Tell Those Angels to Stop Dancing!



Scathing criticism never works for me. I listen to other people thrust and parry, demolishing arguments with rapier wit. Then I try—and fail to draw a single drop of blood. My dismissal of someone’s argument as “akin to Thomas Aquinas telling us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” earns only a groan from its target. “The thing about angels dancing on the head of a pin,” he writes, “is a fabrication foisted on scholasticism by later modernist propagandists.”

And history is a long game of Telephone.

Every year I learn that some bit of information I treasured is entirely wrong. Once I copied out a prayer that began, “Keep us, O God, from all pettiness” and ended, “Let us not forget to be kind.” I thought, you see, that it had been written by Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who spent nineteen years locked up in a castle and was executed at the age of forty-four. How noble, how large-minded, nay, even saintly, those words became in that context….

The poem was written by some lady named Mary Stewart.

As for the dancing angels, that image delighted me. Their big, diaphanous wings overlapping, their long skirts held up, their angelic feet (no corns or calluses) en pointe above the pinhead, reflected in the metal. Oh dear. Would we also see their bloomers? That was the old danger of patent leather shoes. But angels would never “go too far.” They are disembodied, thus safe.

Besides, Aquinas was, on occasion, an idiot. And an influential one. His intellect built castles and ramparts whose ruins still stand, midair. He thought original sin contaminated our entire nature, even our reason and will, marking us with depravity. He thought women were a mistake, writing, “Nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.” Original sin was entirely Eve’s fault. Having sex for the sheer joy of reciprocity and release was a far worse sin than rape. Mothers worn thin by eight or ten children can thank Aquinas’s horror of contraception. He thought women easily corrupted: “When a soul is vehemently moved to wickedness, as occurs mostly in little old women…” He had paved the way for witch-burning. Plus he spent an awfully long time figuring out how male and female demons had sex.

Isaac D’Israeli, father of Benjamin, lost patience with him too, dryly pointing out that “Aquinas could gravely debate whether Christ was not an hermaphrodite [and] whether there are excrements in Paradise.” For “the reader desirous of being merry with Aquinas’s angels,” D’Israeli offered Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, published in 1741 by an anonymous group of wits that included Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. The parody asks many questions, among them “How many angels can dance on the point of a very fine needle, without jostling one another?”

Heartened, I check on my angels just to be sure.

First clarification: they do not dance on a pinhead. They dance on the point of a needle, which would require far more balance and dexterity from most of us—although I suppose pure spirit keeps its equilibrium.

Second: “The phrase was originally used in a theological context by seventeenth-century Protestants,” confirms good old Wikipedia, “to mock medieval scholastics such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas.” With the 1637 publication of Religion of Protestants, William Chillingworth accused such folk of debating “whether a Million of Angels may not fit upon a needle’s point.” Even earlier, William Sclater, a divine in the Anglican church, accused scholastic philosophers of obsessing over 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.” (Later writers suggested that “needle’s point” was a pun signalling a needless point.)

Ah, but wait: “Whether medieval scholastics really discussed the topic is, however, a matter of debate.” I bet they did. Angels inhabited their world, existing in a medieval mist that would soon be dispelled by hard, metallic reason. We know Aquinas pondered the underlying question: “Can several angels be in the same place?” The practical Protestants must have decided to have some fun with that. Maybe they had read the fourteenth-century mystical text, the Swester Katrei, that said “in heaven a thousand souls can sit on the point of a needle.”

Dorothy Sayers took the question of angels, tightly squeezed or layered, quite lightly, as those who shift from theology to detective fiction usually do. The question was just a debating exercise, she said: “Angels are pure intelligences, not material, but limited, so that they have location in space, but not extension.” They are in particular places, but insubstantially, taking up no space and sucking no air from the room. Angels dancing would be like people thinking: millions of thoughts could flood a single object, and millions of angels could dance.

Narrating as God, Frances McDormand inserted a complication: “Over the years, a huge number of theological man-hours have been spent debating the question: ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ To answer it, we need information. Firstly, angels don’t dance. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics that marks an angel. So, none. At least, nearly none. Aziraphale had learned a dance called the ‘gavotte’ in a discreet gentlemen’s club in Portland Place in the late 1880s. After a while, he had become fairly good at it, and was quite put out when, some decades later, the gavotte went out of style for good.”

Fun, but McDormand, as God, is wrong. How could any entity be pure, weightless spirit and not dance? An angel’s entire movement would be a dance, because angels can fall into perfect harmony with the universe, not get dragged down by illness or tugged this way and that for attention.

Why do I care enough to argue any of this, even in fun, let alone with earnestness? Why have so many theologians lavished time and brilliance on a question so silly and irrelevant? Because it forces us to define angels, I suppose—which forces us to either rethink or reinforce our assumptions about the universe. How is it structured? What are the rules of its physics?

Uncertainty, now. Quantum randomness. We have moved well away from Aquinas’s whipped-up certitudes. Now we lavish time and brilliance on any tiny thing that will distract us from how little we know of immensity. Any tiny thing we can argue about without cutting too close to the bone.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.