Angels dance before our eyes


Angels dance before our eyesEvery schoolboy knows that medieval theologians were isolated from the real world. They spent hours discussing how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Like most things that every schoolboy knows, this detail is not as straightforward as it seems. Benjamin D’Israeli, an English writer of the late eighteenth century, seems to have been the first to pin theologians to angels in this way.

But D’Israeli’s version of the tale was sharper. He had mediaeval theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas, ask how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. A man of the Enlightenment, he suggested that theologians had missed the point. They wove cloudy theories on topics that no-one could ever know anything about. Real thinkers focused on the real, substantial world before their eyes.

Earlier on, Renaissance schoolboys also knew that the theologians had missed the point. But they would have seen the theologians not as too ethereal, but as too earthbound. They pedantically burrowed into their books to pursue questions that had little contact with the central and powerful reality of the Gospel.

That two groups of people should agree that the theologians were detached from reality, but should differ on what reality they had missed, makes one pause. Perhaps the connections between speculation and the reality of our tangible world are more complex than we assume, and certainly much more complex than polemic allows.

St Thomas AquinasThe story of the angels suggests that important connections run through the imagination—the way we give stability and focus to the cloudy flux of our world. Thomas Aquinas never worried about needles, but he spelled out in great detail the differences between angels and human beings. This focus on the distinctive qualities of pure spirits did not necessarily blunt theologians’ perspective on the world or on the Gospel. It may have sharpened their intuition that the universe is more mysterious and rich than we can ever understand. It may also have encouraged them to treat the world with respect, and not simply with proprietorial interest.

That would represent a fairly straightforward connection between recondite speculation and reality. But ideas also feed the imagination in less organised ways. They are strings in a network of culture in which no part is ever totally disconnected. The attention paid to angels by medieval theologians certainly inspired Isaac D’Israeli to satirise it with the image of dancing angels. But D’Israeli also wrote novels. One of them, Despotism; or, the fall of the Jesuits, was as ungallant—the Jesuits had been suppressed at the time—as it was premature—they rose again soon afterwards.

D’Israeli was the father of the future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and passed on to him through his novel his association of Jesuits with despotism. The novel is mainly remembered through Mary Shelley’s bare diary entry for 6 March, 1815, the day her child Clare died: ‘Find my baby deadsend for Hogg—talk—a miserable day—in the evening read fall of the Jesuits’. She herself is remembered both through her own writing, particularly the novel Doctor Frankenstein, and through her marriage to the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. These events form together a needlework of contingency in which speculation and intractable human predicaments form ever changing and illuminating patterns.

Roque DaltonD’Israeli’s image of angels dancing on the points of needles also discloses other points of connection. Although it is linked unforgettably to fatuous theology, it also forms a lovely image in its own right. It can be drawn upon to illuminate aspects of reality that are too exigent to be represented by empirical description. The Salvadorean revolutionary poet Roque Dalton, for example, wrote a haunting collection of poems. He had been imprisoned under a regime in which disappearance and torture were common. His short poem Fear seems to reflect this experience:

A solitary angel on the point of a needle
hears how someone is urinating.

The image catches exactly the isolated, wasting condition of prison experience, the heightened perception that fear gives, and the contrast between spirit and the predicament of the life of caged human animals. Even Renaissance schoolboys would have to concede that here we are drawn close to the crucifixion, the central reality of the Christian Gospel.

The heavenly image of angels dancing on the point of needles is not that far from common earthly reality, in which human beings are made pincushions. That is certainly a privileged field for human study.



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Existing comments

Angels on the heads of pins is a myth all right, but it's older than the eighteenth century. Details at

James Franklin | 08 August 2006  

It's good to see that at last someone is interested in how many muons can fit on photon! In short, at last someone acknowledges that what the mediaeval theologians were taling about is that which still challenges our immagination today.

Joe Goerke | 09 August 2006  

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