Friday, April 8, 2011

Did A. Square go to prison for your sins?: a theological review of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland


Jewish date:  4 Nisan 5770 (Parashath Meṣora‘).

Today’s holidays:  Great Lent and Lent (Christianity), Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Geronimo (Church of the Sub Genius), Feast for the Three Days of the Writing of the Book of the Law (Thelema).

For today’s posting I present my theological review of Flatland, included below.  An excellent edition of the original book as a PDF file/E-book from Garlic Press (AKA my brother Barry) can be found on-line here.

Peace and Shabbath shalom.


FlatlandImage via Wikipedia
Did A. Square go to prison for your sins?:  a theological review of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

I review a lot of material with poor theology, and there is more than one reason why theology can be bad in fiction.  Sometimes, such as in the horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel, the theology is deliberately bad and meant to support the plot; maltheism (gods being uncaring or evil) makes for a hostile environment in which the hero or heroes have to work hard to succeed.  In some cases, such as in His Dark Materials, the writer has a grudge against religion and writes the theology in the way he sees it or whatever way is conveniently insulting, regardless of how religious people actually see it.  In some, such as many films based on the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, the people writing the story do not pay enough attention to the original material or do not care.  In some, such as Caprica, the writers are aiming for something highly theological but are theologically incompetent.  And then there is Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott.

Part I (§ 1-12) of the book is a description of a two-dimensional world, a vicious satire of some of the worst attitudes of Victorian England.  This world is colorless, conformist, bound by a rigid class system, and sexist.  The rulers of this society are priests or “Circles”, actually corrupt and Machiavellian polygons with huge numbers of sides.  All of the plot in this section is backstory, much of it dealing with a time in which color was discovered, how it destabilized society, and how the Circles suppressed it and any hope of democracy.  Part II (§ 13-22) is mathematical fiction.  While effective in teaching about dimensions—Flatland is a classic for good reasons—anything other than mathematics in this section is a secondary consideration.

The general impression of the “modern-day” plot and theology of Flatland is a variant on the story of a prophet or Jesus of Nazareth.  The central character and narrator is A. Square, a mathematically inclined square living in the two-dimensional world of Flatland.  A. Square’s journey begins quite suddenly with a nocturnal vision of the one-dimensional world of Lineland, in which he vainly tries to convince the King of Lineland of the existence of a second physical dimension.  The following evening—the last evening of the second millennium—A. Square’s grandson jokingly suggests the notion of a third dimension.  While the square rejects it, soon he is soon visited by a sphere.  The Sphere tries to convince A. Square of the existence of a third dimension, but he does not succeed until he lifts the polygon out of Flatland and teaches him about the third dimension.  A. Square is to be “the Apostle of the Gospel of Three Dimensions”, to spread this great truth, even though it will doom him.  The Sphere takes A. Square to visit the Circles’ Grand Council.  The Sphere preaches to the Circles once every thousand years, and the Circles always cover up the revelation, destroying or imprisoning anyone who might reveal what happens.  Nothing different happens this time, and A. Square from above Flatland helplessly watches his own brother, the chief clerk of the Grand Council, being led away to prison.  A. Square nevertheless seeks to learn of higher dimensions from the Sphere, eventually being rewarded after returning to Flatland with a vision of the zero-dimensional realm of Pointland and of dimensions beyond the third.  A. Square then spends much of his time writing, arguing for the existence of the third dimension, and becomes increasingly “seditious”, leading to his arrest and imprisonment.  Thus ends the story.

As mentioned before, anything other than mathematics in Part II is a secondary consideration, and in theology and plot it really shows.  In a typical religion in the real world, there is something to be gained from accepting the religion’s message, such as salvation or release from the cycle of reincarnation.  Thus the message must be kept going at all times and spread to everyone relevant.  Furthermore, the message often includes instructions on how to behave, so there are visible effects from keeping it.  But the point of the Gospel of Three Dimensions is not clear.  What practical benefit there is to belief in the third dimension, beyond it being true, is never stated.  The message has no moral aspect, only a mathematical one, and has no practical impact on any Flatlander.

One may object that the only reason for believing anything is that it is true, regardless of benefit or effects, and this is correct.  But it only makes sense to believe something is true when one has some reason to think it is true.  A. Square cannot demonstrate the existence of a third physical dimension on his own, and the Sphere never backs him up with what would effectively be an open miracle.  Thus, except for whoever is at the Grand Council, none of the Flatlanders have any real reason to believe in the truth of A. Square’s claims.  Furthermore, why does the Sphere recruit A. Square if his new apostle is doomed to be thrown in jail?  Why put him through the trauma for nothing?  Also, the Sphere claims he is “allowed to preach once only in a thousand years” without giving the least reason for such a restriction; why does he then not at least try to set up a proper organization to keep the message going during his absence?  And why do the Circles ruthlessly hide the truth?  How does anyone believing in something with no practical effect on life threaten their power?  These are major holes in the plot and theology, and when one goes beyond the satire and mathematics, they stick out like a neon sign.  There are a few sequels to Flatland (Sphereland by Dionys Burger; Geometry, Relativity, and the Fourth Dimension by Rudolf v. B. Rucker; Flatterland by Ian Stewart) and multiple movie versions of the original book.  I hope further exploration will find these works deal with these problems.

Other theological aspects of Flatland:
  1. The classist, sexist organization of society is believed to have “divine origin” (§ 3).  No details of whatever revelation may have led to the founding of Flatlander society are given.  Neither are any details of their theology given, even something as basic as how many gods they worship.
  2. Physically irregularity is believed to cause immoral behavior (§ 7), a doctrine first propounded by the high priest Pantocyclus (§ 12).  Thus those who deviate from regularity are sent to hospitals for plastic surgery, imprisoned, or destroyed.  This belief in “configuration” is difficult to maintain at times, such as when dealing with a child who blames a change in the weather distorting his perimeter for his misbehavior (§ 11).
  3. Ordinary Flatlanders recognize each other by touch.  Priests rely instead on sight-recognition (no mean feat without color) and consider it a “Sacred Art” (§ 9).
  4. One of the Flatlanders’ moral principles is to honor one’s grandchildren, i.e., to put their interests before one’s own (§ 11).
  5. A. Square entertains the suggestion that what he has seen is the work of a devil (§ 16), though he obviously changes his mind, since maintaining this belief would kill the plot completely.
  6. “Omnividence” (being able to see everything) is taken as an attribute of God by the Flatlanders (§ 18).  A. Square gets to experience this, after a fashion, as from the third dimension the insides of everything in Flatland are completely visible.  The Sphere does not see omnividence as godlike, given that it does not make one a better person; even the worst of the Sphere’s people could see all the secrets of Flatland.  Note that A. Square and the Sphere are using two different definitions of godhood, one in terms of abilities, the other in terms of morality.
  7. A. Square is religiously reverent of the Sphere (§ 19), which would explain why he becomes the Apostle of the Gospel of Three Dimensions even though he knows he will end up in jail.
  8. The King of Pointland is essentially identical with his world and speaks of himself in the terminology of immanent theism or monism.  The Sphere is implied as recognizing this, as he refers to the King wryly as “this God of Pointland” (§ 20).
Theological rating:  I (insufficient work).  Flatland is recommended for its satire and mathematical teaching, but those looking for good theology should look elsewhere.
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