How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? For many of us, this is our go-to example of a pointless question. It is often used to ridicule the Middle Ages as a time of naive religiosity still mired in darkness and ignorance before the coming of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is one of the most important and consequential questions in western intellectual history.
The key is that the question isn’t really asking for a number. The number is irrelevant. The answer that matters is: finite or infinite?
Angels, according to the traditions of the western monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are God’s agents in the world. They are how the divine will is enacted in the physical world we live in. For believers in those faiths, therefore, understanding angels is a way of understanding how God acts in the world.
If the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is some finite number, then two angels cannot occupy the same space. It doesn’t matter what the number is; if there is a point at which you just can’t fit any more angels on that pin, then angels must have volume and mass. If they have volume and mass, they necessarily have other physical properties derive from those qualities like density and velocity. In other words, angels are bound by the same physical laws that operate in the rest of the world and which we humans can observe, study, and understand. On the other hand, if there is no limit to how many angels can dance on a pin, then they must not have these same physical properties and therefore cannot be understood or described by analogy with anything that exists in the material world.
What this all adds up to is: if the number is finite, then we can understand the workings of God’s will through mathematics, physics, and observation of the natural world, but if the number is infinite, then those studies are of no use and we can only comprehend God through the study of revealed texts and the writings of inspired individuals like prophets and saints. To understand those texts, however, we have to understand not just the languages in which they are written but the literary genres in which they were composed and the historical and philosophical references they depend upon to convey their messages.
Or to put it in even more familiar terms: science versus humanities.
As human beings, we often rely on symbols and shorthand to discuss important questions. Those symbols draw on the cultural context that surrounds us and they can seem nonsensical without that context. In a thousand years, people may think 20th-century Americans had an odd obsession with arguing over whether donkeys or elephants are better animals, and their 21st-century descendants were no less ridiculous with their fights over whether red or blue is a better color, but we today know the weight of complicated ideas that lie behind those convenient symbols. In the context of medieval scholastic thought, angels and pins served a similar purpose.
Thoughts for writers
The “angels and pin heads” debate is a fine example of how important cultural context is for both research and worldbuilding.
When doing research, it is crucial to remember that people in past societies had thoughts and arguments that are just as complicated as we have today, but they often expressed those ideas in shorthand references that are not transparent to us. If you’re doing research or reading primary sources and people seem to be hung up on arguments that seem pointless or silly, chances are there’s something much more serious behind it and you need to get a handle on their symbolic vocabulary in order to understand it.
(Of course, sometimes people do have pointless and silly arguments, and that’s just as true in the past as it is today. Looking at you, Star Wars vs. Star Trek folks.)
For worldbuilding, think about the kinds of symbolic shorthand people in your fictional world use for their important debates. Symbolic arguments are useful. When everyone around you already knows what the symbols mean, they save time and energy. If the big question for people in your world is whether hereditary monarchy or military aristocracy is a better basis for government, most people aren’t going to go around talking about “hereditary monarchy” or “military aristocracy” all the time. Those are long and cumbersome words to be throwing around. They’re more likely to argue about crowns and helms, or the hunter and the fawn, or some other metaphor. The arguments will also probably turn around seemingly insignificant questions, such as whether one should eat sitting at a table or on the ground, or what color shoes women should wear. Part of your worldbuilding is understanding how the symbols connect to the serious questions.
Whether you explain things for your audience or not is up to you, but layering in symbolic arguments like pin heads and dancing angels is part of the depth that makes a fictional world feel real.
Image: Five dancing angels, photograph by Jebulon via Wimikedia (Musée Condé, Chantilly; c. 1436; oil and gold on wood; by Giovanni di Paolo)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.