by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 2002, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
A common cliché describing a pointless argument is comparing it to arguments about "the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin." The original targets of this jab were the schoolmen of the Middle Ages. And like most jabs, it is an exaggeration based on a misunderstanding. This essay will explore the basis of that misunderstanding and what the schoolmen were really talking about.
The current form of the cliché involves the wrong end of the pin; the original form had the angels dancing on the point of the pin. The earliest known use of the image occurs in the anonymous work 14th century "Swester Katrei" speaking of a thousand souls sitting on the point of a needle. "The Vanity of Dogmatizing" by Joseph Glanville in 1661 said of angels: "he that said a thousand might dance on the point of a Needle, spoke grossly; and we may as well suppose them to have wings, as a proper Ubi." The image can also be found in Nicholas Cudworth’s "True Intellectual System" of 1678 and in a letter to Leibniz in 1704.
The dismissive sense of this image does not occur until 1791 in "Curiosities of Literature" by Isaac D’Israeli. In the section entitled ""Quodibets, or scholastic disquisitions" is the following paragraph:
"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 the morning? How many angels can dance on the point of a very fine needle, without jostling one another?"
The reference is to "Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discourses of Martinus Scriblerus" which is a satirical work by Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and Jonathan Swift, written sometime before 1714, though not published until 1741. The book is a satire on intellectual and political pretensions. While the first two questions are found there, the third is not. D’Israeli’s section is just another barrage on the seemly senselessness of medieval thought. There was nothing new to this. Rabelais in "Gargantua & Pantagruel" and "'The Praise of Folly" by Desiderius Erasmus in the first half of the 16th century also mocked this way of thinking.
The object of all this scorn were the philosophers of the movement now known as scholasticism. The general purpose of this effort was the application of reason to elucidate the reveled truths of the Bible. The inspiration was the discovery of Roman law and additional texts of Aristotle. What these presented were methods of organizing masses of information as well as resolving conflicting assertions. And there were applied to the great questions of theology with a will.
Reading these texts nowadays makes it easy to agree with the mockery. The language is stilted, they belabor the obvious, repetitious, and use terms so finely defined as to defy understanding. The topics that they wrote about strike us as being unresolvable as they involve things beyond normal experience. Such as the topic at hand: angels.
But this is unfair to the authors. Since they wrote in Latin, which few people now read, we must read them through translations in which there is always a tension between precision and readability. Moreover like any specialize occupation, philosophy has its own jargon with terms finely defined and difficult to translate. Like modern science papers which are difficult to understand for those not trained in the subject, not because the author is trying to be deliberately obscure, but because he trying to be ultra precise in relaying his findings.
More importantly, the syllogisms of Aristotle have so become a part of our culture that they defined what we mean by reasonable. (Observation of the political discourse, however, demonstrates that it is not always used.) To the medieval philosopher, this way of thinking was so new and so contrary to the then prevailing cultural norms, that they made explicit every step, crossing every t dotting every i, to ensure the correctness of their argument. Contrast with modern textbooks where many proofs are left to the reader as an exercise.
For the Middle Ages, proof of the truth did not arise from the careful assemblage of evidence into a consistent story, but from the number and prestige of authorities that could be found to seemly agree with one side. For the only truth that could be trusted was that revealed by God to these authorities with Scripture being the ultimate authority. In addition there was the belief that the human mind, through its intuitive awareness of existence, could on reflection reason out the structure of reality. The goal of scholasticism was not to find new truths, but to make consistent the welter of authorities they inherited. Thus on any given topic any number of authorities must be addressed and reconciled often using variations of the same arguments.
Beginning with the Humanists of the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries it came to be believed that man, by his reason alone, could discover the truth. Collateral with this is a view of the universe as a giant machine whose inner workings were fixed at the beginning of time. By closely observing the results of the machine and careful use of reason, the inner workings can be deduce and truth known.
The very things that the scholastics were interested in: the nature of God and man and his soul, the metaphysics of existence, had no place in this new scheme. Only that which could be observed, or inferred from observation had meaning. So metaphysics became empty speculation and so were deemed meaningless and all the effort expounding upon it worthless. Angels, being the most ethereal and metaphysical of creatures, had no place in the great machine and so were the easiest target.
The Enlightenment ended with the Terror of the French Revolution exposing the limits of reason. Nevertheless, much of the foundations of modern society can be found in the ideas of the Enlightenment. And the clash of ideals continues to this day. The debate of creationism and evolution is an echo of that earlier conflict.
So how many angels can dance on the point of a pin? One school says none for angels have no spatial existence and therefore can not occupy any point. One, for those who follow Thomas Aquinas that angels are such that only one can act on a thing at a time. And as many as will for those who take the word ‘on’ to mean ‘attend to’. My answer: none, for why would angels waste time on such frivolous activity.
1. (Joinville et al. 209)
Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Theologiae, Vol. 9. Blackfriars Edition. Trans. Kenelem Foster. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Clark, Stephen. "Where Have All The Angels Gone?." Religious Studies : 221-234.
D’Israeli, Isaac. Curiosities of Literature, Vol. 1. Boston: Routledge, 1834.
Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. New York: Random House, 1941.
Kerby-Miller, Charles, ed. The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. New York: Russell & Russell, 1950.
Rabelais, Francois. The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Trans. J.M. Cohen. New York: Penguin (Classics) Books, 1963.
Ross, George Macdonald. "Angels." Philosophy 1985: 495-511.
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