Inventing the Flat Earth
I got a book for Christmas that I read recently, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historias, by Jeffrey Burton Russell. I have wanted to write a review for this blog, but I found one in the New York Times that will do for now. My interests have ranged so far away from maintaining a blog, but I don't want to let it go completely.
Enjoy the article.
The New York Times
April 25, 1992
By PETER STEINFELS
The belief in a flat Earth is a modern invention, a myth that reveals a good deal about the underlying dogma of an age claiming to be scientific.
Only in the last century did the idea spread that when Christopher Columbus set sail he was challenging a belief, entrenched in theology and enforced by the church, that the world was flat. That belief, the story goes, was questioned only by a rebellious or scientifically advanced minority.
None of the documents from Columbus's day or the early accounts of his labors suggest that there was any debate about the roundness of the Earth. Yet by the end of the 19th century, the drama of Columbus versus the flat-Earth believers had become a staple of textbooks.
Even today, although many standard histories have corrected the error, the idea that Christiandom had suppressed or forgotten the Greek philosophers' discovery of a spherical world remains a fixture in educated minds and regularly re-emerges in the works of eminent scholars.
For example, a section in "The Discoverers," a popular book (Random House, 1983) by Daniel J. Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, says that "Christian faith and dogma" had inflicted on Europe at least 1,000 years of "amnesia" about the world's shape.
How did such a palpable error arise, and why did it persist? Jeffrey Burton Russell, a professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara, has addressed this puzzle in a small gem of scholarship written for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage.
The book, "Inventing the Flat Earth" (Praeger, 1991), is more than an investigation into a quirk of intellectual history. It effectively reverses an old question. Instead of asking why medieval thinkers so dogmatically insisted that the Earth was flat, it says we must ask why modern thinkers, in the face of so much contrary evidence, dogmatically insisted on a flat-Earth consensus that never existed.
Professor Russell makes clear that whatever the conceptions of the Earth's shape found in Genesis and the other books of the Bible, not only in antiquity but throughout the first 15 centuries of Christianity, "nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the Earth spherical."
The scholars who offered that opinion included Augustine, Venerable Bede and Thomas Aquinas. A few figures, like the influential Isidore of Seville, were ambiguous on the matter, and many, of course, were not interested in geographical issues. The uneducated may have entertained all sorts of vague beliefs, but that was true for the classical era as well.
Only five Christian writers, according to Professor Russell's scorecard, seem to have been out-and-out believers in a flat Earth. One was Lactantius, a third-century convert to Christianity who was posthumously condemned as a heretic, although his Latin style brought him renewed attention during the Renaissance. Another was Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century Greek writer whose work was reviled in his own time, ignored for most of the Middle Ages and not even translated into Latin until 1706. These two eccentrics would become the chief exhibits for the flat-Earth mythology of the 19th century.
Oddly enough, a major source of that mythology was the genial American creator of Rip van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. In 1828, Washington Irving published a novelistic biography of Columbus featuring a fictitious confrontation between the brave explorer and Inquisition-ridden clerics and professors from the University of Salamanca. They pelted Columbus with quotations from the Bible and church fathers to prove that the Earth was flat. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his biography of Columbus, calls the episode "pure moonshine."
Irving the storyteller had his academic counterpart in the French historian Antoine-Jean Letronne. Letronne's influential 1834 study, "On the Cosmographical Opinions of the Church Fathers," was shaped by anti-clericalism just as Irving's imagination was colored by Anglo-American anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feeling. Letronne acknowledged evidence that appeared to contradict his thesis but promptly buried it as untypical. Church fathers and medieval Christians simply must have been hide-bound by prejudice and a literal reading of the Bible.
The seeds of this premise had been planted in the 16th-century controversies over Copernicus's theory putting the Sun rather than the Earth at the center of the planetary system. But Copernicus's opponents nonetheless thought the Earth was ball-shaped, and for two centuries afterward the defenders of Copernicus and Galileo, as well as the many fierce critics of religion, hardly ever added belief in a flat Earth to the accusations they made against church authorities.
The heyday of the flat-Earth mythology, in fact, did not arrive until the half-century of 1870 to 1920. The reason had nothing to do with facts and everything to do with the ideological atmosphere created by the struggles over evolution. That atmosphere led authors like John W. Draper ("The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science," 1874) and Andrew Dickson White ("A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom," 1896) to recast all the past in terms of the contemporary antagonism between biblical literalism and science.
Repeatedly, these authors, like Letronne before them, treated Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes as representative while minimizing or misrepresenting all the thinkers who affirmed a spherical Earth. "The curious result," Professor Russell writes, is that these modern writers "ended up by doing what they accused the church fathers of, namely, creating a body of false knowledge by consulting one another instead of the evidence."
Myths frequently operate to confirm the myth-makers' claims of superiority, to lend legitimacy to their ouster of other groups from political or cultural power. The flat-Earth mythology, it turns out, is not a case of medieval certainty about the literal truth of the Bible. It arose as an expression of modernity's faith in scientific progress. It dramatized the claim that the intelligence of a religious past could be dismissed in the name of a scientific present.