How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" (alternatively "How many angels can stand on the point of a pin?"[1]) is a reductio ad absurdum challenge to medieval scholasticism in general, and its angelology in particular, as represented by figures such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas.[2][3] It is first recorded in the 17th century, in the context of Protestant apologetics. It also has been linked to the fall of Constantinople, with the imagery of scholars debating while the Turks besieged the city.[4][5]

In modern usage, the term has lost its theological context and is used as a metaphor for wasting time debating topics of no practical value, or questions whose answers hold no intellectual consequence, while more urgent concerns accumulate.[1][4]

Origin[edit]

Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, written c. 1270, includes discussion of several questions regarding angels such as, "Can several angels be in the same place?"[2] However the idea that such questions had a prominent place in medieval scholarship has been debated, and it has not been proved that this particular question was ever disputed.[6] One theory is that it is an early modern fabrication,[a] used to discredit scholastic philosophy at a time when it still played a significant role in university education. James Franklin has raised the scholarly issue, and mentions that there is a 17th-century reference in William Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants (1637),[7] where he accuses unnamed scholastics of debating "whether a Million of Angels may not fit upon a Needle's point?" This is earlier than a reference in the 1678 The True Intellectual System Of The Universe by Ralph Cudworth. Helen S. Lang, author of Aristotle's Physics and its Medieval Varieties (1992), says (p. 284):

The question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle, or the head of a pin, is often attributed to 'late medieval writers'... In point of fact, the question has never been found in this form…

Peter Harrison (2016) has suggested that the first reference to angels dancing on a needle's point occurs in an expository work by the English divine, William Sclater (1575-1626). In An exposition with notes upon the first Epistle to the Thessalonians (1619), Sclater claimed that scholastic philosophers occupied themselves with such pointless questions as whether angels "did occupie a place; and so, whether many might be in one place at one time; and how many might sit on a Needles point; and six hundred such like needlesse points." Harrison proposes that the reason an English writer first introduced the "needle’s point" into a critique of medieval angelology is that it makes for a clever pun on "needless point".[8]

A letter written to The Times in 1975[9] identified a close parallel in a 14th-century mystical text, the Swester Katrei:

[D]octors declare that in heaven a thousand angels can stand on the point of a needle. Now rede me the meaning of this.

Other possibilities are that it is a surviving parody or self-parody, or a training topic in debating.

In Italian,[10] Spanish and Portuguese, the conundrum of useless scholarly debates is linked to a similar question of whether angels are sexless or have a sex.[5]

Modern use[edit]

Comparing medieval superstition and modern science, George Bernard Shaw wrote in the introduction to the play Saint Joan that "The medieval doctors of divinity who did not pretend to settle how many angels could dance on the point of a needle cut a very poor figure as far as romantic credulity is concerned beside the modern physicists who have settled to the billionth of a millimetre every movement and position in the dance of the electrons."[11]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ More precisely, in play in the 17th century, and discussed at various levels by the Cambridge Platonists Ralph Cudworth and Henry More, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hirsch, E. D. Jr.; Kett, Joseph F.; Trefil, James, eds. (2002). The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Third ed.). Houghton Mifflin Co. Archived from the original on 3 July 2003.
  2. ^ a b Summa, New advent.
  3. ^ Kennedy, D. J., "Thomism", in the Catholic Encyclopedia)
  4. ^ a b "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?". Today's Zaman. Archived from the original on 13 December 2014.
  5. ^ a b Ramírez, José A. (1975). Las Andanzas Del Diablo: Confidencias de un Abogado Ingenuo. Editorial Planeta. p. 58. ISBN 9788432053375.
  6. ^ Van Asselt, Willem J (2011). Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. p. 65.
  7. ^ Franklin 1993 p. 127.
  8. ^ Peter Harrison, "Angels on Pinheads and Needles’ Points", Notes and Queries, 63 (2016), 45-47.
  9. ^ Sylla, E. D. (2005). "Swester Katrei and Gregory of Rimini: Angels, God, and Mathematics in the Fourteenth Century". In Koetsier, S.; Bergmans (eds.). Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study. Amsterdam: Elsevier. p. 251. ISBN 0444503285. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  10. ^ "Angelo - Dizionario dei modi di dire - Corriere.it". dizionari.corriere.it (in Italian). Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  11. ^ "Saint Joan – A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue". Retrieved 22 July 2015.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]