Angels on pinheads

An angel playing and dancing on top of a manuscript’s marginal arabesque decoration, @medievalbecky

Why are angels circling the Heaven anticlockwise? Because they are left-wing.

One of the myths about the Middle Ages which still finds traction and detraction – sorry, detractors today is that medieval thinkers were obsessed with angels. Also with pins. And the sheer number of them. Of angels, not pins, that is.

For an obsession with pins, or rather paperclips, I’ll refer the reader to Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a super-intelligent AI operating in a paperclip factory that will seek to maximise the production of paperclips until every bit of metal in the universe, including the trace atoms of metal in the human body, will have been transformed into paperclips.

Honestly, I’d rather have a pole-dancing angel on a David Bowie tune than a micro-managing robot taking instructions from self -learning algorithms.

I’m not going to debunk the pinhead myth. Instead, I’ll ask why we’re not obsessed with angels anymore. Admittedly, some academics and theologians working in the hyper-cool field of angelology still are. But the rest of us have given up on diaphanous bodies and discarnate flying valets in favour of undead corpses, ghostly machines and superhuman rescuers. Why did we allow Baroque painters to get away with it?

The medievals were interested in angels because they were interested in full humanities, and the nature of angels seemed to say something about the nature of the created human being, a vision, a desire for something else, proximity to God, etc. For the men and women of the medieval period, angels posed a logical challenge, a physical defiance and a metaphysical puzzle. And the angelological discourse which developed under philosopher-theologians like Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas explored the limits of the God-permeated universe as well as the limits of the human mind. I ask again, why have we lost interest in angels? For Dante and the other architects of post-Ptolemaic universes, angels were too busy moving the heavenly spheres, setting in motion the great clockwork of the cosmos. Not much time for dancing. But when they did dance, on top of pins or on the firmament, the human mind danced along.

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