So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
One of the most common calumnies against medieval philosophers is the accusation that they wasted their powers of reason on this ridiculous question. But like many of the other things that everyone thinks they know about the Middle Ages, it is a myth. No one, according to Professor Robert Bartlett of the University of St Andrews, ever posed the question during the Middle Ages. Rather, it was invented in the seventeenth century by the Cambridge don Henry More as one of what he called “those unconceivable and ridiculous fancies” of scholastic theologians. He claimed that the question was actually how many angels “booted and spurred may dance on a needle’s point at once?” By the eighteenth century, the angels had ditched their footwear, and taken up the jig. Playwright Henry Addison had a character exclaim “I have heard a man, who was a very great scholar, say [an angel] will dance ye a hornpipe upon the point of a needle.”
The classic formulation of the question only appeared in the nineteenth century with the fifth edition of the book Curiosities of Literature by Isaac Disraeli, father of the Prime Minister Benjamin. He asked “how many angels can dance on the head of a very fine needle without jostling one another?” Precisely when the angels transferred themselves from a needle to a pin continues to perplex scholars.
Like all good myths, there is a grain of truth in the accusation that theologians of the Middle Ages wiled away their time on such trivialities (the word trivial is itself a corruption of the Latin trivium, meaning the first three subjects in the medieval university syllabus: grammar, logic and rhetoric). After all, they did believe in angels, thinking of them as non-material spiritual beings. This led Thomas Aquinas to ask if “several angels can be in the same place?” In context, the question raises a number of profound philosophical issues probably more relevant today in an era of quantum tunnelling and non-local interactions than they were in the Middle Ages.
Another strand of medieval intellectual life that has led to much misunderstanding is the tradition of quodlibeta (now the name of my blog). A loose translation for this Latin term would be “anything you like”. This was a special occasion at a medieval university when the students could quiz their masters with the most fiendish conundrums they could dream up. The professor had a chance to show off his intellectual dexterity, as well as an ability to think on his feet, by producing an answer that conformed to all the strict rules of logic. The result was a perplexing form of cerebral entertainment.
Many examples of these questions have come down to us, including ‘Should someone born with two heads be baptised as one person or two?’, ‘Can a bishop who is raised from the dead return to his office?’ and ‘Is a hog that is led to market on a rope by a man, led by the man or the rope?’ Even Thomas Aquinas suffered the indignity of being asked, ‘Is it better for a crusader to die on the way to the Holy Land or on the way back?’ If anyone had asked how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it would have been meant in this spirit.
Aquinas also stands accused of claiming that angels pushed the planets across the sky. In fact, some charming manuscript illuminations do exist of an angel turning a handle to keep the heavens moving. But for Aquinas himself, the problem of planetary motion was an acute one. Following ancient Greek precedent, he was convinced that no object could move if it was not being moved by something else. He even used this principle as a proof for the existence of God as the ultimate mover. In the case of the planets, he postulated that they might be living things able to move themselves. But he wanted to avoid any association with pagan deities, so he substituted them for angels or at least ‘intellectual substances’.
It was Aquinas’s loyalty to the Greek tradition that got his cosmology into trouble. But in the fourteenth century, John Buridan, rector of the University of Paris, developed a concept that he called ‘impetus’, analogous to but not the same as ‘inertia’ in modern physics. He explained how, in the frictionless environment of the heavens, the planetary spheres would experience no resistance to their motion. So as long as they had been given a push at the creation of the world, their impetus should allow them to keep turning forever. It was a remarkable insight that solved one of the central problems of cosmology, even if Buridan’s solution was not quite right. Better still, no angels were required.
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