Angels: The Metaphysics and Misconceptions
The following work was originally submitted to Holy Apostles College and Seminary on April 24th, 2021, as part of the coursework for PSH 490: Metaphysics.
Angels pervade the Scriptures from the first book of the Old Testament, through the final book of the New Testament. As far back as has been recorded, they have been the subject of philosophers and theologians who desire to understand their nature, will, goal, purpose, mode, appearance, and other qualities as a means of understanding the infinitely greater concept of God’s divine plan, and his love for creation. Sacred Scripture describes them in various ways, always as executors of God’s divine will, sometimes as guards, as when they cast Adam and Eve out of the garden and defend paradise (Gen. 3:24 RSV); or as protectors, such as those two who protected Lot from the mob (Gen. 19:10-11 RSV); or as messengers, as when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce her conception of Jesus Christ; or as ministers, as when they tend to Christ after his temptation by Satan (Matt 4:11-12 RSV). Thus, from the Scriptures, one can derive an idea of the various purposes of some of the angels, whereas others exist solely to worship and honor God.
Misconceptions about angels, however, can tend to lead to a poor understanding of the natural order of created things. Especially as regards salvation, and the role that angels play in the salvation of man. Thus, many depictions of angels have suggested a corporeal nature in them, or else some combination of form and matter which would limit the angelic nature to that of another rational animal. Such depictions portray angels as having bodies, wings, and hair. They are often depicted as infants or children; or as appearing on the shoulders of men, whispering what he ought to do in his ear. But properly understood, the role of angels extends beyond these base understandings of the angelic nature, since they are superior to men, and are executors of the Divine Will. It is not the case, however, that every common understanding of angels is incorrect, since to every man born, an angel is assigned as his guardian, and this is a common conception of angels. Thus, for the purpose of this paper, I shall treat of the metaphysical nature and existence of the angelic nature—their substance, whether they are composed of anything, and whether all angels belong to a particular species. I will also treat of the misconception of their appearance, their material composition, and the means by which they cooperate with man toward his end, the good.
It is first necessary to understand the basic composition of existing things in the sensible world: that all finite beings are composed of form and matter. According to the renowned philosopher, W. Norris Clarke, S.J., “the whole material cosmos…is governed by this fundamental law of form/matter composition as the necessary inner structure…of all beings we meet with our experience.” But since matter is understood to mean the material “stuff” with which corporeal beings are made, Norris is mindful to clarify that form/matter composition can be definitively said only of beings we come to know by our sensible experience: those we touch, taste, see, feel, and hear. On the part of form, we understand it to be that property that makes a being this kind of being and not some other one. In other words, the form of a being is precisely that which makes it to be what it is. Matter, then, informed by form, conveys the being materially. Thus, we can know “leaf” in our minds by its form, but it is expressed materially by its matter/form composition on a tree that we can see and touch.
Now St. Thomas Aquinas, known ubiquitously as “the Angelic Doctor,” deals with angels and all manner of their nature, existence, qualities, and roles, in his Summa Theologiae. Part of his work is dedicated to explaining the substance and composition of the angels. In terms of form and matter, it is clear to him that angels possess no such matter since angels are purely intellectual in substance. This is because it is proper to immateriality that something can be understood, since understanding is necessarily an “immaterial operation.” Additionally, angels are not said to be of any corporeal composition whatever, since “the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures,” whom we call angels.
Not being composed of any kind of matter, and possessing only an incorporeal sort of existence, Aquinas further shows that they must possess a unique form in each angel, such that the form of every angel exists in it and is not repeated in any other being. Thus, material creatures are infinite in their matter and are only limited insofar as their form is limited by matter. Angels, however, are finite in their substance, but not in their form, since their form is not taken on by matter. For irrational animals, such as dogs and insects, their species is determined by varying degrees according to their sensitive nature. Rational animals (i.e., man) is a species all his own according to his sensitive nature and intellectual nature. Angels, then, must be individuated even in species “according to the diverse degrees of intellectual nature.” Finally, it must be said that an angel is individuated first by the uniqueness of their particular form, and then according to the degrees of their intellectual power.
While angels do not possess a form/matter composition, they do, however, possess act and potentiality. This is described as relating nature and existence to potentiality and act, whereby the angle, although possessing no matter, maintains his potentiality in his very nature, and his act by his very existence.
Now, the manifold portrayals of the angels in writings and art have given rise to various errors regarding the nature of the angels, such that some believe that angels have bodies, or that they partake in the operations of the body, or that they possess attributes proper to corporeal beings. It cannot be, however, that angels have bodies for the reasons stated above—that they are purely intellectual and incorporeal beings. However, Sacred Scripture seems to describe instances of angels taking on a corporeal body, and even taking in material food; some suggest that angels have procreated with humans. But upon further examination, one will find that these are merely misunderstandings of apparently corporeal operations of the angels.
First, as St. Thomas explains, angels are indeed capable of assuming a body in order that they might convey a message to us according to our ability to understand them: “…by Divine Power sensible bodies are so fashioned by angels…to represent the intelligible properties of an angel.” Despite the appearance and sensibility of these assumed bodies, Aquinas teaches that “[t]he assumed bodies of the angels have no life…” and can therefore not exercise the natural functions of a living body. Yet even as one perceives an angel to eat food, it is done merely as “figurative of spiritual eating,” such that the angel takes on no real food into his body. Further, it is clearly demonstrated that no angel is capable of producing offspring, this being a wholly material function of material animals. Aquinas adds that any such perceived generation of offspring from angels to humans would necessarily be the work of the demons, who could only possess a human body to perform the act, such that “the person born is not the child of a demon, but of a man.”
Finally, as regards guardian angels and their role in the salvific work of God, Aquinas confirms that guardian angels indeed exist, and to such an extent that there exists at least one for every person born, as stated above. But as far as the question of an angel’s manifestation upon our shoulder, or even in our living room, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an angel could manifest himself in this way, since we have already shown above that an angel can take on a body for the purpose of executing the Divine Will. It seems unlikely, however, that an angel would take on such an unusual form, considering Aquinas’ words when he says that an angel “need an assumed body, not for themselves, but on our account,” that by the familiar exchange between us, we might receive their message more perfectly and with less distraction. Thus, it seems inconducive to fruitful discourse that an angel would appear on our shoulder in such an unnatural way.
While Aquinas deals with a multitude of questions as concerns the angels and every aspect of their existence, we have investigated here the fundamental metaphysical questions concerning them. Angels exist incorporeally, without a composition of matter and form, while possessing a nature, form, act and potency, as well as essence and existence as expressed by their very act of existence and their angelic nature. They cooperate with the Divine Will of God in order that they might worship and serve him. Additionally, some angels exist to protect and guard us from physical and intellectual harm, that we might obtain divine assistance in what would otherwise be an impossible attempt at an eternal life with God.
Clarke, W. Norris, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, IN, 2001
The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2009.
Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 113, a. 5 in Summa Theologiae: Prima Pars, 50-119, vol. 14, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, eds. John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcon (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981).
 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 113, a. 5, in Summa Theologiae: Prima Pars, 50-119, vol. 14, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, eds. John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcon (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 591.  W. Norris Clarke, S.J., The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, IN, 2001), 148.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 2, resp.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 2, resp.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 1, resp.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 3, resp.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 3, ad quartum.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 4, ad primum.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 4, ad quartum.  S.T., I, Q. 50, a. 3, ad tertium.  S.T., I, Q. 51, a. 2, ad secundum.  S.T., I, Q. 51, a. 3, sed contra.  S.T., I, Q. 51, a. 3, ad quintum.  S.T., I, Q. 51, a. 3, ad sextum.  S.T., I, Q. 51, a. 2, ad primum.