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Mortimer J. Adler’s The Angels and Us

April 30, AD 2013 19 Comments

Angels and Us- Mortimer J. Adler- 9780020300656- Amazon.com- Books

Writing as a self-identified “philosopher and pagan” the late Mortimer Jerome Adler published his book The Angels and Us in 1982, a work he undertook because he thought the subject of angels had “serious consequences for many other matters of great philosophical interest.” It is indeed strange, at first, to discover that a modern-day pagan wrote a book about angels. The two do not seem to go together. However, this great philosopher was an able scholar, articulate in the dogmas, doctrines, and theological opinions of not just Catholic teaching but also Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim teaching as well. He was amply articulate in the teachings of the ancient pagans, particularly Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, from which he relied heavily in his discourse. He was also confident in his analysis, but humble and open, an engaging trait in a writer.

Mortimer Adler challenged everyone, religious or not, to think about angels, and artfully turned what seems a strange companionship between pagan philosophy and angelology into a most reasonable question. As he simply wrote, “Philosophy is everybody’s business.” He believed that something can be gained by thinking about angels even if they do not actually exist. Adler conceded throughout The Angels and Us that as a philosopher he could not declare whether angels exist or not, reason does not allow it; but he held that philosophical inquiry is not limited to an intellectual exploration of only what is known to exist through hard sensory data and common experience. Philosophy ought to also inquire about things that are “genuinely possible” just as geometry ought to inquire about shapes independently of their existence. In making this distinction, Adler effectively separated himself from the realm of religion.

Adler’s goal in the book was to convince the reader that it is “genuinely possible” for angels to exist and that a consideration of these “minds without bodies” exposes fallacies in extended philosophies of man and politics. He devoted the first half of the book to the differences in philosophy and theology and to a review of angels as objects of religious belief, and then angels as objects of philosophical thought. Unlike the philosopher, the theologian must begin to reason about angels from a primary premise that they do in fact exist as a matter of religious faith based on Scripture. That is the theologian’s starting point before he proceeds to inquire about what angels are and how angels act. Not so for the philosopher.

Why should a theologian even reason about angels if he is certain that they exist? Adler explained, referencing the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, that the truths of revelation are superior to those of reason and experience, that sacred theology is the “queen of the sciences and philosophy her handmaiden.” The theologian uses philosophy to demonstrate that even though the truths of faith are above reason, they are not unreasonable. Adler explained why the perspective of the fideists, who held that reason is unnecessary, and the perspective of the rationalists, who held that reason can explain all matters of faith, were both condemned.

Adler then gave an unexpected challenge to the philosophical group most likely to dismiss angels altogether – the philosophical materialists. The most fundamental premise of any materialist argument is that nothing exists except corporeal things. To a materialist the terms “incorporeal substance” or “spiritual being” or “mind without body” are utterly impossible, a contradiction in terms as meaningless as “square circle”. Adler dismissed this fundamental premise as a “philosophically questionable” act of faith rather than self-evident truth. The materialist conclusion that there are no incorporeal substances is true if — and only if — the starting premise is true, that all existence is owed to atoms and voids. No “cogent demonstration of its truth has ever been advanced,” he charged, which is true. It has not.

In challenging this point, Adler actually did something quite significant and beyond the question of angels or scope of this particular book. He did not articulate it specifically, but by compelling the materialist to inquire about angels, spiritual beings, he compelled the materialist to inquire about the human soul and ultimately about God, both of which actually contribute to the intent of his book, that studying incorporeal beings helps us to know more about ourselves.

His basic thesis held that since angels do not have bodies, they are not affected by sensory perception and passions. Angels have innate knowledge. They do not learn through the same process as humans do by acquiring sensory data with the body and then applying discursive and conceptual reasoning. They have no bodies, so their knowledge is immediate.

Adler was unable to accept that the human soul lives on after the death of the body, contra religious teachings. Adler’s contention with Catholic theology of the human person rested on the definition of “human” as both corporeal and incorporeal, body and soul. If one part ceases to be, then the human ceases to be; therefore, the human ends at death. As a philosopher inquiring about possibilities, he acknowledged that it would be possible for God to sustain the soul and reunite it with a glorified body, thus retaining the definition of “human.” He admitted that philosophy cannot comment on that, however, and seemed to agree, even admire, St. Aquinas’ discourse, acknowledging that it saved the dogma of the resurrection of the body from being abhorrent, “slender” as this theological answer may be (in his opinion).

Finally, Adler fulfilled the anticipated goal of the book with a list of “angelistic fallacies” in philosophy. It is a fallacy to conceive of the human soul as angelic, he said, and his arguments relied on whether a being has a body or not. Man is not an embodied angel, so it follows that the doctrines of both Plato and Descartes, and all versions of their philosophies, are unsatisfactory. If the soul needs to be set free from the body to find truth, or if the soul operates dually independent from the body, however attached, man’s corporeal contributions to his thoughts are meaningless. It is this conception of man on which anarchists rely, he argued. Supposedly, if man is freed from government coercion, he will find his perfection and need no control, which would only be true if man were an embodied angel. Likewise, he showed that Communism is a form of anarchy, a belief that with the right government man will find his perfection and then live in harmony, free of the need of government. To summarize, if men were angels, they would need no governing because angels are naturally just and good — but men are not angels.

Philosophically, Adler’s thesis about men and angels seems valid. Man is not angel because his body affects his thinking, a subject worthy of philosophical inquiry. However, without an underlying tenet of the Fall of Man, original and actual sin, and redemption by a loving Savior, the thesis is hollow and unfinished. There is no way to account for good and evil, or to explain why the body could cloud understanding. Adler explained this Catholic dogma in the first half of the book at length, but he did not even mention sin in his angelistic fallacies. The assumption that justice and injustice, good and evil exist leaves a gap in his reasoning. Where do those things come from? Who defines them? How does anyone know what they are?

Adler was clear in naming himself a pagan philosopher, and clear in aligning himself with Aristotle, an alignment which also aligned him with St. Aquinas. The reader should therefore expect a commendable summary of Thomistic angelology. Adler seemed to have no opposition to Catholic theology except for the creedal truth of life everlasting, which he laid out. He actually laid it out so well that he almost seemed to convince himself that St. Aquinas is right. Rather than say so, he instead stated that he had “gone beyond the province and power of philosophical thought,” and that the explanation was only given “to complete the picture.”

Anyone who reads this book, one of many this great philosopher published, will have the benefit of hindsight. No review would be complete without noting in closing that this pagan’s quest for wisdom led him to the Catholic Church 17 years later, the year before he died. He is said to have lived his last year as the “Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life.”

Sources:

  • Mortimer Jerome Adler, Angels and Us. (MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, 1982).
  • Ralph McInerny, Memento Mortimer. First Thoughts. November 2001.
Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • http://aol Jim

    ” Philosophically, Adler’s thesis about men and angels seems valid. Man is not angel because his body affects his thinking, a subject worthy of philosophical inquiry. However, without an underlying tenet of the Fall of Man, original and actual sin, and redemption by a loving Savior, the thesis is hollow and unfinished. There is no way to account for good and evil, explain why body clouds understanding.”

    This is troubling. If Adler knew that a Pope Benedict would utterly
    change the very foundation of the bible by declaring that Adam and
    Eve were characters in an allegorical tale, thus eliminating the Snake
    and original sin, he may never have converted. What Benedict did by
    reasoning this most obvious impediment to the science of evolution
    into the realm of myth is to 1. suspend in air, without any foundation,
    every historical event that followed. 2. relegate every Christian faith that is fundamental to the backwaters of human ignorance. 3. Call
    into question at which point allegory becomes history. He did the
    same with the Christmas tableau, casting doubt on certain aspects of
    the shepherds and Magi and even the notion that Jesus was laid in a
    manger. This is all ok by me, understanding that faith transcends the
    corporeal. As far as how having a body with severely limited senses
    could cloud an underlying soul is so elementary that it is not even
    worth discourse. It takes eastern deism to continue into this realm and
    begs the question as to what Aquinas would have wrote had he benefited from
    21st century insight into pre history.
    .

  • http://catholicstand.com/author/john-darrouzet/ John Darrouzet

    Stacy, you have written an excellent summary and response to Adler’s book on Angels. I am confident that you will find his other books equally interesting because he does a great job of simplifying many difficult philosophical concepts for people like me. Keep up the good work!

    And be sure to thank your Guardian Angel, sent by our Heavenly Father, for continuing to guide you along your journey and to protect you from the troubled doubts of others that might serve to distract you from your mission in writing.

  • Howard

    I have never read Adler that I can remember. Thinking back to mid-century through the late 60s, when Ralph McInerny met him, my recollection is of a very familiar name but associated with popular philosophy. This could be due to being printed so often in the popular press and trying to be read by a large non-academic audience. The down side to this approach is that you associate yourself with the larger group of simple minded advice givers who also want to speak to a large non-academic audience.

    The thought (among most of those trying to influence my life) was that if you wanted heavier reading O.K., but, serious philosophy is not very practical.

    Not that I believe he did not have anything important to say.

    • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

      Ralph and Mortimer were very close friends and practical philosophers. Ralph was also a member of our institution.

  • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

    • Howard

      Mr. Weismann,

      Is this the same Charles Van Doren of the quiz show scandal of the 1950s where he recieved the answers to questions ahead of time? I remember watching his amazing (I thought) climb to the top.

      • http://catholicstand.com/author/john-darrouzet/ John Darrouzet

        “How to Read a Book” is one of the most important books for us all to read. I have placed a summary of its high points on my FB Notes page under the titled “Summary of Mortimer Adler’s Rules for Reading a Book.”

        Re the tie of Van Doren, not Adler, to the TV show scandal, see “Quiz Show” write up on Wikipedia [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiz_Show ]. Good summary of the problem and the movie that got some of it right, but not all.

    • http://catholicstand.com/author/john-darrouzet/ John Darrouzet

      Max, Good to see you found Stacy’s page. We are enjoying all of Adler’s insights and I encourage Stacy and others following her explorations to learn more about Max’s group. Most recently, I have enjoyed the organization’s book entitled “How to Prove There Is a God: Mortimer J. Adler’s Writings and Thoughts About God” [ http://www.amazon.com/How-Prove-There-Is-God/dp/0812696891/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367523467&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+prove+the+existence+of+god ]. Good stuff. Good people.

  • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

    Yes Howard, that is him. Adler picked him out of the mud and gave him life again. He is still a member of our organization.

    • Howard

      I am happy to know that he had changed his life for the better. I still have scars from that time. A love of thought, honest thought, even though it was only really a display of memory. I do believe that it had an effect on me as a young boy, influencing my view of academia towards the worst.

      Again, my best wishes to Mr. Van Doren

      • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

        Yes, it nearly killed his famous father Mark. He is still teaching—professor at a CT college.

  • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

    Hi John,

    Nice to hear from you. Yes, that is the second book I have published of his writings and glad you enjoyed it.

    Max

  • Stacy Trasancos

    Dear Mr. Weismann,

    I was like AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!! when I saw that you commented, so I gave myself some time to calm down. :-D Thank you! It’s not often that I read a book and wish I could sit down with the author and talk to him, but I felt that way reading Mr. Adler’s book. I hardly put it down once I started and finished in a day. It’s an honor to meet someone who knew him.

    We homeschool and John tells me that I should add some of your material to our library, so I plan to do that. Got some inquisitive Little Aristotles poking around here.

    I’ve got the book John recommended above on my Kindle now (makes reading for mommies very easy!), and have fully browsed the website you linked. I’m so excited. We have ordered the videos and I plan to watch them with the kids. They’ve developed quite a love of reading and writing, so I definitely want to fan that flame! Thank you again.

    • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

      Dear Stacy,

      How nice to hear from you.

      Yes, I miss my late colleague Mortimer Adler, we were best friends and associated since 1959.

      Speaking of Homeschooling, I am the Chairman of The Great Books Academy and we offer Adler’s Classical Homeschooling. We now have over 3,000 students–please visit our website.

      You and your children will enjoy and profit from those videos.

      Best regards,

      Max Weismann

      • http://www.thegreatideas.org/ Max Weismann

        Dear Friends,

        I would like to apprise you of the newly formed and exciting, educational Adler-Aquinas Institute.

        Please visit the website (still under construction) at your convenience:

        http://www.adler-aquinasinstitute.org/

        This new institution of which I am a Fellow, is affiliated with The Great Books Academy where I serve as Chairman.

        Thank you,

        Max Weismann

  • http://nuthouseonwheels.wordpress.com Newman Ireland

    Nicely done Ms. Trasancos. M. J. Adler is one of my favorite intellectual heroes next to Dr. Gordon H. Clark. I found your website through Google alert and I’m glad I did. I have subscribe to your posts and look forward to reading more.

    Thank you.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you Mr. Ireland! He is one of my favorite intellectual heroes now too! Nice to *meet* you! :-)

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