Sunday, April 3, 2011

Of Angels and Pins

I am something of an amateur medievalist. I love talking about the theology, cosmology, saints and scholars. I relish the culture, the politics, the architecture, and the history.

But sometimes its hard to get people to take the Middle Ages seriously. "What, you want to revive the Inquisition? They persecuted Galileo, and halted the advance of science for hundreds of years! They thought the Earth was flat, for heaven's sake!" And so I despair.

If anything, look at the time-line. The Middle Ages are conventionally dated between 476 and 1453, between the abdication of the last Roman emperor and the fall of Constantinople. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1480 and would only be abolished in 1820. Likewise, the trial of Galileo was held in 1633, nearly two hundred years after the Middle Ages were over. Moreover, the sphericity of the Earth was never seriously challenged during the Middle Ages, having been firmly established by the time of Ptolemy's Almagest, circa 150 AD.

Yet even beyond this sort of historical non sequitur (so often compounded by grotesque misconstruals of the events in question), the Middle Ages are subject to still lower forms of "chronological snobbery." The worst seems to me the wholesale mischaracterization of the medieval mind. People seem to fancy them as superstitious folk, woefully ignorant of the natural sciences and obsessed with esoteric minutiae. In reality, the Middle Ages could boast of the sharpest minds we can imagine, people whose mental acuity would outpace any but the elite corps of Mensa.

Besides, let's be frank, we're hardly the ones to talk about rampant ignorance. We don't just live in glass houses; we also work in glass offices and study in glass schools.

One particular example is commonly given as though it were sufficient proof of medieval ignorance: "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Let us dismantle this once and for all.

First, it is by no means certain that this question actually originated during the Middle Ages. Its earliest appearance comes from 17th century manuscripts by authors who wrote specifically to attack Catholicism and the medieval period. These are hardly reputable sources, and it's entirely possible the whole thing was a fabrication.

Even if it were authentic, however, these authors evidently failed to realize how ingenious the question actually is. A medieval philosopher would probably reason thus: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Scripture mentions that angels can be located in the physical world. Gabriel stood "there" when he appeared to Mary, as did Michael to Daniel and any other angels who might appear to a prophet. Yet angels are by definition incorporeal. They are not made of matter like us, but can only be seen as pure spirit. How could something without a physical body be physically present?  Ah, the medieval philosopher exclaims, it's a confusion of categories. Without mass, an angel cannot occupy physical space, but that doesn't prevent them from moving within and between such spaces. Therefore, an angel might be "located" on the head of a pin, without necessarily being "located" in the sense of occupying space there. Thus, an theoretically infinite number of angels could fit on the head of a pin.

If the question were authentically medieval, it could have been dispatched by anyone with even the simplest of training in the scholastic method. In all likelihood, it was questions like these that were used as 'practice problems' for students being trained in dialectic, the second of the medieval trivium. Yet we deride medieval ignorance for a question like this, even though we dare not admit it would be unanswerable to the great majority of people nowadays.

Imagine if a future generation, some hundreds of years in the future, were to unearth one of those time capsules buried by elementary school children. Now imagine those materials -- monochromatic finger-paintings, arithmetic problems, and scrawled letters -- were the basis for popular knowledge about our era of history. This was a scientific age, the specialists will cry, an age where great minds plumbed the depths of subatomic space! And the masses will laugh at us because we didn't know algebra.

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