From Human and Angelic Understanding to Divine Understanding in Lonergan and Aquinas

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB
In the kind of analysis which one finds in Lonergan’s The Triune God: Systematics, much is said about how it is possible to move from one’s created, finite self-understanding toward an analogical knowledge about what can be said about God as an unrestricted act of understanding.  However, in the analysis which one finds in Aquinas, much is said there about what we can say about the understanding of angels before one moves to what can be said about divine understanding.  In contrast, Lonergan does not speak about how an understanding of angelic understanding can possibly help one move toward a better analogical knowledge that would want to speak about the nature of divine understanding, although, if one attends to Lonergan’s Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, one finds that he could not have been unaware of the kind of analysis that one finds in Aquinas.
By way of illustration, in Verbum, p. 197, Lonergan notes that, while Aristotle speaks about one kind of separate substance, Aquinas speaks about two kinds of separate substance: God as subsistent understanding or understanding itself (ipsum intelligere), and angels which exist as subsisting essences or subsisting “quiddities.”  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 54, aa. 1-3; Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 93, 2; Super Librum De causis, prop. 9.  As regards angels, the nature or essence of an angel is not its existence or act of being.  Existence is something quite other and distinct as is also the case with the difference between the intellect or mind of an angel and its acts of understanding.  The understanding or intellect of an angel, on the one hand, refers to its form as an intelligible principle.  But, its actualization is an act or operation of understanding that is received by an angel’s formal essence in a way which indicates that a degree of potentiality exists in an angel (a potentiality which is to be equivocally understood as Aquinas notes in the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 54, a. 4) since no angel exists as a pure act of understanding which has always existed and which has never, at any time, come into being from not being.  With respect to all these spirits or separate substances (whether one speaks of God or angels), no material component exists, and so this absence of a material component explains why angels possess only one form of potentiality which is the potentiality of a form to receive an act.  Cf Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 98, 10.  In contrast, anything having a material component is characterized by two forms of potentiality: a potentiality of matter to receive a form and a potentiality of form to receive an act.  The absence of materiality in an angel and the fact that an angel is not a pure subsistent act of understanding which has always existed accordingly explains why angels exist as subsisting essences that are strictly formal or intellectual.  In the Sententia super Metaphysicam, 7, 17, 1669, Aquinas speaks about “separate substances” as “simple substances” since they are not composed of matter and form.  Because they are not known to us through any act of sense, a knowledge of them cannot proceed through any typical form of human inquiry which directly moves from acts of sense to acts of understanding.
A question accordingly arises about why Lonergan does not prefer to speak about angelic understanding in order to speak about divine understanding.  Perhaps, at some point Lonergan was asked this question and perhaps he addressed it in some way.  However, until we can find any kind of explanation which he directly provides, one is left to hazard an answer that can be gained by thinking about his general method of procedure in terms of his intentionality analysis.  In contrast thus with Aquinas, Lonergan does not begin to speak about the nature of human cognition by an initial comparison that is drawn with respect to the possible nature of angelic understanding.  In the Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 58, a. 3, Aquinas says that, in contrast with human knowing, an angel, as a purely intellectual being, has a created intellect that can immediately grasp the unity and relation of things. For an angel, reason is essentially simple; it is a simple, single act.  When an angel perceives a cause, it immediately perceives all its effects; and, when it perceives any effects, it similarly immediately perceives all pertinent causes.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 58, a. 3, ad 1-2.  An angel does not have to work for any understanding or knowledge (cognitio) since all meanings are obvious and given.  Cf. De Malo, q. 16, a. 5.  For an angel, reason exists as a form of intuition.  The knowing is instantaneous.  Or, in other words, in contrast with as human knowers, angelic knowing is not discursive.  No process of thinking is needed in order to come to an understanding of anything.  In the manner of Aquinas’s exposition as this exists in the Summa Theologiae, in moving through the order of being as things exist (beginning with God and then as one moves through a hierarchy which exists in the created order of things), it is best for him to speak about human understanding on the basis of comparisons with angelic understanding and with what is known about angelic understanding (even if, in other places and in other texts, Aquinas admits, when speaking about the nature of human cognition, that its proper object precludes the possibility of having any direct understanding of God and angels).  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 12, a. 11: “A thing’s mode of knowing depends on its mode of being.  But our soul, as long as we live in this life, has its being in corporeal matter; hence, naturally, it knows only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form.”
In other words, because Lonergan begins and works from a phenomenological analysis of human cognition and because he encourages readers to begin with thought experiments that promote growth in one’s own self-understanding, any discussions about the nature of angelic understanding appear to be premature.  One should only speak about angelic understanding after one has first understood the nature of human cognition (as this exists in its own way).  However, for a possible explanation on why Lonergan does not advert to angelic understanding as a heuristic for moving toward a better understanding of divine understanding, a possible reason lies in the radicalness of questions that could be asked about human understanding.  If angelic understanding exists as a kind of halfway house between human and divine understanding (an analogical understanding about it coming from posing certain questions and responding to them), divine understanding can be analogically understood if one works directly from human understanding and if one’s questions are sufficiently apt.  In Aquinas, some evidence exists to the effect that the created existence of discursive understanding raises questions about a species of created understanding which is non-discursive.  A fuller, more perfect world exists if it contains beings who possess a purely spiritual or intellectual nature and who are lacking in the material kind of potentiality which exists among human beings.  Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 46, 2; De Spiritualibus Creaturis, a. 5; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 20, a. 4, ad 2; q. 50, a. 1; q. 54, a. 5. However, in both Aquinas and Lonergan, one can find arguments which suggest that one can easily move from created human understanding to uncreated divine understanding if one asks questions about the causality of human knowing.  In human cognition, a material cause can be identified in terms of phantasms which, to some extent, trigger created acts of understanding.  Cf. Aquinas, Sententia super Metaphysicam, 7, 17, 1668; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 15, a. 2; q. 85, a. 1, ad 1; Lonergan, Triune God: Systematics, pp. 593-595; Topics in Education, p. 171.  But, as one thinks about this material causality, one realizes that material causes cannot explain formal causes.  What exists in formal causality cannot be explained by what does not exist in material causality.  Or, to state the case a bit differently, acts of sense and acts of imagination cannot explain acts of understanding which have a wholly different nature (a nature which transcends whatever is given in acts of sense and imagination).  In our world, events at a lower level of activity help to create favorable conditions.  But, if one to account for any given act of understanding as an act of understanding, one must postulate some kind of understanding which always exists–an act of understanding which points to something which is uncreated and which is responsible for all acts of understanding as these occur in a contingent way in contingent beings.  Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 84, a. 4, ad 3; 1a2ae, q. 19, a. 4, & ad 1 & ad 2.  By taking human understanding and by removing any limitations which can possibly restrict its operation, one moves toward a species of understanding which is wholly lacking in any restrictions.  One begins to conceive of God as an unrestricted act of understanding.
By this type of inquiry, one bypasses any discussion which one might want to make about angels and the nature of angelic understanding.  However, in order to have an understanding of things which presents a wider perspective, it is not without merit to delve into the details of Aquinas’s analogical understanding as this exists first with respect to angels before considering what can be said about divine understanding.  The more carefully one can distinguish angelic understanding from human and divine understanding, the more carefully and exactly will one understand what can be said about God as a unique act of understanding.  See Aquinas’s argumentation in the. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 79, a. 2 for a little illustration of this where all three kinds of understanding are spoken about and related to each other.

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