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?") is a phrase that, when used in modern contexts, can be used as a metaphor for wasting time debating topics of no practical value, or on questions whose answers hold no intellectual consequence, while more urgent concerns accumulate.[1]

Photograph at 10x magnification of the head of a size #2 insect pin. Taken by Hugo Sappington at the Essig Museum of Entomology, using a Macropod Micro Kit.

Illustration of a pin with a head shaped like a Cherub
Illustration of a pin with a head shaped like a Cherub, from Illustrerad verldshistoria by E. Wallis, volume I, published 1875

The phrase was originally used in a theological context by 17th century Protestants to mock medieval scholastics such as Duns Scotus[2] and Thomas Aquinas.[3] Whether medieval scholastics really discussed the topic is, however, a matter of debate. The suggestion is possibly an Early Modern invention, intended to discredit scholastic philosophy.[4]

The phrase has also been associated with the fall of Constantinople, with the assertion that scholars debated the topic while Turks besieged the city.[5][6] In Italian,[7] French,[8] Spanish and Portuguese, the conundrum of useless scholarly debates is linked to a similar question of whether angels are sexless or have a sex.[6] In Polish, instead of angels the question is about devils.

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, evidence that the question was widely debated in medieval scholarship is lacking.[4] 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),[9] 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)[10] in his 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."[11] 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 pun on "needless point".[10]

A letter written to The Times of London in 1975[12] identified a close parallel in a 14th-century mystical text, the Swester Katrei. However, the reference is to souls sitting on a needle: tusent selen siczen in dem himelrich uff einer nadel spicz — "in heaven a thousand souls can sit on the point of a needle."[13]

Dorothy L. Sayers argued that the question was "simply a debating exercise" and that the answer "usually adjudged correct" was stated as, "Angels are pure intelligences, not material, but limited, so that they have location in space, but not extension."[14] Sayers compares the question to that of how many people's thoughts can be concentrated upon a particular pin at the same time. She concludes that infinitely many angels can be located on the head of a pin, since they do not occupy any space there:

The practical lesson to be drawn from the argument is not to use words like "there" in a loose, unscientific way, without specifying whether you mean "located there" or "occupying space there."[14]

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. ^ Hirsch, E. D. Jr.; Kett, Joseph F.; Trefil, James (eds.). The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
  2. ^ a b Summa, New advent, archived from the original on 6 July 2013, retrieved 22 October 2013.
  3. ^ Kennedy, D. J., "Thomism" Archived 7 August 2019 at the Wayback Machine, in the Catholic Encyclopedia)
  4. ^ a b Van Asselt, Willem J (2011). Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. p. 65.
  5. ^ "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?". Today's Zaman. Archived from the original on 13 December 2014.
  6. ^ a b Ramírez, José A. (1975). Las Andanzas Del Diablo: Confidencias de un Abogado Ingenuo [The Adventures of the Devil: Confidences of a Naive Lawyer]. Editorial Planeta. p. 58. ISBN 9788432053375. Archived from the original on 7 April 2023. Retrieved 24 September 2020 – via
  7. ^ "Angelo" [Angel]. Dizionario dei modi di dire (Dictionary of idioms) - (in Italian). Archived from the original on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  8. ^ "Discuter sur le sexe des anges" [Chat on the sex of angels]. L'Internaute. CCM Benchmark. Archived from the original on 14 November 2020. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  9. ^ Franklin 1993 p. 127.
  10. ^ a b Peter Harrison, "Angels on Pinheads and Needles’ Points" Archived 14 April 2022 at the Wayback Machine, Notes and Queries, 63 (2016), 45–47.
  11. ^ William Sclater, An Exposition with Notes Upon the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, p 385. Archived 21 April 2023 at the Wayback Machine (Google Books)
  12. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 7 April 2023. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  13. ^ Ross, George MacDonald (October 1985). "Angels". Philosophy. 60 (234): 495–511. doi:10.1017/S0031819100042534. S2CID 241590062. Archived from the original on 9 June 2018. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  14. ^ a b Sayers, Dorothy L. "The Lost Tools of Learning". Archived from the original on 16 December 2016. Retrieved 14 November 2012.

Further reading edit

External links edit