“What was the origin of the old debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

From the Notes and Queries (Ethical Conundrums) column of The Guardian:

“THIS POETICAL and interesting question was raised by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He is known as the Father of Moral Philosophy and also as the Angelic Doctor because of his preoccupation with the qualities, nature and behaviour of these celestial beings. He was canonised in 1323. Muriel Cottrell, Wirral, Merseyside.

IT IS OFTEN used disparagingly about theological speculation. In a long past BBC Brains Trust session, the late Prof C. E. M. Joad used the expression in that way. The following week he was firmly denounced for loose thinking by a listener who claimed, with apparent authority, that there was no evidence that this subject was ever debated. On the other hand, he said, monks in medieval times would, purely as a recreation, hold rigidly structured debates on all kinds of unlikely subjects. So the “angels” debate could have originated from such a source. Joad had, it seemed, no answer to that. Nor have I – it just stays in the memory from the old Brains Trust days. Stephen Fearnley, Halifax, W Yorks.

I WAS interested to read the comments on this dispute. However, I think the idea behind it was whether angels had dimensions and occupied space. If they did not, then clearly an infinity of angels could dance on the sharpest, most needle-fine point. Milton gets round the difficulty most beautifully in Book One of Paradise Lost when he makes the Fallen Angels appear first “In bigness to surpass Earth’s Giant Sons’ and then to “throng numberless’ in Pandemonium like tiny elves – “incorporeal Spirits”. Laura Garratt, Uxbridge, Middx.

Laura Garrett is halfway there. The ‘size of angels’ is important as an answer to this question : is God bound by the physical laws of His universe ( ie. a finite number of angels ) or is He able to transcend his own laws and thereby fit an infinite number of angels on a pin ? Obviously this applies generally and not just to angels and pins, and so is quite an important question. Probably.John Mys, Birmingham, UK”

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