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88. Man's Knowledge of Nonmaterial Things

1. Since the proper object of intellect, in the present earthlylife of man, is the essences of material things, the intellectunderstands by using phantasms, that is, sense-images of materialthings presented in imagination. Now, there are no phantasms ofnonmaterial things. Therefore, in this life, the human intellectcannot knownonmaterial things directly or per se. Itcannot know, for example, what nonmaterial substances, such asangels, are in themselves.

2. We know material things by turning the light of theagent intellect on phantasms; this is a sort of intellectual X-raywhich penetrates what is individual in the phantasms and shows uptheir essence. We call this process abstraction. We say that theintellect abstracts its ideas from phantasms. This is a kind ofprocess of de-materializing and de-individualizing material things.And we can continue this process, refining more and more, drawingideas from ideas, and reaching more and more abstract ideas. But wecan never attain by such a process to the perfect idea of spiritualsubstance as such. Spirit is an essence altogether different frommatter; hence no process of de-materializing can reveal spirit asit is in itself.

3. We cannot, therefore, have a perfect knowledge ofinfinite spirit. By reasoning we can know God's existence, andmany of the divine attributes. But to know God directly in hisspiritual essence is something we cannot have this side of heavenwith its light of glory. Therefore, here on earth and exercisingnatural powers, man cannot know God directly in himself, butindirectly by reasoning back to the First Cause of creatures.Therefore those teachers are much mistaken who hold that thefirst thing known by the human intellect is God.

"God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray."
St Augustine

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"The one thing necessary which Jesus spoke of to Martha and Mary consists in hearing the word of God and living by it."
R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

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"To do God's will -- this was the goal upon which the saints constantly fixed their gaze. They were fully persuaded that in this consists the entire perfection of the soul. "
St Alphonsus de Liguori

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