[This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010. Copyright as such.]
The difficulty is much greater, if we suppose that these spirits are absolutely disengaged from any kind of matter; for how can they assemble about them a certain quantity of matter, clothe themselves with it, give it a human form, which can be discerned; is capable of acting, speaking, conversing, eating and drinking, as did the angels who appeared to Abraham, and the one who appeared to the young Tobias, and conducted him to Ragés! Is all that accomplished by the natural power of these spirits? Has God bestowed on them this power in creating them, and has he engaged himself by virtue of his natural laws, and by a consequence of his acting intimately and essentially on the creature, in his quality of Creator, to impress on occasion at the will of these spirits certain motions in the air, and in the bodies which they would move, condense, and cause to act, in the same manner proportionally that he has willed by virtue of the union of the soul with a living body, that that soul should impress on that body motions proportioned to its own will, although, naturally, there is no natural proportion between matter and spirit, and, according to the laws of physics, the one cannot act upon the other, unless the first cause, the Creator, has chosen to subject himself to create this movement, and to produce these effects at the will of man, movements which without that would pass for superhuman (supernatural).
Or shall we say, with some new philosophers, that although we may have ideas of matter and thought, perhaps we shall never be capable of knowing whether a being purely material thinks or not, because it is impossible for us to discover by the contemplative powers of our own minds without revelation, if God has not given to some collections of matter, disposed as he thinks proper, the power to perceive and to think, or whether he has joined and united to the matter thus arranged, an immaterial substance which thinks? Now in relation to our notions, it is not less easy for us to conceive that God can add to our idea of matter the faculty of thinking, since we know not in what thought consists, and to what species of substance that Almighty being has judged proper to grant this faculty, which could exist in no created being except by virtue of the goodness and the will of the Creator.
This system certainly embraces great absurdities, and greater to my mind than those it would fain avoid. We conceive clearly that matter is divisible, and capable of motion; but we do not conceive that it is capable of thought, nor that thought can consist of a certain configuration or a certain motion of matter. And even could thought depend on an arrangement, or on a certain subtlety, or on a certain motion of matter, as soon as that arrangement should be disturbed, or the motion interrupted, or this heap of subtle matter dispersed, thought would cease to be produced, and consequently that which constitutes man, or the reasoning animal, would no longer subsist; thus all the economy of our religion, all our hopes of a future life, all our fears of eternal punishment would vanish; even the principles of our philosophy would be overthrown.
God forbid that we should wish to set bounds to the almighty power of God; but that all-powerful Being having given us as a rule of our knowledge the clearness of the ideas which we form of everything, and not being permitted to affirm that which we know but indistinctly, it follows that we ought not to assert that thought can be attributed to matter. If the thing were known to us through revelation, and taught by the authority of the Scriptures, then we might impose silence on human reason, and make captive our judgment in obedience to faith; but it is owned that the thing is not at all revealed; neither is it demonstrated, either by its cause, or by its effects. It must, then, be considered as a simple system, invented to do away certain difficulties which result from the opinion opposed to it.
If the difficulty of explaining how the soul acts upon our bodies appears so great, how can we comprehend that the soul itself should be material and extended? In the latter case will it act upon itself, and give itself the impulsion to think, or will this movement or impulsion be thought itself, or will it produce thought? Will this thinking matter think on always, or only at times; and when it has ceased to think, who will make it think anew? Will it be God, will it be itself? Can so simple an agent as the soul act upon itself, and reproduce it in some sort by thinking, after it has ceased to think?
My reader will say that I leave him here embarrassed, and that instead of giving him any light on the subject of the apparition of spirits, I cast doubt and uncertainty on the subject. I own it; but I better like to doubt prudently, than to affirm that which I know not. And if I hold by what my religion teaches me concerning the nature of souls, angels, and demons, I shall say that being purely spiritual, it is impossible that they should appear clothed with a body except through a miracle; always in the supposition that God has not created them naturally capable of these operations, with subordination to his sovereignly powerful will, which but rarely allows them to use this faculty of showing themselves corporeally to mortals.
If sometimes angels have eaten, spoken, acted, walked, like men, it was not from any need they had to drink or eat to sustain themselves and to be able to live, but to execute the designs of God, whose will it was that they should appear to men acting, drinking, and eating, as the angel Raphael observes,—"When I was staying with you, I was there by the will of God; I seemed to you to eat and drink, but for my part I make use of an invisible nourishment which is unknown to men."
It is true that we know not what may be the food of angels who are substances which are purely spiritual, nor what became of that food which Raphael and the angels that Abraham entertained in his tent, took, or seemed to take, in the company of men. But there are so many other things in nature which are unknown and incomprehensible to us, that we may very well console ourselves for not knowing how it is that the apparitions of angels, demons, and disembodied souls are made to appear.
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