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Angelism and bestialism: a division of the soul

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 5 March 2015

I suspect that the term "Angelism" was first coined by the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. He certainly used the term as a description of abstract painting since such art corresponds to no earthly object and thus could be called "angelic".

The next contact I have had with the term is in Walker Percy's novel "Love in the Ruins" (1970). Percy uses the term to denote a disease of the soul. He gives some definitions. A person suffering from angelism may be described as, "Being like god in one's freedom and omniscience," or suffering from "abstraction of the self from the self"

Being "totally abstracted from himself, totally alienated from the concrete world, and in such a state of angelism that he will fall prey to the first abstract notion proposed to him and will kill anybody who gets in his way, torture, execute, wipe out entire populations, all with the best possible intentions, in fact in the name of peace and freedom etc etc."


One of the symptoms of angelism is that one rejects the idea of original sin as applied to oneself. In our rush to overturn the old order and to claim a new freedom from guilt we have abolished the idea that no matter what we do, something at the heart of our lives is broken.

This leads directly to a triumphalist humanism that dangerously underestimates our capacity for evil. We find ourselves singing along with the Beatles "All you need is love." Under these lights all of history is a simple mistake because the solution to the human dilemma is to mean well and act with love. This discounts the darkness we find in our own hearts and the powers and principalities that exist in the world.

We see ourselves as angels, as creatures of pure thought unfettered by bodily existence even though the evidence of history and our own lives argues against it. We exist as angels exist, orbiting the earth but with no place to land and be incarnate. This leaves us with a feeling that we are not actually attached to the lives we live.

Severe angelism can make us slaves to ideas, sporting clubs, service organisations, good intentions and patriotism. People thus infected will try to get you to read books like The Celestine Prophecy or join groups whose aim is to make the world a better place. They think themselves spiritual.

The Church in the West was infected by angelism by one of its greatest founders, Augustine of Hippo. His Platonism gave him an uncertain relationship to the body. He was worried about sex. After a life of concubinage and indulgence before his conversion, he found the celibate life a trial. What he worried about was the loss of control that he had felt in the act of sex. Augustine famously made the analogy between the three persons of the Trinity as representing, power, memory and will. That is what God was like for Augustine, especially will. The act of sex was a threat to the will; it represented a loss of control. He speculated that if it were not for the Fall, men would be able to move the phallus as they moved their limbs and thus could impregnate women unpassionately. The women thus impregnated would do so intacta.

This is obviously a form of abstraction. Augustine could not quite reconcile that God was incarnate in an actual body with all that entailed and hence he was embarrassed for God.


Platonism leads to angelism because it emphasises the idea over the material. But the chief protagonist for us in all of this is our old friend Descartes who, as Percy describes, produced "the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since the famous philosopher Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house."

This is how we have become aliens within our own selves, abstracted, like the character Angela in John Updike's "Couples" who would wander among the stars from life to life and who conceals the death of her children's pets from them.

Angelism has a mirror image, bestialism. Persons who are abstracted in the other direction, towards the material, suffer this. This malaise is common among scientists who see life as a very complicated mechanism and who are suspicious of feelings such as longing because they are a danger to their objectivity.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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