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Angels dancing on head of pin

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54958.  Thu Feb 23, 2006 4:01 pm Reply with quote

Was there ever a question on this subject on the show. I seem to half-remember one. How did it go?

55039.  Thu Feb 23, 2006 8:47 pm Reply with quote

Flash would remember that, monkbarns.

I'm not sure it was ever a question exactly, though it might have been an aside. Far as I can remember, no mediaeval theologians ever seriously debated this. It was some sort of parody of what they might have done...

55055.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 4:21 am Reply with quote

I don't recall covering this in the show, but here's the Straight Dope:
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.

55056.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 4:27 am Reply with quote

There's an earlier citation, too:

...Some who are far from atheists, may make themselves merry with that conceit of thousands of spirits dancing at once upon a needle's point...

Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, 1678

55057.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 4:30 am Reply with quote

"Martinus Scriblerus" is a reference to a satirical work by Pope, Arbuthnot & Swift, written sometime before 1714, which does not in fact contain the line in question.

55060.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 4:47 am Reply with quote

As to how many Angels can dance on a pin head, I would refer everyone here to "Good Omens" by Messrs. Pratchett and Gaiman for the best answer.



55304.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 2:18 pm Reply with quote

Oh excellent! I thought it was established that D'Israeli, despite his duff reference to Martinus Scribblerus, was the originator of this whole idea. Ralph Cudworth is quite new to me. Thanks, Flash. See how we advance the frontiers of knowledge.


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