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.
Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma ThemeTracker
Knowledge and Truth vs. Dogma Quotes in Flatland
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
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
Alas, a few years ago, I should have said ‘my universe:’ but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.
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!
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.
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.
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.
As to the doctrine of the Circles it may briefly be summed up in a single maxim, “Attend to your Configuration.”
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.
“Go to bed,” said I, a little ruffled by this interruption: “If you would talk less nonsense, you would remember more sense.”
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…
“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.”
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.