In the interrogative tour de force that is his poem “America,” Allen Ginsberg asks, “America when will you be angelic?” Not knowing what Ginsberg believed of angels, I do not know what he meant. When will America be good? When will America be holy? When will America deliver authentic annunciations? When will America become bodiless? When will America teem with contractions of essence and existence in species beyond number?
Our questions here are becoming increasingly Thomistic. St. Thomas’ philosophy describes all of being as a kind of hierarchical arrangement of natures. At the very summit of this hierarchy, and in a sense beyond the hierarchy itself, we find God. A very long way below God we find human beings. The vast ontological space between is awash with angels. And when we consider St. Thomas’ description of angels, the surprising answer to Ginsberg’s question is that we are as a nation becoming increasingly more angelic, and this in proportion to the degree that we grow more atheistic, existential, and woke.
However ill- or well-articulated, the prevailing understanding of humanity operative today follows an existentialist line. If existence precedes essence, if the fact that we are precedes the fact of what we are, then the task of each human is to formulate his own essence through will and action in the world. If there is no human nature, as Sartre declared, then the natures we may fashion of ourselves are as numerous as we are.
With the villainous—but ingeniously subtle—Iago of Shakespeare’s Othello, we are tempted to say that “Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills” (1.3.307).
We see something of this viewpoint in the language surrounding gender, a fluid spectrum of identities and appetites susceptible of infinite division and permutation. No longer does it suffice to say that I am a man, or I am a woman. Now I am nonbinary. Today I feel fem, with strong catlike vibes. I am a tree. I am an eagle. I am a destroyer and a goddess and all must bow before me.
There is something attractive in the wholesale banishment of human nature as a definite formal principle. Without it we become as various at the level of the soul as the patterns of snowflakes and fingerprints. Without nature we are free to revel in the empty orientation of the will to all possibilities. Without it we become angelic.
For St. Thomas, humans and angels occupy contiguous positions in the hierarchy of being. All humans share a nature, St. Thomas says, in that we are each composed of soul and body directed to the end of contemplation of God in the beatific vision, with individual humans differentiated by our particular bodies. Angels, though, having no bodies, must depend on a different principle of individuation. They are composed not of matter and form but rather of essence and existence, with each one existing as its own species and all of those species hierarchically arranged between humanity and God.
On the Sartrean model, the one which drives the present ethics of identity, the body ceases to be determinative for human life. It has no bearing, as it were, on what we in fact are, if what we are is a matter of the will. Thus, we become like angels, as formally various as they are, though without any hierarchical arrangement.
It becomes hard to ignore the dissonance which then arises when essential value is ascribed to such accidents of embodied human life as race. We are told that real distinctions obtain on the level of race, distinctions which do not admit of gender’s celebrated fluidity. More still, racial distinctions bear with them qualitative moral distinctions. To be of a certain skin color is ineluctably to participate in a structural dialectic with definite ethical implications. Thus, we speak of brown bodies and white bodies as players in a supremacist power dynamic, phenotypically relegated to a role in a hopeless drama.
In such a dialectic, we seem to be thrown back upon an essentialist viewpoint, one in which existence is deeply conditioned by essence. Yet the dialectical movement goes a step further into what may be a deeper, more insidious angelism than that which the Sartrean view entails. For those who speak or act in violation of the structural moral code, damnation is swift and of course eternal.
Those, for instance, whose remarks on Twitter or Facebook have once been deemed racist, sexist, transphobic, and so on, are themselves in perpetuity racist, sexist, or transphobic. Whatever personal enlightenment they later achieve, whatever act of atonement they in time perform, avails nothing. They have gainsaid the Gospel of Wokeness, and their tongues must be cut out.
Such a plight is in its way like the eternal lot of the angels, who from the first moment of existence choose their relation to God. Lucifer says non serviam. Michael says fiat voluntas tua, and the rest, if history, is also eternity.
We have mentioned Shakespeare. The voluntarist urge toward transformation of the self is nothing new. Nor is the sense of identification of oneself with the other or of man with any of the elements of nature. Daphne trembles in the laurel. Pyrrhus rages like a flame. Athena appears in the guise of Mentes. Then again, Daphne is semi-divine. Pyrrhus is not saying to himself, “I am a fire, I am a fire, I am a fire.” Athena will at last shine forth in all her glory. The boundaries of humanity, of metaphor, of guise and disguise remain clear.
Without the principles of being and of language in place, the old tales cease to resonate with the eternal capacities of the human heart but become rather withered husks of primitive myth-mongering. They become fodder for a kind of poetic paleontology, an opportunity to say, “You see, even the primitives could see that we are nothing of necessity.”
Why has that which seemed clear to the Greeks become so obscure in our age? And why have the oddities, the metaphors, of the ancient world, become the dicta of postmodernity?
The answers, as always, lie in part with Descartes and that villainous Ockham, to borrow an adjective from Howard Nemerov. The late Medievals having cast doubt on the realist metaphysics of Aquinas, it was left to Descartes to confine human intellectual activity to only such matters as admitted of mathematical certainty. Let poetry be gone. What can it tell me of the motion of the universe? Away with theology. It is too lofty for the mind of man; and anyway, who needs theology to get into Heaven?
The oddity is that by confining man to what is supposed to be properly suited to his intellect, Descartes cuts man off from his proper activity. Aristotle knew as well as anyone that theology is too lofty a thing for the mind of man most of the time. He nonetheless insisted that the contemplative act was man’s proper activity precisely inasmuch as it engaged the very zenith of man’s capacities.
Thus, our briefest snatches of contemplation are worth more than all the rest of our life’s labors put together. Thus, St. Thomas called all he had done so much straw. Thus, Dante subsided from the piercing sweetness of his vision and strained after it for the rest of his days in verse.
Part of the trouble with confining man to the horizontal plane of matter in motion and its mathematical underpinnings is that being so confined does not dull man’s sense of being meant for something greater. Even in the loftiest moments of secular success, we sense that we are not what we are meant to be.
Indeed, Dante alludes to this feeling of the need for transformation when he says, moving from one heavenly sphere to another in his Paradiso, that he was “translated” into the higher plane of contemplative intensity. We know that we must change, must become something else. But what can we do when all else exists on a horizontal ontological plane? Shall I become a woman? A man? With Vardaman Bundren’s mother, a fish? A tree? A goddess? All I know is that I as I am cannot suffice.
A further oddity of the Cartesian drive toward mathematical clarity is its tendency to obscure language. Language, for the classical mind, affords a means for the mind to tap into extra mental reality, identifying the formal qualities of the world the knowing-self inhabits. But language conceived thus indicates formal qualities of substances, that is, end-directed universals.
If the universal is lost, a new and more devastating Babel is upon us.
Consider the internet, which has been all abuzz lately with talk of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s inability to define a woman on the grounds of her not being a biologist. She would refer us to the scientist as the arbiter of definitions. Yet the fundamental attraction of science is supposed to be its objectivity, its ability to penetrate the secondary qualities which shroud the world around us in order to get down to the causal natures of things in themselves. And the progress of science is meant to be egalitarian, open as much, at least in principle, to the Eskimo as to the physicist.
If a biologist, that is, can define womanhood, then she must be able to do so in terms that all of us, especially Supreme Court justices, can access. Far from rendering matter mathematically accessible, the advancement of the Cartesian program seems in some cases to make the world more opaque.
Most of all, the Cartesian model makes the self increasingly inscrutable. The soul is supposed to have been banished, along with other such ontological nonsense; and yet the body has become more and more an object set over against the self, no longer in any way determinative of the self except inasmuch as the self modifies the body to express the inner self. Yet what is this self which experiences the body, with all the rest of the world, as something set against it? How is it that self, if there is no soul, has assumed all the inwardness which one lived within seas, stones, birds, and fish, and yawned upon itself like a black hole?
So, the self in search of itself across the vastness of a two-dimensional world will always find itself alone, unable to become what it is meant to be, unable to cry out to the other selves around it for help. Man would be angelic, would be unique, would become impossibly solitary if only to stop feeling so alone, and yet the man who would be an angel must consent to be a fallen one. His attempts to be perfectly human, stripped of the faith that he is made in an image, after a likeness not his own, will end in his being a demon.
Any humanist movement, would it avoid destroying itself, must in the first place know what a human being is and what being human means. Unless it is understood that we are not angels, then we will continue to occupy a space of contradiction, a place in which our biology is at once completely determinative and entirely irrelevant, in which adopting the putatively proper viewpoint is essential but ultimately ineffectual, while subscribing to the taboo eternally binds the soul. America, you have become angelic. When will you be human again?