Monday, May 26, 2008

Tales From the Slippery Slope VII: Dancing on the Heads of Pins

The weather was so fine this Sunday that I went down to Alicubi straightway after mass, hoping that some of my friends might be on the deck behind The Slippery Slope enjoying the day and the river. With this and that I hadn’t made it out much in the past few weeks, and was looking forward to a good talk. When I got to the Slope, I found that the doors were open onto the deck, and a brilliant light and a fresh breeze were pouring into a pub that was unusally dark and empty. David was there alone, holding the fort. He looked up as I came in, and noticed my puzzled expression. We spoke almost at once.
“Hello,” he said, sounding relieved. “Don’t worry, they should be here in a few minutes”
“Hello. Where is everyone?” I said, and then waited.
“At the meeting.”
“What meeting, I said”
“The meeting to save the lookout,” said David. “What other meetings are there in Alicubi?”
I should tell you about the lookout. Over the stone bridge from the main part of town and up a hill to the right, juts out some rock, from which there is a pleasant view of the town. Sometime in the 1800s someone — who it was is forgotten — built a structure on the edge of the rock from the windows of old buildings, giving the general effect of a poor cousin to Mackenzie King’s ruins in Gatineau Park. Opinion in the town was that the view was lovely, but the structure hideous. It was known officially (and always in lowercase) as ‘the lookout’; Tom Chillingworth dubbed it ‘the Appalling Belvedere’. Every couple of years some public minded individual objected to it on grounds of aesthetics or safety, and a public meeting was held, where inertia always won.
Just then Canon Hawker, Tom, John Strype, and Keith the landlord came in, laughing.
They all greeted me and Keith said, “Alicubi has once again demonstrated that it has community spirit. We may blindly trust the municipality in everything else, but we will always defend the Appalling Belvedere. David, help me get these fine gentlemen their drinks. I may need you on the bar for a while if business picks up.”
We got our pints and went to a nice table on the deck, and talked as the river flowed past. A few of the public spirited people of Alicubi began to wander in, and the pub grew more cheerful.
“A normal meeting?” I asked, “What was the complaint this time?”
“They thought it was ugly. And it was quite normal,” said John, “except that somebody was rude to the good Canon.”
“Indeed yes,” said Hawker, “I was patiently explaining that while the lookout is truly ugly, we could be sure that anything else that was put up would be worse, and some fellow asked why he should listen to a man who debates angels on the heads of pins. He really made very little sense.” After a pause he said to Tom Chillingworth, “Did you know, Tom, that what is probably the earliest instance of that canard is in a book by a namesake of yours?”
“No, I didn’t”, said Tom
Hawker went on, “I have always been intrigued by the fact that though it is often said that mediaeval theologians used to debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, or more correctly, the point of a needle, no one seemed to know where the charge came from. But recently I found both the earliest known instance and an older joke that might have something to do with it. Perhaps the joke, short as it is can be our story for today.”
“What about my namesake?” asked Tom.
“As we all know, there is no instance in known mediaeval philosophy or theology of this question being debated. St Thomas does ask in the Summa "whether several angels can be in the same place at the same time", but that doesn’t sound as silly (the answer is no, by the way).[1] I found a reference online from the Australian Mathematical Society Gazette, of all places, which cited the preface to William Chillingworth’s Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (1638). In this passage Chillingworth is replying to a Roman opponent says that to charge that divines of the Church of England have only a superficial talent in philosophy, far below the standard of the ‘school divinity’, is to say ‘because they dispute not eternally — utrum chimera bombinans in vacuo, possit comedere secundas intentiones[2] — whether a million of angels may not sit upon a needle’s point …. therefore they have no deep knowledge …’"
“Well!” said Tom, “that doesn’t really help much, does it? The quip about angels seems to be a quotation or a commonplace, like the bombinating chimera of Rabelais. So where did my namesake get it?”
“That I don’t know,” answered the Canon, “but there is a story in A Hundred Merry Tales, which is obviously working on the same idea. That collection was published in about 1525, more than a century before Chillingworth. It was told then to make the point that you can’t preach to the stupid.”
The Story of the Friar that Preached what men’s souls were
A friar was in the pulpit preaching the word of God, and among other matters spoke of men’s souls. He said that the soul was so subtle that a thousand souls might dance on the space of the nail of a man’s finger. A merry conceited fellow of small devotion in the congregation answered back: “Master Doctor, if a thousand souls may dance on a man’s nail, I pray you then, where shall the piper stand?”
"Then the moral is given: that 'by this tale a man may see, that it is but folly to show or to teach virtue to them, that have no pleasure nor mind thereto.' Not very helpful, really. And I suppose it doesn’t really get us any further towards knowing who first made the dig against scholastics.
I said, "At any rate, the joke is obviously connected with the angel quip, and shows that a similar point was floating around early in the sixteenth century. I suppose we keep looking."
"Just so," said Hawker, and we called David over to ask what Mike was cooking for dinner.

[1] ST I.lii. 3
[2] “Whether a Chimera making a nuisance of itself in a vacuum is able to consume the indirect objects of thought” Rabelais, Pantagruel, cap vii

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