The Angels


The Good and Evil Angels, William Blake, c.1805

by Justin E. H. Smith

God, on a certain widespread understanding, is an imaginary friend for the childish and simpleminded. Those so accused will often defend themselves: but I don’t mean a white-bearded old-man God. I just mean, you know, something. A first mover, a ground, an ultimate end of the series of causes. If that all sounds too medieval, then you are free to invoke some vague and universalist notion of a ‘higher power’, which we cannot know directly but in reference to which our own lower powers, of goodness and love in particular, make sense. God can be mostly gutted of mythology, and with some success re-stuffed and propped back up as a pure product of reason, or even just of right-mindedness.

Not so with the angels: there is likely no way to enter into angelological disquisitions without being received as a hollering streetcorner proselytizer, with those bright, kitschly illustrated pamphlets depicting life in the clouds. God might not be an old man with a beard, but angels are always ridiculous wingèd humanoids in white, perverted fat cherubim, Michael Landon. They are for sad and lonely people with diminished resources, people locked away in rest homes, who live their lives anchored to the cycle of the daytime TV line-up.

A pair of considerations, coming from the history of European philosophy, might help to liberate the angels from this reduced and degraded repertoire. The medieval period is of course often mocked as the span of centuries in which philosophers wasted their inborn talents debating pointless questions about angels on the heads of pins. But as many scholars have noted, this long period is by no means static, and what we in fact see is a gradual progression from the 12th to the 16th centuries in which angels evolve, from beings whose nature and properties are in need of straightforward explanation, to the posits of thought experiments. It becomes ever less important to account for how angels actually are, and ever more important to use the concept of angels in the analysis of, say, intelligence, or individual substance, in order to better be able to account for what these things are. (And these things are, the reader is imagined to presume, more plausible candidates for the status of actual things than angels are.)

Now it might be supposed that this changing role is simply a stage on the path to the eventual full disappearance of the angels from the way we talk about the world. This would not be entirely incorrect, and it brings us to our second point: between roughly 1650 and 1750, angels appear to be replaced by aliens. To put this slightly differently, talk of supernatural beings intermediate between God and men gives way to talk of advanced celestial beings that are far greater than human beings, but not for that reason supernatural. There is virtually no European philosopher writing in this period who does not affirm their existence, under various descriptions and titles. Leibniz called them génies, Kant conceived them as “the more perfect classes of rational beings.” The reasons for this transformation are several, and it has most importantly to do with the uniformization of nature, the collapse of the distinction between the superlunar and the terrestrial spheres, and the consequent rise of what is sometimes called ‘the Harlequin principle’: the idea that toujours et partout, c’est tout comme ici.

I’ve written about this transformation at great length elsewhere. What I want to emphasize here is something different: that you can’t get rid of the angels. You push them out of your ontology, or you allow them to remain only as etiolated conceptual posits without any real being of their own, and lo, they return in a new guise: from the angelic hierarchies of Ezekiel to the many-worlds fantasies of early modern science fiction, it has proven exceedingly hard for human beings to think of themselves as the end of the line, as the ne plus ultra of the cosmos’s various actors.

One might mention at this point the fellow beings, convoked or hallucinated, whenever DMT is illegally ingested (and thus adds to the DMT already naturally occurring– your brain is always already on drugs), and one might in the same breath recall the SETI program and the vain hurling of bottled messages, in the form of radio waves, out into space. Both of these experiences, in very different senses of the word ‘experience’, and from very different spheres of contemporary culture, reinforce the idea, as it is also often said of God, that there simply has to be something. We cannot get these beings out of our minds– our minds even seem neurochemically predisposed to recall them to attention under certain circumstances.

The astrophysicists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life generally suppose that this search is limited to our xenobiological counterparts, and does not concern disembodied or ethereal beings, but only beings of flesh and blood, or whatever the materials are on the extraterrestrial’s planet that come together to constitute something we would be in a position to recognize as a living body. But the search itself is the practical culmination of the speculation that we see in Leibniz and Kant, and this speculation is plainly the descendant of angelology. We conceive the celestial beings according to the idiom and conventions of our era, and so in this era of naturalism they are organic beings, like us, with internal organs, mixtures of fluids and soft parts and bone, that come together for a time as a result of natural generation. They are generally humanoid. But just a moment of reflection should suffice to reveal the improbability of such a situation. Extraterrestrials as currently conceived are arguably just as absurd, and just as much a reflection of our own cultural moment, as the Seraphim and Elohim have been to those whose world is shaped by the Talmud.

Do I believe in angels? Well, I believe that supramundane intelligences are not going to go away, and this quite apart from the question whether they turn out in the end to exist or not. With angels as with God, our own era has lapsed into a sort of thinking that would be more appropriate to the search for Bigfoot: looking for clumps of rough orange hair brushed off on trees, for footprints and photographs. Though even here there is room for debate: Tim Ingold for example argues that cryptozoology is but an impoverished form of mythology, and that it is always a misunderstanding to attempt to give a biological account of the beings that play a role in our cognitive and imaginative landscape without for that reason needing to exist as masses of hair and flesh and blood. I believe it is very plausible to see SETI and similar undertakings, in the same way, as impoverishments of premodern angelology. It is not at all that I am opposed to xenobiology as a collective scientific project. But I do wish that there were improved understanding of the ways in which our contemporary preoccupations are rooted in deep history, and emerge out of preoccupations that only appear foreign and distant as a result of our general and total historical illiteracy.

I believe we need to pay serious attention to the recurring patterns in the way human cultures experience the world as filled and animated by different classes of being. This can be done scientifically, and indeed is far truer to the spirit of science than the thick-skulled and thoroughly uninteresting dichotomization of the existent and the non-existent that currently prevails in the tedious Culture War opposition between believers and non-believers.

People experience the world as filled and animated by beings of all sorts. Daniel Dennett calls this our evolved hyperactive intentionality detection device. This may be the case. It may also be that my pervasive habit of thinking about myself, say, or of Dan Dennett, as the sort of things it would be a shame to kill needlessly is the result of an evolved hyperactive morally-relevant-entity-detection device. In all these cases, though, whatever the evolutionary account that can be given, there is surely also an interesting fact –a phenomenological fact, an anthropological fact, perhaps a moral fact, and perhaps even a theological fact– that people tend to experience the world in the way they do. For certain immediate purposes in everyday life it is a lot harder to dispatch the self or midsized physical objects than it is to get rid of angels, and this is perhaps why we still allow people to deploy the latter sort of evolved detection device, while we ridicule people who mistake the former for a revelation of angels, ghosts, or benevolent ancestors.

But beyond the accomplishment of these simple tasks –opening doors, asking for directions– there are the full and rich lives we live out, made rich largely by the stories we tell and the beings that figure into these stories, whose existence as clumps or masses does not require proof. This aspect of life receives little attention, or is only condescendingly and passingly treated, by the prideful professional spokesmen for the exhaustiveness of contemporary science. It is here, in these stories –‘in loving repetition’, as Les Murray describes religious faith– that one encounters the angels.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website