View by:  Subject  Theme  Question  Term  Person  Event

Are We Alone?

The longest sustained Denkexperiment devoted to trying to answer this third Cosmic Question - how to conceive of other creatures in the universe who are not descended from our ancestors and therefore do not belong to genus homo, but who are rational and capable of movement, thought, and perhaps of free will - was the thousand-year Medieval and Byzantine (as well as Jewish and Muslim) investigation of angels.Among many others, James D. Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels (Washington, 1947) clearly evaluates the metaphysical significance of Thomas’s doctrine of angels. Though I should immediately add the caveat that I am not considering the Jewish and Muslim developments here, as well as the stipulation that several of us who work on the history of Medieval and Byzantine thought have long posted a reward (or bounty) for anyone who could find a scholastic dissertation about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin! Both Athens and Jerusalem made significant contributions to this investigation. Athens provided angelology with ontological categories and a conceptual apparatus for locating angels within “the great chain of being”; as Arthur O. Lovejoy put it in his celebrated William James Lectures of 1933 under that title.

The accepted “philosophical,” as distinct from the dogmatic, argument for the existence of angels rested upon these assumptions of the necessary plenitude and continuity of the chain of beings; there are manifestly possibilities of finite existence above the grade represented by man, and there would consequently be links wanting in the chain if such beings did not actually exist. The reality of the heavenly hosts could thus be known a priori by the natural reason, even if a supernatural revelation did not assure us of it.Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA, 1936), 80.

That assurance on the basis of what Lovejoy calls “supernatural revelation” came not from Athens but from Jerusalem. To fill the categories provided by Athens, it was possible to provide from Jerusalem a vast body of specific data: from the Cherubim who had been “placed at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” after the fall of Adam and Eve,Genesis 3:24.to the prominent role of angels in the life of Christ, beginning with the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary and the Christmas angels of Bethlehem and closing with the angel who strengthened him during his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and with “the angel of the Lord [who] descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door” of Christ’s sepulcher at the resurrection,Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-14; Luke 22:43; Matthew 28:2. to the starring role of the angels throughout the drama of the Apocalypse of John.

Perhaps nowhere does the joint contribution of Athens and Jerusalem to this experiment in answering the third Cosmic Question “Are we alone?” become more strikingly visible than in a pseudonymous sixth-century work carrying the name of Dionysius the Areopagite, the shadowy figure mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as part of its account of Paul’s visit to Athens:Acts 17:34. The Celestial Hierarchy, which, together with all the other writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, has now finally become available in a careful and accurate translation into English, with several introductions and with notes.Paul Rorem, ed., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid, introductions by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jean Leclercq, and Karlfried Froehlich (New York, 1987). At its very outset The Celestial Hierarchy quotes, from the New Testament, the Epistle of James and the Epistle to the Romans,James 1:17; Romans 11:36.in order between these two proof texts to assert: “Inspired by the Father, each procession of the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. It returns us back to the oneness and deifying simplicity of the Father who gathers us in.”Pseudo-Dionysius The Celestial Hierarchy 1.1. That Neoplatonic doctrine of procession by emanation from the Divine and of return to the Divine, buttressed by biblical quotations, provides the foundation for positing the existence of the angels and their “immaterial [nonmaterial] hierarchies” as the Neoplatonism of Athens had taught, but also for explaining that the biblical writers of Jerusalem had “clothed these immaterial hierarchies in numerous material figures and forms so that, in a way appropriate to our nature, we might be uplifted from these most venerable images to interpretations and assimilations which are simple and inexpressible.” This was necessary because, just as “the appearances of beauty are signs of an invisible loveliness,” so “material means capable of guiding us as our nature requires” were needed to let human minds, “in any immaterial way, rise up to imitate and to contemplate the heavenly hierarchies.”Pseudo-Dionysius The Celestial Hierarchy 1.3. Throughout the rest of this curious but highly influential work, the concrete, empirical information of the biblical narratives is called upon to supply such “figures and forms.”

On that basis, Thomas Aquinas, who, it has been estimated, quoted the Corpus Areopagiticum nearly a thousand times in his writings,J. Durantel, Saint Thomas et le Pseudo-Denys (Paris, 1910).devoted an entire block of fifteen questions in Part I of the Summa Theologica, each question consisting in turn of several articles, to a metaphysical-cum-exegetical exposition of the doctrine of angels.Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Ia, QQ. 50-64. Although Part I was the section of the Summa Theologica in which he examined what was knowable by reason without revelation, Athens and Jerusalem were in dialogue already in the first question of this treatise on angels:

Plato says in the Timaeus: “O gods of gods, whose maker and father am I: You are indeed my works, dissoluble by nature, yet indissoluble because I so will it.”Plato Timaeus 41A, in the Latin translation of Chalcidius. But gods such as these can only be understood to be the angels. Therefore the angels are corruptible by their nature. . . .[To the contrary, according to Thomas:] By the expression “gods” Plato understands [not the angels, but] the heavenly bodies, which he supposed to be made up of elements which are composite, and therefore dissoluble of their own nature; yet they are for ever preserved in being by the Divine will.Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Ia, Q. 50, Art. 5, Obj. 1 and ad 1.

Thus he drew upon Athens, the words of the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus, to explicate Jerusalem, biblical teaching, but no less upon biblical teaching to explicate Greek philosophy. And when Aquinas subsequently took up “the local movement of angels,” the quotations were almost all from Aristotle’s Physics; but that should not be permitted to obscure the real source, in the usage of Jerusalem, of such terms and concepts in this question as “a beatified angel” or “the holy angels.” The clinching argument of the first article on “the local movement of angels,” moreover, did not come from Aristotle, nor from any other citizen of Athens, but from Jerusalem. First he invoked the fundamental distinction of Aristotle’s Physics between potentiality and actuality, in order to set the stage for a biblical proof text. In an argument that fittingly illustrates the complex relationships in this “tale of two cities” that I have been trying to tell, he linked these two sentences:

[The first, from Athens:] The motion of that which is in potency [potentiality] is on account of its own need, but the motion of that which is in act [actuality] is not for any need of its own, but for another’s need. [The second, from Jerusalem:] In this way, because of our need, the angel is moved locally, according to Hebrews 1:14, “They are all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them who receive the inheritance of salvation.”Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Ia, Q. 53, Art. 1, ad 3; italics added.

Therefore it followed from this combination of authorities that in order to carry out this ministry and mission to those “who receive the inheritance of salvation,” as this had been documented throughout the Old and the New Testament, it was necessary that the angels be capable of local movement. It had, after all, been by means of a considerable amount of such “local movement” that “the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians [commanded by Sennacherib] an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.”2 Kings 19:35.

The effort of Thomas Aquinas, but also of Moses Maimonides, to conceptualize the nature, the movement, and the knowledge of the angels was an ambitious consideration of our third Cosmic Question, “Are we alone?” In this, as in the first two Cosmic Questions, “Did the universe have a beginning?” and “Is the universe designed?” it was the conjunction as well as the divergence between Athens and Jerusalem that illumined the questions, provided material for the answers, and set the terms for subsequent discussions of all three Cosmic Questions - including (Who knows?) perhaps even the discussions that will follow later in this volume.

Contributed by: Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Athens and/or Jerusalem: Cosmology and/or Creation

Are We Alone?

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Is the Universe Designed?


Jaroslav Pelikan

Related Media:

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are we Alone?
Interview Index
  Media Index

Other Resources:

Glossary Terms
Bonus Material Home...