Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dancing, Angels, Needles, Getting to the Point

I will start today's study with what may seem a totally pointless excerpt:
The eighteenth century writers overdid the rounded and complete phrase; the writers of twentieth century overdo the broken and suggestive phrase. The former seems heavy and turgid to the latter; the latter would seem simply half-witted to the former. But the real interest is not of this sort in the case of either. The real interest is in certain fundamental ideas, and even ideals, that are behind the difference. Even in the loosest comedy, even in the most conversational repartee, the men of the Age of Reason had the classical ideal, which is the ideal of completeness. The point of the repartee was a point in the sense that it was an end; as the point of a needle is the end of a needle; as the point of a sword is the end of a sword. Indeed, as it happens, the needle of epigram did sometimes end with the sword of destruction. The eighteenth century epigram might end with a duel, but it did not end with a dash. It was a not an unfinished sentence; it might be a slander, but not half a slander. Now the fragmentary character of much modern dialogue arises from an idea of spontaneity; an idea which has its spiritual value, but is at least quite contrary to the classical ideal of completeness. The modern dramatic person is so spontaneous that he starts speaking before he knows what he has to say, or whether he has anything to say.
[GKC ILN Nov 5 1932; thanks to Frank Petta and my mother]
Though I am even worse than a twentieth-century writer - I am, in fact, a writer of the twenty-first century - I do have a point to this, and you may see it before the end - if you are able to keep from laughing in the wrong places.

You will recall that in the last three weeks we have seen Mary in the house of Elizabeth and Zachary - and so, after three months, she returned to Nazareth.

Now the image of Mary going down the road - both coming for her visit to Elizabeth and going back - is foreseen in the travels of the ancient Israelites who bore the Ark of the Covenant with them on their journey. It is an awesome parallel, more exalted than any simile or metaphor: the profound thing which the Church calls "a type": in the old Ark was kept the Law; in the new Ark was kept the Law-Giver. How profound and awesome this is to think about. You may recall, perhaps, this unusual and mysterious poem by Chesterton:

"The Holy Of Holies"

"Elder father, though shine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries,
Canst thou tell me what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?"

"Smaller than all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest sea,
Stands a little house of seeds,
Like an elfin's granary."

"Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature's crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds."

"God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity
Adonai Elohim."
[GKC CW10:50]
Though his parents were at best "nominal" Christians, I still like to think of GKC speaking with them, and the eerie snapshot of them we get in a most unlikely place:
When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine...
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:360]
And lest you find yourself uncertain of GKC's meaning of that poem, I should tell you that Adonai Elohim are titles or names of God.

But that idea - God is in the heart of a seed? Can we mean that?

Of course. But I am not trying to get to a matter of ontology, a detailed point of metaphysics here. I want to take it as a parallel to Mary's Divine Pregnancy, where God really was hidden in an exceedingly tiny form. Which may sound like a paradox, but then this isn't a Chestertonian invention. Remember, it was Mary who said "My soul magnifies the Lord." [Lk 1:46]

Clearly, the Being Who has no physical dimension cannot be properly said to occupy space - which is why, like the so-called "squaring of the circle" we have misunderstood the puzzle in the famous "angels dancing on the head of a pin". Ah, that old puzzle, so much more fun to play with than those of Zeno or Cantor, neither of whom seemed to have lived, for Zeno never moved and Cantor never shaved, or perhaps his wife shaved him. (If you do not understand, you will have to wait for an explanation, as I am late today and cannot afford an aside!)

I knew GKC spoke on this, and had to play some games in order to find out where. Here is one, which is well worth your consideration:
Superficially one would fancy that complexity of civilisation and subtlety of thought would go together, but they do not. It is really easier to think with delicacy and exactitude if the materials are popular and plain. It is easier to count with counters than to count with the various fragments of a jig-saw. It is easier to point to things with a stick than with a bundle of sticks. It is easier to argue exhaustively about the squaring of the circle over a halfpenny and a halfpenny stamp than to illustrate the same point by comparing Trafalgar Square and the Coliseum. It is notable that nearly all the old typical enigmas of the intellect on which sages sharpened their wits were presented under the emblem of some common or even domestic object. The needle on which all the angels of the schoolman were to dance was presumably a common sewing or darning needle. The Accumulating Heap which has delighted so many sophists was originally, I suppose, a heap of salt on the table, or of sand by the sea. Achilles, perhaps, can hardly be called a common or domestic object, but the tortoise has a claim to that description: moreover, the problem can be as well discussed under the old figures of the tortoise and the hare. It is easier to consider the other great calculation of progress in the form of a climbing frog; and another under such primary symbols as corn, a river, a fox, a goose, and a man. The question of the frog was probably first debated by some solitary philosopher or hermit, in a quiet region and a simple age, actually watching the struggles of the frog. The setting of the second problem bears witness to its origin among agricultural persons, yokels and countrymen who have more time to think. All the subtleties of Political Economy begin with words that might be the beginning of some great primitive epic poem, "There is a man on an island."

The entangled conditions of an elaborate civilisation like ours are not favourable to carrying thought to a fine point. We are in no danger of discussing how many holy angels can dance on the point of a needle. We are so inordinately proud in reflecting how many poor devils are engaged in making the needle that we never think of that object in the more exquisite relations to space or measurement.
[GKC ILN Oct 7 1911 CW29:165-6]
Suggestive, indeed. But far more relevant and impressive is this:
In the good old days of Victorian rationalism it used to be the conventional habit to scoff at St. Thomas Aquinas and the mediaeval theologians; and especially to repeat perpetually a well-worn joke about the man who discussed how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. The comfortable and commercial Victorians, with their money and merchandise, might well have felt a sharper end of the same needle, even if it was the other end of it. It would have been good for their souls to have looked for that needle, not in the haystack of mediaeval metaphysics, but in the neat needle-case of their own favourite pocket Bible. It would have been better for them to meditate, not on how many angels could go on the point of a needle, but on how many camels could go through the eye of it. But there is another comment on this curious joke or catchword, which is more relevant to our purpose here. If the mediaeval mystic ever did argue about angels standing on a needle, at least he did not argue as if the object of angels was to stand on a needle; as if God had created all the Angels and Archangels, all the Thrones, Virtues, Powers and Principalities, solely in order that there might be something to clothe and decorate the unseemly nakedness of the point of a needle. But that is the way that modern rationalists reason. The mediaeval mystic would not even have said that a needle exists to be a standing-ground for angels. The mediaeval mystic would have been the first to say that a needle exists to make clothes for men. For mediaeval mystics, in their dim transcendental way, were much interested in the real reasons for things and the distinction between the means and the end. They wanted to know what a thing was really for, and what was the dependence of one idea on another. And they might even have suggested, what so many journalists seem to forget, the paradoxical possibility that Tennis was made for Man and not Man for Tennis.
[GKC The Thing CW3:167-8]
It would be fun to talk about Purpose, or about how this excerpt speaks to my own discipline of computer science, or relates to Subsidiarity... but we are trying to get to some point here, and I do NOT mean that as a pun.

You see, it is very easy to talk abstractedly about abstracts. You might as well put and advertisement into the newspaper, or post a want-ad through MONSTER or some such thing:
Required: Angels. Must be capable of dancing. Please submit your resume with skillset and relevant references, etc, etc.
Hee hee. Ah yes. As I was saying, it is easy to be abstract about abstractions. You don't need to fill out W-4's for angels, even if they are most capable dancers. However, if you want human dancers and expect them to dance, you will need to deal with a lot more than the question of how much room you will give them to dance upon.

And that is the point, (sorry if this seems like a pun) the point of the Ark. Maybe angels never danced anywhere near human sewing implements (Did you know some people argue that it was the head of a PIN, not a needle? A fitting topic for another heresy and subsequent formation of yet another Christian sect, oh my.) But one thing is sure: when David danced "with all his might" before the ark of the covenant, he took up some room. [See 2 Kings 6:14]

So, too, did Jesus - and by the time He had been in the womb for three months, He began to dance as well. We have made only a faint start, in our hasty and brief discussions, at the relevance of the Incarnation, but this, like the whole "paradox" thing, is a matter for accepting, not for abstract argument. When physical beings dance, they take up room. Their matter matters. We can discuss things like the electromagnetic force or the Exclusion Principle and all that some other time, if you feel it necessary, but I don't. You don't need to know what those things are in order to understand how to dance. The issue is farmore important than the abstraction, though it comes down to the same things as Zeno's "motion is impossible" or Cantor's fuss about infinity, or the ancient Greek struggles of "squaring the circle" - and that last is more to the point (no pun) than the others, since it relates to something which CAN be done, though not in the way the puzzle is expressed: just as it is true that a Virgin can be pregnant with a Son, without any of the natural means by which that occurs. (If you do not understand, you need to re-read what Gabriel said about how nothing is impossible for God [Lk 1:37] You also need to find out exactly what "squaring the circle" means, and why it is both possible (as a mathematical idea) and impossible (in its original Greek form).

Oh yes. This seems so abstract, doesn't it? But it is not. It is just as realistic, as practical, and as relevant as farming or automotive mechanics or electricity or ... sewing. And it is all encapsulated in this elegant and brief commentary on one of the most difficult matters in Christianity, one directly tied to the matter of Mary and her Divine Pregnancy, to the "fruit of her womb":
As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.
[GKC The Thing CW3:180]
The Eucharist is, in the most literal sense, the fruit of Mary's womb... No wonder David danced before the ark; no wonder we still use his song-lyrics at Holy Mass.

PS: some other time, perhaps, we can talk about "squaring the circle" and who found its ultimate proof, or about Zeno, or even about Cantor. And also then I might give you my own answer, which is not the one you will usually hear, to the puzzle about the angels dancing on a needle (or pin) - which is, of course both the point and THE END.


At 19 November, 2010 11:56, Blogger Belfry Bat said...

Dear Dr. T.,

Since you have mentioned the Church's usage of the word "Type", I wonder if I might ask your help in understanding what Uncle Gilbert means in his fiction by saying one or another character is "typical"? I can't quite seem to get my head around his usage --- I can't even describe the shape of my confusion more than to say that whatever follows such an introduction doesn't help me understand what he meant by saying so.

Alas, in this category I've only read The Man Who Was Thursday and Manalive; so my dataset is much smaller than the available sample space. But I should like to resolve that particular puzzle; it's been bugging me for some time now!

Your friendly reader


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