The phrase on the side of the angels means supporting, or acting in accordance with, principles regarded as good or right, sometimes specifically at the risk of unpopularity.
It was originally used by the British Conservative statesman Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) in a speech delivered on Friday 25th November 1864 at the third annual meeting of the Society for Augmenting Small Benefices in the Diocese of Oxford, held in the Sheldonian Theatre, at Oxford. Intense controversy was then in progress over the implications of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London, 1859), by the English natural historian and geologist Charles Darwin (1809-82), and Disraeli used on the side of the angel (in the singular) in the sense supporting the theory of the divine creation of humankind as opposed to the theory of evolution. This is an extract from his speech, as transcribed in The Evening Standard (London) the following day:
There is a characteristic of the present age which never existed in preceding ages, and which must be ruinous and destructive to the Church and to all religious establishments, and that is the progress of science. The teachings of science and its discoveries are not, we are told, consistent with the teachings of the Church. Now, l am sure there is not one in this theatre who is not prepared to do full justice to the merits of scientific men, and who does not fully appreciate those discoveries of science which have added so much to the convenience of life and to the comfort of man. But it is of great importance, when this tattle about science is mentioned, that we should annex to it precise ideas (hear). I hold that the highest function of science is the interpretation of nature—and the interpretation of the highest nature is the highest science. What is the highest nature? Man is the highest nature. But I must say that when you compare the interpretation of the highest nature with the most advanced, the most fashionable and modish school of modern science—compare that with some other teachings with which we are familiar—l am not prepared to say that a lecture room is more scientific than the Church (cheers). What is the question now placed before the society with a glib assurance the most astounding? The question is this—is a man an ape or an angel? (loud laughter). My lord, I am on the side of the angel (laughter and cheers). I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence those views (cheers). I believe they are foreign to the conscience of humanity; and I will say more than that, even in the strictest intellectual point of view, I believe the severest metaphysical analysis is opposed to that conclusion. But on the other hand, what does the Church teach us? What is its interpretation of this highest nature? It teaches us that man is made in the image of his Creator—a source of inspiration, of solace—a source from which can flow only every right principle of morals and every Divine truth (cheers). I say, therefore, that when we are told that the teachings of the Church are not consistent with the discoveries of science, and that in that sense the inferiority of the Church is shown, I totally deny the proposition (cheers). I say that the scientific teaching of the Church upon the most important of all subjects is, in fact, infinitely superior to anything that has been brought forward by any of those new discoveries (cheers). In fact, it is between those two principles that society will have to decide. Upon our acceptance of that Divine truth, of which the Church is the guardian, all sound and coherent and sensible legislation depends. It is the only security for civilisation; it is the only guarantee of real progress (hear, hear).
This speech, and particularly the phrase “Is a man an ape of an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angel”, created a considerable stir in public opinion and was much commented by contemporary newspapers and magazines. For example, the following is from Punch, or the London Charivari of 3rd December 1864:
“Angels and Ministers.”
Mr. Disraeli, in a speech of much religious unction, has just declared this to be the question now asked by science of society. “Is man Ape or Angel?” “I,” says Mr. Disraeli, “am on the side of the Angel.” The Ministers had best look out, for in March the House will “ring to the roar of an Angel onset.” Disraeli, D.C.L.¹, shall henceforth be our “Angelic Doctor.” We are not surprised at his declaration—we never thought him in the least like an Ape-man, but we fancied him a little of Apemantus²:
“Immortal gods, I crave no pelf,
I pray for no man but myself.”³
¹ D.C.L.: Doctor of Civil Law
² Apemantus: a cynical and misanthropic philosopher in Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare
³ the beginning of the grace said by Apemantus before the meal offered by Timon
On 10th December of that year, the same magazine published this caricature of Disraeli:
DRESSING FOR AN OXFORD BAL MASQUÉ.
“THE QUESTION IS, IS MAN AN APE OR AN ANGEL? (A laugh.) NOW, I AM ON THE SIDE OF THE ANGELS. (Cheers.)”—Mr. Disraeli, Oxford Speech, Friday, November 25.
The current sense of on the side of the angels is due to a misunderstanding: Disraeli was defending the spiritual nature of human origins against Darwin’s theories, not contrasting good with evil. The following, from The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art (London) of 6th January 1866, shows how Disraeli’s phrase has sometimes even been misinterpreted as expressing the belief that human nature is ‘angelic’:
If Rochefoucauld⁴’s celebrated maxim, that the misfortunes of our friends are never entirely disagreeable to us, be true, it is an obvious corollary that rare and peculiar good fortune on the part of the same friends is never wholly satisfactory to us. It is of no use complaining of the manifest cynicism of remarks of this kind. They are cynical inasmuch as they draw attention to a very ugly and unamiable side of human nature. The only question worth discussing is whether that ugly side exists. If it is all pure calumny, if the average of men are free from all taint and suspicion of selfishness and meanness, then to concoct terse epigrams which ascribe these qualities generally to mankind is doubtless a very unworthy occupation. It is highly probable that such epigrams would be far less frequent if they were utterly absurd and purposeless. And it is worth considering whether those who are for ever drawing sublime and angelic pictures of human nature, declaring as a great statesman recently did—and with about the same amount of sincerity and point—that they at least are on the side of the angels, are really so usefully and honourably employed as they would have us think. It may be very noble, and to some people very comforting, to dwell in a general way exclusively on the brighter qualities of the human heart; but the man whose wife has just bolted with his bosom friend may be excused if he maintains that there is a time for all things, and that a goody philosophy is not the thing for him at that particular moment. On the contrary, his temporary tastes lie exactly in the opposite direction. He wants a philosophy which, without being palpably untrue, shall represent human nature in a rather odious light. He is immoveably [sic] convinced that it deserves to be so represented.
⁴ François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80), French writer and moralist