In his treatise on Flatland and other worlds, A Square frequently ponders and hashes out the differences between reason and emotion. In Flatland, Reason is seen as superior. It is the exclusive right of the male figures, who believe themselves to be unique in having the ability to think rationally and gain knowledge of their world. Emotion, on the other hand, is limited to the realm of the women and believed to represent the exact opposite of knowledge and rationality.
The book calls these assumptions into question in a variety of ways. First, it mocks the idea that women are incapable of reason. The book does this through A Square’s appeal that women receive an education. There is a scathing satirical humor in the way that A Square makes this appeal. He does so by saying that educating women will be in the best interests of the Male Sex, which, he worries, may be enfeebled by having to act emotionally around women while acting rationally when surrounded by men. In arguing for educating women as something that will benefit men, the book satirizes how the argument that women are incapable of reason is itself irrational: that it is in fact just another way for men to maintain their power.
The book then further skewers the idea that men–or anyone–can be purely rational at all. For instance, when the Sphere first explains the third dimension to him, A Square reacts not with reason but emotionally by expressing frustration. Unable to understand the third dimension, A Square describes the strong urge to violently shove the unwelcome visitor out into Space, and in fact he actually does physically attack the Sphere with his right angle. But A Square is not the only male in the book to be driven by emotion rather than reason. The Sphere himself also allows his frustration to dominate reason, and in response to A Square’s ideas of dimensions even higher than the third dimension, he “moodily” pushes the two-dimensional figure back into Flatland. By showing that even the Sphere is subject to emotion, Abbott reveals that the idea that men are motivated purely by reason is nothing more than a pretty lie they tell themselves and use to maintain social power.
After illustrating that men have no monopoly on reason or any special skill at avoiding emotion, Abbott then pushes further and makes the case that reason isn’t any more valuable than emotion, or what he calls “affection,” in the first place. In fact, the book implies that the definition of being human is not limited to man’s ability to reason, but equally on the compassionate quality of humans to express emotion for and towards others. When A Square finally realizes the scope of the Sphere’s teachings, he begins to express awe at how he himself has “become like a God” with the “omnividence” that will make him invulnerable to emotion. But the Sphere disapproves of A Square’s self-aggrandizement because he (the Sphere) does not specifically prefer reason over emotion. Instead, the Sphere believes that affections specifically relate to the attributes of God. The Sphere associates being merciful, selfless, and loving as human faculties that emulate divinity. A Square, who sides wholeheartedly with reason, is baffled by his teacher’s defense of human qualities that he and Flatlanders usually associate with women.
Not only does Abbott make a case against esteeming reason over emotion, but he also reveals how cold rationality can be potentially monstrous, particularly through the instance when A Square argues for the oppression or euthanasia of Irregulars on the grounds that it would be impossible to accommodate them because it would require extra resources. In contrast to A Square’s cold-hearted and fundamentally cruel musings, the Sphere speaks of mercy and selflessness—both intricately connected to emotion—which introduces a kind of a moral dimension that should be an essence of the human condition. The Sphere says, further, that these faculties of compassion and mercy originate from God himself.
Although Flatland is a work fully-immersed in the logical theories of mathematics, Abbott warns against the dangers of steadfastly valuing reason over emotion, and shows how such a viewpoint condones discrimination and social oppression, and results in the inhumane treatment of the weak and the poor. On the one hand, he argues for a healthy balance between rational thinking and emotion and compassion. At the same time, he implies that reason and emotion are not distinct at all, and are, in fact, linked. The book’s fixation on math—which is often considered to be the most rational and logically-based discipline—and its exploration of unimaginably higher dimensions speaks to Abbott’s attempt to explore abstract theories that are mathematically conceivable but beyond human reason. Thus, in a way, Abbot uses reason to transcend reason. By writing Flatland, he uses reason in order to create a metaphor for the divine, which is generally considered to exist outside the bounds of rational thinking. With his work, Abbott attempts to tether rationality and religion, and in doing so makes the case for the connection between rationality and the love and compassion that the Sphere argues exists at the core of religion.
Reason vs. Emotion ThemeTracker
Reason vs. Emotion Quotes in Flatland
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.”