Flat Earth Myth

The other day I was doing some causal reading of Thomas Aquinas (not everyone’s choice, I know, but I’m like that) and I found myself surprised to see him speak candidly about the earth being round. He wrote:

… the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.


(Aquinas, c.1265-1273)

The reason why I was surprised was because I had been taught that our ancestors were a bit daft. So much so, that they thought Christopher Columbus was going to fall off the edge of the world when he embark upon his epic journey that ended in the Americas. Hence, if it were not for those brave souls who ventured off into the unknown, the human race would have been none the wiser for a lot longer.

Realising that something was a miss, my mind went into conspiracy theory mode – perhaps the Catholic church with all their bishops and priests had deliberately kept the truth from the plebs but Aquinas was one of the privileged men of his age who knew the secret? I had to check this out.

Turns out that the Columbus and flat earth myth, is a myth. A relatively new one at that, give or take a hundred years. Moreover, it is us modern beings who are the daft ones. In the 1490s when Columbus and his crew set out for China (which he missed and finished up in present-day Venezuela) nobody believed the earth was flat. The myth was invented in 1828, by an author named Washington Irving who did a bit of ’embellishing’ when writing The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Maybe he didn’t expect his book to sell so it wouldn’t matter if he dropped in that little comment about people believing the earth was flat before Columbus? Well, the joke was on him … or us … or was it really funny? Anyway, Irving’s book finished up being a smashing success and with the help from others, e.g., a French author called Antoine-Jean Letronne who perpetuated the myth, Columbus’ name became associated with a whole new legacy.

In my impromptu researching I was also staggered to learn that a good proportion of people (in particular, young adults in American; maybe elsewhere as well but that’s the only place I read statistics on) still believe the world is round … and that the United Nations logo is representational what our planet looks like …

United Nations logo. Picture: Freebie supply

I never realised I was lucky to have grown up with a home that owned a small model globe, likewise, that the schools I attended also did. Then again, it was also from my schooling, in Australia – which is a considerable distance from America and France – that I heard about Columbus proving the world was round. Maybe I need to refrain how much praise I give my education.

My conspiracy mind had to yield defeat. There was no evil plot to keep anyone in the dark about the earth’s spherical nature. On a jovial note, it was simply a bit of sensationalism that caught people’s imagination. More seriously, a great lesson can be learnt from Irving’s example, that being how easy it is to create a myth.

The unsensational truth is that Greeks had worked out the earth was round by at least 600BCE. Aquinas, like his contemporaries and most of the scholars in the prior two thousand years, were well versed in literature of antiquity, so it is no wonder he spoke about the subject so matter of factly.

Now that’s sorted, I can go back to my leisurely reading of Aquinas and see what he has to say about whether or not Jesus’ had a soul.

Bibliography

Aquinas, T. (c.1265-1273). Summa Theologica. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947)

Blakemore, E. (2018, August 31). Christopher Columbus Never Set Out to Prove the Earth was Round. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/christopher-columbus-never-set-out-to-prove-the-earth-was-round

Furze, A., & University of Melbourne. (2019, January 11). Why do some people believe the Earth is flat? Pursuit. https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/why-do-some-people-believe-the-earth-is-flat

History.com Editors. (2019, February 25). Columbus lands in South America. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/columbus-lands-in-south-america

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