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Thomistic Metaphysics on Angels
Clarifying angelic misconceptions
If a child were to ask, “What do angels look like,” a typical response would be, “They look like us but they have wings and halos.” Humans seemingly can only comprehend spiritual things based off of what they perceive using their senses (empirical evidence). This is why humans typically turn to this humanization (more specifically anthropomorphization) of spirits, because to humans, we are the greatest thing on earth. Attaching wings and halos to these angelic spirits, such as we find in art, distinguishes angels as having a higher quality to the species of human; but just because humans rationalize these ideas, does not necessarily mean that this is the case. There is a metaphysical reality with concrete reasoning that can point to a less childlike approach to the reality of angels. Thomas Aquinas, together with the synthesis of other philosophers’ ideas, works through the concepts of angels’ immateriality, their number, how they relate to human bodies, and how they present to humans. This paper will take these substantial ideas, and hopefully, make them pithy and relational to someone who might not necessarily be a philosophy connoisseur.
Beginning with whether or not these angelic beings look like humans, we turn to our sense experience of what we can ascribe to humans: two legs, walking upright, and possessing a rational intelligence. Through logic, we can argue that humans consist of three metaphysical co-principles: existence-essence, form-matter, and substance-accident. Within existence-essence we acknowledge that we are here on this earth, at this point in time, as these specific individuals. We as individuals are comprised of form (this flesh-y object of the human person) as well as matter (how we are distinguished between all these flesh-y individuals). We contain a substance (self-identity) as well as accidents (distinguishing features that don’t change the substance).
Angels, on the other hand, exist but exist in a way that cannot be seen. It almost seems unfeasible to know anything about angels, but Thomas Aquinas takes an approach of looking at what angels cannot be in order to find out what they can be: “But one glance is enough to show that there cannot be one matter of spiritual and of corporeal things. For it is not possible that a spiritual and a corporeal form should be received into the same part of matter, otherwise one and the same thing would be corporeal and spiritual.” Here Thomas Aquinas points to form and matter as being the focus point of proving that angels do not possess a corporeal (bodily) form. Putting spiritual matter into spiritual form and putting corporeal matter into corporeal form is making matter quantifiable and matter cannot be quantified because it does not possess substance; therefore, corporal and spiritual things cannot have the same matter.
W. Norris Clarke, an American philosopher as well as a president of the Metaphysical Society of America, points out in his book The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics that “two essential forms operating at the same time within the same essence of one being would destroy the unity of its essence.” We can consider this as a secondary argument in that if angels possessed a human form, it would destroy the unity of the species “human.” For angels do not possess a form as humans do, nor are they considered a “species.” Thomas Aquinas writes, “It is difference which constitutes the species. Now everything is constituted in a species according as it is determined to some special grade of being because "the species of things are like numbers," which differ by addition and subtraction of unity. And as was written earlier, angels do not possess form so cannot be quantified into number or species.
A question that can arise from this is, “If angels do not possess form, what metaphysical properties do they possess?” Aquinas writes, “But the intelligible form is in the intellect according to the very nature of a form; for as such is it so known by the intellect. Hence such a way of receiving is not that of matter, but of an immaterial substance.” He furthers this by writing, “Although there is no composition of matter and form in an angel, yet there is act and potentiality.” What we’re reading here is Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of two ideas. The first idea is that God is the Creator of all things and that he is Pure Act – pure intelligence and pure will. The second idea is that God’s creative act (creating angels) was to make them exist, not within time and space as a finite being, but within the potentiality to act outside of themselves.
Returning back to this idea of species, one must ask, “If angels are formless and unquantifiable, how do we hear about the ‘multitude of heavenly hosts praising God’ in Luke’s Gospel?” (Lk 2:13) It would seem as if their number was quantified and that they had form and they belonged to the species of angel! The answer to this lies in three separate areas of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. The first is in Section 50, Article 3 “Whether the angels exist in any great number:” “Accordingly, the multiplication of the angels is not to be taken according to matter, nor according to bodies, but according to the divine wisdom devising the various orders of immaterial substances.” In this short sentence, Thomas Aquinas utilizes the previous discussions of form and matter and combines it with the divine intelligence to answer the question of how there are multitudes of angels. Also, within this sentence, he hints at how angels are distinguished.
The second answer is found in Section 50, but this time in Article 4 “Whether the angels differ in species.” He writes: “For it would be necessary for matter to be the principle of distinction of one from the other, not, indeed, according to the division of quantity, since they are incorporeal, but according to the diversity of their powers; and such diversity of matter causes diversity not merely of species, but of genus.” This revelation shows the true creative power of God. Each individual, created, intelligent, angel is different, not by accident such as hair color or skin color. Not even different as in male or female. They are distinguished individually by their diverse powers - like super heroes!
The third answer, referencing how humans see an angel’s form if they are immaterial, is found in Section 51, Article 2 “Whether angels assume bodies.” In this Article we can read that Thomas Aquinas focuses on two more subsections of this question about angels in bodily form. He writes in regards to why they would assume a human body and how the angels assume a human body. As to why an angel would assume a human body, “Angels need an assumed body, not for themselves, but on our account; that by conversing familiarly with men they may give evidence of that intellectual companionship which men expect to have with them in the life to come.” One can see this evidenced in the Gospel of Luke when the angel Gabriel visits Mary and announces her conception of the Messiah. (Lk 1:26-38) In order for this manifestation to occur within time and space and to take on a form, the angel utilizes the created environment to project a form. This is also found in Section 51, Article 2: “Although air as long as it is in a state of rarefaction has neither shape nor color, yet when condensed it can both be shaped and colored as appears in the clouds. Even so the angels assume bodies of air, condensing it by the Divine power in so far as is needful for forming the assumed body.”
Given this good bit of logical information, we can clarify certain misconceptions about angels. The first clarification is that they do not, in fact, sit on our shoulders as they watch over us. Remember their lack of form and how they assume bodies to relate to other humans. They also do not have wings for “the angels have not bodies naturally united to them. For whatever belongs to any nature as an accident is not found universally in that nature” and as was discussed, angels do not have accidental properties of being. This would also mean that angels do not have curly, golden hair for that is also an accidental property of being and only belongs to the bodily form. And with that, we have a concise understanding of angels thanks to the philosophers of old and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This metaphysical reality can permeate the ponderings of our own existence and lead all finite beings to the deeper truths that God has placed before us when we don’t rely solely on empirical evidence.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 50, a. 2, respondeo, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 96.
 ST, I, q. 50, a. 2, ad. 1.
 ST, I, q. 50, a. 2, ad. 2.
 ST, I, q. 50, a. 2, ad. 3.
 ST, I, q. 50, a. 2, ad. 3.
 ST, I, q. 50, a. 3, ad. 4.
 ST, I, q. 50, a. 4, respondeo.
 ST, I, q. 51, a. 2, ad. 1.
 ST, I, q. 51, a. 2, ad. 3.
 ST, I, q. 51, a. 1, respondeo.