How Not to Insult an Angel


I once got an e-mail from a friend who took me to task for something in my Traditional Logic text. I had said that angels are not rational. He thought this was a sort of insult to angels. Angels are indeed rational, he said, and to argue otherwise was to argue a non-Christian position.

Is this true? Is it wrong to say that angels aren’t rational? Is the classical belief that angels are not rational at odds with historic Christianity?

In my reponse to my friend, I explained that not only was it not an insult to angels to say they are not rational, but that it would be an insult to say they were.

Here’s why.

I had said that angels are not rational in my discussion of the Porphyrian Tree, the great ancient classification of all things. At the top, you have “Things” (Aristotle called them “Substances”), and below was how things are divided up—the different kinds of things.

Things are divided up most fundamentally between material things and non-material things. The example traditionally given for a non-material thing is an angel: An angel exists. It is a substance. But it has no material body of any kind.

Material things, on the other hand, get divided up into living material things (Plants), living things that have senses (Animals), and finally sentient, living things that are rational (Men).

It was at this point that my correspondent had a problem. If rationality only comes into play for living material things that have senses, he argued, then that means that angels cannot be rational, since angels are not even material.

But we know angels are rational, he argued. Therefore the Porphyrian Tree must be wrong.

I pointed out that angels are not, in fact, rational beings. To be “rational” is to have to go through the several-step process of deductive reasoning. Men are composite (or complex) beings and so we have to go to all the trouble of going from reasons for what we believe to what we believe.

In deductive logic, you learn that an argument involves three separate statements. We need all of them in order to show to ourselves that what we believe makes logical sense.

Let’s say I argue the following:

All angels are non-material
Gabriel is an angel
Therefore, Gabriel is non-material

Every statement here is a step in the reasoning process. I know that Gabriel is non-material because I know that Gabriel is an angel and I know that angels are non-material. I know this only because I went through the steps.

But angels don’t have to go through the steps.

For a man, if A imples B, and B implies C, then—and only then—do we know that A implies C. But an angel doesn’t have to go to all this trouble. An angel does not have to think about A implying B and B implying C. He knows immidiately that A implies C.

A rational being has to reason like this to go from one set of truths to another. Men have to do this because they are complex beings. We perceive things directly, but we do not understand truths directly. Our being is divided between perceiving and knowing. We are complex beings in the sense that we are perceivers and knowers, but we are not both at the same time.

To know something as true, we have to take what we apprehend through our senses and fashion those things into rational steps so we can understand that truth. This is a lot of trouble, of course, and if you think it’s easy, just take a look at the Internet sometime to see how few people are able to do it correctly.

But angels are very different.

Angels are not complex beings. They are simple beings. They are not both perceivers and knowers, as men are. They are only knowers. They do not have to rely on sense at all, since they are not material beings.

We men see truth “through a glass, darkly.” But angels see it directly.

Because they are simple, they do not have to go through steps in the process of apprehending truth: it is immediately accessible to them without the necessity of reason.

My friend was making the mistake of thinking that the only way you could apprehend the truth was through reason. And when I said angels were not rational, he heard me as saying that angels couldn’t apprehend truth—reason being the only way to apprehend truth.

But the nature of men is different from the nature of angels. His mistake was to think that angels needed reason to apprehend truth. They don’t. Their nature allows them to see truth directly, without the aid of reason.

We are intermediate beings—intermediate between angels and animals. Man, said Gregory the Great, “senses in common with the brutes, and understands with the angels.” Like brutes, but unlike angels, we have senses. Like angels, but unlike brutes, we understand. But, unlike both angels and brutes, we reason.

We know truths unnaturally, in a sense that our nature prevents us from knowing them directly. Angels know truths naturally, since it is in their nature to apprehend truth immediately.

Humans, says St. Thomas Aquinas, “obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another.” But angels don’t have to go through this process to a knowledge of truth, “because in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them.”

My e-mail correspondent thought that saying that angels were not rational was a kind of slight. But if you look at why classical Christian thought said they were not rational, you would realize that this was not a slight at all. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Angels are not rational beings, but intellectual beings. To say that their intellection is rational, like humans, is not to defend the integrity of angels, but to unwittingly impugn it.

To St. Thomas, rationality is a defect of the intellect, not any kind of perfection. To say that an angel is rational would be an insult to an angel, not a compliment.



According to the Porphyrian Tree, anything that exists is a substance. So SUBSTANCE (1) is shown at the top of the tree. But what kind of substances are there? Most generally, there are material substances (2) and non-material substances (3). Material substances are BODIES (4). Non-material substance consists of things like angels, and that’s all you can logically say about them.

But there are two kinds of material substances. There are living material substances (5) and non-living material substances (6). Living material substances are ORGANISMS (7). Non-living material substances are things like rocks and different kinds of inert minerals, and that’s all you can logically say about them. 

Even more specifically, there are two kinds of living material substances. There are sentient living material substances (8) (living substances that have one or more of the five senses) and non-sentient living material substances (9). Sentient, living, material substances are ANIMALS (10). Non-sentient living material substances consist of plants, and that’s all you can logically say about them. 

Most specifically, there are different kinds of sentient, living, material substances. There are rational, sentient, living material substances (11) and non-rational, sentient, living, material substances (12). Rational, sentient, living, material substances are MEN (13). Nonrational, sentient, material substances
consist of the beasts, and that’s all you can logically say about them.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2012 edition.

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