Augustine’s “Sin of Angelism”

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 8

The twentieth-century Thomist Jacques Maritain famously accused Descartes of being guilty of the “sin of angelism”: in thinking that man was essentially a thinking thing that needed no body to exist or to carry out its activity of thought, Descartes mistook the specifically angelic psychology for the human one.

Maritain, however, wasn’t the first to indict someone of angelism: Bonaventure beat him to the punch, and his target was Augustine. Having made his case why it was fitting that God should have created the world over six days, namely to display his Trinitarian attributes of divine power, wisdom, and benevolence, Bonaventure says that,

if from another point of view, it is said that all things were made at once, this is simply considering the work of the seven days from the perspective of the angels. At any rate, the first manner of speaking (i.e., creation over six days) is more in keeping with the Scripture and with the authority of the saints, both those before and after Saint Augustine. (Breviloquium 2.2.5)

In privileging a non-successive, instantaneous creation over one accomplished over the Scriptural six days, Augustine was assuming an angelic rather than a properly human perspective on creation.

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