Thomas Aquinas on the Prophet and Imaginary Visions

How to understand Aquinas’ use of imaginarius and imaginarias visiones in the office of prophecy.

The English translation of the Latin Imaginarius is typically imaginary, and imaginarius visiones as imaginary visions. However, this is not satisfactory. The use of the English word imaginary may mislead the reader. To many it means a personal fantasy, a child-like hallucination, an imaginary friend, or something that is totally cognatively disassociated. This is not what Aquinas intended.

Imaginarias visiones routinely occurs in many of Aquinas’ writings, however, this discussion will concentrate on the usage in his Commentary of I Corinthians, Chapter 14:1-4. The actual discussion is based on the Latin as found in Robert Busa’s, S. Thomae Opera. Fromman-Holzboog, 1980. An identical online edition can be found at the Vatican’s website, clerus.org.

Here is one of the better examples of Aquinas’ use of imaginarias:

secundum ergo hos modos prophetiae, dicuntur aliqui diversis modis prophetae. aliquando enim aliquis dicitur propheta, qui habet omnia ista quatuor, scilicet quod videt imaginarias, et habet intelligentiam de eis, et audacter annuntiat aliis, et operatur miracula, * et de hoc dicitur num. xii, 6: si quis fuerit inter vos propheta, etc.. aliquando autem dicitur propheta ille, qui habet solas imaginarias visiones, sed tamen improprie et valde remote aliquando etiam dicitur propheta, qui habet intellectuale lumen ad explanandum etiam visiones imaginarias, sive sibi, sive alteri factas, vel ad expondendum dicta prophetarum, vel scripturas apostolorum.

Now here is an English translation by Fabian Larcher, who is considered one of the leading authorities on Aquinas:

“Therefore, according to these modes of prophecy some are called prophets in various ways. For sometimes one is called a prophet, because he possesses all four, namely, that he sees imaginary visions, and has an understanding of them and he boldly announces to others and he works miracles. Concerning such a one it says in Num. (12:6): “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, will appear to him in a dream, or will speak to him by means of a dream.

But sometimes one who has solely imaginary visions is called a prophet, but in an improper sense and very remotely so. Again, one is called a prophet, if he has the intellectual light to explain even imaginary visions made to himself or someone else, or for explaining the sayings of the prophets or the Scriptures of the apostles.”

Fabian left imaginarias visiones untranslated. This anglicization of a Latin word distorts the intention of Aquinas. Larcher demonstrates a real problem. If imaginarias visiones left unchanged does not represent Aquinas intent for the English reader, what alternative is there? This requires some further investigation. A good place to start is consulting an English dictionary.

The traditional definition, as found at Miriam Webster is:

“The act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.”

The focus on Miriam Webster’s definition is a person’s perception of reality, not what really is true, which goes against the sense Aquinas meant. However, the portion about how the mental image or sense is stimulated is closer to Aquinas’ intent. In Aquinas’ case, he is referring to a deity or an external influence that has planted inside a person a mental image. There is no modern English equivalent that aligns to what Aquinas is attempting to explain, partially due to the fact that most modern readers assign divine or mystic illumination in the realm of legend. A better English word that would reflect Aquinas’ intention would be illumination, which correctly signals an outside influence. However, the modern English word, illumination is the prodigy from the Latin word illuminatio. This is frequently used in Latin literature and has a slightly different nuance than our modern English usage. It just causes more confusion. So illumination cannot be used.

If one searches the internet for a good definition, it is difficult to find. The majority of searches will direct one to readings of Aquinas’ actual texts with no variance in the English translations. They all read imaginary visions.

Teresa of Avila’s, The Interior Castle, has an editorial insert that provides some insight on how to understand it from a later Catholic perspective:

“AN IMAGINARY VISION OR LOCUTION is one where nothing is seen or heard by the senses of seeing or hearing, but where the same impression is received that would be produced upon the imagination by the senses if some real object were perceived by them. For, according to the Scholastics, the Imagination stands half-way between the senses and the intellect, receiving impressions from the former and transmitting them to the latter. This is the reason why imaginary Visions and Locutions are so dangerous that, according to St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and other spiritual writers, they should not only never be sought for, but as much as possible shunned and under all circumstances discountenanced. For the Imagination is closely connected with the Memory, so that it is frequently impossible to ascertain whether a Vision, etc., is not perhaps a semi-conscious or unconscious reproduction of scenes witnessed. It is here also that deception, wilful or unwilful, self-deception or deception by a higher agency, is to be feared. Hence the general rule that such Visions or Locutions should only be trusted upon the strongest grounds. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, (Summa theol. IIa IIæ, gu. 175, art. 3 ad q.) the visions of Isaias, St. John in the Apocalypse etc., were Imaginary.”

This definition is far from satisfactory. It does not define the word imagination for the English mind. It assumes the reader understands already its religious significance, which most do not. It also demonstrates a more formative doctrine has developed on the subject centuries later after the time of Aquinas.

The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought has one of the few concise definitions: “an inner picture observed by the mind’s eye” — though it once again does not indicate any role of the supernatural.

Evelyn Underhill described yet another definition in her book, Mysticism:

“. . . Imaginary Vision, as in “interior words,” there is again no sensorial hallucination. The self sees sharply and clearly, it is true : but is perfectly aware that it does so in virtue of its most precious organ – “that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.” Imaginary Vision is the spontaneous and automatic activity of a power which all artists, all imaginative people, possess. So far as the machinery employed in it is concerned, there is little real difference except in degree between Wordsworth’s imaginary vision of the “dancing daffodils” and Suso’s of the dancing angels, who “though they leapt very high in the dance, did so without any lack of gracefulness.” Both are admirable examples of “passive imaginary vision” : though in the first case the visionary is aware that the picture seen is supplied by memory, whilst in the second it arises spontaneously like a dream form the subliminal region, and contains elements which may be attributed to love, belief, and direct intuition of truth.

Such passive imaginary vision-by which I mean spontaneous mental pictures at which the self looks, but in the action of which it does not participate. . .”

Underhill gives some good direction here. However, she is appraising such a definition from a clinical perspective, undervaluing the spiritual or the divine influence in the process. The author may be correct in the final analysis that the imaginary vision is self-derived, but to Aquinas and others it was perceived that this external influence was real. One cannot give meaning to Aquinas without this fact.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas is more detailed in his analysis. He builds a larger framework concerning prophecy based on these key-words. However, once again, the word imagination fails to be properly qualified. It is assumed the reader understands its special semantic place in this teaching, which misses most modern minds.:

“Imaginary visions are produced in the imagination by God or by the angels when a person is either awake or asleep. According to the Gospel, St. Joseph was on several occasions supernaturally instructed in a dream. Although the divine origin of a dream may be difficult to discern, ordinarily when the soul seeks God sincerely, He makes Himself felt either by a feeling of profound peace, or by events that confirm the vision; thus in a dream a sinner may be warned of the urgent necessity of conversion.

Imaginary visions are subject to the illusions of the imagination and of the devil. We have three signs, however, by which to discern whether they are of divine origin: (I) when they cannot be produced or dismissed at will, but come suddenly and last but a short time; (2) when they leave the soul in great peace; (3) when they produce fruits of virtue, a great humility and perseverance in good.

A divine imaginary vision, granted while a person is awake, is almost always accompanied by at least partial ecstasy (for example, the momentary loss of sight) so that the soul may distinguish the interior apparition from external impressions; there is ecstasy also because a soul enraptured and united to God loses contact with external things. No perfect imaginary vision occurs without an intellectual vision, which makes the soul see and penetrate its meaning: for example, the former may concern the sacred humanity of Christ; the second, His divinity.

Imaginary visions should not be desired or asked of God any more than sensible visions; they are in no way necessary to holiness. The perfect spirit of faith and infused contemplation are of superior order and prepare the soul more immediately for divine union.1

It is clear from at least Aquinas’ Commentary on I Corinthians 14 that imaginary vision means a divine source speaking to man inside his mind through a picture narrative. It is a pictorial vision.

How would this then affect the translation noted above on I Corinthians 14 above? A modified Larcher translation should read like this:

“Therefore, according to these modes of prophecy some are called prophets in various ways. For sometimes one is called a prophet, because he possesses all four, namely, that he sees pictorial visions, and has an understanding of them and he boldly announces to others and he works miracles. Concerning such a one it says in Num. (12:6): “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, will appear to him in a dream, or will speak to him by means of a dream.”

But sometimes one who has solely pictorial visions is called a prophet, but in an improper sense and very remotely so. Again, one is called a prophet, if he has the intellectual light to explain even pictorial visions made to himself or someone else, or for explaining the sayings of the prophets or the Scriptures of the apostles.”

This is an important distinction that must be corrected in the English translations of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas devoted a significant amount of space for defining prophecy in the book of Corinthians. It clearly demonstrated that it was an important subject for faith and piety during the 13th century.

This is also a reasoned defense for my translation and commentary of Aquinas’ Lectures on I First Corinthians Chapters 13-14.

Aquinas’ work on prophecy is a piece of literature that has withstood the test of time. It remains a more advanced version than what modern Pentecostalism has so far developed.

Further investigation revealed a family of words used by Aquinas on prophecy. This is covered in the following article, Aquinas on Imagination: Part 2.

Footnotes

  1. christianperfection.info

2 thoughts on “Thomas Aquinas on the Prophet and Imaginary Visions”

  1. Good morning,

    a student of Thomas Aquinus and various theological works here.
    I was wondering if you had read the work of Dr. Joseph P. Farrel and Dr. Scott D. deHart “Transhumanism – A Grimoire of Alchemical Agendas” and your take on this work in case you have read it?

    Thank You!
    Thomas Mueller
    Hendersonville NC

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