Category Archives: Philosophy

Aquinas on Imagination Part 2

A detailed look into translating imaginarius, imaginatio, and imaginativus from Aquinas Latin into equivalent English.

A portion of this was previously discussed in Thomas Aquinas on the Prophet and Imaginary Visions, but new instances have arisen since then that have required further investigation.

The word imagination in the English language has very much evolved since the time of Aquinas and translating it simply as imaginary is not a good word choice.

There is much more to these words than previously thought.

The etymologies of the words imaginarius, imaginatio and imaginativa have a rich history. These are words that have significantly evolved and its difficult to pinpoint the meaning during Aquinas’ period because the interpretations of these words are so diverse and no one author explains these words in similar fashion to another. There is also a problem of translating the equivalent from Latin. There is no corresponding English word that captures the nuance. It has been lost in the modern English vocabulary. The following authors demonstrate this difficulty. However, a common unity can be found from these and one should be able to build a proper framework for coming up with a solution that can create something in English that is similar.

The publication, Medieval Latin: an introduction and bibliographical guide, by Frank Anthony Carl Mantello and A. G. Rigg give the first good clue, “the sensus imaginativus, imagination, combines disparate sensory data to form arcane concepts (e.g., a purple cow).”1

A second clue can be gleaned from the book, Sir Matthew Hale, 1609-1676: law, religion, and natural philosophy, by Alan Cromartie.

1. Simple apprehension of an object, which happens through the making of sensible images from objects percieved by sense. 2. The putting together of images which they call propositio imaginativa. 3. The putting together of propositions with a deduction or practical conclusion which they call discursus imaginativus and hense arises the appetite.2

A third definition can be found in the 1751 publication, “Thesavrvs lingvae Latinae compendiarivs or, A compendious dictionary of the Latin Tongue,” by Robert Ainsworth. It promotes imaginarius as to think or to invent.3

A historical analysis on the subject is found on a math website by James Franklin, Diagrammatic Reasoning and Modelling in the Imagination: the Secret Weapons of the Scientific Revolution. Here he goes in detail through the history of observation which includes imagination. His portrait follows the same path as the other writers listed, and adds, “The western scholastics, following Avicenna, produced a very elaborate, and widely known, theory of the ‘inward wits’. It involved five internal faculties, including the ‘imagination’, which stored images, and the ‘phantasy’, (English ‘fancy’), which recombined them.”4 Franklin then goes on to explain how this process has an inherent weakness and its contribution to the witch hunts.

The Middle English Dictionary by Hans Kurath, touted as “the most important modern reference work for Middle English studies,” gives some good illustrations.

He first of all demonstrates a general account of the concept by defining the word imaginacioun which comes from Old French.:

” (a) Phil. The faculty of forming mental images from sense data and of retaining them either immediately or when recalled from memory; (b) more narrowly; the faculty of receiving images from the commune wit [i.e., communis sensus…] and of retaining them; (c) the power of forming mental images of things not experience, e.g. of future or past events, of spirits, etc.; also, the location of the images so formed; (d) an image or thought resulting from the operation of this faculty; (e) the operation of this faculty.5

Imaginativus is the:

“Employing mental images; vertu ~ the ability to form and retain images formed from data supplied to the senses or the communis sensus; also, the faculty of combining images into composites having no correspondence in external phenomena…”6

Then he went to explain what Imaginarius is:

“Existing in the imagination only,” such as when one is sleeping or awake and has an epiphany.7

It must be noted that Hans Kurath supplies a much more developed doctrine after the time of Aquinas. Aquinas had a more primitive version.

Imaginativus is only used once by Aquinas in the small amount of passages that I have translated on I Corinthians and it is a colloquialism. It is found written as, “virtus imaginativa,” which many medieval writers used as a synonym or alternative to imaginatio.8

Finding a definition for Imaginatio. Robyn Neville, author of Monastic Imagination? A Pedagogical Reflection believed this word to mean the processing of the information that was collected inside the mind. He also stressed that Aquinas usage of of imaginatio was a synonym to phantasm.

“Thomas Aquinas’ theory of imagination was indebted in large part to Augustine, but also to the scholastic thinkers, whose work he attempted to synthesize. In particular, Thomas understood the imaginative power to function not only in the creative production of images, but also in the analysis of creative possibilities that the senses alone cannot perceive. For Thomas, imagination (which Thomas terms both phantasia and imaginatio) was a “storehouse” in which to incorporate and recall sense data, as part of the system that processed information.”9

Denis L. Sepper wrote in his, Descarte’s Imagination: Proportion, Images and the Activity of Thinking, that imagination is a “name traditionally given to one of the powers of the mind enumerated in so-called faculty psychologies.”10 He went on to describe imagination is the “the power or habit by virtue of which images are formed in us, is a power of discrimination, it is nevertheless different from other discriminating powers, like the external senses and common sense, because it does not require the presence of an object, although it does depend on the previous activity of these (i.e., if one has never sensed anything, one cannot have images). Because imaginings are not inherently true, imagination must also be differentiated from the cognitive faculties that are always true, like knowledge and intellection. “11.

It has been found only once where Aquinas used the word phantasm in the chapters translated so far which is typically used to bring meaning to a mental image. This would not be surprising to Neville who wrote that phantasm was becoming antiquated and was in the process of being replaced by imaginatio. However, this does not appear to be a strict case with Aquinas. Phantasm was not necessary in his prophetic framework. Although he does briefly use the word imaginatio in the passages translated so far, Interpretatio is the more common word used. A prophet can have a mental multidimensional-image, and has the ability to interpret them, while a tongues speaker may have the ability to speak from a one dimensional-image, but not always has the ability to interpret. Thus, he considered prophecy a higher office because of this. Interpretatio is typically the equivalent of phantasm/imaginatio in Aquinas’ lectures in I Corinthians.

This whole concept is taken to a new level by John F. Wippel in his book, The metaphysical thought of Thomas Aquinas:

“According to Aquinas’s general theory of knowledge, however, other steps are required for this to happen. Still at the level of the internal senses, another internal sense power will produce an image or likeness in which the form of the external object, as appropriately distinguished and organized by the common sense, is preserved. This likeness is known as a phantasm and is produced by the internal sense known as the imagination. This phantasm in turn is submitted to the light of the intellect’s active or abstractive power, the agent intellect, which abstracts the potentially intelligible content contained therein from its individuating conditions and renders it actually intelligible. This abstracted intelligible content in turn is impressed on the other intellective power, the possible intellect (intellectus possibilis), and is grasped or apprehended by it. At this point one will have arrived at some kind of general or universal knowledge of the whatness or quiddity of the thing in question, though one will not yet know it intellectually as this thing, or as an individual.”12

With all this information at hand, it explains what Aquinas meant by these key-words. Imaginativus and Imaginatio is about making a mindful observation from seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, spiritual illumination or the combination of these.

Imaginarius is about the actual images stored in the mind whether derived from the senses or created internally. It does not mean that the person understood or brought together this image into a cohesive definition.

Another way of describing it is as a contemporary database structure. Contemporary databases are typically linear, whereas what Aquinas described contains data stored in the mind as a multidimensional-image, a format that contains visual, touch, smell, spirit and hearing data. Imaginarius is a row of data that are neutral to any other data outside its primary key. It is stateless, neither true or false. Imaginatio is a view that connects the primary and foreign keys, uniting certain bits of information together to bring structure and meaning for a specific purpose.

A third aspect must be explained and that is the role of the intellect and how it differs from imaginatio. Imaginatio refers to an object. For example a dog is composed of a number of physical traits, four legs, wet nose, a distinct bark, smooth fur, and a tail (these traits are derived from the imaginarius). Imaginatio recognizes that these traits combined together defines it as a dog object. Intellectus is an abstraction layer that goes beyond objects, for example, “Lassie the Dog may be treated as a Dog much of the time, a Collie when necessary to access Collie specific attributes or behaviors, and as an Animal (perhaps the parent class of Dog) when counting Timmy’s pets.”13 It speaks about the idea, or concept of a dog and how it applies in a given situation.

The big difference between Aquinas and the modern English usage of imagination is with the concept of reality. Imagination according to Aquinas was the mental snapshot of things that would lead to understanding and solutions, whereas the modern mind equivocates imagination as those things created by the mind which are illusory and have no meaning for real-world situations. Also, Aquinas, along with Medieval writers added the spiritual dimension as a valid sense which they believed had both positive and negative attributes, which today is rejected by most contemporary western minds.

For translating purposes the definition is too long. Seeing with the mind’s eye is a shorter alternative, but it is still too bulky. Wikipedia takes the definition of mind’s eye and reduces it to visualization, “The phrase “mind’s eye” refers to the human ability for visualization, i.e., for the experiencing of visual mental imagery; in other words, one’s ability to “see” things with the mind.”14 Visualization still brings some baggage in the English language but not so much as imagination does. Visualization still feels too clinical. Mind’s eye seems closer to his intent.

With all this information now processed, the semantic range of these difficult adjectives can mean mental image, pictorial, seeing with the mind’s eye, mind’s eye, and visualization. Database terms such as tuple, row, and view could also be valid and is actually my personal preference but would fail the general reader in many cases. Pictorial seems out-of-place with the others and does not give the full nuance, but when combined with visiones it makes good sense.

Now that the definitions have been established, here is an example from Aquinas Lectures on I Corinthians, chapter 14, 1C3 (Reportationes 088, R1C cp. 14, 1C3 Pg. 388):

° spiritus meus, id est ratio mea, ° orat, id est dictat mihi quod ego loquar ea quae ad bonum sunt, sive verbis propriis sive aliorum sanctorum. vel ° spiritus meus, id est virtus imaginativa, ° orat, inquantum voces seu similitudines corporalium sunt tantum in imaginatione absque hoc quod intelligantur ab intellectu; * et ideo subdit: ° mens autem mea, id est intellectus meus, ° sine fructu est, quia non intelligit. et ideo melius est in oratione prophetia seu interpretatio, quam donum linguarum.

Fabian Larcher has translated this piece as:

Or my spirit, i.e., my reason, prays, i.e., tells me that I should ask for things which are good, either in my own words or those of other saints. Or my spirit, i.e., the imagination, prays in the sense that words of the likenesses of bodily things are only in the imagination without being understood by the intellect. Therefore, he adds: but my mind, i.e., my intellect, is unfruitful, because it does not understand. Therefore, prophecy or interpretation is better in prayer than is the gift of tongues.15

The use of imagination here in Larcher’s translation does not represent Aquinas’ thoughts within this context. It demonstrates the need for a better alternative.

“Or “my spirit” that is my reasoning “prays,” which means [my reason] organizes in me so that I may frequently say those things that are for the purpose of good, whether by one’s own words or of the other holy ones. Or “my spirit” that is the viewpoint stored in the mind. “prays,” inasmuch if voices are the likeness of physical things only as a record [in the mind] separate from this which is being understood by the intellect. Therefore he adds, “but my mind,” that is my intellect, “is without fruit,” because he does not understand and therefore prophecy or interpretation is better than the gift of tongues.”

What does Aquinas mean here? The viewpoint stored in the mind, and the actual record of an event, circumstance, or thought remains unprocessed. It is a stored piece of data that has been given no meaning. Tongues remains in the realm of simply dealing with unprocessed data. Prophecy or interpretation is a much better tool because it takes the data and makes sense of it.

Death, Religion and the Modern Man

A look at death from contemporary, religious, philosophical, and personal perspectives.

Death is the one question that modern science still has yet to answer in the most preliminary way. Religion answers questions about death, but this is largely ignored. Philosophy touches on the subject, but this falls short.

In modern western society, our thoughts on the subject are so thoroughly deficient, that we are not only unprepared, we emotionally flee.

It also produces many outcomes in the modern mind which are mainly on the subconscious level.

The fear of death highly influences our emotions and decision-making. Ernest Becker, contributor to the publication, Death: Current Perspectives, would prefer to use the word terror instead. Terror demonstrates how tightly gripped the subject of death is in all our decision making, and is not restricted by ethnic or socio-economic boundaries.1

The fear of death is followed by the avoidance of death. David Gordon, author of Overcoming the Fear of Death, believes that avoidance permeates our lives.

“Our lives are poisoned by a fear of death, and much of our culture represents a response, however inadequate, to this fear. Most of us are afraid to contemplate our own ending, and when anything reminds us that we too shall die, we flee and turn our thoughts to happier matters.”2

This dreadfulness is directly responsible for many mental illnesses. Noted Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg remarks:

“No one is free of the fear of death… the anxiety, neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerably number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate that ever present fear of death.”3

It has built some of the greatest monuments, produced incredible works of art, powerful works of literature, and marvels of engineering. The late controversial philosopher, writer, and political activist Arthur Koestler observed: “If the word death were absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist”.4

Our anxiety is so great that even the words death,, or died is avoided. A study of any newspaper on any given day demonstrates this. For example, my local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press’s November 25th, 2007, Obituary section lists seventeen notices with only four that included the words ‘died’, or ‘death’. The dominant words were ‘passing’, or ‘passing away’. This weakened version of death takes away the significance of the event.

One of our greatest apprehensions about death is being buried alive. Edgar Allan Poe, the revered horror writer of the middle 1800s, was consumed by the this. In his popular short story, The Premature Burial, he worked on this fear and that the idea “should be forced to slumber”, otherwise “they will devour us”.5 Although his works are fictional, they may be representative of his life and his unfortunate early demise.

This theme was also in his Cask of Amontillado, where one of the central characters was tricked and sealed in an ancient cave, forced to resign to the reality of death while still conscious — a powerful and scary metaphor that has been a classic horror story over the centuries.

Countless western philosophers have attempted to address the meaning and purpose of death, such as Martin Heidegger, who concluded in the mid-1900s, “It is only in full… awareness of our own mortality that life can take on any purposive meaning.”6 This becomes more clearly defined in the teachings of Albert Camus, who had a major influence on the hippie generation. Camus taught that life is absurd and meaningless; any attempt to understand it is futile. He urged readers to revolt against the meaninglessness of death. His idea of revolt is to be aware of the crushing fate that awaits us, “but without the resignation that accompanies it”.7 It is a pessimistic outlook on life that basically teaches that life is unfair and sad, but we must make the best of what we have, even if one has to pretend.

Another popular contemporary writer during Camus’s time, Aldous Huxley promoted that one should, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.”8 Which he followed, writing to his attendants for LSD at the last moments of his life.9 Death was an important part of his psyche, culminating in his final piece of literature entitled, Death and Shakespeare.

Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, who named his band from the inspiration of Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, was influenced by Huxley and also author William Blake, who wrote that the “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”10 Morrison mysteriously died at the age of 27 due to heart failure — arguably his pursuit of happiness led to an over-indulgence in stimulants that cost him his life.

This representation of the 1960s promotes the idea that since death is inevitable, simply ignore this reality and live life to the utmost pleasure with few restrictions as possible because this is your one shot at life. This insatiable pursuit of happiness by Morrison and many contemporaries has been existent for at least 2,800 years. One of the first records of this wave of thought can found in writings as early as 800 BC. It was written in the Biblical book called Isaiah, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,”11 which stressed the senselessness of life and any attempt to understand it was meaningless.

Ernest Hemingway, considered the heir apparent of Mark Twain as a literary American giant, based one of his foremost books, “The Sun also Rises”, from a reading of the 2,800 year old or so Book of Ecclesiastes. This book is found in the Bible. The unknown writer of Ecclesiastes parodied that all life lacked any meaning. Some book reviewers clearly correlate the analogy of Ecclesiastes with Hemingway’s philosophy on life:12

“What evolves, then, over the course of Hemingway’s forty-year career as a writer is a comprehensive code for living which acknowledges death as the end point in life.  The characters to whom Hemingway is most sympathetic are those who exhibit grace under the pressure of an acute awareness of death. These characters usually live life in the present and live it to its fullest extent, enjoying the sensual pleasures that life has to offer; characters who are eating, drinking, and being merry with the knowledge that tomorrow they may die.”13

Hemingway celebrated life in the same way, and when he was unable to enjoy life any longer due to physical limitations in his early sixties, committed suicide.

Specialists in the realm of death and dying believe that the anxiety of death is only one of several features concerning death. Death Attitudes Among Mid-Life Women as found in the Journal of Death and Dying, has it broken into seven categories, death as:

  • a concern
  • anticipation
  • depression
  • loss
  • a physical reality
  • denial
  • and dimension of time.14

It correctly suggests that death is a complex subject. However, with the exception of the seventh category, they all relate to a form of anxiety and loss. It doesn’t go into the meaning or purpose of death itself.

Gregory Campbell III, has researched extensively on the subject and has observed some common trends:

“When analyzing the “over 50 death fear,” the students thought it was related to the fact they are so close to death the fear increases. The truth of the matter is the group of 30 to 50 year olds are the ones with the greatest fear of death. They have contributed their share of toil on the planet and now it is time for their reward (retirement, relaxation, etc.). To suddenly be confronted with death is a real tragedy. That is the responsible agent for the heightened fear. Also, as so aptly brought out in class, the individuals at this age oftentimes try for that one last fling in order to try to beat out the suddenly-realized approach of the end of their life. Men around the age of 40 may resort to affairs (to prove their vitality), major changes in lifestyle, daredevil acts, and other abrupt changes in behavior.”15

“…wherever or however death comes, Americans try to handle it with cool, efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery or a summons from the divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death’s managers—the physicians, morticians and statisticians in charge of supervising nature’s planned obsolescence. To the nation that devised the disposable diaper, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste.”16

“…People are now relying less upon religion and must now rely upon themselves for death explanations. If one takes the Heaven and Hell concept away people will concentrate on this life rather than the afterlife. The focus will become the avoidance of death which leads to the problem Americans have with it.”17

These thoughts by Campbell reflect the important role of religion on the discussion of death. Most contemporary minds are unfamiliar with the fact that the traditional dominant western religions were formed and have evolved to resolve the tension of death and the afterlife. The next section deals with this aspect.

The Jewish writers, especially the Talmudic one provide the most detailed answers. Death is the strongest thing made by God and cannot be overcome.

“Ten strong things have been created in the world; a mountain is strong but iron can break it; iron is strong but fire can melt it; fire is strong but water can extinguish it; water is strong but clouds can bear it; clouds are strong but the wind can scatter them; wind is strong but the body can carry it (as breath); the body is strong but terror can break it; terror is strong but wine can drive it out; wine is strong but sleep can counteract it; death, however, is stronger than them all.”18

The Jewish Sages speculated on death and gave important details on life and the hereafter. Questions such as, “is death the opposite of life?”, “how shall the body be re-formed?” “Will the body be clothed or naked when it first rises?” “What old corpus material is required to allow for resurrection?” “Will the corporal defects in this world be transferred to the next world?” “Who will be resurrected?” These were discussed in-depth.

In reference to the existence of the afterlife, the ancient Jews believed that death was not considered the opposite or end of life. Ephraim E. Urbach, a reputable scholar on Jewish thought, claims that the Jewish sages thought death to be the narcotinization of the power of life.19 In other words death attempts to subjugate life to the lowest levels of existence but it does not have the ability to destroy it. A created life is a permanent entity.

The Talmud generally considered death to be an extreme enfeeblement of life, robbing life from most of its power. This is why the dead are sometimes called in Hebrew repha’im, that is, the weak.20

Repha’im is a Hebrew word used primarily for those who have a disease or ill and in need of healing, and sometimes utilized, especially in the 8th century BC, to describe death.

Going back to the first century and into the time of Christ’s time on earth, one finds that the word death is oddly replaced by the word sleep.

Christ described the state of a dead girl as “sleeping”21—which evoked laughter from the audience that surrounded Him. Whether the use of sleep as a reference to death was not used often, or the general public was not familiar with it, or the people understood the term but believed its application to be for the imagination, such as Mary, the brother of Lazarus, who asserted that she knew that her brother would be raised on the last day—a time and place outside her lifetime and senses. Mary did not have any comprehension that Christ could and would raise Lazarus immediately.

The Apostle Paul also used the word ‘sleep’ instead of dead. He tried to posture this against those who believe death to be the terminal end of existence, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”22

It is difficult to know why both Paul and Christ used the word sleep on numerous occasions instead of dead. This term confused even Christ’s followers when He discussed with them to go see Lazarus because he had “fallen asleep”. Christ had to further clarify His terminology and use the word “dead” in order for His disciples to understand.23 As previously stated, this phrase was newly coined to separate the thought of death as a terminal end than continued life in a weakened form. Perhaps the use of sleep was a Pharisaic distinctive that both Christ and Paul continued, or Paul had acquired directly from Christ’s teachings.

The Latin translators carefully captured this in their rendering of the controversial passage in Matthew 27:52 “and many of the bodies of the saints, who had fallen asleep”24 referring to the death of others—sleep here is from dormio, which has the semantic range to not only mean sleep but also to be dormant, or inactive.

Any attempt to correlate sleep with death from a Talmudic perspective is difficult. The Talmud is quiet about the correlation of sleep and death in any significant way, only suggesting that sleep is a 1/60th experience of death.25

Jewish thought refrained from defining death using the Greek dualistic model, that man is mortal concerning his body and immortal in reference to the mind.26 Rather they preferred to believe that the soul, known in Hebrew as nepesh, is everything that a person is made of—the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is the complete product. Man has to await the resurrection on the last day to be restored to completeness.

One of the most difficult questions each one has to ask is, what happens when the body ceases to function? The best systematic literature at least from the Scripture can be found from Paul the Apostle, who outlined two stages of death and the hereafter. First, after one dies, there is a stasis: an incorporal static state awaiting the end of the world.

The second state is the resurrection from an inactive condition into a corporal being.

The time waiting between an incorporeal, unconscious state from death to resurrection, whether one day or a thousand years, may just feel momentary, as the dead are not governed by time.

This waiting state is a point of controversy within some theological circles, many theologians believe that when you die, there is no waiting time and you automatically begin the next life.

The Jewish writers, including those of the Bible, emphasize the resurrection of the dead over immortality of the soul. When we die, we temporarily remain in an inactive condition. We do not live in semi-form such as a ghost, or wander the earth as liberated spirit or go to another dimension.

The Jewish sages also discussed what dead bodily material should be available so that they will rise in the day of resurrection and believed it to be part of the spinal column named Luz.27 It is unclear what part this exactly was but they thought it to be indestructible.

It is clear from the Sages that material from the original body is required for the resurrection.

One can speculate, similarly to the ancient Jewish sages, on how God will physically perform the resurrection. One could argue that the resurrection of the dead is the stimulation of a personal cell to reproduce and restore to its previous physical state. God, the ultimate scientist, only needs one cell to transform a person being from an inactive, weak state into a complete one again. Perhaps all our information about our physical selves and our thoughts are stored within the memory of each cell.

In the Bible, in an old writing called the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel had a dream about this very concept.28 He saw himself in the midst of a valley of human bones. God asked him in the dream if these bones can live and then the bones proceeded to reconnect, and build layer upon layer back into human form. He saw an army of people that came back to life. The description here sounds like cloning or something above this technology.

But this seems to be an oversimplification of a very difficult and vexing question from a scientific perspective.

Part of the problem of death, and the lack of definition thereof, reflects our finiteness. If we could define it, then we have some sort of mastery over it. But the lack demonstrates that we have no control, nor any comprehension of this power. Even as an overt Christian with hope of the resurrection, the lack of definition and control over our final destination is scary. It is hard to imagine how those with no concept with the hereafter deal with this.

As King David wrote over 2,900 years ago “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me”29 This passage exudes some confidence but fear as well. The “valley of the shadow of death” is not a nice place. It demonstrates that pain, suffering and insecurity are not removed from the religious vernacular when referenced to dying, but a confidence that this is only temporary and we will pass through to a better place. Even Christ, moments before being led away and the events unfolded for His crucifixion, was in angst, and wanted to refuse such an outcome.30

Another factor about death is its timing and nature. None of us know when and how we are going to die. Insurance companies have given proven statistics that detail the odds of when the typical person should live and die but it is too general to be a guideline on every individual’s specific demise. Some will die very early in life, while others very long and some in-between. Death is entirely not consistent, predictable or fair in its arrival.

Death is often described as a special function carried out by an angel. It is called the Angel of Death. Many movies have been created that demonstrate a connection with the Angel of Death such as “Final Destination”—a movie which suggests some people’s responses could passively evade it. The actual words “Angel of Death” only appears similarly once in the Bible,31 the other few times, it is a loose translation of the Greek word for destroyer, or slayer with no reference to angel.32 The concept of the angel of death was probably evoked from a mystical-medieval-Christian legend.

Resurrection and oblivion has been in dispute for millenniums and societies have vacillated between these concepts throughout history. Israel during the time of Christ was deeply divided on the subject. On at least one occasion Jesus went out of his way intellectually to address it, “but regarding the fact that the dead rise again,” and then went on to say, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…”33 These quotes offer two observations. First of all that the community Jesus spoke to were not convinced about the hereafter, and secondly, death is a transitory state.

The Apostle Paul used the controversial concept of eternal life to his political advantage while appearing before a hostile judicial court, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’34 He knew that the Jewish assembly judging him was deeply divided on the subject and distracted them from his case. He succeeded and avoided prosecution. He also discussed the matter with the Roman Governor Festus, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”35 The Governor replied about this statement, combined with a number of other comments Paul had made, that he had gone mad.

Obviously the whole Christian religious movement is based on Jesus rising and having mastery over all elements of death.36 The Apostle Paul not only passionately tried to reinforce the point that Christ rose from the dead but to assert this, he had to convince a contemporary and skeptical mindset that a hereafter even exists, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.”37

The reality is we all have to die. It is not a nice experience for anyone, whether religious or not. But what we do here on earth determines one’s future state. It is the biggest question we all have to answer and it cannot be avoided. Those who do not, risk missing out on something much better. ■

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,

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.