26 April 2005

angelic motions underneath

In the latest issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly there is a review of two books on medieval angelology written by Tiziana Suarez-Nani.

While the books are in French, the titles translate as Angels and Philosophy: Subjectivity and the Cosmological Function of the Separated Substances at the End of the 13th Century (Paris: Vrin 2002) and Knowledge and Language of the Angels according to Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome (Paris: Vrin 2002). The books are reviewed by Gerard Casey of the University of Dublin who is one of the few other philosophers around who has any extensive expertise in medieval angelology.

As is well-known, for Thomas Aquinas angels are "separated substances," that is, angels must not form a single species in the way that the human race does, given that angels are spiritual, non-material beings and since material beings are individuated by matter. Each human being is distinct from other human beings in virtue of being made of distinct material, yet all human beings are part of the same human species. Aquinas holds, however, that angels are different. Each angel is a species unto itself, a separate kind of substance from every other angel.

The spiritual nature of angels, of course, raises questions about how they have knowledge, communication, and the like apart from physical senses or spoken language. This is a topic that, in Casey's words, opens up

really interesting speculative questions...on the very nature of knowledge and language that benefit immeasurably for being considered not in the context of human speech and communication but in the context of what it would mean, how it would be possible, why it would be necessary for purely spiritual immaterial beings to know and communicate with each other.

What is perhaps even more interesting is Thomas Aquinas' notion that angels play a role in cosmology, as Casey says, his "speculation concerning the involvement of intelligences or angels in the operation of the cosmos."

The medieval theology of cosmic motion is a topic of a forthcoming book by Simon Oliver of the University of Wales at Lampeter, entitled Philosophy, God and Motion (Routledge 2005). In it Oliver explains how the medieval cosmology of motion differs from that of modern cosmologies, particularly in a post-Newtonian world.

The most evident difference, one that even the most casual reader of Aquinas would likely pick up, is that for the medievals motion was ultimately a matter of that to which things are drawn teleologically, rather than a mere efficient causality or chain of causes, each of which is preceded by another.

What Oliver does so well is to place this medieval vision in its ultimate Trinitarian conext so that participation in the life of God is the end towards which the cosmos is drawn as a creation that comes from God and exists, in some sense, "among" the divine Persons. Cosmic motion, therefore, must be situated within the eternal Trinitarian processions, the eternal motion of God.

This cosmology, however, is peopled not only by human, animal, and terrestrial motions, but also by the motion of the celestial spheres, motion that is closely tied to the intellectual motions of the separated substances or angels. Indeed, local motions of humans and animals are seen by Aquinas as possible only because they are connected to and subsist within these angelic motions.

Interestingly, this medieval vision had not entirely waned by the time of John Calvin, even in the midst of Renaissance humanism at the cusp of the modern, as we can see in Calvin's comments on the four living creatures in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. In his comments on Ezekiel 1, Calvin writes regarding the number of cherubim:

...I doubt not that God wished to teach us that his influence is diffused through all regions of the world, for we know the world to be divided into four parts; and that the people might know that God's providence rules everywhere throughout the world, four cherubim were set up...and we know that angels are called principalities and powers (Eph 3:10) and are rendered conspicuous by these titles, while the Scripture calls them the very hands of God himself (Col 1:16).

Calvin goes to on explain that apart from angelic motions, nothing in the cosmos would have motion in itself. He writes:

Why, then, has each animal four heads? I answer, that by this, angelic virtue is proved to reside in all the animals. Yet a part is for the whole, because God by his angels works not only in man and other animals, but throughout creation; and because inanimate things have no motion in themselves, as God wished to instruct a rude and dull people, he sets before them the image of all things under that of animals.

Calvin continues by explaining the significance of the wheels within wheels underneath and joined to the angels and their motions:

As to the four wheels, I do not doubt their signifying those changes which we commonly call "revolutions," for we see the world continually changing and putting on, as it were, new faces, each being represented by a fresh revolution of the wheel, effected by either its own or some external impulse. Since, then, there exists no fixed condition of the world, but continual changes are discerned, the Prophet joins the wheels to the angels, as if he would assert that no changes occur by chance, but depend upon some agency, namely, that of angels...the changes of the world are so connected together, that all motion depends upon the angels, whom [God] guides according to his will.

Whereas Fortune and Fate are blind, Calvin notes, we find that the wheels are full of eyes, representing the widsom and knowledge of God. Calvin sums up his remarks saying, "the Prophet teaches that all the changes of the world depend on celestial motion. For we have said that the living creatures represent to us Angels whom God inspires with a secret virtue, so that he works by means of their hands."

The perspective of Calvin here is intriguing and intersects in interesting ways with that of Aquinas and other medievals, though there do seem to be some differences. Given Calvin's historical position on the verge of the modern, his sometimes voluntarist tendencies, and so on, it would be a useful project to compare Calvin's account more thoroughly with those of his medieval predecessors, perhaps attending most closely to where those accounts diverge as a window into the kinds of shifts in cosmology and ontology that were occuring in the early modern era.