29 January 2013

Myths and Misconceptions: A Flat World

Flat-World Idealists versus Round-Earth Visionaries

Sometime around the dawn of history—so the story goes—people thought the world flat.  In year 1492, a startling revelation, with all the force of a ferocious gale, tore the flat world theory asunder.   Three ships (La Niña  Pinta, and Santa María) sailed west from the Spanish coast under the command of Christopher Columbus, who had convinced his patrons, Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragón,  that all seas were navigable.   It was Columbus’s wager against a long tradition of anti-antipodeans that included sources such as the Old Testament, the eminent philosopher Plato (among others), and the not-to-be easily contradicted authority, early Church father, and theologian St. Augustine.   How could Columbus have been so audacious?  Particularly, since St. Augustine had flatly denied the existence of the antipodes—for to embrace the theory was a tacit acceptance that the earth was round; that there were two poles, north and south;  and to accept the findings of Eratosthenes (276 BC[1] – c. 195 BC), who went on to become the world’s first geographer, inventing the concepts of latitude and longitude that we still use today, and who constructed the first models and maps based on a spherical earth.
Nonetheless, the antipodean rejectionists felt they had good reason to hold their position.  Plato describes it in Timaeus as so: 

For if there were any solid body in equipoise at the centre of the universe, there would be nothing to draw it to this extreme rather than to that, for they are all perfectly similar; and if a person were to go round the world in a circle, he would often, when standing at the antipodes of his former position, speak of the same point as above and below; for, as I was saying just now, to speak of the whole which is in the form of a globe as having one part above and another below is not like a sensible man.

St. Augustine revisits the arguments when he writes: 

As to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets on us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, there is no reason for believing it. Those who affirm it do not claim to possess any actual information; they merely conjecture that, since the earth is suspended within the concavity of the heavens, and there is as much room on the one side of it as on the other, therefore the part which is beneath cannot be void of human inhabitants. They fail to notice that, even should it be believed or demonstrated that the world is round or spherical in form, it does not follow that the part of the earth opposite to us is not completely covered with water, or that any conjectured dry land there should be inhabited by men. For Scripture, which confirms the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, teaches not falsehood; and it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.

In other words, to these men of learning and Scripture, the idea of a round earth was as ridiculous as anything found in Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass—an anti-antipodean book if there ever was one.  Alice’s world is flat, and not only flat, but it is a chessboard.  Her movement is severely restricted; she may move forward, backward, and laterally—she has some latitude, but no height, breadth or depth that might allow her to escape from the game (or the Red Queen’s wrath).   Her experience is that of pure surface with all of its reversals, paradoxes, dead ends, and cliffhangers.

So where then did the inkling that the world might not be flat come from if not from the Bible, philosophers and theologians?  The troublemakers—and in this case they were seen as troublemakers—were merchants, sailors, and explorers who’d traveled far beyond the verses of Homer (remember Achilles’ shield depicts a flat earth), Scripture, and what is known as the up-down view of the world:  Heaven above, the earth a floating disk, and below a place you went if you were one of the unfortunate damned.   Eratosthenes has already been mentioned.  And there is Ptolemy, who Columbus supposedly cites in his plea to the King and Queen of Spain to fund his voyage.  The notion that the earth is a sphere is an ancient one:   it involves a long, on-going debate between what we might call flat-world idealists and round-earth visionaries.

Reston, James, Dogs of God, Anchor Books, NY 2006
Sobel, Dava, Longitude, Walter and Company, NY 1995

Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.