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  • Flat-earthing: the Destruction of Knowledge February 22, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    **Note that this has become a controversial post – read to the bottom for important riders and arguments**

    Beachcombing is at heart a whig, at least in historical terms: he sees the sunlit uplands off on the horizon and believes, perhaps stupidly, that humanity is gradually evolving and moving towards a happier, freer future. However, he would be the first to admit that this evolution includes lots of relicts (the historical equivalents of tailbones) and devolutions as humanity gets distracted by a squashed rabbit or cowpat by the side of the road. Certainly, in this long Echternach dance forward and then backwards, forwards then backwards, one of the most interesting, bewildering facts is mankind’s knack of losing knowledge.

    By rights this should not happen. Yet the evidence is there for all to see. After all, how is it that one generation knows how to build a bridge over the Rhine and then the subsequent (and twenty following) do not? How is it that corn can be satisfactorily prepared for human digestion by one civilization and that this preparation technique can be lost when corn is borrowed by neighbours? How is it that antiquity could understand that the world was a sphere, and yet this knowledge be ridiculed and lost [see comments below] and partially lost in late antiquity?

    Beachcombing will touch today on the last point. For it is certainly true that the ancients, from the fourth century BC onwards (and perhaps rather earlier) believed that the earth was a sphere. It is also true that this knowledge was fully established in Christian Europe by the eighth century AD – the idea that Columbus discovered that the world was a sphere is nonsense.

    However, there is an intermediate period from about the fourth century AD through the seventh century AD when the Christian consensus seems to have been that the world was, in fact, flat. [see comments below] when a current within Christendom believed that the world was, in fact, flat. The canonical text here is Lactantius attacking the idea of antipodes, continents on the other side of the globe, and the following is a nice example of what common sense will do to you if it gnaws for too long at its leash:

    ‘But how can there be those who think that there are feet opposite to our feet [i.e. in the antipodes]? Do they have any evidence? Or are there those who really think that there are men with feet above their heads and that the things that are the right way up here hang there upside down? Do the crops and trees grow down then? Does the snow and rain and hail fall upwards towards the earth? And no wonder that the Hanging Gardens [of Babylon] are included among the seven wonders of the world, when thinkers believe that there are hanging fields, seas, cities and mountains!’

    And so the idea of a spherical earth and antipodes was, in part, mocked out of existence.

    Other Church Fathers, it is true, held on to the traditional model: there are lines in Augustine that suggest, for example, that he did so with some reservations, particularly over the status of the antipodes.

    So why does knowledge sometimes disintegrate in humanity’s collective hands? There are no general rules. The question has to be looked at on a case by case basis: though perhaps the word ‘distraction’ would do justice to most cases.

    So the loss of bridge-building skills on the Rhine and elsewhere came down to the speed of the Roman collapse at the end of the Empire – specialists died, infrastructures vanished, before knowledge could be codified and passed on.

    Corn became a killer when eaten in Europe and North America because those who borrowed it from Mexico refused to borrow ‘primitive’ Aztec preparation techniques: the result being pellagra, a niacin deficit with its horrible death-dealing four ds.

    And knowledge of a spherical earth took a back seat for a few centuries because of a changing intellectual climate.

    In antiquity, what mattered was the quality of arguments rather than the importance of authorities – though late neo-platonism becomes worryingly authority-based as, in more recent times, Marxism (Lenin plus) would.

    In the Christian Empire, meanwhile, the Bible became the final point of reference that invalidated arguments: including obtuse Old Testament comments about the four corners of the earth e.g. Ezekiel 7,2 which seemed to preclude a round earth. And there are some examples of exotic Protestant fauna (now selling tee-shirts) that follow a similar doctrine to this day.

    The dreadful words dixit sacra scriptura (sacred scripture says) were hammered into the coffin of antique culture like so many nails.

    Beachcombing is interested in loss of knowledge in history – let’s call it, for the purposes of this blog ‘flat-earthing’ – and the reasons for this loss: he has recently been reading up on the loss of scientific technique as late medieval Europe is plunged into the ‘Renaissance’: any other sane, historically-attested examples of flat-earthing would be gratefully received – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    22 Feb 2011: Beachcombing knew that he was playing with fire when he wrote this post. However, he didn’t expect to have twelve emails in his box when he woke up through the miasma of flu! He’s rushing out the two most extensive by Tim O’Neill from armarium magnus and Bjorn from dekodet with some comments of his own below. First Bjorn (the edited out texts are passages from the post above): It is always a bit sad when some of one’s fav historical sites fall for the flat earth myth [this makes it sound like it is a regular occurrence, Bjorn!?], or at least parts of it. Beachcombing is well aware that the medievals didn’t believe in a flat earth… Still he insists that there was a period when it was believed, and with (of all) Lacantius being the canonical text… As he seems familiar with Augustine not falling for this (and he was not quite lacking in influence), it is strange he thinks Lacantius was much more important… [the loss of knowledge would have been ] A good question which would have been even better if it had not been written in a context based on a misunderstanding. Tim O is even more emphatic: I’m a medievalist with a particular interest in early science and geography, amongst other things.  As such, I regularly have to address misapprehensions and (occasionally) outright lies on the subject, usually being presented by people with an anti-Christian axe to grind.  I’m better able to refute these agendas than most given that (i) I know the material fairly well and (ii) I’m an atheist myself, so can’t be accused of confirmation bias. I regularly have to refute the myth that the wicked ol’Church destroyed ancient science and taught everyone that the earth was flat.  Thankfully, you’re clearly aware that this is nonsense.  But you still seem to have misunderstood the evidence.  You write: However, there is an intermediate period from about the fourth century AD through the seventh century AD when the Christian consensus seems to have been that the world was, in fact, flat. The canonical text here is Lactantius attacking the idea of antipodes, continents on the other side of the globe. There are several errors of fact here.  Firstly, there was no such ‘consensus’ amongst early Christian writers.  A small few (namely Lactantius, Severian, Cosmas Indicopleustes and Chrysostom) tried to hold to various flat earth cosmologies.  Most others (including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Boethius, Isidore and Philoponus) accepted a spherical earth.  Given that the latter scholars were vastly more influential than the former, to paint the position of the former as accepted, let alone a ‘consensus’, is clearly completely wrong. What seems to have led to the confusion that there was a stronger belief in a flat earth than there actually was is the debate about a separate issue – whether the ‘antipodes’ could be inhabited.  Ever since Crates of Mallus in the Second Century BC ancient geographers had held that there was an impassible ‘torrid zone’ near the equator, where temperatures became so hot that travellers could not cross it.  Greek geographers speculated that there might be people living on continents beyond this uncrossable divide, but said we could never know.  Christian scholars, however, accepted that the Garden of Eden had been north of the equator, therefore ruled that the ‘antipodes’ (i.e. the southern hemisphere south of the ‘Torrid Zone’) had to be uninhabited, since to claim otherwise was to posit two separate creations of men. Debate over this issue was not a debate about the shape of the earth at all.  Quite the opposite – the idea of a ‘Torrid Zone’ presupposes a spherical earth.  The debate about the possibility of an inhabited ‘antipodes’ continued into the Middle Ages until medieval explorers and travellers in Asia worked out that they had crossed the equator (some got as far south as Sri Lanka and Java) and that Crates of Mallus had been wrong.  The idea of the ‘antipodes’ as a paradoxical ‘upside down land’ persisted in satirical poems and plays well into the modern era. You might want to update or revise your post. By way of reply Beachcombing would say, first, that he regrets only one sentence in the post, the now infamous reference to the ‘consensus’, crossed out and replaced with something more sensible above. But it is surely fair to say that there was a significant current within late antique Christendom that went along with the Flat Earth theory and that made the spherical earth theory controversial in a way that it had not been in antiquity. Beachcombing even wonders if there were not places and times when it didn’t represent a consensus: though certainly this is not the same as saying, as he did (wrongly) , that the consensus was one found in late antique Christendom. (‘Canonical’ by the way refers to ‘within the flat earth movement’.)  Second, Beachcombing has sometimes wondered about the spherical earth in the likes of Augustine: the evidence is perhaps not as strong as is sometimes suggested. Beachcombing remembers some nightmarish hours spent in Augustine’s opera and a happy reading of Leo Ferrari’s, ‘Augustine’s Cosmography’, August. Stud., 27 (1996), 129-177, though note that while LF was a brilliant Augustine scholar he had his own satirical flat-earth axe to grind here (another post another day). Third, Bjorn is spot on when he says that a valuable point about the loss of knowledge has been devalued here, though Beachcombing would say that it was devalued through unfortunate wording rather than a poor argument. And, indeed, the loss of the inhabited antipodes – Beachcombing has visited the antipodes debate before and hopes to get back to a remarkable passage in the Draco Normannicus in the near future – could be said to be just another example of the same loss of knowledge mechanism, worried along by Biblical imperatives. (Unless that is you suppose that they were peopled by a very unscientific classical love of balance.) Beachcombing isn’t – see Tim’s comments above – an atheist, but he would say that the shift from a classical argumentative-approach to the medieval authority-based approach was stultifying, though arguably it had already started to get a hold independently of Christianity. If there is anything worse than spending six hours reading Augustine’s Latin it is reading an eighth- or a ninth-century Biblical commentary where it is not the discovery but the buttressing of knowledge that matters. Out all day, but Beachcombing promises to rush out any other comments or rebuttals tonight. He sees with horror that another three email have arrived while he was writing this. In the meantime, thanks Tim and Bjorn!

    26 Feb 2011: A different kind of point from KMH ‘When we call the planet we live on ‘Earth’ we are inadvertently making a mistake.This is an informal designation only – no religion or cultural tradition to my knowledge has ever assigned a particular name to the planet, but some may have come close by using the word ‘world’ to include the totality of land, oceans and sky. The word ‘earth’ originally meant a permanently dry land capable of growing vegetation and supporting animals and mankind. It would not have included the polar regions, swamps and glades, mountainous terrain or deserts where little or nothing can grow, and highly humid or wet areas such as tropical jungles. With such a restrictive definition, you can perhaps understand that the idea that the true earth was flat (and originated in the land of Eden) was quite acceptable to most of the ancients. Of course, language degenerates as well as culture, and the distinction between habitable and non-habitable areas disappeared, especially as advances in technology opened up previously non-inhabited lands. Today, we may think of the word ‘earth’  as only an intellectual concept, never precisely found on the planet, but perhaps approximated to a varying degree depending on location. Where I live in the Midwest, USA, the earth component of the environment may be 60 to 75 per cent, due to the cold and snow in Winter and floods in Spring which erode away valuable soil.’ Beachcombing found this a refreshing thought though he also remembered a comment in MaCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – at least Beachcombing thinks its from there – where a character looking across the landscape asks himself (or herself?) how the ancients could have ever thought that the world is flat. Certainly, from a mountain top or on a prairie the sense of ‘bend’ defines the horizon. Thanks KMH!