The disconnect between faith, knowledge, and religious orthodoxy is another aspect of Victorian England that Abbott uses Flatland to satirize. Abbott was a devout Christian himself, as well as a prolific writer on Christian theology, and his books occasionally caused a stir in the powerful Anglican Church. Thus, Flatland’s portrayal of a society’s attempt to suppress the “dangerous” knowledge of other dimensions can be seen as an indictment of hierarchical religious institutions (like the Anglican Church) that attempt to suppress curiosity and difference of opinion in favor of maintaining their own power. Furthermore, Abbott’s depiction of other dimensions can be seen as an allegory for the divine; Abbott believes that God exists, and that the human search for the divine is similar to grappling with the mathematical notion of extra dimensions. While humans can approach God through curiosity and intellectual exploration, the divine (like other dimensions) exists in an unknowable space that can never be fully understood.
Throughout the book, several characters are visited by beings from other dimensions who attempt to give them knowledge of a world beyond their own. This parallels the idea of religious revelation. The Sphere periodically visits Flatland to initiate new apostles into the truth of a third dimension (A Square is one of those apostles). The metaphor of the Sphere’s program of enlightenment as a training of apostles to spread the Gospel of Three Dimensions speaks to the way in which religious knowledge is disseminated. A Square also visits Lineland, where he tries to tell the Monarch of Lineland about two-dimensional existence.
However, this “divine” knowledge is almost always received as threatening and dangerous, and is therefore suppressed. The Monarch of Lineland tries to kill A Square to make him stop talking about two dimensions. A Square uses his experiences with other dimensions to extrapolate that there might be worlds of four or more dimensions, but even the Sphere—who is presented as a figure of divinity (his shape associated with the circular priests of Flatland)—is unable to concede this possibility, and he rejects A Square for it. A Square’s whole mission in writing Flatland is to bring the truth of other dimensions to all Flatlanders, since he has been persecuted and imprisoned for his beliefs. This imprisonment is, in turn, part of a larger campaign by the priests of Flatland to consolidate their power by suppressing knowledge of other dimensions and criminalizing “dangerous” speech, curiosity, and exploration. Thus, Abbott seems to be suggesting that the power-hungry priests are so threatened by the possibility of something “greater” than they are (something with more dimensions, something with knowledge beyond theirs, something incomprehensible) that they react by violently suppressing knowledge of the possibility of such beings. This ultimately portrays their power as being ill-gotten, petty, and harmful—particularly for beings called “priests,” who are supposed to be conduits to the divine. This is quite an unflattering allegorical portrait of priests in general, and the priests of the Anglican Church in particular.
In contrast to Abbott’s allegory of the repressive and narrow-minded Anglican Church, Abbott presents individual spirituality and faith (as shown in A Square’s quest to discern and disseminate the truth of other dimensions) as a noble and possibly liberating activity. Some of A Square’s knowledge is explicitly presented as coming from the divine (the Sphere, for instance, visits him from another dimension, gives him knowledge, and deems him an “apostle”). A Square’s subsequent interpretation of this knowledge—that it implies the possibility of more dimensions—is parallel to the practice of hermeneutics, which is the close-reading and interpretation of scripture (a favorite activity of Abbott’s). The mysterious and unknowable aspects of A Square’s theorizing of additional dimensions are then analogous to a human grappling with the presence of God. Extra dimensions can be understood only hypothetically and by analogy—the reality of living in another dimension can never be directly understood by humans because it is beyond human language and faculties to fully conceive of such a world. Similarly, in Christian theology, God is presented as a being unknowable to humans because of their limitations. Instead, humans gain a partial knowledge of the divine through scripture, and are expected to respect the mystery and power of the divine, even without concrete evidence or understanding of what that means. A Square’s divine knowledge has the potential to liberate Flatlanders by literally allowing them to conceive of a new perspective—a three-dimensional one, say—from which the aesthetic distinctions that dictate their two-dimensional social rules seem irrelevant and absurd. Thus, A Square’s knowledge has the potential to free Flatlanders from their oppression, much like Biblical knowledge is said to liberate people from the petty human laws that govern the Earth.
Abbott, then, uses Flatland to argue against a religious system that is centered on the Church, and to argue for an individual spirituality based in curiosity and respect for the divine unknown. Abbott suggests that powerful institutions (like the Anglican Church or the Flatland priest class) lose sight of the divine because their power leads them simply to seek more power. This desire to maintain power, in turn, leads to a systematic suppression of knowledge and the oppression of people. The only response to such oppression, for Abbott, is to live like A Square: to inquire into difficult questions, be skeptical of authority, and spread the truth at all costs.
Religion, Divinity, and the Unknown ThemeTracker
Religion, Divinity, and the Unknown 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
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!
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.”
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.