Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Of the Nature of Angels
By Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682)
 
From Religio Medici

THEREFORE, for spirits, I am so far from denying their existence, that I could easily believe, that not only whole countries, but particular persons, have their tutelary and guardian angels. It is not a new opinion of the church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato: there is no heresy in it: and if not manifestly defined in Scripture, yet it is an opinion of a good and wholesome use in the course and actions of a man’s life; and would serve as an hypothesis to salve many doubts, whereof common philosophy affordeth no solution. Now, if you demand my opinion and metaphysicks of their natures, I confess them very shallow; most of them in a negative way, like that of God; or in a comparative, between ourselves and fellow-creatures: for there is in this universe a stair, or manifest scale, of creatures, rising not disorderly, or in confusion, but with a comely method and proportion. Between creatures of mere existence and things of life there is a large disproportion of nature: between plants and animals, or creatures of sense, a wider difference: between them and man, a far greater: and if the proportion hold on, between man and angels there should be yet a greater. We do not comprehend their natures, who retain the first definition of Porphyry; and distinguish them from ourselves by immortality: for, before his fall, man also was immortal: yet must we needs affirm that he had a different essence from the angels. Having, therefore, no certain knowledge of their nature, ’tis no bad method of the schools, whatsoever perfection we find obscurely in ourselves, in a more complete and absolute way to ascribe unto them. I believe they have an extemporary knowledge, and, upon the first motion of their reason, do what we cannot without study or deliberation: that they know things by their forms, and define, by specifical difference, what we describe by accidents and properties: and therefore probabilities to us may be demonstrations unto them; that they have knowledge not only of the specifical, but numerical, forms of individuals, and understand by what reserved difference each single hypostasis 1 (besides the relation to its species) becomes its numerical self; that, as the soul hath a power to move the body it informs, so there’s a faculty to move any, though inform none: ours upon restraint of time, place, and distance: but that invisible hand that conveyed Habakkuk to the lion’s den, or Philip to Azotus, infringeth this rule, and hath a secret conveyance, wherewith mortality is not acquainted. If they have that intuitive knowledge, whereby, as in reflection, they behold the thoughts of one another, I cannot peremptorily deny but they know a great part of ours. They that, to refute the invocation of saints, have denied that they have any knowledge of our affairs below, have proceeded too far, and must pardon my opinion, till I can thoroughly answer that piece of Scripture, “At the conversion of a sinner, the angels in heaven rejoice.” I cannot, with those in that great father, securely interpret the work of the first day, fiat lux, to the creation of angels; though I confess there is not any creature that hath so near a glimpse of their nature as light in the sun and elements: we style it a bare accident; but, where it subsists alone, ’tis a spiritual substance, and may be an angel; in brief, conceive light invisible, and that is a spirit.
  1
 
Note 1. hypostasis = essential substance. [back]
 
 
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