us, Chapter 7
Philosophical Exploration of that Possibility:
(1) Angelology and Mathematics
(2) The Mutability of Angels
(3) The Differentiation of Angels
(4) Angelic Occupation of Space and Movement Through It
(5) Angels as Knowers
(6) Angels as Lovers
(7) The Community and Communication of Angels
The Angels and Us, Chapter 8
If Men Were Angels:
(1) Angelistic Politics
(2) Angelistic Psychology
(3) Angelistic Linguistics
(4) Angelistic Ethics
The Angels and Us, Chapter 11
Man on the Boundary Line:
(1) Straddling the Line or Reaching Over It?
(2) The Weakness of the Human Mind
(3) The Middle Ground
(4) The Resurrection of the Body
The Angels and Us, Chapter 12
Recommended Readings on
Theology and Metaphysics

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary
Great Ideas from the Great Books
by Mortimer J. Adler

Revised 29 December 2000