The Great Conversation: Angels
By Gabriel Blanchard
Theologians, poets, and philosophers have all explored the concept of angels.
With many of us cooped up (or at least at loose ends) thanks to coronavirus precautions, we may have a lot more time to read, talk, and think. If we so choose, this can be a bridge into what Mortimer Adler called “the Great Conversation,” the exchange of thought that has been going on for centuries. There are several ways of approaching this exchange: one is to begin with an author and explore how they approached various ideas; another is to begins with an idea and see how different minds have approached it. Taking Adler’s own list (embodied in his Syntopicon) as a jumping off point, we might begin with the idea of angels.
We tend to think of angels as a specifically religious, and even specifically Judeo-Christian, idea, but this isn’t completely accurate. The “daimon” that Socrates described in his Apology, a sort of guardian spirit that warned him against wrongdoing, could be understood as a pagan analogy to angels. The fantasticated encyclopedias of angels found in literature like The Book of Enoch suggest a quite different idea, almost resembling the elves of later European folklore, who carried off mortals to marry and possessed strange, secret knowledge. And even within the specifically Christian tradition, notions of what angels are—beyond “spirits who serve God”—can vary from tradition to tradition, sometimes ramifying into intricate cosmologies like those found in the sermons of St. Gregory the Great or in the verse of Dante.
Turning to philosophy, the idea of angels as minds without bodies has been a fertile ground for thought experiments. Our Medieval ancestors are mocked for debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But the point of this exercise (which really did happen!) was to help students understand the difference between location and extension. If you are thinking about something, say the head of a pin, your mind is “on” it in the sense that it is not somewhere else; but your mind does not take up any space there, and in principle you could have as many minds on the head of that pin as you wanted. The Medievals preferred the livelier analogy of dancing to the analogy of just sitting there, but the point was the same—and the exercise is still useful for the same reason.
Angels also, indirectly, raised a fascinating question about what matter is. Most authors have thought of them as minds without bodies; but if two minds “met” each other directly, with no intermediary, how could they tell the difference between their own thoughts and the other’s? A handful of authors proposed some kind of heavenly version of matter that would serve angels as bodies, like the “aether” that ancients supposed the stars and planets were made of—a medium that angels could manipulate, as we manipulate the world around us. Milton’s depiction of the war in heaven draws on this notion of celestial matter, complete with weapons and armor and even siege engines.
Some suggested reading from our author bank, touching on the idea of angels:
The Apology, Plato
On the Celestial Hierarchy, pseudo-Dionysius
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
If you liked this post, try one of our other posts, like this profile of W. E. B. Du Bois, this student essay on the black hole information paradox, or this discussion of the history of the idea of fate.