THE ANGELS’ VISION
THERE is little of idleness in the universe; what little there is is not for long. For the penalty of idleness is frustration and, shortly, extinction. Apparently idleness can be indulged in by men with more impunity than any other creature of the universe; but the appearance of unpenalized idleness in the human world is an illusion. Actually, man is one with the rest of the world in the possession of that inner drive for the fullness of perfection that so ruthlessly stamps out the idle; he not only has this same drive, in him it exists in a degree so intensified that it seems to demand that he outstrip himself. H is possessed of a yearning for goodness and truth that pulls the heart out of him.
The angels’ vision a dream of men
Unable to satisfy this quenchless thirst, men have, from the beginning both of individual life and the life of the race, been haunted by a dream; the dream of quick, easy, complete quieting of the remorseless demands of their very nature. Sometimes they have mistaken the dream for a reality, for the port itself instead of the guiding beacon; but, mistaken or not, the dream has persisted. Thus children go to school with lagging steps and race out of the classroom; vacation time is a release from prison and September is approached with the listless resignation of a doomed man’s steps to the gallows. Yet “why” is never far from their lips; they want to learn, insist on learning, but easily, quickly, satisfyingly. It is as though the dream were born within them.
From the beginning
In the very beginning of the race, satanic ingenuity could devise no temptation so seductive as the promise to materialize this dream: “you shall be like gods, knowing good from evil.” Awed by the splendor of that dream, the strong, unimpeded intellects of the first human couple became as credulous as a child listening to a ghost story on a stormy night. Even after that first terrible lesson had been learnt, after men had seen what might be expected from grasping at shadows and deserting reality, they still started their tower of Babel, that they might look into heaven.
Among the first philosophers:
It is not so surprising, then, to see men, in the first baby steps of philosophic thought, tottering towards the bright tinsel of the unceasing dream. The fact is beyond dispute. Hindu philosophy tried to reach the utmost boundaries of wisdom by one proud thrust. Impatient of the material world, the Eastern philosophers denied it; their intellects would be independent of all else and, by a kind of natural contemplation of self, would pierce into and be absorbed by the absolute. The Chinese philosophy of Lao-tse embraced a kind of wisdom through contemplation together with an esoteric principle of revolution; the two added up to a sort of self-hypnosis, aided by opium, whose goal was complete cessation of activity and reabsorption in nothingness, to become one with the first principle.
Reasons of the fact
To eyes made sympathetic by the vista of crumbled dreams that stretches the length of a lifetime, reasons for this fact of philosophical history do not have to be laboriously excavated from the ruins of the dream. Unquestionably glimpses of quick, sure, easy knowledge are given to men from time to time. A man’s position in the units verse is a perch on the peak of an alp from which he can exult in the scoured cleanliness of sun-drenched clouds and the mysterious depths of the sky, depths that are above him not below him; or be sobered by the shadows, the fog, the ready darkness of the valley that lies at his feet. He stands nicely balanced between the spiritual and the material world. Standing on tiptoe he can almost peer into the city of the angels. Just as in himself he sees the gray spectres of his own bestial potentialities, so also in himself he sees an occasional flash of angelic beauty and perfection. It is not hard to understand a man dreaming of the wings of an angel or the claws of an animal.
Dual results of the fact
Then, too, just as there is no one so impatient with stutters as a stammerer, so there is no one more impatient of human intelligence than an intelligent man. Its weakness, its sluggishness, its inaccuracy, its dependence on the material world and material conditions are all a constant exasperation to him. If this is true despite the immense intellectual deposit we have inherited from the ages, how much more true must it have been in the early days of man’s philosophic thought. Along with these two factors, there was a pride of intellect that was almost diabolical, as, in fact, is most human pride. It was a pride that could not, would not, stoop to the things love inspires. We look in vain for any mention of love among the Eastern philosophers. Love, you see, has a way of being satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the table. It is astounded at having so much, however little be given it; the haughty gesture expressing personal excellence is caught in mid-air by love’s paralyzing glimpse of the excellence of God shining forth from the loved one. Love cannot be proud: so the early philosophers ruled out love.
The dream and the moderns
The results of this personification of a dream, this enthronement of the pride of intellect, were cataclysmic and, strangely, uniform wherever this dream took to itself a body. In Brahminism, in Buddhism, in Taoism the goal of wisdom was always the same: denial of the reasoning process, denial of reason’s efficiency outside itself, finally, the destruction of reason itself; under such circumstances, the ultimate destruction of man, the surrender of personality and individuality through absorption in the absolute, was a foregone conclusion. If men would be angels, then they would in fact become neither angels nor men.
Beginnings are always difficult things; perhaps that is why man is always so impatient at the beginning of things. At any rate, he is much more inclined to indulge in a dream than to swing an axe, even an intellectual axe. It was almost natural, then, that at the beginning of the modern scientific age some one should take refuge in the age-old dream of an angelic short-cut to knowledge. The modern father of angelism, which destroys both angels and men, was Descartes.
Its legitimate descendants
In its modern form, the dream restricted the material world’s contribution to man’s mental life to being man aged by human reason; as it turned out, this was an insistence on the complete independence of reason that later brought forth that astonishing child, pragmatism. The slow, plodding steps of reasoning were impatiently brushed aside in favor of the rapier-thrust of angelic knowledge which would contain all else that was to be known. And this knowledge was made a practically innate affair; indeed, if it were to be so independent, there was nothing else to do but insist on its innate character. After all, it had been completely cut off from the material world in which it existed.
The dream of men a natural gift of the angels:
perfect knowledge in a perfect way
Even in this very early stage of the modern resurrection of man’s favorite dream, there are some seeds of catastrophe. Obviously, the denial of the reasoning processes and of the contact of reason with the material world, isolates and perverts the mind of a man. The children of Descartes carried on his tradition boisterously, plundering the intellectual level of man’s life like so many vandals bent, not so much on booty, as on destruction. Destroy they did: first intellect itself and finally, reaching the inevitable result of a dream made to walk, the humanity of man. Rationalism trod its suicidal way through Locke, Berkeley and Hume; then Kant rushed to the rescue of reason but his aim was bad and reason died from the shot he fired. From this orphaned home where philosophy was a beaten waif, there came forth idealism and naturalism: the first, linking up the old dream with Neo-platonism and the Hindu philosophies, thus sinking man in the unnatural depths of the world of pure spirit; the second, our American favorite, breaking up into the thousand and one varieties from pragmatism to naive evolutionism, in all of which reason is a thing of the past and man a creature with no future.
The dream has remained unchanged since the beginnings of the human race; it has appeared in philosophic dress again and again since the first puzzlings of the first philosophers. Its results have remained uniformly tragic; now, as always, the dream crashes in the unsounded depths of pessimism. And the lesson the dream teaches is still unlearnt. We still do not agree that it is not by casting away the bone we have that we shall find food, it is not by trying to become something other than ourselves that we can accomplish anything but our own destruction. It is as true now as it was in the beginning that we do not improve nature by destroying it; that originality does not consist in being different but in the astonishingly humble courage to be ourselves. We do not attain perfection by pretensions to the angelic but by being most thoroughly human.
In a perfect way, i.e. innately, intuitively, independently
Through the ages, the promise of this dream which has haunted men was perfect knowledge in a perfect way. What man has striven for, even at the cost of his humanity, the angels have by their very nature. Their knowledge is had in a perfect way. Knowledge comes to the angel in the first instant of its existence, without loss of time or energy, without labor, and completely free of any dependence on the world of creatures beneath the angelic world. To put it with a brevity so extreme as to demand further explanation, we could say that the angels’ knowledge is innate, intuitive and independent.
This knowledge is innate: Relative to angelic essence
Innate knowledge in the angels means precisely what one would suspect: that the angels are created with their knowledge, as men are born with their faculties of intellect and will. There is no worry about it on the part of the angel; knowledge is an integral part of the angelic nature. Yet this does not mean that the angelic knowledge is the angelic substance, the angelic essence. Angels are not large masses of knowledge wandering about the courts of heaven; nor are they subsistent intellects. The intellects of the angels, as the intellects of men, are faculties, potentialities: their knowledge is an act of that intellect. If, indeed, their intellects were identical with their substance then the angels would be identical with God; they would he subsistent intellects and intelligence is one of those perfections that of themselves are infinite, utterly Perfect. Subsistent intelligence, as we have seen, is a property of God.
Relative to angelic existence
Nor does this innate character of angelic intelligence mean that the angelic nature is given life by angelic knowledge the angel’s knowledge is not its existence. This should not be obscure. After all, it is plain that a non-existing dog does not bite, nor is the bite of an existing dog the dog itself. So the existing angel is presupposed to the knowing angel; it does not know until it exists, nor does it exist by the fact of knowledge. As a matter of fact, the angelic existence, marvelously perfect as it must be to match the angelic nature, still falls short of the wide scope of angelic knowledge. Angelic existence is limited to that one angelic species, that one angel; while angelic knowledge is free to roam from God to worms and back again.
Relative to angelic intellect
In both men and angels, intellect is a power, a faculty, an accident perfecting nature. But the angel’s intellect does not grub about among material things gathering its knowledge; hence its intellect is a single faculty, utterly, free of dependence on the phantasm of imagination or any other material thing. In us there must be both an active and a possible intellect, as we shall see more thoroughly later on in this book. The first finds the potentially intelligible material in the products of the imagination and makes it actually intelligible to the possible intellect, bridging the gap between the material and the spiritual; the second, actually understands. In somewhat this same way the infra-red ray camera and the human eye cooperate; the camera, on its film, making actually visible what formerly had been only potentially visible, then it is the eye that sees.
In the angels, the intellect is never merely a blank sheet waiting for knowledge to be scribbled on it, it is never merely potentially intelligent. Nor are the objects of the angels’ knowledge wrapped around with the bandages of matter which hide their faces, only potentially intelligible. Their knowledge is innate; so the objects of their knowledge, from the very beginning, exist in them immaterially, in an actually intelligible way.
It will, perhaps, help us to grasp the immateriality of the angels and their knowledge if we remember that the whole field of imagination, which so enriches human life, is completely missing in the angelic world. The angels have no imagination. Of they had imaginations they would not be angels. For imagination is the function of a corporal organ, part of our sensitive or animal equipment; it is one of the links that bind us to the animal world, like a spinal column, hunger or death. Without a body, imagination is altogether impossible.
Angels, then, have never felt the sleekness of velvet or the hard gaiety of silk, the rush of wind on a spring day or the softness of a rich turf. They have never had the feel of clean clothes, the agony of tight shoes or a ragged collar. In fact they may know how these things feel, but their knowledge of them is purely intellectual; they have no sensitive knowledge, for the simple reason that they have no senses with which to know. This is the quite apparent reason why their knowledge must be innate; there is no way in which it can be gathered from the material world. On this same ground of their absolute spirituality, we must exclude all passions from the angels. Some of the early Fathers explained the wiles and craftiness of women on the grounds of a quite reprehensible carnal familiarity with the fallen angels: but this was a very bad guess in a somewhat vague cause. Angels do not tremble with fear, pace the floor with anxiety or boil with anger. This sort of thing belongs in our world, not in the world of the angels.
It is intuitive
The intuitive character of angelic knowledge is much more readily grasped by our minds than its innateness; we ourselves have some little taste of that mysterious intellectual action of intuition. It is in us, quite normally, as the very first of our acts of knowledge; we know such things as tree, dog, man antecedently to our judgment that “this is a tree, dog or man.” In other words, we have these concepts, not by the slow scrutiny of judgment and reasoning, but before these processes, by the first glance of intuition. In its higher forms it is the brilliant flash that illumines the minds of men of genius, the mystic penetration of the saints and the deep understanding of the simple faithful relative to the mysteries of faith.
It is independent
The angels’ intellect is a cup capable of holding the overflowing knowledge of all created things; but the cup does not fill itself. That intellect is a faculty or potentiality; it must be fulfilled by some act, by some form. Certainly it is not filled by the angels’ own substance, perfect as that may be; for the angelic substance is only one drop in the steady flow of creatures from the Creator, a picture of one mood of God which cannot represent the drawling splendor of all His other images in the world of creatures. This cup must be filled by something other than the angel itself; if the angels’ knowledge of them created world is to be perfect, some medium other than the angel itself, some other form must fulfill the potentiality of the angels’ intellect. That other form, that other medium, can be no other than the intelligible species, the ideas, the mental similitudes, the intentional existence of created things. There is no other possibility: God could give supernatural knowledge proper to Himself, as He does in the vision of His essence, but this would still be a gift, not a natural knowledge for an angel; the angel itself is inadequate to represent the whole created world; every inferior creature is not only inadequate, it is physically incapable of affecting the angelic intellect. The angels must know as we know, through ideas; where do these intelligible species come from?
Source of the angelic ideas
Certainly they cannot come from created things. We could as easily paint a mathematical point or wrap up the substantial form of a rose in cellophane as give an angel an idea of a flag by waving at the vault of heaven. Material things cannot act directly but only through a medium on spiritual things; in knowledge that medium is the phantasm of the imagination. There is, then, no way in which an angel can acquire ideas from created things, for it has no imagination.
Moreover, the thing is plain from the very manner in which the angel exists. We would be reasonably astonished to find a cabbage slinking up behind us with the grace of a leopard; cabbages move, but not precisely in that way, for movement follows the manner of existence. If that existence is a plant existence, then the movement is a plant movement; if the existence is animal, then the movement is animal. So our thoughts do not come together with even so slight a jar as that felt by the teeth meeting well cooked asparagus. The mode of existence of the angels is quite independent of material; their action or movement of understanding, then, is a smoothly intellectual thing. Let us look at the whole picture. Man has an intellectual potentiality unfulfilled by nature; God has no potentiality but perfect intellectual fulfillment, perfect act; in the middle, the angels, half-way between God and man, possess an intellectual potentiality perfectly fulfilled from nature, and so, of course not from the material world outside their nature.
The only source of these angelic ideas is God Himself giving them to the angels by directly infusing them into the minds of the angels. No higher angel will do for this first knowledge, as will be apparent from a later chapter on the speech of the angels. Here it is enough, by way of explanation of the incapacity of the higher angels, to point out that the angelic intellect and will, like the human intellect and will, are intrinsic accidents of the angelic nature; they are utterly inviolable, theirs is the sacred territory from which everyone, everything is barred violent entry. This is the garden where only God and the individual possessor of that intellect and will can walk freely.
The angel, then, has intelligible species from God; about how many? No, the question is not nearly so absurd as it sounds; in fact its answer is decidedly illuminating. In our own case we do not base our judgment of intellectual acumen on the number of species, the amount of knowledge a man has acquired, but rather on how much a man can see in this or that particular species; it is not quantitative knowledge but penetrating wisdom that is the mark of excellence. Thus, a workman, who knows that he can get a brick off a roof by throwing it and sees nothing of the possibilities of its hitting someone on the head, is stupid. Thomas, in a comparatively few theological principles, could see the whole field of theology; a mathematician, in a few principles, can see the unfolding of the whole complicated area of mathematics; while a student, sitting under either Thomas or the mathematician. must be satisfied with little bites from the edge of the pie of knowledge.
Our judgment in this case is entirely reasonable. The closer a creature is to God in the natural order, the more it participates the divine perfections, the more perfectly it images God. Those nearer God in the intellectual order will, then, participate more closely the divine mode of knowledge; and God understands everything in the one species which is His divine essence. The angels as a class, have fewer and more universal species than men, being so far superior to them; the superior angels will have fewer and more universal species than the lower angels, precisely because of their superiority.
The angels’ intellectual content is thus seen as infused intelligible species which are fewer and more universal the higher we go in the angelic order of perfection. How does it use these ideas? What is this intuition which is the normal manner of knowing for the angels?
Certainly the angel has no period of cooing and gurgling infancy while it awaits the age when ideas are possible to it; it undergoes no tortuous school days in which ideas are gathered one by one. The angel is in no way in potency as to the acquiring of its ideas; these ideas are had from the beginning. Nevertheless, the angels, like ourselves, cannot consider more than one species at a time. These species are forms actuating the intellect; to have the mind consider two of them there at the same time would be like having a man run in different directions at the same time, and with much the same results. In scholastic language, the angels are always in act as regards the possession of these species: they are in potentiality as regards the actual consideration of this or that species. In other words their knowledge, like the knowledge of God, is always actually possessed; but, like the knowledge of man, it has its potential element, it is only successively used. For a man, no matter how much affection he may have for the multiplication table, does not spend all his time thinking of it.
Though an angel cannot consider more than one of these species at one time, yet it can know many things at one time according as many things are contained in this or that particular species, much as a man, looking into one mirror, can see all the many things reflected in that mirror. In one species the angel sees all that it contains in just the one penetrating glance, as the eye of a camera in an airplane catches the detail of the city of New York as it paces restlessly between its confining rivers far below.
An angel can do this because the angel is a step higher in the intellectual order than men. The precise imperfection of the human intellect is its nearsightedness. It can see only one corner of the picture at a time; the world is a map too huge to be seen all at once by a human mind which must, instead, go slowly over the whole surface inch by inch, because of the weakness of our minds, we must come down from principles to conclusions like an old man cautiously feeling his way down a flight of steps; only when we reach the bottom, the conclusion, do we have a clear notion of all that might have been seen from the top by a stronger eye. Like children with a Christmas package, we must open things up, tear them apart and put them together again before we know what is in them. The one who made up the package or who has information from that original source, knows the whole story by merely identifying the package.
Source of the angels’ knowledge of God
The angels do not reason their way down from principle to conclusion, not because they cannot, but because they do not have to. Their position between God and man demands the absence of the essential imperfection of the human intellect, the imperfection which makes reasoning, piece by piece judgment, necessary. It is, indeed, just this absence of the necessity for reasoning and judgment that males it impossible for an angel to make a mistake in natural knowledge. There is nothing peculiar about this; it is the way intuition works. As a matter of fact, we make no mistake in our first act of intellect, our intuition of tree, dog, man; our mistakes come in our judgments and reasonings, in our hooking the wrong things together. “John” and “crank” may both be representative of objective truth; but when we hook the two together to say “John is a crank” we run the risk of error and rash judgment. Objectively, the steps down from principle to conclusion may be sharply cut and broad enough; but if we miss one of them, we tumble down to erroneous conclusions with a battered head.
Source of the angels’ knowledge of self
Its own brilliant, purely spiritual, utterly immaterial essence is immediately present to the angelic intellect and is, in itself, completely intelligible. Consequently, it is immediately known by the angel without the necessity of a medium such as we must have. For it must be clear to every man that he knows his soul only through the revelatory character of his spiritual acts penetrating the material wrapping of his body. In this intimate, immediate knowledge of itself, the angel has a natural knowledge of God, as it also has in its knowledge of all other creatures; for nothing is fully known until God’s part, the part of the cause and the exemplar, is known. The intelligible species by which the angels know all other things come only from God; they are the first copy of the ideas of God, the first participation of that supreme truth, the blueprint formed directly from the mind of the divine Architect.
St. Augustine put this beautifully when he maintained that the things of the world poured forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels; and physically into the world of things. In this account, the angels are looking, from the wings at the drama played on the stage of the world. He who wrapped up this great package which is the physical world, has given His own first hand knowledge of it to the angels.
The natural knowledge of the angels is a vast sea that touches the shore of every created thing — with one exception. There are no natural secrets hidden from the piercing intellectual eye of an angel — except one; spiritual and material, all are laid open and naked before their eyes — except one.
The objects of angelic knowledge
Spiritual objects: Other angels
On the spiritual side, they know themselves, immediately, by their own substance. More, they know every other angel in heaven or in hell in spite of the terrifying number of angels; of everyone each angel can say with perfect confidence “I knew him when.” These other angels, too, have come forth from the creative hand of God, of them there exists, too, a perfect model in the divine mind; and as they came from God in their physical natures to exist in the universe, so they came from God intellectually to exist in the mind of the lowest angel.
Thoughts and desires of men
All material things are known to the angels for exactly this same reason, that is, because these material things too are creatures of God, effects of the first cause; a detailed account of them exists in the divine mind and is communicated to the minds of the angels. The mysteries of grace are completely above the powers of the angels. These supernatural secrets of God’s own life and the share in that life He has planned for men and angels are totally beyond the entire powers of the natural order, which, of course, includes the angels. What knowledge the angels have of these things is a free gift of God by a special revelation to each particular angel; or, in the case of the good angels, in the beatific vision, the sight of the essence of God.
Mysteries of grace
But there is one natural phenomenon that is without the scope of the angels’ knowledge, that escapes the otherwise universal sweep of the angels’ intellect. There is one thing too sacred for the eye of any but God, one private room where man devil or angel cannot enter in; that is the realm of the thoughts and desires of intellectual beings, men and angels. Only God can enter into the house of our soul; and even God cannot violate our sovereignty there if there is to be desecration there, we must be the guilty ones; if there is to be the perfume of sanctity pervading the soul, God and our selves must pour the fragrant oil of consecration
An angel can know future things that come about necessarily, as an astronomer can know of an eclipse of the moon years beforehand; an angel can guess very accurately as to future contingent things, as a weather forecaster can predict the path of a storm with reasonable accuracy; an angel can know singular things in their most precise singularity, as a housewife knows the price of bread or milk. But as to the movements of our intellects and wills, the angels have no grounds for more than a very poor guess until we have manifested such movements by our external actions. Even then, with the external actions there for all to read, they, and anyone else short of God, cannot be absolutely sure of the motives which inspired the actions Really the devil has a most uncomfortable time of it in the pursuit of his devilish profession He goes to the window, endlessly placing his bets on no more than a hunch; his mixture of hopefulness and despair must endure until the race is all over and the judges have handed down their decisions.
There is an obvious difficulty in this angelic knowledge of human affairs. If an angel does not know what Jim Jones is going to do at three o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, how does it find out on Thursday what actually took place? We have insisted again and again that the angels have all of their intelligible species from the very beginning of their existence; they receive no more natural knowledge, either from the world or from God. Yet these past things are surely known, though as future they were not known. The difficulty is not so insuperable as it appears at first sight. After all, the ideas of God are eternal yet they are effective as divine decrees only in time; it was not just a few months ago that God decreed the creation of the soul of the Smith’s newborn baby, but the decree was from all eternity. Even though the angels possessed all their intelligible species from the first instant of their existence, these species caused knowledge only after the existence of these future things in the material world. In other words, given the species from the beginning, the angel, by a decree of God, was barred from the use of this particular species until the event had occurred.
Infallibility of the angelic knowledge
All of this angelic knowledge is had without the possibility of misinformation, for God is the informant. There is no possibility of misjudgment, for there is no judgment involved in this knowledge; nor is there any chance of mistaken reasoning, where there is no reasoning. An innate, intuitive, independent, infallibly certain and perfect knowledge; a view of the universe second only to that of God; a perfect insight into the beauty, the variety, the perfection of the vast mirror which images the eternal splendor of the infinite — such is the angels’ vision.
Conclusion: The dream of men is not without its excuse
As you can readily see, that agelong dream of men is not without its excuse. There is such a perfect knowledge had in such a perfect way. Those momentary glimpses of incredible brilliance and penetrating simplicity were not illusions. The tales told by explorers of the intellectual world, the tall stories of the men of genius, the dark illuminations of the mystics that gave such a relish even to gall and vinegar, those solemn moments when our own minds are struck by this lightning from above — all these may sound like the exaggerated ravings of a returned Marco Polo of the intellectual world. In actual fact, however, they are deficient only by reason of the poverty of the pictures they paint for us, an inadequacy as hopeless as a tin-type of the living beauty of a woman of the last century.
It is not without its divine reason
The dream did, indeed, have its excuse. It also has its reasons, for of course, we still dream. Its purpose is not to tease us with the cruel humor that dangles the bottle just out of reach of a screaming baby. It is not to humiliate us to the point of despair while we batter our brains out against a stone wall, as did the old and the new philosophers. The dream does not exist to tempt us to the rashness of presumption, moving us to cast away the crutches of human reason before we can walk or to play truant from school before we have learned to spell out the humble script of the material world. Rather, its purpose has been, and is, to keep alive in us that “unappeasable hunger for unattainable food,” to fan that fire of divine discontent that never gives us rest, and to give us some little natural idea of the goal that never lacks inspiration, the goal of life close to God.
Nor is it without it fulfillment
The dream has its excuse; it has its divinely wise reasons; and it has its divinely generous fulfillment. True, we are men and men we must remain; there is no possibility of a fulfillment of this dream by natural means. But through the goodness of God, Who has not yet found the limits of generosity, the dream comes true supernaturally, by a wave of the fairy wand of grace and glory; it comes true, dimly now, through the share in divine life which grace brings to us, but with all the brightness of divine — not angelic — life in its fullness through the infinite reaches of eternity.