Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae


11.1) Satan as a Pure Spirit: The synthesis of Thomas Aquinas

The world of Peter Lombard was the world of the universities, which was even more refined and theorized a hundred years later, when Thomas Aquinas came upon the scene.  Thomas, a member of the Dominican Order, is to be contrasted with less intellectual Dominicans like James of Varazze, author of the Golden Legend (ca. 1260) and William Peyraut, author of the popular Summa on the Virtues and Vices (from the 1230s).  Peyraut retailed the same sort of “foolish-Devil stories” as James, drawing on such sources as Conversations with the Fathers of John Cassian (d. ca. 435)–otherwise known (to me, at least) as Tall Tales from the Desert–and Gregory the Great’s Dialogues.  Such stories were also to be found in collections of sermons and in sermon-handbooks, which provided great numbers of exempla (anecdotes) gathered alphabetically by subject.

            Thomas, however, was headed for Academe, and, as I noted above, like other doctoral candidates in theology, he had to write a commentary on Lombard’s Sentences.  He performed this task in the 1250s, exactly a century after Lombard composed his work.  In response to the questions about Satan treated above, Thomas says that all Catholics hold for certain that some Angels sinned and became Demons; but it is difficult to see how they sinned, except that it somehow involved seeking equality with God, and that the first sin was pride (Comm. Sent.  Although Augustine left



undetermined the question of whether Lucifer was the highest Angel, Gregory decided in the affirmative; this is the common view, and it is reasonable (  Lucifer’s sin was the cause of the others’ sins (

The Fallen Angels can be located in space, not according their essence (since they are incorporeal), but according to their operation.  The Middle Air and Hell suit them as places of punishment, and so does the Earth as the site of their activity concerning us; but they are constantly tormented in a spiritual way by Hellfire (Comm. Sent.; ad 6).  It is reasonable to suppose that there is a hierarchy among Demons; it is probable the some Angels fell from each order (  Everyone agrees that when a Demon is conquered, his temptation ceases to some extent, but it is not clear in what way (

In his brief notes on the text of Distinction 6, Thomas explains the statement, “The Dragon falling from Heaven dragged with it a third part of the stars,” which is Lombard’s paraphrase of Revelation 12.3-4, in this way:  “By the Dragon is understood Lucifer himself; by the tail, the persuasion he used to express his desire to the others; and by the stars, the Angels, shining with their natural light.”

It is striking that Thomas nowhere in his vast corpus of writings explains the nature of the battle between the Dragon and Michael in the twelfth chapter of Revelation.  In fact, he is very sparing altogether in his references to Revelation.  At one point, he speaks of John’s visions as “imaginary,” like those of Isaiah (Sum. Theol. 22.175.3, resp. to objection 4).2

            We notice that Thomas chooses not to take up the question raised by Lombard about Satan’s being bound, which of course, was prompted by the Book of Revelation.  It may be that the question didn’t



make much sense from Thomas’s point of view—which was that Satan and the other Fallen Angels were incorporeal, that is, Pure Spirits.

            The corporeality or noncorporeality of the Angels is something that Lombard did not make up his mind about.  But Augustine before him was certain that they were corporeal, having bodies of air, while Thomas after him insisted that they have nothing corporeal about them.  As Pure Spirits, they have gigantic intellects and powers.

            It is interesting to see that Thomas never speaks of the Devil in the plural.  He mentions “Devils” only when quoting other authors.  For him there is only one Devil, Satan.  Nevertheless, he does identify the Fallen Angels with Demons, including those miserable Disease-Demons of the Gospels, who now turn out to be Cosmic Einsteins, and not simply insignificant parasites looking for a home.  Thomas, however, doesn’t use the Gospel term, the neuter Demonia—that is, “Demonoids”—but the masculine Demones.

* * *

A decade or so after writing his commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, Thomas began his great undergraduate textbook for Dominican Friars, the Summa Theologica (James of Varazze missed out on it because he was just a little bit too old).

When he approaches the subject of Fallen Angels on his own, Thomas starts out by saying that the first sin of an Angel must be pride, and that the only other sin that an Angel, being purely spiritual, could possibly commit is envy.  All other sins deal with bodily appetites, and so are out of the running.  Pride means insubordination, not submitting to one’s superior.  Envy means sorrowing over another’s good, in this case, Mankind’s (ST 1.63.2).

Now, then, let’s look at the pride thing a bit more closely.  It turns out that “the Devil without any doubt sinned by wanting to be ‘as God’ is.”  This can only mean that he wanted to be “like God” in achieving happiness on his own, rather than receiving it as a gift from God.  This analysis gibes, Thomas says, with what Anselm says in his Dialogue on the Fall of the Devil:  namely, that the Devil could have had what he wanted if he had only stayed the way he was (ST 1.63.3).



All this seems pretty stupid on the Devil’s part, doesn’t it?  What gives?  I thought he was supposed to be really smart.  And all those other Angels, now Demons, screwed up in the same way!

As for the question of whether the Devil sinned in the first instance of his existence, Thomas says that this idea is contrary to Scripture.  For the Devil is spoken of in Isaiah 14, under the figure of the Prince of Babylon, thus:  “How hast thou fallen, O Lucifer, thou who wert rising in the morning!”  The Devil is also spoken of in Ezekiel 28, under the figure of the Prince of Tyre:  “Thou wert among the delights of the Paradise of God” (ST 1.63.5).

Some authorities, like St. John Damascene (the great Greek theologian, who died ca. 754), hold that the Fallen Angels were from a lower or the lowest rank, which had charge of corporeal matters.  But while this is a tenable view, it’s more probable that they were from the higher orders, and that Gregory the Great is right in holding that the Devil was the highest Angel of all.  The Devil is called a Cherub (in Ezekiel 28) and not a Seraph, because Cherubim receive their name from knowledge, which admits of sin, whereas the Seraphim are named from charity, which is incompatible with sin (ST 1.63.7).  Thomas decides that the Devil talked the other Angels into falling.  The reference to “the Devil and his Angels” in Matthew 25.41 shows that all of the Fallen Angels are subordinate to him (ST 1.63.8).

More Angels stayed good than became Demons.  This is self-evident to those who believe that only Angels from the lowest order fell.  For those who believe that the Major Devil was from the highest order, it is probable that some fell from each order.  In Scripture, however, the names of some orders, like the Seraphim and Thrones, are not attributed to Demons.  We’ve seen the reason in the case of the Seraphim; as for Thrones, their name refers to God’s habitation.  Demons are, however, given the names of the knowledge-based ranks:  Cherubim, Powers, and Principalities (ST 1.63.9).

Now then, we have seen that the Fallen Angels, for all their brilliance, were dumb enough to turn away from God and ruin themselves forever.  What happened next?  Did they get even dumber?  (To put it



another way, were they transformed into the lame-brained Demons we have witnessed in the Golden Legend?)  That is basically Thomas’s next question.  Were their minds darkened?  Answer:  The knowledge that is natural to them as Angels was not affected at all.  The knowledge given by grace, involving speculation, was not totally taken away, but was diminished.  The knowledge that produces love and wisdom, however, is completely gone.  Furthermore, even the Good Angels did not perfectly understand the mystery of the Kingdom of God; much less did the Demons, or Fallen Angels, understand the Mystery of the Incarnation when Christ was in the world (ST 1.64.1).

Demons, like damned souls, are completely fixed in evil; no conversion or redemption is possible for them (ST 1.64.2).  The Demons have two places of punishment.  One is Hell, where they will go eventually, and the other is the Smoggy Air, where they ply their functions of “exercising” human beings.  Some Demons, however, are in Hell already, where they torture the souls of those whom they induced to sin, just as some Good Angels are in Heaven with the souls of the saints.  But after the Day of Judgment, all the Bad, both Angels and Men, will be in Hell, and all the Good, Men as well as Angels, will be in Heaven (ST 1.64.4).

Well, it seems as if that pretty much answers our question above.  Thomas certainly does not think that the Devil is bound in Hell, since he’s not in Hell at all!  And there doesn’t seem to be any need for him to be there until the End of Time.

Next, let’s look at Satan and Adam.  Thomas says that because Man was overcome by the Devil’s temptation, he deserved to be put under the Devil’s power (ST 3.49.2).  But why?!  That doesn’t seem right.  Why on earth would the Devil be given anything?  Thomas doesn’t stop to explain what reason God would have for doing such a thing.  Let’s look at his statement more closely:

Homo suo peccato meruit ut in potestatem traderetur Diaboli, per cujus tentationem fuerat superatus.



That is:

Man by his sin merited to be given over to the power of the Devil, because it was by his temptation that he was overcome.

This matter is so important that it deserves to be given a PowerPoint presentation.  Let’s lay it out in easily understandable bullet-points:










Hmm.  It still doesn’t seem right.  In fact, it seems totally unfair.  Good thing it’s not really in the Bible!

Thomas is following Augustine here on the idea of the Devil’s power over Humankind.  He says:

The Passion of Christ freed us from the Devil, in that through the Passion of Christ the Devil exceeded the limit on the power given to him by God, when he machinated the death of Christ, who did not have the merit of death, since He was without sin.  Thus Augustine says, in The Trinity, book 13:  “The Devil was conquered by Christ’s uprightness.  For even though the Devil found nothing in Him that was worthy of death, he killed Him anyway.  Likewise, it is only right that the debtors whom the Devil was detaining should be let go scot-free—that is, those who believe in Christ.  For the Devil killed Christ even though He was not indebted to him in any way.”  (ST 3.49.2)

So it seems that, according to Augustine, the Devil had been authorized to enslave all of Humanity as owing him a debt, and to eventually throw them into an eternal Debtors’ Prison.  Thomas, however, side-steps the idea that anything had to be paid to the Devil by Christ, but he brushes past it pretty closely—almost a side-swipe!



Of course, Thomas places the blame for Man’s sin squarely on Man’s own shoulders.  The Devil was not the direct cause; he only made a suggestion.  It was Man’s will that gave in to the suggestion (ST 21.80.1).  The Devil continues to operate in the same way on Adam’s descendants, by working on our senses and imaginations.  In a way, he is the cause of all sins, since he first induced Man to sin, which in turn weakened his nature and made him prone to commit more sins.  But we can’t say that the Devil is responsible for actually tempting us to committing all of our new sins, because, as Origen points out, even if there were no Devil, we would still have desire for food and sex and so on, which, if disordered, could lead to sin (ST 21.80.4).

In short, the Devil induced Adam to sin, which made us all likely to sin, so we can take care of further sinning without any more urging by the Devil.  Except that he does like to lend a hand.  The Devil’s tempting activities, however, are strictly regulated by God, whose permission is required for all that he does (ST 3.49.2).  So things are not as bad as they might otherwise seem.

Even though the Passion of Christ took away the Devil’s possession of all Humanity, every person who sins becomes a subject of Satan.  And just as Christ is the Head of the Church, which is His Mystical Body, there is a kind of Mystical Body of the Devil as well.  The Devil is the Head of all the wicked, insofar as they imitate him—and here Thomas quotes Wisdom 2.24:  “By the envy of the Devil Death entered the Globe of Earth, and those who are of his party imitate him” (ST 3.8.7).

Finally, here’s an interesting twist.  Adam was the important sinner, not Eve, for if only Eve had sinned and not Adam, Original Sin (along with the propensities to commit further sins, the necessity of dying, and the guilt that deserved eternal Hellfire) would not have been passed on.  The reason is that, as philosophers tell us, it’s the male who contributes the active principle in generation, while the female provides only the passive matter (ST


11.1        1Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences has not been translated into English.  I use the edition in the Opera omnia, 25 vols. (Parma 1852-73, repr. New York: Musurgia, 1948), vols. 5-8; see vol. 6, pp. 431-35 for the text cited here:  book 2, distinction 5, question 1, articles 1-3.

                2Thomas’s Summa Theologica can be found in the English translation of the Dominican Fathers (Benziger Brothers edition of 1947) online:  The reference here is to the Secunda Secundae (Part 2 of Part 2).