Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Telephone Game

When I first read it, I was utterly mystified by this opening to an article by Lawrence Krauss:

THOMAS AQUINAS may never have actually wondered how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but his tortured musings about metaphysical issues associated with the non-corporeality of angels (and the related issue of whether there is excrement in heaven) stretched the limits of reasonable rational inquiry so far that later scholars invented the phrase to mock him.


The angels-on-pins parody is due in great measure to Isaac D'Israeli, who in his Curiosities of Literature wrote:

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Curiosities of Literature And The Literary Character Illustrated By Isaac Disraeli, Rufus Wilmot Griswold

The third question, the famous one, is not in the Scriblerian text (Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus), a comic classic, from Chapter VII, which consists of a long series of philosophy jokes as the good Martinus is taught rhetoric, logic, and metaphysics. At one point it gives a list of theses, often slightly modified, from scholastic authors, including:

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The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq In Four Volumes Complete. With His Last Corrections, Additions, and Improvements. Carefully Collated and Compared with Former Editions: Together with Notes from the Various Critics and Commentators By Alexander Pope

These correspond to ST 1.53.2, ST 1.56.2, and ST 1.58.6. Of course, it takes no great reading ability to see that Aquinas doesn't actually argue that angels know things more clearly in the morning. It's all a joke. D'Israeli, however, recognizing the joke, moves it one step further; he really does think that Aquinas on angels is (almost) this silly, and engages in anti-scholastic exaggeration of the sort that became common in the early modern period.

But none of this was what mystified me. 'What is this about "the related issue of whether there is excrement in Heaven"?' I wondered. The source, however, is pretty clear:

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Curiosities of Literature And The Literary Character Illustrated By Isaac Disraeli, Rufus Wilmot Griswold

Which is the paragraph right after. Paradise, not Heaven; and not at all related to angels. And, of course, D'Israeli is exaggerating again. The reference is to ST Supp. 83.4, it's a sed contra, not Thomas's own discussion, 'excrement' has to be read into the word deperditi, 'what is lost' or 'what is destroyed', and, of course, Thomas is not discussing whether there will be excrement in Paradise: the question he's discussing is whether eating is strictly essential to being human, in order to determine whether those resurrected in glory would still be human if they don't need to eat (his answer: it is not, and they will).

Every scholar who deals with historical issues always runs across weird stories that float around about what people thought or said or did way back then; and this provides a pretty good little instance of how this happens. Thomas Aquinas, in a very early work (the Supplement to the Summa Theologiae is just passages from his early Commentary on the Sentences reorganized after his death to fill in the gap at the end of the unfinished Summa), notes down, in passing, an argument to the effect that the resurrected won't need to eat because one needs to eat only to replace what's lost and to grow, comestio [ordinatur] ad restaurationem deperditi, et ad augmentum quantitatis. D'Israeli comes along much later and glosses this Aquinas gravely debating whether there is excrement in Paradise. (I suspect he had it at secondhand.) Krauss, reading D'Israeli, transmogrifies it into whether there's excrement in Heaven, which is somehow related to the noncorporeality of angels. And now there will be someone who will read it and take it at face value, and garble it further; and no doubt there will be someone at some point in the future claiming that Thomas Aquinas debates whether noncorporeal angels excrete in Heaven.

I have no clue, by the way, what D'Israeli means by the hermaphrodite question, or where he is getting it. Needless to say, it's not something St. Thomas actually discusses; one wonders what the source is. A garbling of Galatians 3:28, perhaps, maybe by too quick a reading of some Latin passage?

Incidentally, suppose that Thomas Aquinas did discuss things like angels dancing on pins? (Even Homer nods; every Thomist would allow that there are a few prima-facie odd arguments scattered through the corpus, even if they can be understood in a reasonable way.) George Macdonald Ross has an thought-provoking article discussing how to interpret odd topics and images in the great minds of the past.

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