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The Straight Dope


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When people want to express total pointlessness, they sometimes say a thing is as silly as "arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin." This argument is supposed to have taken place between Byzantine theologians or medieval scholars, or somebody. But I'm beginning to think the fathers (and mothers) of the church are getting a bad rap. Try as I might, I can't find any source that identifies when this argument took place, who discussed it, and what they said. Did this arcane debate really occur, or is this a case of ecclesiastical leg-pulling? --David Finster, Belle Fourche, South Dakota

I see from your letterhead, David, that you are senior minister at the First Congregational Church. It is only natural, I suppose, that a man of God should come to me for spiritual nourishment. In the future, however, especially being a member of the trade and all, you should feel free to address the Big Guy directly.

Now to get a couple things straight. First, you're misquoting the saying in question. According to unimpeachable sources, it's not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it's how many can do it on the point of a needle--which, of course, makes more sense. Second, the earliest citation I can find is from a book by Ralph Cudworth in the 17th century, which is a little fishy.

Valuable insight on this question is provided by Isaac D'Israeli (1766-1848), the father of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Isaac was an amateur scholar who published several books of historical and literary "curiosities," which were quite popular in their day. D'Israeli lampooned the Scholastic philosophers of the late Middle Ages, notably Thomas Aquinas, who were famous for debating metaphysical fine points.

Aquinas wrote several ponderous philosophical tomes, the most famous of which went by the awe-inspiring title Summa Theologica, "summary of theology." It contained, among other things, several dozen propositions on the nature of angels, which Thomas attempted to work out by process of pure reason. The results were pretty tortured, and to the hipper-than-thou know-it-alls of the Enlightenment (i.e., D'Israeli's day), they seemed a classic example of good brainpower put to nonsensical ends.

For example, D'Israeli wrote, "Aquinas could gravely debate, Whether Christ was not an hermaphrodite [and] whether there are excrements in Paradise." He might also have mentioned such Thomistic puzzlers as whether the hair and nails will grow following the Resurrection, and whether or not said Resurrection will take place at night.

D'Israeli goes on to say, "The reader desirous of being merry with Aquinas's angels may find them in Martinus Scriblerus, in Ch. VII who inquires if angels pass from one extreme to another without going through the middle? And if angels know things more clearly in a morning? How many angels can dance on the point of a very fine needle, without jostling one another?"

I have not been able to turn up the text D'Israeli refers to (my 17th-century files are just a mess), but it sounds like the work of some would-be comedian. Martinus Scriblerus (dimestore Latin for "Martin the Scribbler") is a pseudonym of a sort in common use among Enlightenment satirists, and the quoted items are burlesques of actual treatises in Aquinas's Summa.

Fact is, Aquinas did debate whether an angel moving from A to B passes through the points in between, and whether one could distinguish "morning" and "evening" knowledge in angels. (He was referring to an abstruse concept having to do with the dawn and twilight of creation.) Finally, he inquired whether several angels could be in the same place at once, which of course is the dancing-on-a-pin question less comically stated. (Tom's answer: no.) So the answer to your question is yes, medieval theologians did get into some pretty weird arguments, if not quite as weird as later wise guys painted them. I dunno if you're going to be able to work this into next Sunday's sermon, Rev, but you can't expect me to do all your dirty work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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