Angels on the head of a pin

Posted by Masakim on May 10, 2002

In Reply to: Angels on the head of a pin posted by R. Berg on May 10, 2002

: : : (I'm adding a new post for Pamela)

: : : Does anybody know what the expression
: : : 'Counting angels dancing on pinheads' means and in what context is it used? It can be said a few different ways, like, Angels on pinheads, angels dancing on the head of a pin etc.

: : : There's an excellent section on angels in "Sacred Origins of Profound Things: the Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions" by Charles Panati (Penguin Books, New York, 1996). It has information on different types of angels, etc., but nothing (that I could find quickly) on "angels on the head of a pin." "Angels" by Billy Graham, American evangelist, says that, "Speculation about the nature of angels has been around since long before Queen Victoria's time, and it continues down to the present time." In a later chapter he makes reference to "the old debate about how many angels can dance on the head of pin" but doesn't explain its origin.

: : Some who are far from atheists, may make themselves merry with that conceit of thousands of spirits dancing at once upon a needle's point.
: : --Ralph Cudworth, _The True Intellectual System of the Universe_, 1678
: : [According to _Merriam Webster's Biographical Dictionary_ , he "Sought in his magmum opus, _The True Intellectual System of the Universe_ , to establish a supreme divine intelligence, to refute determinism, to justify moral ideas, and to establish free will."]

: The question "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is associated with medieval theology of the Scholastic school, the best-known representative being Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Christian philosopher (and a Dominican monk). I'm not sure that Aquinas originated the question; maybe someone with a better grounding in Catholic thought can help us out. Nowadays the question often appears when someone is ridiculing theologians, but I believe the drift of the original discussion about angels and pinheads concerned infinity and different kinds of being. Something like this: Angels aren't spatial, and so an infinite number of them could occupy a point.


"Did medieval scholars argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?" The Straight Dope (Dec 23, 1988) at classics/a4_132.html

C. Clairborne Ray, "Dancing Angels," Science Q & A (Nov 11, 1997) at learning/students/scienceqa/archive/971111.html

Anders Sandberg, "Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem," HotAIR, Volume 7, Issue 3 at airchives/paperair/volume7/v7i3/angels-7-3.htm