A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did medieval scholars argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?

December 23, 1988

Dear Cecil:

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?

Cecil replies:

I see from your letterhead that you're a minister, Dave. What's the matter, you couldn't query the home office?

Let's 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 suspiciously late in the day.

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 a series of books called Curiosities of Literature (the first volume appeared in 1791), which were quite popular in their day. D'Israeli lampooned the Scholastic philosophers of the late Middle Ages, notably Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274), who was famous for debating metaphysical fine points.

Aquinas wrote several ponderous philosophical tomes, the most famous of which was called 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 later generations of hipper-than-thou know-it-alls, they seemed a classic example of good brainpower put to nonsensical ends.

For example, D'Israeli writes, "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.

Now to your question. D'Israeli writes, "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?"

Martinus Scriblerus ("Martin the Scribbler") was a pseudonym adopted by the 18th-century wits Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot, who collaborated on a satirical work entitled Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, published in 1741. Turning to chapter VII of this book, now available online courtesy of Google, we find the first two questions cited by D'Israeli but not the one about dancing angels. Did D'Israeli make it up? Nah — he undoubtedly cribbed it from the aforementioned Cudworth, who in True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) writes: "… some who are far from Atheists, may make themselves merry, with that Conceit, of Thousands of Spirits, dancing at once upon a Needles Point …"

We find this last quoted in Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study by Teun Koetsier and Luc Bergmans (2004). Koetsier and Bergmans have nosed out a few still earlier antecedents: William Chillingworth in 1648 wrote of clergymen disputing, "Whether a million of angels may not sit upon a needle's point," which in turn may refer to Swester Katrei, "a fourteenth-century German mystical work," in which a character observes, "doctors declare that in heaven a thousand angels can stand on the point of a needle."

Not to drag this out, but you see what's going on: wise guys at work. All the items quoted above 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 they were later portrayed.

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