How Do Angels Change? An Introduction to the “Spiritual Matter” Debate

by Brendan W. Case, Th.D.

It’s fair to say that thirteenth-century theology was obsessed with “angelology” (angel-talk), a fact which provoked the nineteenth century quip about scholastic fascination with the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. (In fact, while none of the Schoolmen posed it in exactly these terms, this is an entirely reasonable and interesting question, arising from a scholastic debate about the difference between location “through dimensive quantity” and “through the application of power.”i) One of the great debates in this period concerned the metaphysical structure of angels: are they, as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas maintained, pure “form” without any “matter” (in the Aristotelian sense) or are they rather (as Bonaventure and his heirs insisted) composites of form and matter just as much as cats and humans?

The essay that follows traces this thirteenth-century debate between “spiritual immate­rialism” and “universal hylomorphism.”ii First, and polemically, I argue that spiritual immaterialism collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, and must be scrapped. The Angelic Doctor is right about many things, but the nature of the angels is not among them. Second, I propose that Bonaventure (the Seraphic Doctor, mind you!) and his heirs offer a promising alternative account of the angels. And third, and most speculatively, I suggest that universal hylomorphism offers particular reasons to think that fallen angels might be capable of repentance. This is not a conclusion the advocates of universal hylomorphism drew for themselves; but they failed to do so, I’ll suggest, in spite rather than because of the implications of their own thinking in this area.

Before we dive into this debate, however, let me address two preliminary matters. First: why think about angels? (I.e., is this post a complete waste of your time?) There are many possible responses to this question, but I’ll content myself with my own: they’re absolutely fascinating, like us in many respects, but quite obviously utterly unlike us in many others, with capacities that apparently verge on the godlike. “But we can’t observe them,” you object. Not directly, it’s true – but then, the same goes for the dinosaurs. Indirect methods have to suit it in many areas; in our case, these are the witness of the Scriptures, reinforced by careful inference, and with contemporary experiences of the angelic or demonic pep­pered in very lightly. And as Aquinas insisted, “To be able to look into the very highest things, with however paltry and weak a consideration, is most delightful.”iii Our conclu­sions in this area are necessarily speculative; but the inquiry itself is its own reward.

Second, it might be helpful to say a bit about the broad conceptual framework which unites the opposing parties in our debate, namely the theory of “hylomorphism, (from Greek, hylē, “matter,” and morphē, “form), in the sense given those terms by Aristotle, whose works had returned en masse to the West at the end of the twelfth century. (I take no position here on any theologian’s obligation to presuppose the broad Platonist-Aristotelian metaphysical tradition; Protestant angelologies in particular, from Calvin to Barth to Robert Jenson, have sought to avoid the dangers of a fall from the speculative heights which the medievals braved by sticking to the solid if narrow ground of the biblical data.) As Aquinas reads Aristotle’s own account of it, the story of hylomorphism begins with those pre-Socratic thinkers, such as Thales and Empedocles, who denied that the medium-sized dry goods of ordinary experience were genuine individuals, identifying them instead as passing heaps of some more basic, elemental substance.iv The appeal to the complementary union of form and matter, by contrast, is an attempt to account for the existence of genuine individuals under conditions of change, to show how, for instance, a tree might be thought of as a true individual (a “substance”) over and above the sum of its ever-changing parts (e.g., in contemporary terms, the molecules, atoms, and elementary particles that compose it).

Platonist and Aristotelian theories of matter, that is, aimed to distinguish accidental change within a particular substance from the generation and corruption of substances as such. The key innovation in these theories, of course, is the “form,” an intelligible structure or “whatness” that explains why, e.g., two oaks or two atoms of gold belong to the same natural kind.v In cases of accidental change (the growth of an oak from seedling to sapling to mighty shade tree), we can presuppose the substance as the subject; but what about when one substance is generated from another? In this case, we still need a subject of change, since nothing comes from nothing; but the subject in this case can’t itself be a “form,” either of a whole individual (a substance) or of one of its properties (an accident), since it’s what every form inheres in when it comes to be: this universal substrate of substantial generation and corruption is Aristotelian “prime matter.”vi

Now substantial generation and corruption were possible, according Aristotle, only below the Moon, where decay rules and all is flux. By contrast, the stars and planets seemed changeless in their eternal courses – no nova (“novelty”) had yet been observed in the heavens – varying only in their location along their orbits, and so they were only “mate­rial,” in an extended sense.vii Even the stars, however, were fickle in comparison with those beings Aristotle called “Intelligences,” the unmoved movers whose blissful self-contempla­tion provoked the planets into their orbits (love, for Aristotle, quite literally makes the world go ‘round), and whose numbers included the first and greatest mover, God him­self.viii Such beings were entirely changeless, and so had no need of matter in any sense.ix As Fernand Brunner remarks, for Aristotle, “there, where beings do not change, matter disappears: beyond change according to substance and change according to place, pure form reigns.”x

But what if the lower Intelligences prove not to be the subordinate unmoved movers of Aristotle’s cosmology, but rather divine ministers, periodically active even in human affairs, and capable of at least one change of mind and will, in a decision for or against God? The thirteenth-century debate over universal hylomorphism was prompted in large part by the ambition to reconfigure Aristotelian Intelligences as Christian angels, whom all parties to our debate agreed were not only incorporeal intellects (everyone considered below rejected the patristic speculation that angels had “aethereal bodies,” still spatially extended, but subtler than ours), but also possessed, as Peter Lombard put it, “free choice (liberum arbitrium), that is, a free faculty of inclining the will either to good or to evil.”xi Spiritual immaterialism sought to make sense of the angels by accepting Aristotle’s account of their immateriality, but seeking to root their capacity for change in another and still more basic kind of composition. Universal hylomorphism, by contrast, accepted the Aristotelian premise that changeable beings were necessarily material beings, and so attributed to angels a kind of “spiritual matter” – not the extended body that we tend to associate with the word, but rather an incorporeal, metaphysical principle of receptivity and passivity.

How Are Angels Put Together?

For all its interesting internal diversity and ramifications, spiritual immaterialism is united by two assertions: 1) angels needn’t possess matter, because they’re in any case composed of “essence (essentia)” and “being (esse)”; and 2) they can’t possess any matter, because they can think. As Aquinas put it, universal hylomorphism is both “a frivolous argument (rationem frivolam),” because it’s redundant, and an “impossible position (positio impossibilis),” because it would render angelic intellection impossible.xii (Another popular argument against universal hylomorphism was ad hominem, namely that it derived from the second-rate philosopher Avicebron, mistakenly believed to be a Muslim (he was in fact the Arabic-speaking Spanish Jew, Ibn Gabirol.xiii I ignore it here, because Bonaventure and his heirs never cite Avicebron, and in fact betray little acquaintance with his writings.) In what follows, we’ll first consider the arguments for and against universal hylomorphism’s redundancy, and then turn to the arguments for and against its impossibility.

Spiritual Immaterialism Goes All-In on Boethian Composition

A key task of angelology is distinguishing the angels from the LORD, their creator. One dividing line in marking this distinction is “simplicity,” the property of lacking any constitutive parts. It was a truism of medieval theology that God alone is absolutely “simple.” As Aquinas argued brilliantly in the Summa Theologiae, there is an intimate connection between God’s being 1) the “first cause” of all creatures; 2) being absolute “actuality” with no unrealized “potencies,” since every potency requires some prior cause to actualize it); and 3) being “simple,” since any ensemble of parts is only potentially the whole they compose.xiv Axiomatic in this debate, then, is the principle that creatures are composite; only God is truly simple.

Spiritual immaterialism’s primary constructive thesis is that angels needn’t possess matter in order to be composite, and so finite or mutable, because they possess another, more primitive sort of composition, described by Boethius (ca. 477-524 AD) as that from “what x is (quod est)” and “that by which x is (quo est).”xv I’ll call this “Boethian composition,” and the distinction which marks it as the “Boethian distinction.” As we’ll see, there are as many accounts of what this distinction amounts to as there were scholastic thinkers commenting on it, but all broadly agreed that it picks out the contingency of finite beings, the difference in them between what they are, and the fact that they are.

Alexander of Hales, O.F.M. (1185-1245) was one of the earliest scholastics to address the possibility of spiritual matter, in his lectures on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (the first complete such lectures that survive). As the first in its genre, it’s perhaps no surprise that Alexander’s commentary is generally briefer than his successors’, amounting to a series of “glosses” on the Lombard’s formulations. As such, he includes only a brief discussion of the problem of universal hylomorphism, although it nicely sets out the agenda which future opponents of the position would pursue. Alexander opens his discussion of angelic nature in Book II with the observation, “But four things are attributed [by Lombard] to the Angel: a simple essence, personal distinction, reason, and free choice. But the reason for this number is that nothing is required for the perfection of a thing except that it is and that it is powerful. But two principles refer to being: ‘that it is,’ from which part arises personal distinction; and ‘by which it is,’ from which part is the essence.”xvi This distinc­tion between “what it is” and “by which it is” goes back, as he notes, to Boethius, whom he quotes, alongside John Damascene (675-749 AD), as an authority weighing against the view that angels are metaphysically simple.xvii Alexander resolves the apparent tension between Lombard’s and Damascene’s positions on angelic simplicity by distinguishing among possible modes of composition:

It ought to be conceded that, as John Damascene says, if we compare the angel to God, it is not simple; but if we compare it to other creatures, it is simple. Likewise, note that there is one composition from matter and form, and another from quantitative parts; and neither is in the angel. There is also another from genus and difference, and a fourth from substance and its properties, and a fifth from that ‘that it is’ and ‘by which it is’; and in those three modes there is composition in angels.xviii

Angels lack composition from matter and form, just as they lack composition from quantitative “parts outside of parts.” But this doesn’t make angels simple or incomposite in the manner of the LORD – angels, after are substances bearing accidents and composites of the Boethian “quod est” and “quo est.”

Albert the Great developed and expanded Alexander’s basic position, that the Boethian distinction already supplies the need which had prompted universal hylomorphists to posit spiritual matter. Universal hylomorphism crops up in the first distinction of Albert’s commentary on book II of the Sentences, which treats the procession of creatures from God, where he asks, “Is what Plato supposed true, that there is one matter for all things?” (Albert presumably has in mind the all-encompassing “receptacle” of the Timaeus, which receives the images of the eternal forms.) Albert answers the question in the negative, but that denial of matter from spiritual beings doesn’t, in his view, mean the absence of composition: “Now in my judgment there is no matter of spiritual beings which are individuals: but in them there is ‘that which it is’ and ‘that by which it is’: neither of which is ever separated from the other, so that that it is bespeaks the individual which truly is in nature, by which it is bespeaks its principle of understanding and of subsisting in such being.”xix

In one of his last works, the unfinished Summa Theologiae, Albert interprets Boethian composition as distinguishing between the fact of angels’ being at all (being there in the world to be picked out as an individual) and the fact of their being this rather than that kind of thing. He argues that “this composition, ‘by which it is’ and ‘what it is’ is more general than that which is from matter and form,” because even a given form, considered apart from its union with matter, possesses Boethian composition, by virtue of the fact that non-existence was and remains a real possibility for it.xx

Like Alexander, Albert identifies the “that which it is” with the concrete existent itself, and the “that by which it is” with its essence or being: “The ‘that which it is’ is the same as the particular: and the ‘that by which it is’ or being, is the same as the universal nature.”xxi Or as he puts the matter:

It is certainly the case that being created entails being composite: for in no created thing is it true, that the creature, according to that which it is, is its own essence, by which it is: for only in the first principle is this true.” Essence brings being to the particular, because “being is the act of the essence in that which is.

Albert acknowledges that his account of the Boethian distinction assimilates it to a certain extent to that between form and matter:

That which is has a certain likeness to matter, because it receives another which is apart from it and different from it, just as a genus is said to be ‘material,’ even though it is a form. Nevertheless, ‘that which is’ is not matter generally, nor ‘that by which it is’ a form generally: because the reception by which ‘that which is’ receives, is not the reception of matter, but rather is the reception of the first subject and of the first formable in whatever genus.” And so, he concludes, “this composition out of ‘that by which it is’ and ‘that which it is’ is more general than that which is from matter and form, because the former is in every created thing, but the latter isn’t.xxii

Like Alexander and Albert, Aquinas made the Boethian distinction, albeit radically rein­terpreted, central to his alternative to universal hylomorphism. In On the existent and essence (De ente et essentia), he insists that angels needn’t possess hylomorphic compo­sition, since they are composed of “quod est” and “quo est,” or of “form and being (forma et esse)” or “essence and being (essentia et esse)” – this is what distinguishes them from the LORD. Being so composed, they aren’t pure actuality, since their concrete existence as beings is composed from an essence and an “act of being (actus essendi)” which enters into composition with it in something like the way that form does with matter, not as accidental to it (since neither can exist without the other), but nonetheless as really distinct from it. Aquinas warrants this distinction with the simple observation that knowing what a Phoenix or a human is (its essence) doesn’t help you to know “whether it exists in the actual world (an esse habeat in rerum natura).” Any particular essence thus stands to its concrete act of being as potency stands to actuality: in receiving being, the form or essence is made actual, existing here and now.xxiii

Aquinas’s departure from Albert is striking: where the latter had identified Boethian composition as that between “being” or “universal nature” and the concrete particular, Aquinas treats “being” and “form/essence” as really distinct, and so as standing in need of composition in finite beings. If that distinction stands, it would allow him to dispense with Albert’s quasi-material interpretation of the “quod est” in creatures, and still treat spirits as genuine composites.

Aquinas clearly feels his opponents’ concern that spiritual immaterialism threatens the Creator/creature distinction, by implicitly making the angels immutable. His answer to this worry is his interpretation of Boethian composition in terms of a “real composition” of being and essence – angels, unlike the LORD, are still composites, for their essence still stands in need of actualization by the LORD’s gift of being. The Dominican theologian Serge-Thomas Bonino thinks he can dispose of the entire debate in a few lines:

The discovery of the composition of essence and existence in an angel allows St. Thomas to dispense with the composition of matter and form without any problem. Thanks to this discovery, he can hold at the same time the pure spirituality of an angel, which indicates his transcendence over man, and the transcendence of God over the angels, since in God alone, Ipsum Esse subsistens, existence and essence are really identified.xxiv

But does it really suffice to explain how angels can change? A subsisting form seems on its face to be an unpromising candidate for ex­plaining mutability; Aquinas was well-familiar with Boe­thius’s axiom “Nothing which is mere form can be the subject of accidents.”xxv Aquinas was clearly aware that this was a serious objection to his angelology; his lengthiest discussions of this question come in two disputations – On Spiri­tual Creatures and On the Soul – written with an eye to refuting both Averroists and their Augus­tinian opponents.

He insists that the absence of matter in the in­tellect, “does not, however, exclude that there is act and potency in the soul; for potency and act are not only in moveable things, but also in im­moveable things, and are more common, as the Philosopher says in Metaph. VIII, since matter is not in immoveable things.” The form/matter dis­tinction is proper only to bodily being, whereas all creatures are composites of act and potency. In what does that potency consist in spir­itual creatures, though? As we’d expect, Aquinas here pivots to the Boethian distinction: “And so, in self-subsisting forms both potency and act are found, inasmuch as being itself is the act of the subsisting form, which is not its being.” The distinction, present in all creatures, of esse from essentia, or by which it is from that it is, suffices to distinguish creatures from God.xxvi

​But could a pure form be the subject of any accidental properties (knowing this rather than that, being in a state of beatitude rather than a state of sin and desolation)? Aquinas’ most acute formulation of this problem comes in the Disputed Question on the Soul, where he considers whether the Boethian distinction explains a spiritual being’s mutability: “If the soul is a form alone, and is in potency to something, it seems maximally that being itself is its act; for it is not its being. But of one simple power there will be the simplest act. There­fore it could not be the subject of anything besides being. But it is manifest that it is the subject of other things as well.”xxvii The angelic potency to which Aquinas constantly points the reader is that of its essence to existence – but once it exists, what accounts for its ability to know this rather than that, or to be joyful or grieved?

In response to this objection, Aquinas tries to illustrate how a simple form might be thought of as itself a potency to successive states of being:

Nothing prevents one form’s being compared to another as potency to act, such as a diaphanous surface to light, and a humor to heat. So, if diapha­neity were a separate form, subsisting on its own, it would be, not merely receptive of being itself, but also of light. And similarly, nothing prevents subsisting forms, which are Angels and souls, to be receptive, not only of being itself, but also of other perfections.xxviii

What Aquinas is searching for here is an instance of one form’s acting as a receiver for another, just by virtue of its being a form. The example he suggests is that of a translucent medium, which possesses its own definite qualities by virtue of a certain formal structure, but which also receives light.

A similar groping after an appropriate analogy is evident in Albert the Great’s critique of universal hylomorphism as well. In his On the Unity of the Intellect, he suggests that the crucial mistake made by universal hylomorphism is to think that all conceptual distinctions need to be embodied in real distinctions:

For almost the whole crowd of those speaking about the soul have forborne to speak about it according to the imagination, by which they might imagine the soul as a certain composite substance, which is, so to speak, a certain particular composed in itself from form and matter, and which is the subject of accidents, such as virtues and knowledges, and even the natural potencies which are the powers of the soul. Indeed, the Philosophers speak about it [the soul] in none of those ways, because although the soul has powers, nonetheless those powers are, as it were, forms. For just as every form is related by addition to some other form which it presupposes, as life presupposes being, and white presupposes the diffusion of light, so the soul has the power of that form which it presupposes, but is not therefore a particular composite being in itself. So also, every surface has length, but that does not mean that it is composed of one line and a certain other.xxix

Simply because the soul has distinct powers of operation does not mean that it needs to possess distinct parts into which it could be disassembled, any more than the fact that a geometrical figure possesses two dimensions means that it is literally built up out of one-dimensional lines. The question left hanging here, however, is whether an analogy drawn from the ideal objects of geometry can tell us anything about real beings, even ones so strange as angels.

The weakness of these lines of reasoning did not go unnoticed by advocates of universal hylomorphism, however. Bonaventure, for instance, shows the question-begging character of Aquinas’s analogy:

If perhaps you should give, as an example, that a medium both gives and receives light through the same nature, as is clear in the air, well, this is really no example, because a medium does not have an active or cooper­ative nature. And further, this example cannot come to be in a true action and passion: for an Angel acts and suffers, for when it acts when it ought not, it suffers what it ought to.xxx

Bonaventure’s point is that air isn’t an agent in the requisite sense; the air’s apparent “agency” in receiving and transmitting light is rather a function of its passive, even “material” character. And notice that Aquinas simply begs the question by suggesting that his analogy would apply even if “diaph­aneity” were a “separate and self-subsisting form,” like Douglas Adams’s sentient shade of blue – the problem of the agency of “separate forms” is precisely what’s in question here! This is stipulation, not argument.

The Insufficiency of the Boethian Distinction

Bonaventure didn’t merely criticize the weakness of spiritual immaterialism’s anal­ogies, however; he rooted that weakness in a more fundamental, conceptual poverty: the Boethian distinction on which Aquinas et al. rest their case simply isn’t fitted for ex­plain­ing how angels can think or will. As he puts it in an analogous discussion of the human soul: “But since it is obvious that the rational soul can suffer and act and be changed from one property into another and to subsist in itself, it does not seem that it suffices to say that in it is only composition from by which it is and that it is, unless it is added in it the composition of matter and of form.”xxxi

This insistence on the insufficiency of the Boethian distinction to account for angelic mutability is given a clear and thorough defense in the Summa Theologica attributed to Alexander of Hales. (Note that the Summa defends universal hylomorphism, where Alexander’s earlier Glossa had rejected it. This complicates attempts to reconstruct Alexander’s precise position – it’s possible that it developed, but also possible that the Summa’s defense of universal hylomorphism reflects an interpolation by Alexander’s students or colleagues into an indisputably composite text. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just consider the two works as separate interventions in the debate, with the former more clearly representing Alexander’s own views, and the latter reflecting a developing Francis­can critique of spiritual immaterialism, which was carried forward by Bonaventure and Peter John Olivi.)

The Summa backs into a discussion of universal hylomorphism by way of treating the more fundamental problem of the sense(s) in which a creature might be called “simple.” Like the Glossa, it rules out attributing absolute simplicity to any but God, on the grounds that for a being to be caused by or dependent on another necessarily introduces composi­tion into it, and (also like the Glossa) quotes the Boethian distinction as the minimal form of composition necessary for securing creaturehood. He grants, however, that angels are said to be simple among creatures, given that they lack quantified parts outside of parts.xxxii

The Summa’s discussions of the Boethian distinction are strikingly “Dominican” in at least two ways: it shares with Albert and Aquinas the view that this distinction is “more univer­sal” than the form/matter distinction, and also articulates the former distinction in ways that interestingly anticipate Aquinas’s “esse/essentia” distinction. To the second of these points, consider how the Summa defends the universal application of the Boethian distinction: “Since nothing created is its essence, nor has being from itself, but depends otherwhence; therefore, in every creature, ‘by which it is’ and ‘that it is’ differ; therefore this composition is common to every creature.”xxxiii For the Summa, the distinction between “what it is” and “by which it is” maps onto the distinction between the creature’s essence and the “being (esse)” which actualizes it. It later goes so far as to insist, “Form is said to have a receptive power that it might receive being from God.”xxxiv Rather than the form being the “by which” which is received by a mysterious “fundamentum,” as for Albert, here the substantial form is, as for Aquinas, a kind of quasi-matter, the “what it is” which receives “being.”

The Summa also, like the Dominicans, treats the Boethian distinction as more compre­hen­sive than the form/matter one, even while maintaining that all finite substances are hylomorphic composites. How does it manage that? Consider this nested hierarchy of compositions which it outlines:

However, in other things, which are truly called compositions, there is an order of prior and posterior. Whence [1] before what is composed from numerable parts, there is [2] what is composed from integral parts; [3] however, before what is composed from integral parts, there is what is composed from the parts of one form, that is, of homogenous parts; [4] however, before that composite is what is composed from matter and form; [5] however, before that is what is composed from the parts which enter into a definition; [6] however, before that is what is composed from ‘by which it is’ and ‘that it is’; but those two last kinds of composition are found in forms insofar as they are received in themselves, where the composition of matter and form is not found.xxxv

Parts 1-3 are all extended bodies, accessible to the senses. But just as an account of body presupposes an account of form and matter, so too, the Summa reasons, does an account of form presuppose still prior modes of composition, one logical (that of the specific dif­ference with a given genus, whose composite is a particular species) and one metaphysical (the difference between a given form’s whatness and its thatness, its presence in the actual world). And so, “although matter and form and that it is (quod est) are extended from these to all things, nonetheless the latter composition is more universal, since it extends itself in a certain way even to those things which are forms and matters.”xxxvi That is, the very brownness of a person’s hair, considered on its own, is contingent, having come to be and being destined one day to make way for whiteness. In that sense, it too possesses Boethian composition. But though the hair which possesses that quality might intelligibly be said to change, what would it mean to say that “brownness” itself changed to “whiteness”?

​The Summa applies this line of reasoning directly to the angels:

Although according certain philosophers the Intelligence, which is called an angel, is a form without matter, still it seems that we ought to say that it is composed from form and matter…Granted that an angel has spiritual matter and form, it is not from its form that it has both a receptive and active power, as an angel. For form is said to have a receptive power that it should receive being from God; but the angel besides power, which befits the creature just as such, has also its own power to receive intelligible forms, which that form does not have intrinsically.xxxvii

As Boethius himself insisted, “Form is not a subject.” Forms do not change, though their bearers do, precisely because they are not mere form.

​Peter John Olivi, O.F.M., whose abortive studies at the University of Paris overlapped with the last years of Bonaventure’s and Aquinas’s lives, extended and deepened his predeces­sors’ critique of the insufficiency of spiritual immaterialism, particularly in his Question on the Second Book of the Sentences (Quaestiones in Librum Secundum Sententiarum). The main attraction in this connection is his lengthy (seventy closely printed pages in the Quaracchi edition) discussion of the question, “Is there a composition of matter and form in angels and in all intellectual substances? (An in angelis et in omnibus substantiis intellectualibus sit compositio materiae et formae?)”xxxviii

Olivi also insists that the Boethian distinction doesn’t suffice for grounding the kind of accidental change (from anticipation to glory, from happiness to misery) which is proper to angelic life. He illustrates this second point in a particularly clever way in a later question on the problem of angelic individuation. Olivi suggests that the Thomist account of the angels as each constituting a distinct species (cf. Summa Theologiae 1.50.2) entails that every angel is a universal (cf. Aquinas’s analogy between angels and the putative subsisting form of “translucency,” discussed above), such that “every angel comprehends its whole species according to its entire scope, so that nothing of that species can be or be understood as being outside of it, anymore than it could be or be understood as being outside of the species itself.” Now, a universal as such, Olivi suggests, since it has no spatio-temporal properties (the questions “When did triangularity come to be?” or “Where can triangularity be found?” are ill-formed) is not a possible subject of accidents indexed to time and place. And from this it follows that in angels “there is no true habit or act which is different from their substance, nor can there be some change or variation in them, and so in consequence that the state of goodness or of crimes which they had from the beginning in every way immutably and uniformly and necessarily perseveres in them.”xxxix

On Aquinas’s view, that is, an angel actualizes all of its potencies simply by coming to be: it’s not just that demons can’t be redeemed; angels can’t even fall. A being lacking a distinct principle of passivity would be by nature “in every way incapable of being participated and so unparticipated (omnino imparticipabilem et imparticipatam),” bearing no real relations to anything else, “and so, in consequence, equal to God (et sic per consequens Deo aequalem).”xl Such beings would be “in every way unchanging and incapable of receiving (omnino invariabiles et insusceptibiles),” even gifts of grace. A pure angelic form in particular would possess “an intellect in every way inerrant and invariable and, with regard to their liberty, incapable of sinning and immutable, impassible and incapable of being punished or beatified, and entirely withdrawn from all passion or reception and from all determined inclination and perspective, and even from every accident.”xli

We’ve now considered the Franciscans’ case that some kind of composition besides the Boethian sort is necessary for angels to change. We now need to explore in a bit more detail what they mean in calling this principle “spiritual matter.”

Bonaventure, for instance, actually grants that, as a principle of change, matter is rightly said to play more of a role in bodily creatures than in angels: “Matter is properly in corruptible bodies, less properly in incorruptible bodies, and least in spirits – and so also it is that spirits are sometimes called immaterial, because they have the minimum degree of this potentiality.”

Someone who focuss on this central case of sub-lunar beings (a “lower physicist,” as Bonaventure puts it), will consider matter only as “a principle of generation and cor­rup­tion; and it is such only in these lower things.” But we might also, like the “higher physi­cist,” consider matter as the principle of local motion in all bodies, corruptible and incorruptible alike, or indeed, like a “metaphysician,” as the principle of all change-in-continuity, and so attribute it to all creatures.” Now, the metaphysician’s perspective is the broadest possible, addressing the conditions under which anything at all, spirits as well as bodies, might be. And these conditions are in at least some sense univocal: “intrinsic being in spiritual and corporeal things bespeaks commonality, not equivocation, and common­ality of genus and of thing, not only of analogy.” As such, “it is necessary to recur to the unity of principle; thus, according to the metaphysician, we ought to posit a unity of matter in all intrinsic beings.”xlii

Is a “Material Intellect” Possible?

As I noted above, spiritual immaterialism advanced the constructive thesis that the Boethian distinction sufficed for explaining angelic mutability, but also the negative thesis that nothing possessing matter (even incorporeal, “spiritual” matter) could intelligibly be said to think. The clearest place to look for this argument is Aquinas’s early De Ente et Essentia (ca. 1252-56, roughly contemporary with his Sentences commentary), which includes a brief discussion of whether angels are form/matter composites. “Forms are not actually intelligible,” he notes, “except according as they are separated from matter and from its conditions.” (The act of understanding, on Aristotle’s view (set out in a complex discussion in On the Soul III), is just the act of grasping the features of some object which transcend its particularity, paradigmatically its spatio-temporal features. Insofar as these are imparted by matter, intellectual understanding involves a kind of acquaintance with the form itself, the principal of universality (what makes this oak an instance of the kind, “oak”), abstracted from its material specifications. As such, Aquinas reasons, anything possessing an intellect has to be totally immaterial. And it can’t be, he insists, that “corporeal matter” alone is unintelligible, since matter depends for its being on corporeal forms (e.g., oak-ness), which are, on the contrary, intelligible in themselves when separated from matter.xliii

Aquinas clearly regards the impossibility of a composite’s engaging in intellection as the knockout argument against universal hylomorphism. He sets out in his reasons for so thinking at greater length in two later disputations – De Spiritualibus Creaturis and De Anima – written with an eye to refuting both Averroists and their Augustinian opponents. The body of the article on universal hylomorphism in the De creaturis spiritualibus opens with a heuristic definition of “prime matter (materia prima)” in the spirit of both Augustine and Aristotle:

In the investigation of this truth, lest we proceed ambiguously, we ought to consider is signified by the name ‘matter.’ For it is manifest that, since being is divided between potency and act, and since whatever genus is divided between potency and act, that is commonly named prime matter which is in the genus of substance as a certain potency apart from all species and form, and also apart from privation, which nonetheless receives both forms and privations, as is clear from Augustine, Conf. 12 and A Literal Commentary on Genesis I, and from the Philosopher, Metaph. 7.

Prime matter names a certain kind of potency within the genus of substance, namely a creature’s capacity to take on new modes of being and, by entailment, to take on the possible-presence-in-absence of other modes of being in the process.

This definition might seem capacious enough that any creature, insofar as it’s mutable, ought to fall under it, but Aquinas has reservations: “But if matter is so understood (which is its proper and common sense), it is impossible that matter should be in spiritual substances.” Spiritual creatures can’t be form/matter composites, that is, because they are intellectual beings, which is only possible to pure forms. Indeed, Aquinas takes it that intellection and prime matter have precisely the opposite effect on intelligible forms:

Prime matter receives a form by contracting it to individual being; however, an intelligible form is in the intellect without any contraction of this sort. For the intellect understands everything that is intelligible, insofar as its form is in it. But the intellect understands the intelligible especially according to its common and universal nature; and thus the intelligible is in the intellect according to the nature of commonality. And so, an intellectual substance cannot receive a form by virtue of prime matter, but rather by a certain opposite nature.

Prime matter’s sole function, on Aquinas’s view, is to restrict a form in receiving it, so that oak-nature comes to be realized here and now rather than then and there. By contrast, the intellect does the opposite – it unlimbers or expands a form which had been determined by matter, in the process unveiling (by way of attending to) its universal features. If the intellect itself included prime matter, however, its reception of those abstracted forms would necessarily result in their being restricted once again to individual rather than universal existence. (Thomist prime matter simply can’t keep its hands off of universal forms.)

He concludes the body of this article with an exasperated disclaimer, in effect saying, “If you want to call any opposition of potency and act “matter and form,” fine (“ut non fiat vis in verbis”). After all, he observes, spiritual creatures too are composites of an essence and an act of existence: “the nature which is constituted by matter and form is, so to speak, in potency with respect to being itself, inasmuch as it is receptive of it.”xliv

We’ve already considered some damning objections by the universal hylomorphists against their spiritual immaterialist rivals. But perhaps this is a duel in which each party is slain by the other – perhaps Aquinas is wrong that Boethian composition suffices to explain angelic mutability, but right that a “material intellect” is logical nonsense. We’ll consider the Franciscan response to this charge more briefly, principally because a concise and decisive response to it is ready to hand, in William de la Mare, O.F.M.’s (fl. 1272-1279) Corrections to the Summa of brother Thomas (Correctorium Summae fratris Thomae), which the Friars Minor resolved to have appended to any edition of the Summa Theologiae read by their novices.xlv

De la Mare develops an interesting reductio ad absurdum of Aquinas’s argument that the intellect must be immaterial in order to receive immaterial abstractions. If that were true, he points out, the senses should also have to be immaterial in order to receive immaterial similitudes (the “mental images” of things which, on the Aristotelian view, we share with dogs and cats), and the intellect itself should have to be a universal in order to receive universals. But if both of those are false, then the principle that warrants them (“that all modes of operation are in accord with the mode of the operating substance [quod omnes modi operationis sunt secundum modum substantiae operantis]”) must be false as well. And so, “as the sensitive powers,” despite being bodily organs, “can receive the intentions of material things without matter, and so too the intellective power, although it is the perfection of spiritual matter, can receive forms in every way abstracted from matter and even from the conditions of matter.”xlvi

As Olivi developed this line of argument, spiritual matter needn’t hinder the process of abstract or intellectual thought, because intellectual abstraction isn’t a distinct state of (immaterial) being in the object intellected, but rather a distinct mode of intending that object, as separated in thought from its material modes: “When he wants to understand something universally and absolutely, then he discerns through a certain intellectual discrimination or distinction, and in discerning, separates the concept of the absolute and universal nature from the concept of its individuality.” On the contrary, he argues, “it is necessary for [intellectual beings] to have some matter or something which receives, which [the intelligibles] might inform; and if they are the species of material and bodily things, it is necessary for them to have a power of representing material and bodily conditions.”xlvii

A Few Concluding Thoughts


Where has this long and winding discussion gotten us? I’ve tried to be as even-handed as possible in portraying the twists and turns of a difficult and frankly arcane debate, but the time has come to render a judgment: though the spiritual immaterialists have largely won the crowd, the universal hylomorphists won the argument. In particular, they succeeded in showing that spiritual immaterialism fails on its own terms: a mode of being fitted to Aristotelian Intelligences, eternally frozen in a single act of self-contemplation, is simply inadequate to account for the angels’ capacity for changes of knowledge and will. In addition to contingency and finitude, angels need a principle of mutability, and Albert’s and Aquinas’s attempts to meet this need with vague analogies with geometric figures and self-subsisting transparencies are hand-waving at best. Far from being the most adequate angelology on offer, spiritual immaterialism isn’t even a genuine candidate for the role.

​Universal hylomorphism, on the other hand, is a consistent position, and perhaps a compelling one, assuming one starts with a set of broadly Platonist or Aristotelian premises. (As I noted above, I make no assumptions here about anyone’s obligations to do so.) Hylomorphism is the Platonist-Aristotelian response to the problem of change-within-continuity; if this problem applies to the angels as well, then hylomorphism is a reasonable tool to use to tackle it.

​Universal hylomorphism perhaps ought to be of interest to readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy for a further reason, one which would likely have alarmed the thirteenth-century Francis­cans themselves. The angelic property most urgently in need of explanation is their ability either to sin or to persevere in obedience to God; any angelology needs to be able to explain how they can change at least once. All parties to our debate also agreed, however, that, at least with respect to this most fundamental orientation of mind and will for or against God, angels can change only once; having sinned, they are irredeemable. But for the universal hylomorphists in particular, this is a puzzling position to adopt – why, apart from supernatural interference, would a naturally mutable angel be unable to repent of its sin?

The answer, of course, is that there is no metaphysical reason for this whatsoever; the reasons for thinking the angels to be beyond redemption are exegetical (cf. esp. Matt. 25:41, Rev. 20:10). The overwhelming consensus in medieval Europe in favor of irreversible demonic damnation is perhaps why spiritual immaterialists never objected, in the heat of the thirteenth-century debate itself, that universal hylomorphism would logically allow the angels to repent. But if we had reasons to doubt that exegesis, as many readers of this blog no doubt will, then universal hylomorphism would provide a straightforward account of how a fallen angel might be able to change his wings.

Footnotes

i Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 52, a. 1, 3. The possibility of angelic presence without bodily displacement reappears in, of all places, Luther’s Eucharistic theology, in his notion of the resurrected Christ’s “ presence “with” and “under” the consecrated elements (cf. his Treatise on the Lord’s Supper).
ii For an overview of the debate, cf. Étienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure (trans. Dom Iltyd Trethowan and Frank Sheed; Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1965), and above all, Michael Sullivan’s brilliant but as-yet-unpublished doctoral thesis, The Debate over Spiritual Matter in the Late Thirteenth Century: Gonsalvus Hispanus and the Franciscan Tradition from Bonaventure to Scotus (Catholic University of America, 2010; UMI#: 3403505). In a pinch, you might also consult my own recent article, “Seraphicus supra Angelicum: Angelic Mutability and Universal Hylomorphism,” in Franciscan Studies 78 (2020), some parts of which have been cannibalized to furnish the present essay.
iii ScG I.8.1. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. iv STI,q.44,a.2.
v Cf. Plato, Republic 596a.
vi cf. Physics I.6-7, 190a-191a, Metaphysics Z, 1029a.
vii Aristotle, Metaphysics Λ, 1069.
viii Cf. Ibid., 1073b-1074b.
ix Ibid., Λ, 7, 1072b).
x “Sur L’Hylemorphisme d’Ibn Gabirol,” Les Études philosophiques Nouvelle Série, 8e Année, No. 1
(Janvier/Mars 1953), pp. 28-38, here 28.
xi Quoted in Bonaventure, In II Sent., dist. 3, p. 1, ch. 1; II, 86a.
xii On Spiritual Creatures art. 1, corp.
xiii Cf. Albert’s De unitate intellectus contra Averroem, obj. 16, sec. 4 (ed. Borgnet; Paris, 1890, v. 9), 446b;
Aquinas, De ente et essentia 3.66-67.
xiv Cf. Summa Theologiae I, q. 2-3.
xv This distinction comes from Boethius’s De Hebdomadibus 18. xvi In II Sent. d.3,2;v.2,p.25.
xvii Cf.InIISent.d.3,7,a,d;II,p.27,28.
xviii Ibid., e; II, p. 28.
xix In II Sent., d. 1, A, art. 4; Borgnet, v. 27, p. 13a-14b.
xx Albert the Great, Summa Theologiae, p. II, tr. 1, q. 3, mem. 3, a. 2; Borgnet, v. 31, 37a-b. xxi In II Sent. dist. 3, A, Art. 4, obj. 9; v. 27, 67a.
xxi In II Sent. dist. 3, A, Art. 4, obj. 9; v. 27, 67a.
xxii Ibid., ad 5; v. 32, p. 34b-37a.
xxiii De Ente et Essentia 3.71, 76-77, 3.81.
xxiv Angels and Demons, 120-21.
xxv De Trinitate 2; PL 64: 1250.
xxvi De Creaturis Spiritualibus, art. 1, corp.
xxvii Qu. Disp. de Anima, art. 6, obj. 3. Cf. De Creaturis Spiritualibus, art. 1, obj. 3, 7, and 16.
xxviii Qu. Disp. de Anima, art. 6, ad 3.
xxix De unitate intellectus 3, 440b-441a.
xxx II Sent., d. 3, p. 1, q. 1, art. 1; II, 89b.
xxxi II Sent., d. 17, a. 1, q. 2., concl.; II, 414b.
xxxii Summa Theologica I-II, Inq. 1, Tract. 2, Qu. 2, Tit. 2, Memb. 2, I.1; p. 70b-71a.
xxxiii Summa Theologica I-II, Inq. 1, Tract. 2, Qu. 2, Memb. 2, Cap. 3, Art. 1; par. 59; p. 74a. xxxiv Ibid., Inq. II, Tract. II, Qu. Un., Cap. 2, Art. 2; par. 106, p. 136a.
xxxv Ibid., Inq. 1, Tract. 2, Qu. 2, Memb. 2, Cap. 3, Art. 1; par. 59; p. 73a.
xxxvi Ibid., Cap. 3, Art. 1-2, contra; par. 60, p. 73b-75b.
xxxvii Ibid., Inq. 2, Tract. 2, Qu. Un., Cap. 2, Art. 2; par. 106, p. 135b-136a).
xxxviii Peter John Olivi, O.F.M, Quaestiones in Secundum Librum Sententiarum, qu. XVI (291-359). xxxix Ibid., p. 597-600.
xl Ibid., q. 16, resp.; p. 327.
xli Ibid., 327-328.
xlii II Sent., d. 3, p. 1, art. 1, q. 2; II, 96b-97b.
xliii De ente et essentia 3.68-70.
xliv De creaturis spiritualibus, art. 1.
xlv Cf. P. Glorieux, O.P., “Introduction,” to Le ‘Correctorium Coruptorii’ ‘Quare’, viii-ix.
xlvi Correctorium, art. 10 ad 2, p. 52.
xlvii Qu. in IIum Lib. Sent., q. 16, resp, p. 351

* * *

Brendan W. Case, Th.D. is the Associate Director for Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, and author of the forthcoming The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment (T&T Clark, 2021). Before coming to Harvard, he studied Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, and served as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Baylor University’s Institute for the Study of Religion. Brendan’s research interests include the doctrine of creation, theological ethics, and theological engagement with the social and life sciences.

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5 Responses to How Do Angels Change? An Introduction to the “Spiritual Matter” Debate

  1. Garrett says:

    Many thanks for this; it is nice to see some positive remarks about the medieval Franciscans on the internet for a change. I have a comment and a question. The comment: the Avicebron connection comes from the teacher of Henry of Ghent, Gerard of Abbeville, a secular master and critic of Aquinas on mendicant privilage. The question: what do you make of Scotus? Is spiritual matter also irrelevant for him, given his theory of universals and individuation?

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    • Thanks for this thoughtful response, Garrett. Are you saying that Gerard of Abbeville both endorses universal hylomorphism and draws explicitly on Avicebron? I’ve never read him, but I’d be very interested in seeing that discussion, if you could share a reference. And as for Scotus — I don’t think that his notion of “haecceitas” gets him off the hook for the concerns about angelic agency that spiritual matter was supposed to address, but it’s pretty hard to tell what his attitude toward the debate was. Michael Sullivan has a good summary of Scotus’s relation to spiritual matter in his dissertation on the debate (which I cite at the top of essay): “Early in his career [Sctous] defends spiritual matter (although in an oddly provisional manner) along the lines of Bonaventure, William de la Mare and others, and especially Gonsalvus [Hispanus]. In his later writings, however, the subject disappears almost completely: Scotus never devotes a full question to it in his mature writings, and one must glean his position from (sometimes cryptic) hints and asides. He seems to be simply disinterested in the problem, and after him spiritual matter—of such central metaphysical significance for Gonsalvus—seems to drop out of medieval debate as a subject of special concern or import” (397-98).

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      • Garrett says:

        So my Gerard comment is based on hearsay, from a Gerard of Abbeville scholar. He does endorse spiritual matter for angels and human soul. The likeliest place is Quodlibet. XV qq. 3. i will check a ms and get back to you

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  2. John H says:

    Dr. Case;

    That was an excellent and very informative article. Thanks for sharing it with the readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy. I just have a couple of questions:

    1. If universal hylomorphism implies that fallen angels may repent, that would also imply that the souls of human beings may repent after death. If indeed God desires the salvation of all rational spirits, would this not mean that He would necessarily seek out the lost sheep—be they fallen spirits or reprobate human souls—until they actually do repent?

    2. What does universal hylomorphism have to say regarding the after death state of animals and nature as a whole? I am aware that Aquinas believed that animals are annihilated at death because they purportedly do not have a rational soul? Indeed he was probably in accord with Aristotle on this point. Would the existence of a finer spiritual matter not dependent upon intellect allow animals to be a part of God’s future kingdom?

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  3. Does Olivia and De La Mare’s response to Aquinas not also undermine the reasons for thinking the soul can survive death?

    I may be misunderstanding, be it sounds like the point of the reductio is to allow for abstract thinking to be consistent with matter. One of the counter examples is mental images. Could you not then maintain that abstract thinking is as dependent on matter as mental images? What stops all activities, including thinking, being dependent on the body?

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