Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott (English classic)

“Narrated by A. Square, Flatland is Edwin A. Abbott’s delightful mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world. All existence is limited to length and breadth in Flatland, its inhabitants unable even to imagine a third dimension. Abbott’s amiable narrator provides an overview of this fantastic world-its physics and metaphysics, its history, customs, and religious beliefs. But when a strange visitor mysteriously appears and transports the incredulous Flatlander to the Land of Three Dimensions, his worldview is forever shattered.”

We read this clever little novella in my book group. I was initially intrigued by the premise, but I’ll confess that I didn’t care for it at first. What sounded like a science fiction story appeared to really be a math puzzle. I like science fiction, but my brain rebels against math puzzles. As I continued to read, however, I realized that it was both science fiction and a math puzzle and, to my astonishment, religious fiction. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however, because the title page of the Project Gutenberg edition I read identifies Edwin A. Abbott as an English scholar, theologian, and writer.

The story revolves around A Square from a two-dimensional world called Flatland and his encounters with other dimensions: Pointland, Lineland, and Spaceland. In all cases, when a resident of one dimension visits a more restricted dimension, he tries to convince those in the more restricted dimension that his own more grandiose dimension is the real universe and that it is superior. And, in all cases, the person in the more restricted dimension doesn’t believe it and even fights against the idea and the person bringing the new knowledge.

This situation has a religious parallel—as long as we as mortals refuse to accept the idea that there may be a whole spiritual dimension around us that we can’t see, we can never raise our minds—and subsequently our hearts—to God. I’m reminded of what God says in Isaiah 55:8–9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

A Square tries in vain to convince the King of Lineland that he’s living in a narrow dimension, not the whole of space, and he just as vehemently fights the Sphere who comes from Spaceland to enlighten him on the glories of living in the Third Dimension. A Square finally accepts the reality of the Third Dimension and is so overcome with this new knowledge that he wants to worship the Sphere.

Awestruck at the sight of the mysteries of the earth, thus unveiled before my unworthy eye, I said to my Companion, “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.” There was something of scorn in the voice of my Teacher as he made answer: “Is it so indeed? Then the very pick-pockets and cut-throats of my country are to be worshipped by your wise men as being Gods: for there is not one of them that does not see as much as you see now. But trust me, your wise men are wrong.”

I. Then is omnividence the attribute of others besides Gods?

SPHERE. I do not know. But, if a pick-pocket or a cut-throat of our country can see everything that is in your country, surely that is no reason why the pick-pocket or cut-throat should be accepted by you as a God. This omnividence, as you call it—it is not a common word in Spaceland—does it make you more just, more merciful, less selfish, more loving? Not in the least. Then how does it make you more divine? (Section 18)

The Sphere teaches an important truth: Just because a being has superior knowledge or exhibits supernatural powers doesn’t mean that the being is God, is like God, or represents God in any way. Knowledge is important, but it doesn’t make a being good. The Sphere doesn’t give any advice to A Square about how to avoid being deceived by someone who shows up in Flatland from Spaceland with malicious intentions, but he does teach him that being aware of the higher dimensions should inspire humility and modesty, not arrogance and conceit. In Section 20, the Sphere drives home his point:

“Look yonder,” said my Guide, “in Flatland thou hast lived; of Lineland thou hast received a vision; thou hast soared with me to the heights of Spaceland; now, in order to complete the range of thy experience, I conduct thee downward to the lowest depth of existence, even to the realm of Pointland, the Abyss of No dimensions.

“Behold yon miserable creature. That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality; for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn this 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.

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This work by Katherine Padilla is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.