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.”
- Mortimer Jerome Adler, Angels and Us. (MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, 1982).
- Ralph McInerny, Memento Mortimer. First Thoughts. November 2001.