Angels in NGE and St. Thomas Aquinas

arcangels[I previously said I wanted to write on the Human Instrumentality Project from theological point of view, but as I continued thinking, I was taken in more by another aspect of the series.]

First of all, if you have not seen Neon Genesis Evangelion and you do not want any revelations about the final episodes, do not keep reading. From this point on, I will make no effort to conceal plot details.

In Neon Genesis Evangelion, the main antagonists in the series are the so-called Angels that appear and need to be destroyed. They take on many forms ranging from humanoid to polygonal, showing various degrees of capacity to understand and communicate. Although they are called “Angels”, they bear very little resemblance to what I would consider an angel, namely, a created being with intellect and will that is by its nature is without a body. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the similarities that did exist between the Angels of NGE and the separated substances as described by St. Thomas Aquinas.

angelic doctorThe first aspect in which the Angels resemble separated substances is that each individual constitutes its own species. This is one of the defining features of St. Thomas’ angelology. For St. Thomas Aquinas, the numeric multitude of individuals in a species is possible because of the presence of matter which is able to be “over here” and “over there”, to be “this” or “that”. Although my nature is identical to the nature of the man downstairs, the presence of matter in the account of what we are means that my matter is here and his is downstairs, so it is possible that there are two individuals of the same nature, made distinct on account of material differences. Separated substances (or angels), on the other hand, do not have matter in their account. Therefore, if there is a multitude of separated substances, then it is because each is different from the other in some way. This difference cannot exist in matter, as is the case for men, and so must be a formal difference, a difference in what the thing is. And so one angel is different from another, not because one is over and the other is over there, or because they are composed of different clumps of matter, but because they are essentially different, the what of each angel differing from the what of every other angel. Furthermore, the immortality of angels precludes any necessity of reproduction, and so angels do not beget angels, whereas this the multitude of individuals in a species usually follows up reproduction, one individual coming from another individual.

Although each Angel appears to be unique in what it is, none of the reasons for which St. Thomas concludes that angels are unique in the species can be applied to the Angels in NGE. First of all, the Angels are not wholly incorporeal. Though there is a strange comment about their material composition being more like light than ordinary matter, they still seem to have enough of the features of matter (size, color, being somewhere) that this distinction does not make them different enough from normal material beings. They are even said to have a DNA structure similar to humans, a comment that would be entirely nonsensical when speaking of separated substances. Worth noting: medieval theologians apart from St. Thomas speculated about a sort of “spiritual matter” which was present in angels and souls. This concept always seemed contradictory to me and ultimately unhelpful for understanding spiritual beings.

israfelA second difference is that the Angels in NGE are begotten of another so-called Angel. Though most of the Angels seem to be offspring of one called Adam, no account is given of the means by which Adam produces the offspring or the reason why the Angels have different forms, characteristics and abilities. A third difference is that they are not immortal, as each of the Angels is successively destroyed by the Evangelions. Taking into account all the features of being corporeal, coming from another different being, and being capable of dying, the Angels of NGE are more reminiscent of Aristotle’s account of spontaneous generation, where a substance comes from a substance differing in species, than anything in St. Thomas’ doctrine of angels. From Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, 5.1, “So with animals, some spring from parent animals according to their kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock; and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from putrefying earth or vegetable matter, as is the case with a number of insects.” This account of generation is reasonably considered a fiction now, and yet it reminds me of the fictional generation of Angels in NGE.

The second aspect I wanted to consider, is the designation of mankind as the 18th Angel. Despite all the differences between Angels and separated substances named above, the fact that every other Angel seems to constitute its species whereas man as a species comprising many individuals is designated an Angel, reminded me of another place in St. Thomas Aquinas, where men and angels are seen in a comprehensive vision that highlights man’s place in the order of intellectual beings and accounts for his uniqueness among intellectual beings in having multiplicity. I am chiefly looking at De ente et essentia, chapter 3:

“And because the quiddity of an intelligence is, as has been said, the intelligence itself, its quiddity or essence is identically that which it itself is; and its existence received from God is that whereby it subsists in reality. […] The separated substances, therefore, are distinct from one another according to their grade of potency and act, in such a way that a superior intelligence which is nearer to the First Being has more act and less potency, and so with the others. This grading has its termination in the human soul, which holds the lowest grade among intellectual substances. Whence its possible intellect is related to intelligible forms in the way in which prime matter, which holds the lowest grade in sensible existence, is related to sensible forms, as the Commentator remarks in his considerations on the third book of On The Soul. And this is why the Philosopher compares it to a blank tablet on which nothing has been written. And because it has more potency than other intelligible substances, the human soul is so close to material things that a material thing is drawn to it to share its existence, but in such a way that from soul and body results one existence in one composed thing; and yet this existence is not dependent on the body inasmuch as it is the soul’s existence.”

eva 1 wingsPerhaps I am reading too much into this text, or bringing in conclusions from other texts, but I am inclined to conclude that the entirety of the material world exists for the sake of man and his possible intellect. Whereas the separated substances are composed of act and potency and seem to each constitute a world of its own, the human intellect is entirely possible with respect to the act of understanding, and so requires sensation, the receiving of act from without, to be and to do what an intellect is and does. Thus the existence of the material world, which man does not merely observe, but of which man is also a part. But given that everything constituted of matter admits of multiplicity, so man (unlike every other intellectual being) admits of multiplicity within a common species, which taken as whole is still considered lower than the lowest of the separated substances.

blessingUltimately, the only aspect here that caught my eye is that NGE conceives of humanity taken as a whole as constituting an Angel alongside (or really after) each of the other Angels taken individually, just as the intellectual order occupied by the entire human species is comparable to a single separated substance which occupies its own order. I do not think any of these reflections particularly shed light on the complex world and plot of NGE, but rather the show occasioned me remembering these things which I studied some time ago. Given that the Kabbalah and Jewish philosophy seem to be a more proximate source for the series, that would certainly be more relevant, but that would require much more reading and studying for another day.

Eventually, I do want to consider the Human Instrumentality Project as conceived by NGE and how it compares to other concepts in theology, but that is for another day.

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