The flat Earth model is an archaic conception of the Earth's shape as a plane or disk. Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat Earth cosmography, including Greece until the classical period, the Bronze Age and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East until the Hellenistic period, India until the Gupta period (early centuries AD), and China until the 17th century. That paradigm was also typically held in the aboriginal cultures of the Americas, and the notion of a flat Earth domed by the firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl was common in pre-scientific societies.
The idea of a spherical Earth appeared in Greek philosophy with Pythagoras (6th century BC), although most pre-Socratics (6th – 5th century BC) retained the flat Earth model. Aristotle provided evidence for the spherical shape of the Earth on empirical grounds by around 330 BC. Knowledge of the spherical Earth gradually began to spread beyond the Hellenistic world from then on.
In early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought, the world was portrayed as a disk floating in the ocean. A similar model is found in the Homeric account from the 8th century BC in which "Okeanos, the personified body of water surrounding the circular surface of the Earth, is the begetter of all life and possibly of all gods." The Israelites imagined the Earth as a flat disc that floated on water; an arced firmament separated the Earth from the heavens.
Both Homer and Hesiod described a flat disc cosmography on the Shield of Achilles. This poetic tradition of an earth-encircling (gaiaokhos) sea (Oceanus) and a flat disc also appears in Stasinus of Cyprus, Mimnermus, Aeschylus, and Apollonius Rhodius.
Homer's description of the flat disc cosmography on the shield of Achilles with the encircling ocean is repeated far later in Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica (4th century AD), which continues the narration of the Trojan War.
Thales thought the earth floated in water like a log. It has been argued, however, that Thales actually believed in a round Earth. Anaximander (c. 550 BC) believed the Earth was a short cylinder with a flat, circular top that remained stable because it was the same distance from all things. Anaximenes of Miletus believed that "the earth is flat and rides on air; in the same way the sun and the moon and the other heavenly bodies, which are all fiery, ride the air because of their flatness." Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 500 BC) thought that the Earth was flat, with its upper side touching the air, and the lower side extending without limit.
Belief in a flat Earth continued into the 5th century BC. Anaxagoras (c. 450 BC) agreed that the Earth was flat, and his pupil Archelaus believed that the flat Earth was depressed in the middle like a saucer, to allow for the fact that the Sun does not rise and set at the same time for everyone.
Hecataeus of Miletus believed the earth was flat and surrounded by water. Herodotus in his Histories ridiculed the belief that water encircled the world, yet most classicists agree he still believed the earth was flat because of his descriptions of literal "ends" or "edges" of the earth.
In ancient India, some theories described the Earth as a flat disc. Others described it as spherical.
Many of the early medieval era Puranas present a flat earth cosmology. Probably an influence of the Greeks, after the arrival of Alexander the Great in northwest Indian subcontinent, this Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology held that the earth is a flat-bottomed, circular disc consisting of seven continents and surrounded by concentric salt ocean. However, the flat disc shaped earth is not the only cosmology presented in these texts. The fifth canto of the historically popular text Bhagavata Purana, for example, includes sections that describe the earth as a sphere, wherein the authors explain that the phenomenon of sunrise, sunset, the rise and setting of moon and planets from the spherical shape and the movement of astronomical bodies.
The ancient Norse and Germanic peoples believed in a flat Earth cosmography with the Earth surrounded by an ocean, with the axis mundi, a world tree (Yggdrasil), or pillar (Irminsul) in the centre. In the world-encircling ocean sat a snake called Jormungandr. The Norse creation account preserved in Gylfaginning (VIII) states that during the creation of the earth, an impassable sea was placed around it:
...And Jafnhárr said: "Of the blood, which ran and welled forth freely out of his wounds, they made the sea, when they had formed and made firm the earth together, and laid the sea in a ring round. about her; and it may well seem a hard thing to most men to cross over it."
The late Norse Konungs skuggsjá, on the other hand, infers a spherical Earth:
...If you take a lighted candle and set it in a room, you may expect it to light up the entire interior, unless something should hinder, though the room be quite large. But if you take an apple and hang it close to the flame, so near that it is heated, the apple will darken nearly half the room or even more. However, if you hang the apple near the wall, it will not get hot; the candle will light up the whole house; and the shadow on the wall where the apple hangs will be scarcely half as large as the apple itself. From this you may infer that the earth-circle is round like a ball and not equally near the sun at every point. But where the curved surface lies nearest the sun's path, there will the greatest heat be; and some of the lands that lie continuously under the unbroken rays cannot be inhabited."
In ancient China, the prevailing belief was that the Earth was flat and square, while the heavens were round, an assumption virtually unquestioned until the introduction of European astronomy in the 17th century. The English sinologist Cullen emphasizes the point that there was no concept of a round Earth in ancient Chinese astronomy:
Chinese thought on the form of the earth remained almost unchanged from early times until the first contacts with modern science through the medium of Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. While the heavens were variously described as being like an umbrella covering the earth (the Kai Tian theory), or like a sphere surrounding it (the Hun Tian theory), or as being without substance while the heavenly bodies float freely (the Hsüan yeh theory), the earth was at all times flat, although perhaps bulging up slightly.
The heavens are like a hen's egg and as round as a crossbow bullet; the earth is like the yolk of the egg, and lies in the centre.
This analogy with a curved egg led some modern historians, notably Joseph Needham, to conjecture that Chinese astronomers were, after all, aware of the Earth's sphericity. The egg reference, however, was rather meant to clarify the relative position of the flat earth to the heavens:
In a passage of Zhang Heng's cosmogony not translated by Needham, Zhang himself says: "Heaven takes its body from the Yang, so it is round and in motion. Earth takes its body from the Yin, so it is flat and quiescent". The point of the egg analogy is simply to stress that the earth is completely enclosed by heaven, rather than merely covered from above as the Kai Tian describes. Chinese astronomers, many of them brilliant men by any standards, continued to think in flat-earth terms until the seventeenth century; this surprising fact might be the starting-point for a re-examination of the apparent facility with which the idea of a spherical earth found acceptance in fifth-century BC Greece.
Further examples cited by Needham supposed to demonstrate dissenting voices from the ancient Chinese consensus actually refer without exception to the Earth being square, not to it being flat. Accordingly, the 13th-century scholar Li Ye, who argued that the movements of the round heaven would be hindered by a square Earth, did not advocate a spherical Earth, but rather that its edge should be rounded off so as to be circular.
As noted in the book Huainanzi, in the 2nd century BC Chinese astronomers effectively inverted Eratosthenes' calculation of the curvature of the Earth to calculate the height of the sun above the earth. By assuming the earth was flat, they arrived at a distance of 100,000 li (approximately 200,000 km). The Zhoubi Suanjing also discusses how to determine the distance of the Sun by measuring the length of noontime shadows at different latitudes, a method similar to Eratosthenes' measurement of the circumference of the Earth, but the Zhoubi Suanjing assumes that the Earth is flat.
Pythagoras in the 6th-century BC and Parmenides in the 5th-century stated that the Earth is spherical, the spherical view spread rapidly in the Greek world. Around 330 BC, Aristotle maintained on the basis of physical theory and observational evidence that the Earth was spherical, and reported on an estimate on the circumference. The Earth's circumference was first determined around 240 BC by Eratosthenes. By the second century AD, Ptolemy had derived his maps from a globe and developed the system of latitude, longitude, and climes. His Almagest was written in Greek and only translated into Latin in the 11th century from Arabic translations.
In the 2nd century BC, Crates of Mallus devised a terrestrial sphere that divided the Earth into four continents, separated by great rivers or oceans, with people presumed living in each of the four regions. Opposite the oikumene, the inhabited world, were the antipodes, considered unreachable both because of an intervening torrid zone (equator) and the ocean. This took a strong hold on the medieval mind.
Lucretius (1st. c. BC) opposed the concept of a spherical Earth, because he considered that an infinite universe had no center towards which heavy bodies would tend. Thus, he thought the idea of animals walking around topsy-turvy under the Earth was absurd. By the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to claim that everyone agreed on the spherical shape of Earth, though disputes continued regarding the nature of the antipodes, and how it is possible to keep the ocean in a curved shape. Pliny also considered the possibility of an imperfect sphere, "...shaped like a pinecone."
In late antiquity such widely read encyclopedists as Macrobius and Martianus Capella (both 5th century AD) discussed the circumference of the sphere of the Earth, its central position in the universe, the difference of the seasons in northern and southern hemispheres, and many other geographical details. In his commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio, Macrobius described the Earth as a globe of insignificant size in comparison to the remainder of the cosmos.
During the early Church period, the spherical view continued to be widely held, with some notable exceptions.
Lactantius, Christian writer and advisor to the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, ridiculed the notion of the Antipodes, inhabited by people "whose footsteps are higher than their heads". After presenting some arguments he attributes to advocates for a spherical heaven and Earth, he writes:
But if you inquire from those who defend these marvellous fictions, why all things do not fall into that lower part of the heaven, they reply that such is the nature of things, that heavy bodies are borne to the middle, and that they are all joined together towards the middle, as we see spokes in a wheel; but that the bodies that are light, as mist, smoke, and fire, are borne away from the middle, so as to seek the heaven. I am at a loss what to say respecting those who, when they have once erred, consistently persevere in their folly, and defend one vain thing by another.
But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part that is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled. For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man.
The view generally accepted by scholars of Augustine's work is that he shared the common view of his contemporaries that the Earth is spherical, in line with his endorsement of science in De Genesi ad litteram. That view was challenged by noted Augustine scholar Leo Ferrari, who concluded that
he was familiar with the Greek theory of a spherical earth, nevertheless, (following in the footsteps of his fellow North African, Lactantius), he was firmly convinced that the earth was flat, was one of the two biggest bodies in existence and that it lay at the bottom of the universe. Apparently Augustine saw this picture as more useful for scriptural exegesis than the global earth at the centre of an immense universe.
Ferrari's interpretation was questioned by the historian of science, Phillip Nothaft, who considers that in his scriptural commentaries Augustine was not endorsing any particular cosmological model.
Diodorus of Tarsus, a leading figure in the School of Antioch and mentor of John Chrysostom, may have argued for a flat Earth; however, Diodorus' opinion on the matter is known only from a later criticism. Chrysostom, one of the four Great Church Fathers of the Eastern Church and Archbishop of Constantinople, explicitly espoused the idea, based on scripture, that the Earth floats miraculously on the water beneath the firmament. Athanasius the Great, Church Father and Patriarch of Alexandria, expressed a similar view in Against the Heathen.
Christian Topography (547) by the Alexandrian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, who had travelled as far as Sri Lanka and the source of the Blue Nile, is now widely considered the most valuable geographical document of the early medieval age, although it received relatively little attention from contemporaries. In it, the author repeatedly expounds the doctrine that the universe consists of only two places, the Earth below the firmament and heaven above it. Carefully drawing on arguments from scripture, he describes the Earth as a rectangle, 400 day's journey long by 200 wide, surrounded by four oceans and enclosed by four massive walls which support the firmament. The spherical Earth theory is contemptuously dismissed as "pagan".
Severian, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote that the Earth is flat and the sun does not pass under it in the night, but "travels through the northern parts as if hidden by a wall". Basil of Caesarea (329–379) argued that the matter was theologically irrelevant.
Early medieval Christian writers in the early Middle Ages felt little urge to assume flatness of the earth, though they had fuzzy impressions of the writings of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and relied more on Pliny.
With the end of Roman civilization, Western Europe entered the Middle Ages with great difficulties that affected the continent's intellectual production. Most scientific treatises of classical antiquity (in Greek) were unavailable, leaving only simplified summaries and compilations. Still, many textbooks of the Early Middle Ages supported the sphericity of the Earth. For example: some early medieval manuscripts of Macrobius include maps of the Earth, including the antipodes, zonal maps showing the Ptolemaic climates derived from the concept of a spherical Earth and a diagram showing the Earth (labeled as globus terrae, the sphere of the Earth) at the center of the hierarchically ordered planetary spheres. Further examples of such medieval diagrams can be found in medieval manuscripts of the Dream of Scipio. In the Carolingian era, scholars discussed Macrobius's view of the antipodes. One of them, the Irish monk Dungal, asserted that the tropical gap between our habitable region and the other habitable region to the south was smaller than Macrobius had believed.
As for the perverse and sinful doctrine which he (Virgil) against God and his own soul has uttered—if it shall be clearly established that he professes belief in another world and other men existing beneath the earth, or in (another) sun and moon there, thou art to hold a council, deprive him of his sacerdotal rank, and expel him from the Church.
A possible non-literary but graphic indication that people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth (or perhaps the world) was a sphere is the use of the orb (globus cruciger) in the regalia of many kingdoms and of the Holy Roman Empire. It is attested from the time of the Christian late-Roman emperor Theodosius II (423) throughout the Middle Ages; the Reichsapfel was used in 1191 at the coronation of emperor Henry VI. However the word 'orbis' means 'circle' and there is no record of a globe as a representation of the Earth since ancient times in the west till that of Martin Behaim in 1492. Additionally it could well be a representation of the entire 'world' or cosmos.
A recent study of medieval concepts of the sphericity of the Earth noted that "since the eighth century, no cosmographer worthy of note has called into question the sphericity of the Earth." However, the work of these intellectuals may not have had significant influence on public opinion, and it is difficult to tell what the wider population may have thought of the shape of the Earth, if they considered the question at all.
By the 11th century, Europe had learned of Islamic astronomy. The Renaissance of the 12th century from about 1070 started an intellectual revitalization of Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots, and increased interest in natural philosophy.
Hermannus Contractus (1013–1054) was among the earliest Christian scholars to estimate the circumference of Earth with Eratosthenes' method. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the most important and widely taught theologian of the Middle Ages, believed in a spherical Earth; and he even took for granted his readers also knew the Earth is round. In his Summa Theologica he wrote, "The physicist proves the earth to be round by one means, the astronomer by another: for the latter proves this by means of mathematics, e.g. by the shapes of eclipses, or something of the sort; while the former proves it by means of physics, e.g. by the movement of heavy bodies towards the center, and so forth." Lectures in the medieval universities commonly advanced evidence in favor of the idea that the Earth was a sphere. Also, "On the Sphere of the World", the most influential astronomy textbook of the 13th century and required reading by students in all Western European universities, described the world as a sphere.
The shape of the Earth was not only discussed in scholarly works written in Latin; it was also treated in works written in vernacular languages or dialects and intended for wider audiences. The Norwegian book Konungs Skuggsjá, from around 1250, states clearly that the Earth is spherical—and that there is night on the opposite side of the Earth when there is daytime in Norway. The author also discusses the existence of antipodes—and he notes that (if they exist) they see the Sun in the north of the middle of the day, and that they experience seasons opposite those of people in the Northern Hemisphere.
However Tattersall shows that in many vernacular works in 12th- and 13th-century French texts the Earth was considered "round like a table" rather than "round like an apple". "In virtually all the examples quoted...from epics and from non-'historical' romances (that is, works of a less learned character) the actual form of words used suggests strongly a circle rather than a sphere, though notes that even in these works the language is ambiguous.
Portuguese navigation down and around the coast of Africa in the latter half of the 1400s gave wide-scale observational evidence for Earth's sphericity. In these explorations, the sun's position moved more northward the further south the explorers travel. Its position directly overhead at noon gave evidence for crossing the equator. These apparent solar motions in detail were more consistent with north-south curvature and a distant sun, than with any flat-earth explanation. The ultimate demonstration came when Ferdinand Magellan's expedition completed the first global circumnavigation in 1521. Antonio Pigafetta, one of the few survivors of the voyage, recorded the loss of a day in the course of the voyage, giving evidence for east-west curvature. No flat-earth theory could reconcile the daily apparent motions of the sun with the ability to sail around the world, and the loss of a day could make no sense, either.
The Abbasid Caliphate saw a great flowering of astronomy and mathematics in the 9th century AD, in which Muslim scholars translated Ptolemy's work, which became the Almagest, and extended and updated his work based on spherical ideas. Since then, these have generally been respected.
The Quran mentions that the world was "laid out". To this a classic Persian commentary, the Tafsir al-Kabir (al-Razi) written in the late 12th century says "If it is said: Do the words “And the earth We spread out” indicate that it is flat? We would respond: Yes, because the earth, even though it is round, is an enormous sphere, and each little part of this enormous sphere, when it is looked at, appears to be flat. As that is the case, this will dispel what they mentioned of confusion. The evidence for that is the verse in which Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): “And the mountains as pegs” [an-Naba’ 78:7]. He called them awtaad (pegs) even though these mountains may have large flat surfaces. And the same is true in this case."
Ibn Hazm states in his in fatwas Al-Fasl fi’l-Milal wa’l-Ahwa’ wa’l-Nihal that there is sound evidence in the Quran and hadiths that the earth is round, but the common folk say otherwise. He further states: "Our response – is that none of the leading Muslim scholars who deserve to be called imams or leaders in knowledge (may Allah be pleased with them) denied that the earth is round, and there is no narration from them to deny that. Rather the evidence in the Quran and Sunnah stated that it is round."
A later classic Sunni commentary, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn written in the early 16th century, says "As for His words sutihat, ‘laid out flat’, this on a literal reading suggests that the earth is flat, which is the opinion of most of the scholars of the [revealed] Law, and not a sphere as astronomers (ahl al-hay’a) have it, even if this [latter] does not contradict any of the pillars of the Law." Other translations render "made flat" as "spread out".
As late as 1595, an early Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, recorded that the Chinese say: "The earth is flat and square, and the sky is a round canopy; they did not succeed in conceiving the possibility of the antipodes." The universal belief in a flat Earth is confirmed by a contemporary Chinese encyclopedia from 1609 illustrating a flat Earth extending over the horizontal diametral plane of a spherical heaven.
In the 17th century, the idea of a spherical Earth spread in China due to the influence of the Jesuits, who held high positions as astronomers at the imperial court.
Beginning in the 19th century, a historical myth arose which held that the predominant cosmological doctrine during the Middle Ages was that the Earth was flat. An early proponent of this myth was the American writer Washington Irving, who maintained that Christopher Columbus had to overcome the opposition of churchmen to gain sponsorship for his voyage of exploration. Later significant advocates of this view were John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, who used it as a major element in their advocacy of the thesis that there was a long lasting and essential conflict between science and religion. Subsequent studies of medieval science have shown that most scholars in the Middle Ages, including those read by Christopher Columbus, maintained that the Earth was spherical. Studies of the historical connections between science and religion have demonstrated that theories of their mutual antagonism ignore examples of their mutual support.
In the modern era, belief in a flat Earth has been expressed by isolated individuals and groups, but is widely considered to be pseudoscience.
In 1956, Samuel Shenton set up the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the Flat Earth Society from Dover, UK, as a direct descendant of the Universal Zetetic Society. This was just before the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik; he responded, "Would sailing round the Isle of Wight prove that it were spherical? It is just the same for those satellites."
His primary aim was to reach children before they were convinced about a spherical Earth. Despite plenty of publicity, the space race eroded Shenton's support in Britain until 1967 when he started to become famous due to the Apollo program.
In 1972 Shenton's role was taken over by Charles K. Johnson, a correspondent from California, US. He incorporated the IFERS and steadily built up the membership to about 3,000. He spent years examining the studies of flat and round Earth theories and proposed evidence of a conspiracy against flat-Earth: "The idea of a spinning globe is only a conspiracy of error that Moses, Columbus, and FDR all fought..." His article was published in the magazine Science Digest, 1980. It goes on to state, "If it is a sphere, the surface of a large body of water must be curved. The Johnsons have checked the surfaces of Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea without detecting any curvature."
The Society declined in the 1990s following a fire at its headquarters in California and the death of Johnson in 2001. It was revived as a website in 2004 by Daniel Shenton (no relation to Samuel Shenton). He believes that no one has provided proof that the world is not flat.
The term flat-Earther is often used in a derogatory sense to mean anyone who holds ridiculously antiquated views. The first use of the term flat-earther recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1934 in Punch: "Without being a bigoted flat-earther, he [sc. Mercator] perceived the nuisance..of fiddling about with globes..in order to discover the South Seas." The term flat-earth-man was recorded in 1908: "Fewer votes than one would have thought possible for any human candidate, were he even a flat-earth-man." And the Flat-Earth Society in 1905:
In a satirical piece published 1996, Albert A. Bartlett uses arithmetic to show that sustainable growth on Earth is impossible in a spherical Earth since its resources are necessarily finite. He explains that only a model of a flat Earth, stretching infinitely in the two horizontal dimensions and also in the vertical downward direction, would be able to accommodate the needs of a permanently growing population.
Referring to Julian Simon's book The Ultimate Resource, Bartlett suggests "So, let us think of the 'We’re going to grow the limits!' people as the 'New Flat Earth Society.'" The satiric nature of the piece is also made clear by a comparison to Bartlett's other publications, which mainly advocate the necessity of curbing population growth.
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