Thursday, February 05, 2009

Boxed in

In the sixth century this theological reasoning was still further developed by Cosmas Indicopleustes. Finding a sanction for the old Egyptian theory of the universe in the ninth chapter of Hebrews, he insisted that the earth is a flat parallelogram and that from its outer edges rise immense walls supporting the firmament…This was accepted by the universal Church as a vast contribution to thought’

Andrew Dickinson White

Cosmas Indicopleustes was a self educated, widely travelled Greek merchant who lived during the 6th century A.D. Having converted to Christianity, he was persuaded by certain biblical passages - which he took a very strict literal interpretation of - that the earth was in fact a flat rectangle covered with a vault containing the stars and planets. His motivation for doing so was his hatred of the heresy of the "spherists" and the antipodists, and he evolved his theory of the universe from the design of the Tabernacle built by Moses in the wilderness. This, he pointed out, Moses himself had declared to be constructed upon the pattern of the visible world. He developed this theory in a book called 'Christian Topography' in which he employed a variety of arguments in support of his hypothesis. In his preface he writes:

'Let me next exhort my readers to examine the sketch of the universe and the stellar motions which we have prepared as a representation of the organic sphere of the pagans, and to study the account of it sent to the pious deacon Homologus, then they with God's help are quite competent, especially with this book and the volume mentioned, to overthrow from the foundation the error of the pagan theories. For if any Christian possesses these three works, and is by divine grace carefully exercised in the divine scriptures, he will easily confute the foolish views of the fable-mongers'

According to Cosmas, the base of the box is formed by the surface of the earth, around which flows the ocean; on the other side of the ocean lies another continent. From this rise walls that support the firmament above. This continent, according to Cosmas, is now altogether inaccessible to man, but used to be the seat of Paradise and the home of the human race up to the time of the great flood; at which point the Ark was swept with its few saved men across to the ‘other Earth’. The stars are then carried by the angels in a circle around the firmament, above which is a vault which separates the heaven from the world beneath.

'All the stars are created….to regulate the days and nights, the months and the years, and they move, not at all by the motion of the heaven itself, but by the action of certain divine Beings, or lampadophores. God made the angels for his service, and He has charged some of them with the motion of the air, others with that of the Sun, or the Moon, or the other stars, and others again with the collecting of clouds, and preparing the rain.'

To the north, the earth rises into a cone-shaped mountain behind which the sun hides during the night. The nights themselves get longer or shorter according to the position of the sun, either near the longer base of the mountain or its shorter summit.

Much of the books consists of a long rant against Cosmas’s critics and their insane belief in a spherical earth, despite their professions to be Christian believers. In book one Cosmas writes:

'Cease, O ye wiseacres! prating worthless nonsense, and learn at last though late to follow the divine oracles and not your own baseless fancies. For, tell us, how ye think that the fixed stars move in an opposite direction to the universe? Is such a motion theirs only or that of the sphere in which they are placed? Then, if it is theirs, how do they traverse unequal orbits in equal time? …But who can imagine a greater absurdity than this? Thus they do their best to prevent anyone surpassing them in their effrontery----or rather, let me say, in impiety, since they do not blush to affirm that there are people who live on the under surface of the earth. What then, should some one question them and say: Is the sun to no purpose carried under the earth? these absurd persons will, on the spur of the moment, without thinking, reply that the people of the Antipodes are there----men carrying their heads downwards, and rivers having a position opposite to the rivers here! thus taking in hand to turn every thing upside down rather than to follow the doctrines of the truth, in which there are no futile sophisms, but which are plain and easy and full of godliness, while they procure salvation for those who reverently consult them.’

In particular he points to the attractiveness, or divine simplicity of his new quadrangular theory because it involves a less complicated model for the earth and the kingdom of heaven. In contrast the spherical model involves a proliferation of heavens to deal with:

‘It is necessary for those who wish to be considered Christians to enquire into which of these eight or nine heavens Christ has ascended, and into which they themselves hope to ascend, and what is the use of the other seven or eight heavens. For having already delineated the world in accordance with the scriptural view, we assert that two places were created, one adapted to the present state of existence, and the other to that which is to come, since we have such a hope, one that is better than the life here. And you, if as Christians you hold such a hope, will of necessity be asked what is the use of the seven or eight other heavens….. But ye advance arguments altogether incredible, and will have it that there is a multitude of spheres, and that there is no final consummation of the world since ye are unable to tell what is the necessity of these things. And in like manner ye will have it that the waters above the spheres rotate----a most ridiculous idea and altogether idiotic, and ye advance arguments which are self-contradictory and opposed to the nature of things. How great is your knowledge! how great your wisdom! how great your intelligence! how great your inconsistency!’

At this point, having worked himself up into a rage Cosmas delivers what I consider to be one of the best retorts in the history of science:

Such then is our reply to your fictitious and false theories and to the conclusions of your reasonings which are capricious, self-contradictory, inconsistent, doomed to be utterly confounded, and to be whirled round and round even more than that unstable and revolving mythical sphere of yours.

Despite Cosmas’s passionate treatise he appears to have had no influence whatsoever; he does deserve an honourable mention however, because later polemicists used him to buttress the manifestly false claim that all (or most) medieval people believed in a flat earth. Cosmas is in fact, the only medieval European known to have defended a flat earth cosmology. It is safe to assume that all educated western Europeans (and all but one educated Byzantine), as well as sailors and travellers, believed in the earth's spherity. The myth of the pre-Columbian flat earth was invented by the essayist Washington Irving in the 1820s and propagated by the notoriously unreliable Dickinson White. Cosmas has proven to be an interesting and reliable guide to the state of the world at the time and his descriptions of his travels in particular have proved invaluable. He remains one of my great heroes, having had the courage to advance an unpopular and highly speculative theory in the teeth of his mocking detractors. He had the spirit of science, but not the education and learning to be able to pull it off. If he were alive today I’m sure he would graciously concede that his detractors were right; but only by accident.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow Cosmas sure knows how to go on a rant! Self Educated? I believe that! Thanks for this eye opening look at history, fascinating stuff.