Friday, November 05, 2010

A Spherical Argument

One way that is still used to denigrate and mock Christianity, as well as the ancients and medievals, is the suggestion that, prior to Columbus, everyone thought the Earth was flat. This belief was rooted in religious dogma and was therefore unchallengeable until it was demonstrated empirically to be false; and even then many people continued to affirm it. It is held up as a primary example of the folly of religion in contrast to the wisdom of science.

I fortunately grew up knowing that this story line was bogus. People did not think that the Earth was flat before Columbus. Every educated person from about the third century BC onward knew the Earth was round. Columbus was trying to discover an alternate passage to the East Indies by sailing west. He had to convince people that such a route would be superior to the common one of going south, around Africa, and then east; but he didn't have to convince anyone that the Earth is round. Besides, how exactly did Columbus's voyage prove the sphericity of the Earth? He didn't circumnavigate the globe; he didn't reach some place traveling west that had already been reached by traveling east. Isn't it obvious that this narrative is false?

I thought that these things were fairly well-known. I suspected that anyone who seriously thought otherwise essentially got their knowledge on the subject from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

(Update, 30 March 2012: Here's another proof via Bugs Bunny that the earth is round.)

It just amazes me that people take this urban legend seriously. I think, for example, of the globus cruciger, that ball with a cross on top of it that kings would hold. The ball was supposed to represent the earth, with the cross on top representing Christ's dominion over it, and the sovereign would hold it to show that "he's got the whole world in his hands." The earliest of these dates to the fifth century, before the fall of Rome, and they were used throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, orbs without the cross were common for centuries beforehand. Thus, any claim that the ancients or medievals thought the earth was flat can't even get started. You can see plenty of pictures of them online, and you can watch a short documentary on the globus cruciger here.

Unfortunately, there are still people, including historians (so I can't lay the blame on the side of popular culture), who believe that Columbus was trying to prove the Earth is round. The go-to book to refute such claims is Jeffrey Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. There are also some excellent resources online: see here, here, here, here, and here, for example. James has pointed to a recent book promulgating this claim which may indicate a new trend: using the "flat earth myth" to impugn Christianity and make Islam look better by comparison.

Regarding the Bible, there are passages which refer to "the ends of the earth" and "the four corners of the earth." However, they do not amount to an assertion that the earth is flat anymore than our use of terms such as "sunset" and "sunrise" amount to assertions that the sun revolves around the earth. "The ends of the earth" merely refers to the most distant places, and "the four corners of the earth" refers to the most distant places in the four directions in which one can go (north, south, east, and west).

Regarding Christian history, there are a few historical figures who went against the flow, but this does not negate the consensus view. The extent to which a flat earth was accepted in ancient and medieval Christianity is sometimes exaggerated based on criticisms of the theory of "antipodes." But this seems to be a misunderstanding: "antipodes" referred to people who were alleged to live on the other side of the earth. The Christian authors who rejected this (not all did) pointed to the almost universally-held belief that it was impossible to travel from one side to the other, "either because the sea was too wide to sail across or because the equatorial zones were too hot to sail through" (Russell). Therefore, no one from one side of the earth could have gotten to the other side, so that if there were people on the other side of the earth they could not share a common origin with us. Some have unfortunately taken these statements to mean that they were denying there was an "other side" of the world at all. But these authors were making anthropological statements, not geographical ones.

The only individuals who clearly affirmed a flat earth were Lactantius (third and fourth centuries), whose "views eventually led to his works being condemned as heretical after his death" (Russell); Severian (fourth century); and Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century) who exerted virtually zero influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages: "The first translation of Cosmas into Latin, his very first introduction into western Europe, was not until 1706. He had absolutely no influence on medieval western thought" (Russell). By way of contrast, Copernicus translated some short writings of Theophylactus Simocatta from Greek to Latin in 1509. While this was the first such translation published in Poland, and thus had some importance in that regard, the text he chose was not. The reason he chose Theophylactus is because all the good stuff had already been translated, so he had to settle for the dregs. Cosmas wasn't translated for another two centuries. To suggest he was even taken seriously by the handful of people who read him is just absurd.

Additionally, Diodore of Tarsus (fourth century) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (fourth and fifth centuries) are referenced by other Christians as affirming a flat earth in order to refute them, but the actual writings in question are lost. Isidore of Seville (sixth and seventh centuries) is often given as an example of a flat-earther, because some of his writings seem to affirm corollaries of a flat earth. But since he also gives a figure for the earth's circumference (80,000 stadia) and affirms that the sky is spherical and equidistant from the earth on all sides, it is difficult to attribute a belief in a flat earth to him.

So Lactantius, Severian, Cosmas Indicopleustes, Diodore, and Theodore of Mopsuestia make a grand total of five Christian writers who affirmed, or apparently affirmed, a flat earth, all of whom lived in late Antiquity at the very latest, and none of whom were taken seriously.

So how did such a silly idea become so popular? According to Russell, it goes back to about 1830 when Washington Irving published his story of Columbus, and took some license with the historical account. In Irving's story, Columbus wasn't trying to discover an alternate route to the East Indies by sailing west around the world: he was trying to prove more basically that the Earth is round in the first place. Before this time, everyone thought the Earth was flat because that's what the Bible teaches. Columbus's detractors were the priests and inquisitors who didn't want anyone challenging their authority to proclaim what reality was or wasn't.

Despite the absurdity of these claims, by about 1870, western society had pretty much uncritically accepted the idea that everyone thought the world was flat prior to Columbus's voyages (including, ironically, some Christians who took it upon themselves to defend flat-earthism). There were two primary reasons for this na├»ve acceptance that the ancients and medievals thought the earth was flat: First, the 19th century was a time of great optimism for the human race. People thought that we were quickly advancing towards a manmade utopia, and for many this implied the superiority of modern man over his predecessors. Thus, it was very conducive to this worldview to portray those who lived prior to the Enlightenment as a bunch of uneducated half-wits who didn’t even know the earth is round. World War I pretty much eradicated the optimism, but much of the disrespect for and contempt of our predecessors remained and remains still.

Second, at this time, some people were very confident that scientific discoveries would eventually explain everything without any recourse to God (naturalism). However, many scientists did not accept naturalism, so a cultural campaign was initiated which sought to identify it with science itself, and to this end represented any denial of naturalism as part and parcel of ignorant religious believers getting in the way of truth and progress. Examples were found, twisted, and sometimes completely invented in order to illustrate the point. The flat earth was a perfect candidate for one of these "examples": in Irving's story, he had made Columbus's opponents the priests and inquisitors who didn’t want anyone challenging their authority to make pronouncements about what constituted reality. Indeed, a lot of naturalism's credibility comes from the degree of absurdity in examples of what religious people believe or have believed about the physical world. When this degree of absurdity turns out to be misinformed -- either totally invented or significantly misrepresented -- naturalism no longer appears as obvious.

So the flat earth myth isn't just an urban legend; it's propaganda, deliberate misinformation that is presented in order to prop up a position without going through the tedium of finding actual evidence for it. It doesn't bode well for your worldview if you have to change reality in order to make it fit.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Noons said...

They don't make cartoons like they used to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting and insightful post.
While the vast majority of serious medievalists and historians of science today is well-aware of the "flat earth myth" and is thus not inclined to repeat it in classrooms or textbooks, there still seems to be considerable confusion about the degree to which flat-earth belief might have been influential within Christianity for a certain period during the transitional centures from late antiquity to the early middle ages. Isidore of Seville is a good case in point. His remarks in the Etymologies are definitely confusing and maybe even contradictory. You may remember that there was a somewhat heated debate between Wesley Stevens and William McCready (who argued that Isidore was a flat-earther) on the pages of "Isis" back in 1996, which had no clear winner. Having said that, I'm inclined to side with Stevens in this question, if only because Isidore was so closely affiliated with King Sisebut, whose epistolary poem on a lunar eclipse quite unambiguously presupposes the spherical cosmological model of Greek natural philosophy.
Another candidate for controversy are the cosmological views of St. Augustine. Recent voices within Augustinian scholarship have basically made him into a flat-earther again (see for instance the article on "cosmology" in "Augustine through the Ages", which is the standard encyclopedia). I have written an article, in which I try to defend the older view, showing that Augustine most likely accepted the spherical model. It is currently being peer reviewed and will hopefully be published next year.

Merkavah said...

Very interesting, Baerista.

I look forward to reading your work!

James said...

Yes, I agree. Thank you Baerista. I have to say that I was not convinced by Isidore the flat earther either.

It seems pretty obvious that the orbis which he describes as like a wheel is the inhabited world in the northern hemisphere between the arctic and zone of fire. This is clear because he divides it up into the three continents and surrounds them by the ocean which is the standard ancient geography.

The earth, on the other hand, comes in the paragraph above and is placed in the centre of the heavens.

To call Isidore a flat earther offends the principle of charity at the very least.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment, James. In fact, even McCready admits in his article that Isidore assumed the heavens to be spherical. How a spherical heaven (rather than a dome-shaped one) can be combined with a flat earth in any convincing way is not clear to me. But I have to admit that McCready did a competent job pointing out existing ambiguities in Isidore's text.

For all the good work that has been done to debunk the "flat earth myth", I feel there is still much room for discussion and further research. One claim, which is still very frequently encountered in the literature concerns Magellan's circumnavigation and its role as "proof" of the earth's sphericity. Even scholars who know that the sphericity was common knowledge during the middle ages tend to attach great importance to his voyage, treating it as "final proof" or something along the lines (as if Aristotle's arguments weren't striking enough). I have the suspicion that this familiar narrative might be a remnant of the myth, which was able to survive the myth itself. In fact, I am unaware of any source contemporary to Magellan's voyage, which actually views the undertaking in this light (but I am grateful for every pointer to the contrary). It seems that people at the time were so confident about the earth's sphericity that they saw no need for proof circumnavigation. I may be wrong, of course, but it would be worth checking the sources to see if sixteenth century perceptions match those of modern textbooks.

BTW: The brute fact of Magellan's circumnavigation can be easily reconciled with belief in a flat earth, if the latter is construed in the way modern-day "flat earth societies" have usually done it. Theory is underdetermined by data after all.

I was just informed that my article will appear in one of the next issues of "Augustinian Studies", 41/2 (2010) or 42/1 (2011).

Bart said...

It is particularly ironic to place Colombus at the heart of the flat earth myth as, not only do his writings demonstrate without doubt that the global earth theory was universal amongst educated men, but that he himself became convinced they were wrong.

In his third letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, he begins: "I have always read that the world comprising the land and water was spherical, and the recorded experiences of Ptolemy and all the others have proved..."

Before 'correcting' this assertion based on his own observations: "I have now seen so much irregularity that I have come to another conclusion respecting the Earth, namely, that it is not round, as they describe, but of the form of a pear, which is very round except where the stalk grows, at which part it is most prominent"

Banshee said...

As far as I can tell, pretty much every people that has lived by the ocean, or on a really flat plain, has had plenty of opportunity to observe that the Earth must be round. Only peoples who live in fairly broken lands seem to be able to believe that Earth is flat....

Anyway, the early medieval Irish knew that the Earth was round (thanks to early Christian lit), and they were all over the place in Europe. So pretty much everybody must have heard about it, whether they believed the Irish or not.

Anonymous said...

There were some serious delays with issue 42.1, but the thing is finally out now. Hope the article's going to be of some modest use in further clarifying the issue of patristic cosmology.

Anonymous said...

Text is grat. But globus cruciger is not earth right? It is whole universe?

The Rabbi said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Text is grat. But globus cruciger is not earth right? It is whole universe?

The images that I have seen have the globe split into three sections representing Europe and Africa, sharing one half of the globe, while Asia occupies the other half. This would indicate that the globe refers to the Earth rather then the Universe. Although I don't know how early this division of the globe took place.