Summary Against Modern Thought: The Ordering Among Angels

Summary Against Modern Thought: The Ordering Among Angels

Previous post.

Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.


1 Since bodily things are ruled by spiritual things, as we showed, and since there is an order of bodily things, the higher bodies must be ruled by the higher intellectual substances, while the lower bodies are ruled by the lower ones. Moreover, since the higher a substance is the more universal is its power, but the power of an intellectual substance is more universal than the power of a body, the higher intellectual substances, then, have powers incapable of functioning through bodily power, and so they are not united with bodies. But the lower ones have particular powers that are capable of functioning through certain bodily organs, and so they must be united with bodies.

Notes Humans are intellectual cyborgs.

2 Now, as the higher intellectual substances are more universal in their power, they are also more perfectly receptive of divine control from Him, in the sense that they know the plan of this order down to its singular details because they receive it from God. However, this manifesting of the divine ordering stretches down by divine action to the last of the intellectual substances; as it is stated: “Is there any numbering of His soldiers? And upon whom shall not His light arise?” (Job 25:3).

But the lower understandings do not receive it with such perfection that they are able to know through it the individual details which pertain to the order of providence, and which they are to execute. Rather, they know them in a general sort of way. The lower they are, the fewer details of the divine order do they receive through the first illumination which they get from the divine source. So much so, that the human understanding, which is the lowest according to natural knowledge, gets a knowledge of certain most universal items only.

Notes CS Lewis knew this in Screwtape Letters.

3 And thus, the higher intellectual substances obtain immediately from God a perfect knowledge of the aforementioned order; and then, other lower substances must obtain this perfect knowledge through them, just as we said above that the student’s universal knowledge is brought to perfection by the knowledge of the teacher who knows in detail.

Hence, Dionysius, speaking of the highest intellectual substances whom he calls the first hierarchy, that is, the sacred sovereignty, says: “they are not sanctified by other substances but they are immediately ranged about Himself by the Godhead and are conducted to the immaterial and invisible beauty, in so far as it is permitted, and to the knowable reasons for the divine workings.” And thus, through them, he says, “those placed below in the ranks of the celestial essences are instructed.” In this way, then, the higher understandings receive a perfect knowledge from a higher source of knowledge.

4 Moreover, in every arrangement of providence this ordering of effects is derived from the form of the agent, because the effect must proceed from the cause by virtue of a certain likeness. Now, the fact that an agent communicates a likeness of his form to his effects is due to some end. So, the first principle in providential arrangement is the end; the second is the form of the agent; and the third is the arrangement of the order of the effects. Therefore, the highest function in the order of understanding is for the rational nature of the order to be considered in relation to the end; and the second most important thing is to observe it in relation to the form; while the third thing is to know the arrangement of this order in itself, and not in a higher source.

Thus, the art which considers the end is architectonic in relation to the one which considers the form, as the art of navigating a ship is to the art of making one; but the art which considers the form is architectonic in relation to the art which merely considers the orders of the motions that are ordered in terms of the form, as the art of shipbuilding orders the skill of the workmen.

5 So, there is a definite order in those understandings which grasp immediately in God Himself a perfect knowledge of the order of divine providence. For the highest and first intellects perceive the plan of the providential order in the ultimate end itself, which is the divine goodness, and some of them do so more clearly than others. These are called Seraphim, meaning the “ardent” or “burning” ones, because the intensity of love or desire, which are functions concerned with the end, is customarily symbolized by fire. Thus Dionysius says that, as a result of this name of theirs, there is a suggestion of “their mobility in relation to the divine, a fervent and flexible mobility, and of their leading of lower things to God,” as to their end.

Notes It is well to remind the reader off Satan’s (once) high rank.

6 The second type of understandings know the plan of providence perfectly in the divine form itself. These are called Cherubim, which means “fullness of knowledge.” Indeed, knowledge is made perfect through the form of the knowable object. Hence, Dionysius says that this way of naming them suggests that they are “capable of contemplating the first operative power of divine beauty.”

7 Then, the third type of understandings consider the very arrangement of the divine judgments in themselves. These are called Thrones; for, by thrones the judiciary power is symbolized, according to this text: “You sit on the throne and judge justice” (Ps. 9:5). And so Dionysius says that this designation suggests that they are “bearers of God, immediately available for all divine undertakings.”

8 Now, the preceding statements are not to be understood in the sense that there is a difference between divine goodness, divine essence, and divine knowledge as it contains the arrangement of things; rather, there is a different way of considering each one.

9 So, also, among the lower spirits who attain, through the higher spirits, a perfect knowledge of the divine order which they are to carry out there must be some order. In fact, the superior ones among them have a more universal power of knowing; hence, they obtain knowledge of the order of providence through principles and causes that are more universal, whereas the lower ones acquire it in more particular causes.

For instance, the man who could consider the order of all natural things in the celestial bodies would be possessed of higher understanding than the man who is obliged, for the sake of perfect knowledge, to direct his gaze upon the lower bodies. So, those who can perfectly know the order of providence in the universal causes, which are intermediaries between God, Who is the most universal cause, and particular causes are intermediate between the ones who are able to consider the plan of this order in God Himself and the ones who must consider it in particular causes. These are placed by Dionysius in the middle hierarchy, for, just as it is directed by the highest, so also does it direct the lowest one, as he says in On the Celestial Hierarchy VIII.

10 Moreover, there must be a definite order among these intellectual substances. In fact, the very arrangement in general, according to providence, is assigned first to many executors. This is accomplished through the order of Dominations, for it is the function of those who hold dominion to prescribe what the others execute. Hence, Dionysius says that the word Domination suggests “a certain freedom from control, placed above all servitude and superior to all subjection.”

11 Then, secondly, there is a distribution and multiplication in the form of diverse effects on the part of the agent and executor. In fact, this is done by the order of Virtues, whose name, as Dionysius says in the same place, suggests “a strong forcefulness in regard to all Godlike operations, one which does not abandon its Godlike movement because of any weakening in itself.”

It is evident from this that the source of universal operation belongs to this order. Hence it appears that pertinent to this order is the motion of the celestial bodies, from which bodies as universal causes, the particular effects in nature follow. So, they are called “the powers of the heavens” where it is said: “the powers of the heavens shall be moved” (Luke 21:26). Also pertinent to these spirits is the execution of divine works which are done outside the order of nature, for these are most sublime among the divine ministrations. For which reason, Gregory says, “those spirits are called Virtues through which miracles are frequently wrought” [In Evangelium, homil. 34]. And if there be anything else that is universal and primary in the carrying out of divine ministrations, it is proper to assign it to this order.

12 And, thirdly, the universal order of providence, already established in the effects, is guarded from all confusion, provided those things which might disturb this order are kept in check. Now, this pertains to the order of Powers. Hence, Dionysius says, in the same place, that the word Powers means “a well-ordered and unconfused ordering in regard to divine undertakings.” And Gregory says that pertinent to this order “is to check contrary powers.”

13 Now, the lowest of the superior intellectual substances are those who receive the order of divine providence from a divine source, as it is knowable in particular causes. These are put immediately in charge of human affairs. Hence, Dionysius says of them: “this third order of spirits commands, in turn, the human hierarchies.” By human affairs we must understand all lower natures and particular causes which are related to man and which fall to the use of man, as is clear from the foregoing.

Notes Angels and demons are in immediate charge. These creatures are now introduced.

14 Of course, there is a certain order among these. For in human affairs there is a common good which is, in fact, the good of a state or a people, and this seems to belong to the order of Principalities. Hence, Dionysius says, in the same chapter, that the name Principality suggests “a certain leadership along with sacred order.”

For this reason, mention is made of “Michael the Prince of the Jews,” and of “a Prince of the Persians and a Prince of the Greeks” (Dan. 10:13, 20). And so, the arrangement of kingdoms and the changing of domination from one people to another ought to belong to the ministry of this order. Also, the instruction of those who occupy the position of leaders among men concerning matters pertinent to the administration of their rule seems to be the concern of this order.

15 There is also a type of human good which does not lie in the community, but pertains to one person as such; whose profit is not confined to one but is available to many. Examples are the things to be believed and practiced by all and sundry, such as items of faith, of divine worship, and the like. This pertains to the Archangels, of whom Gregory says: “they announce the most important things.” For instance, we call Gabriel an Archangel, because he announced the Incarnation of the Word to the Virgin, for the belief of all.

16 Still another human good is pertinent to each person individually. This type of good belongs to the Angels; of whom Gregory says: “they announce less important things.”

So, they are said to be “guardians of men,” according to the Psalm (90:11): “He gave His angels charge over you, to keep you in all thy ways.”

Hence, Dionysius says that the Archangels are intermediate between the Principalities and the Angels, having something in common with both: with the Principalities, “in so far as they have charge of leading the lower angels,” and this is as it should be, for in human affairs private goods should be allotted on the basis of the things that are common; and in common with the Angels, because “they make announcements to the Angels and through the Angels to us,” and the function of the Angels is to make known to men “the things that pertain to them, in accord with what is proper to each man.” For this reason, too, the last order takes the common name for its own special one; that is to say, because it has the duty of making announcements immediately to us. That is also why the name Archangel is composed of both names, for Archangels are called, as it were, Principal Angels.

Notes Hence guardian angels.

17 However, Gregory assigns a different ordering to the celestial spirits; for he numbers the Principalities among the intermediate spirits, immediately after the Dominations, while he puts the Virtues among the lowest, before the Archangels. But to people who consider the matter carefully the two ways of ordering them differ but slightly.

In fact, according to Gregory, Principalities are called, not those put in charge of peoples, but “who are given leadership even over good spirits,” as if they held first position in the execution of the divine ministrations. He says, indeed, that “to be put in the position of leader is to stand out as first among the rest.”

Now, we said that this characteristic, in the previously given arrangement, belongs to the order of Virtues. But, according to Gregory, the Virtues are those related to certain particular operations, when in some special case outside the general order something has to be done miraculously. On the basis of this meaning, they are quite appropriately put in the same order with the lowest ones.

18 Moreover, both ways of ordering them can find support in the words of the Apostle. For he says: “Sitting Him,” that is, Christ, “on His right hand in heavenly places, above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion” (Eph. 3:20-21).

It is clear that in the ascending order of this list he placed Powers above Principalities, and the Virtues above these, and the Dominations over these. Now, this is the order that Dionysius kept. However, to the Colossians, in speaking of Christ, he says: “whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers, all things were created by Him and in Him” (Col. 1:16). In this text it appears that, starting with Thrones and going downward, he placed under them the Dominations, under them the Principalities, and under these the Powers. Now, this is the order that Gregory retained.

Notes Will all these orderings, do keep in mind paragraph 8.

19 Mention is made of the Seraphim in Isaiah (6:2, 6); of the Cherubim in Ezekiel 1 (3ff); of the Archangels in the canonical Epistle of Jude (9): “When Michael the archangel, disputing with the devil, etc.”; and of the Angels in the Psalms, as we have said.

20 There is also this common feature in all ordered powers, that all lower ones act by virtue of the higher power. Hence, what we explained as pertaining to the order of Seraphim all the lower orders carry out through the power of the Seraphim. And the same conclusion should be applied to the other orders, too.


  1. Michael 2

    Summarized: Hierarchy in heaven.

  2. Howard

    “If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?” The relative ranks of the eye, ear, and nose depend on what one is doing. That applies to the parts of the body, and St. Paul applies it to the Church; it almost certainly applies to angels as well.

  3. I suppose this is good as an explanation of rank and order. Having said that, we are speaking about a Divine authorship and it would seem presumptuous to proclaim this the authoritative word on the subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *