Flatland

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Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Social Hierarchy and Oppression Theme Icon
Religion, Divinity, and the Unknown Theme Icon
Reason vs. Emotion Theme Icon
Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma Theme Icon
Analogy as Satire Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Flatland, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma Theme Icon

The second half of Flatland is particularly invested in the search for knowledge and truth. After A Square learns of a higher three-dimensional world, he gains a thirst to discover and understand worlds of four, five, and even six dimensions. Part 1 of the book intricately describes what is taken to be truth in Flatland. However, the exploration of other dimensional worlds in Part 2 immediately exposes how limited that knowledge really is, and, in particular, how oppressive those “truths” are. Therefore, Abbott makes explicit distinctions between knowledge and truth and dogma.

The book presents society’s prescribed truths (its dogma) as oppressive and irrational, and as existing only to preserve hierarchies of power. In Flatland, the “laws of nature” are defined by those in power as a means of sustaining the status quo. The idea of “Nature” is particularly restricting because it does not allow doubt, and basically proclaims that “it is what it is.” For example, A Square describes one law of nature that dictates that every male child will have one more side than his father had. Apparently, however, this rule does not apply to everyone. In fact, this law excludes the isosceles triangles altogether. The arbitrariness of how and who this rule applies to exemplifies the power of those in the higher classes to control knowledge and keep the weak eternally on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. The circles, who are the leaders of Flatland, do not tolerate any person who makes public mention of other worlds and newer knowledge. Thus, at the beginning of every millennium, the Grand Council meets to imprison or execute any “ill-intentioned persons pretending to have received revelation from another World.” In the novella, A Square’s Brother is arrested for simply having witnessed the Sphere’s act of revelation, and A Square himself has been imprisoned for 7 years when he writes Flatland.

The book presents knowledge as having the potential to fight dogma. At the same time, it shows true knowledge as, by definition, never being more than partial. Put another way, it is not necessarily knowledge itself that can combat dogma, but rather the curiosity and open-mindedness that makes A Square such a devoted seeker of knowledge that truly threatens dogma. Knowledge, unlike dogma, is about seeking—A Square seeks knowledge by being curious, open-minded, and smart. Plus, he is willing to defy the oppressive laws that the circles have put in place. In contrast to the inhabitants of Pointland, Lineland, and Spaceland, A Square is open to accepting the unfamiliar concept of the third dimension because he is humble enough to consider a world beyond his own. Also consider how A Square’s Grandson insightfully devises the concept of “three-to-the-third,” but then ends up denying it in the face of dogma. His precocious vision first stems largely from his innocence and humility, since he is not fully aware of his hexagonal social status. However, A Square’s grandson’s potential to gain knowledge is squashed when the Council begins proclaiming their resolution to punish any “revelators”. The grandson is smart enough to understand that he must not make such dangerous claims about mathematical theories that deviate from the prescribed truths in Flatland. Therefore, despite A Square’s efforts to educate his grandson, his grandson has accepted the position of remaining complacent and ignorant to higher truths.

The pursuit of knowledge is ultimately presented in the book as an effort to piece together Truth. This effort is shown as never entirely achievable—A Square can never fully understand the “truth” of multiple dimensions—but the book shows that the pursuit itself is valuable. A Square’s humility and open-mindedness are presented in the book as superior to the priest’s desire to hold and maintain power at all costs, and the book makes clear that A Square’s values are a direct result of his devotion to pursuit of a truth that he can never fully understand or articulate. The broader implication here is clear: that just as A Square’s humble pursuit of an impossible-to-comprehend truth offers him a kind of salvation, so will humans’ pursuit to understand and connect with a God who is beyond their ability to comprehend bring them closer to the divine. Flatland pulls no punches in its depiction of the effort that those in power will go to in order to enforce dogma and maintain their own power, nor does it suggest that such efforts will be unsuccessful (they are clearly successful with A Square’s grandson, after all). But nonetheless, through A Square’s devotion to the truth, Flatland asserts that the quest for truth and the divine is a vital necessity for both personal fulfillment and morality.

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Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma appears in each Chapter of Flatland. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma Quotes in Flatland

Below you will find the important quotes in Flatland related to the theme of Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma.
Chapter 1 Quotes

To the Inhabitants of SPACE IN GENERAL
And H. C. IN PARTICULAR
This Work is Dedicated
By a Humble Native of Flatland
In the Hope that
Even as he was Initiated into the Mysteries
Of THREE Dimensions
Having been previously conversant
With ONLY TWO
So the citizens of that Celestial Region
May aspire yet higher and higher
To the Secrets of FOUR FIVE OR EVEN SIX Dimensions
Thereby contributing
To the Enlargement of THE IMAGINATION
And the possible Development
Of that most rare and excellent Gift of MODESTY
Among the Superior Races
Of SOLID HUMANITY

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page vi
Explanation and Analysis:

This dedicatory note marks the beginning of Flatland and states clearly and concisely Abbott’s purpose in writing this work. Written in the voice of the narrator, A Square, it mentions the importance of humility and modesty in gaining and seeking new knowledge of higher dimensions, which he hopes will lead to an expansion of the imagination. As a satire of Victorian Britain, Flatland is particularly invested in persuading its readers to understand the reality of their lives and to pursue higher truths and knowledge in search of better worlds (in this case, extra dimensions) and, more importantly, a faith in God that isn’t controlled by those in power.

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Alas, a few years ago, I should have said ‘my universe:’ but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 3
Explanation and Analysis:

A Square is reflecting on the effects that his past experiences—which make up the story of the book—have had on his self-development. At this moment, he is already the fully-developed character that has learned and grown from what he has experienced in his Flatland life. Due to the knowledge he gains from the events that he is about to narrate, he obtains an elevated sense of his world that causes him to change the way he speaks. What he would have called his “universe,” he now simply calls his “country.” The knowledge that he gains from this narrative journey is clearly something larger and grander than all of Flatland, and it is this transformation that A Square is hoping to share with his readers. In this way he also encourages his readers to perhaps expand their views of their own “universes,” and consider whether what they think of as a universe might actually just be a “country” within a larger world.

Chapter 3 Quotes

How admirable is the Law of Compensation! And how perfect a proof of the natural fitness and, I may almost say, the divine origin of the aristocratic constitution of the states of Flatland!

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 9
Explanation and Analysis:

The ruling class of Circles establish many different “Laws of Nature,” which cast their (often arbitrary, and shamelessly self-promoting) laws as divinely determined and impossible to refute. Notice how A Square cites the very “natural” quality and “divine origin” of the Law of Compensation. Although A Square is clearly being very sarcastic in this quote and in describing the Priests’ laws, it will be evident in later chapters of the book that A Square is not immune himself in adopting these dangerous ways of thinking. Since the Circles’ power is considered to be divine and natural, it literally precludes any sort of resistance or rebellion. In this way, the social hierarchy is maintained indeterminately and new knowledge is never sought.

Chapter 4 Quotes

A Male of the lowest type of the Isosceles may look forward to some improvement of his angle, and to the ultimate elevation off the whole of his degraded case, but no Women can entertain such hopes for her sex. ‘Once a Woman, always a Woman’ is a Decree of Nature; and the very Laws of Evolution seem suspended in her disfavour.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 14
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another decree of “Nature” that specifically pertains to the women of Flatland. What is particularly striking is that the way Flatland regards and treats their women is an allegory for the way women were treated in Victorian Britain. By establishing Flatland as an analogy for England, Abbott satirizes the horrific ways women were kept powerless and forced to act as simply flat and one-dimensional beings in both his fictional and real world. Once again, the social hierarchy is preserved precisely because it call upon “Nature” as its main constructor. If the world is built in a certain way, then reality cannot be argued against—but it’s the ones in power who decide how to say it’s built.

Chapter 5 Quotes

It is with us a Law of Nature that the brain of the Isosceles class shall begin at half a degree, or thirty minutes, and shall increase (if it increases at all) by half a degree in every generation until the goal of 60 degrees is reached, when the condition of serfdom is quitted, and the freeman enters the class of Regulars.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 17
Explanation and Analysis:

The number of “natural laws” that govern Flatland society is never-ending. Note how absurd this particular law is. It equates the amount of intelligence a person has with their angle measure, and it states a specific degree at which the Isosceles class (and their very “brain”) begins. It must be mentioned that this number is clearly arbitrary. Whether the class begins at half a degree or one degree does not matter. This law is put in place in order to establish concrete social boundaries between classes and strengthen the underlying foundation of the social hierarchy, of which the Circles occupy the very top. The specific word choice in describing non-Regulars as belonging to “serfdom” and becoming a “freeman” makes clear that these figures truly have little social authority in Flatland—and, moreover, are clearly analogous to social classes in Europe.

Chapter 7 Quotes

All this very plausible reasoning does not convince me, as it has not convinced the wisest of our Statesmen, that our ancestors erred in laying it down as an axiom of policy that the toleration of Irregularity is incompatible with the safety of the State.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Recall that A Square himself enjoys a relatively normal life in Flatland as a square. Thus, he is mostly aligned with and accustomed to the doctrines of the Circles, and for most of his life has seen no reason to contradict them. Throughout several points in the book and in this quote, he finds it difficult to completely extricate himself from the kind of thinking espoused by the Circles and other nobility. Here, A Square agrees with society’s intolerance of Irregularity (that is, figures with unequal sides or angles) without offering any sort of rational reason for why irregularity is truly a vice, besides the fact that it allows irregular figures to present a larger angle to others. Through A Square, Abbott illustrates how dangerous and embedded the doctrines of those in power can become, and how absurd it is to equate physical appearance with morality or value.

Chapter 12 Quotes

As to the doctrine of the Circles it may briefly be summed up in a single maxim, “Attend to your Configuration.”

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Flatland society is governed by this single, all-encompassing axiom that basically commands all Flatlanders to accept their places in society and live complacently with their fates, which are entirely decided by their number of sides and the regularity of their angles. It is truly terrifying to see how completely the Circles dominate Flatland society. Notice also that the Circles are considered the “priests” of Flatland and they teach certain “doctrines”—suggesting that to the Flatlanders, the Circles’ teachings equate to the teachings of a religion they wholeheartedly accept as true and indisputable. (In the analogy to Victorian England, this would be as if the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen were the same person.) This is the way in which the Circles consolidate their power, by restricting what is deemed as knowledge and teaching their own doctrines to the people as sacred and “natural” laws.

Chapter 13 Quotes

It seemed that this poor ignorant Monarch—as he called himself—was persuaded that the Straight Line which he called his Kingdom, and in which he passed his existence, constituted the whole of the world, and indeed the whole of Space.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker), The Monarch of Lineland
Page Number: Pages 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

The Monarch of Lineland is the epitome of ignorance. Importantly, he demonstrates that the biggest obstacle to learning is arrogance and close-mindedness. In fact, understanding the concept of extra dimensions is not a problem of intelligence in the book. Although the Circles dictate that intelligence is measurable by the degrees of one’s angle, and thus restrict educating those who do not have the “brainpower” to understand complex concepts, Abbott instead suggests that knowledge is not achievable to those who are not willing to accept new ideas. Thus, the Monarch of Lineland stands in as a harsh representation of anyone from the aristocratic nobility who is so self-absorbed that he takes for granted his world as the entirety of the universe.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“Go to bed,” said I, a little ruffled by this interruption: “If you would talk less nonsense, you would remember more sense.”

Related Characters: A Square (speaker), A Square’s Grandson
Page Number: Page 53
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Grandson asks A Square about the geometrical meaning of three-to-the-third, A Square sends the precocious hexagon to bed, annoyed by the boy’s “nonsense” question. Despite professing himself to rational and logical (after all, he is a male figure of Flatland), A Square cannot prevent being swayed by his emotions. Thus it’s easily revealed as false that reason is the exclusive quality of men, and emotion the domain of women. Notice also that A Square’s response to his Grandson is not unlike that of the Monarch of Lineland, who refused to listen to A Square’s lessons on the second dimension.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Why will you refuse to listen to reason? I had hoped to find in you—as being a man of sense and an accomplished mathematician—a fit apostle for the Gospel of the Three Dimensions, which I am allowed to preach once only in a thousand years…

Related Characters: The Sphere / The Stranger (speaker), A Square
Page Number: Page 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In response to A Square’s frustrated attempt to ram his hardest angle into the Sphere, the Sphere professes his disappointment in his pupil, who he hoped could be his next apostle to preach the “Gospel of the Three Dimensions.” This quote is full of religious metaphors that illustrate Abbott’s intention of interrelating religious knowledge with the very rational field of mathematics. Abbott did not see the two as mutually exclusive, but presented scientific thinking and research as having a role in individual spirituality, as a means of understanding the mysteries of God. However, the Anglican Church, like the Circles of Flatland, have a monopoly on controlling what is deemed as legitimate religious knowledge, restraining people from having a freely meaningful connection with divinity.

Chapter 18 Quotes

“Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither, calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.”

Related Characters: A Square (speaker), The Sphere / The Stranger (speaker)
Related Symbols: Light and Shade
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

When the Sphere finally takes A Square physically into Spaceland, the Flatlander first sees darkness and assumes that he is either imagining things or has been sent to the depths of Hell. Yet the Sphere announces that this darkness that he perceives is actually the landscape of Spaceland. It is the knowledge of the third dimension that appears as dark to A Square at first. Once he adjusts to seeing light and shade and perspective, he will understand the totality of Three Dimensions. What is interesting is Abbott’s choice in symbolizing knowledge as both light and dark. In literature, the common convention is to associate light with knowledge and dark with ignorance. However, in Flatland, both represent knowledge, such that darkness is a different form of knowledge. It symbolizes the awareness that some mysteries will remain unknowable, or unable to be explained. A Square may never fully grasp the third dimension to its fullest, but what is truly noble is his effort in seeking that truth.

Behold, I am become as a God. For the wise men in our country say that to see all things, or as they express it, omnividence, is the attribute of God alone.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker), The Sphere / The Stranger
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

After A Square is shown the landscape of Flatland from above in Spaceland, he expresses how he feels elevated to a status of divinity. Note that A Square is speaking exclusively from what he has learned from Flatland and the Circles’ teachings. The Circles have constricted the art of sight recognition to themselves and teach the idea that those who can “see” are naturally more divine. That is how they legitimize their authority in Flatland, and, thus, A Square thinks in those same terms. However, the Sphere denies the Circles’ doctrines and demonstrates how meaningless those teachings are in his own world. In keeping with the Flatlanders’ elevation of reason, A Square’s faulty ideas rely entirely on ability or “configuration,” and not at all on morality, which is, according to the Sphere, the true measure of holiness.

Chapter 19 Quotes

Henceforth, I have to relate the story of my miserable Fall:—most miserable, yet surely most undeserved! For why should the thirst for knowledge be aroused, only to be disappointed and punished?

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 70
Explanation and Analysis:

After A Square climactically realizes the truth of the third dimension, he goes on to tell the story of his unfortunate downfall. Consider the religious intonations that are conjured up by this “Fall.” A Square has fully grasped new knowledge of a higher world and has gained a new thirst for more knowledge, but he is defeated in the end by the powers that be. This story is not unlike the “Fall of Man,” in which Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, and were punished for it by being cast out of Paradise. Thus Abbott attaches more religious layers to his allegory, and deepens his story’s tragedy with the theme of too much knowledge leading to suffering.

And even as we, who are now in Space, look down on Flatland and see the insides of all things, so of a certainty there is yet above us some higher purer region, whither thou dost surely purpose to lead me…

Related Characters: A Square (speaker), The Sphere / The Stranger
Page Number: Page 71
Explanation and Analysis:

After having understood the immensity of the Gospel of Three Dimensions, A Square discovers a thirst for knowledge of even higher dimensions. In fact, for the curious mind knowledge begets the desire for more knowledge. Through the faculty of analogy, A Square reasons that there are even higher dimensions and requests that the Sphere teach him more. Thus, Abbott shows the full potential of analogy. Not only does he use analogy as a satirical device to expose the flaws inherent in the society of Victorian Britain, but he also demonstrates how analogy can be used to generate new knowledge and infer into deeper truths of higher dimensions—in the case of Flatland—as well as the mysteries of God.

Chapter 20 Quotes

It was not so clear as I could have wished; but I remembered that it must be “Upward, and yet not Northward,” and I determined steadfastly to retain these words as the clue which, if firmly grasped, could not fail to guide me to the solution.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Related Symbols: Words
Page Number: Page 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Back in his home in Flatland, A Square continually thinks about what he has learned from his visit to Spaceland. What is interesting is his constant concern over losing his understanding of the concept of the third dimension, suggesting that some knowledge cannot ever be fully understood without being experienced. Just like the mysteries of God, some knowledge is simply too abstract and difficult to understand solely with human faculties. However, the importance lies in the effort and determination to seek a fuller comprehension, even if that end is impossible to achieve. Notice also how A Square repeatedly relies on the words of this short axiom to retain his idea of the third dimension. Although words symbolize the limitations of understanding abstract knowledge, this particular quote illustrates their potential usefulness.

Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn his lesson, that to be self-contented is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy.

Related Characters: The Sphere / The Stranger (speaker), The Monarch of Pointland
Page Number: Page 75
Explanation and Analysis:

In another dream, A Square visits Pointland, a world of no dimension, with the Sphere. There they meet the Monarch of Pointland, who is even more ignorant and self-absorbed than the Monarch of Lineland. It is clear here that knowledge cannot be gained by anyone who is not willing to take in any new knowledge that does not pertain to themselves. Thus, the Monarch of Pointland, similar to that of Lineland, offers a harsh representation of ignorance, and firmly condemns the idea that “ignorance is bliss.” We can then project this idea onto the Circles, who refuse to tolerate anyone who claims to have knowledge of other worlds, and the Victorian nobility that possesses social authority in Britain.

Chapter 22 Quotes

Yet I exist in the hope that these memoirs, in some manner, I know not how, may find their way to the minds of humanity in Some Dimension, and may stir up a race of rebels who shall refuse to be confined to limited Dimensionality.

Related Characters: A Square (speaker)
Page Number: Page 82
Explanation and Analysis:

A Square ends the book with hopes that his writing inspires his readers to seek enlightenment and gain knowledge, even if that means rebellion against the existing authorities or social order. In a way, Abbott is here speaking directly to his readers through the voice of A Square and expressing his own purpose and hopes of writing Flatland. Both A Square and Abbott speak of raising a rebellion among those who are trapped in the throes of a rigid and unfair society (or, in the case of Flatland, limited dimensionality)—and the way to freedom is through knowledge. Knowledge has the power to liberate by opening the eyes of the oppressed and offering salvation through the understanding of better worlds.