Edwin Abbott Abbott

Edwin Abbott was a theologian. Discuss the possible connection between the story of Flatland and theology. How dies it relate to today?

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In Philomythus ( 1891 ), his belated attack on John Henry Newman
Essay on, Ecclesiastical Miracles ( 1843 ), Edwin Abbott rejects
Newman's claim that accounts of miracles do not require legal
proofs: "here faith has no place," writes Abbott, "and 'legal proof' is
the best possible proof; and if you cannot get it, you ought to try at
least to get something as much like it as possible" (90). In place of
Newman's principle of "antecedent probability" -- that ecclesiastical
miracles should be presumed true on the basis of their Biblical pre-
decessors -- Abbott offers a diametrically opposite principle:

[P]eople practically deny, and are quite fight in practically denying, the existence of every-
thing of which they have no evidence, direct or indirect.
There may be regions of four, five,
or fifty dimensions. . . . But we are so constituted as not to act on any "may be" that
is not at least suggested by some evidence. . . . The right rule is, to regard as
non-existent all alleged facts for which there is no evidence direct or indirect; and
to regard as antecedently false, or highly improbable, all statements that contradict our
knowledge of the fixed and orderly course of things.
(91-92; original emphasis)

Abbott's reference to "regions of four, five, or fifty dimen-
sions" is not a casual one. Although best known in his own day as a
successful headmaster and a theological controversialist, he is best
known in ours as the author of Flatland ( 1884 ), the charming "Ro-
mance of Many Dimensions." Indeed, Flatland's story of a two-dimen-
sional figure struggling to understand and describe three-dimensional
space has long fascinated mathematicians and physicists similarly strug-
gling with n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometries.1 In contrast,
recent scholarship has begun to situate Flatland in relation to Abbott's
other writings, particularly his characteristically liberal views on science
and religion.2 Yet most of this scholarship shares with the work of the
scientific and mathematical popularizers the assumption that Flatland
celebrates the powers of the imagination. We want to suggest, however,
that Flatland is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the imagination

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when wrongly employed. More specifically, it can be viewed as part of
Abbott's longstanding effort to expose what he regarded as the falla
cies in Newman's theology, especially his appropriation of the analog
ical and probabilistic reasoning of Bishop Joseph Butler Analogy of
Religion
( 1736 ). Such a perspective further broadens the intellectual,
social, and religious context in which Flatland and Abbott's Newman
writings are located by demonstrating their role in Victorian debates
over the status of Newman and Butler and in the various constructions
and uses of probability.


I

Abbott graduated from Cambridge in 1861. Four years later,
at twenty-six, he was appointed headmaster of the City of London
School (CLS), where he remained until 1889. He quickly established
a reputation as a curricular reformer whose school provided a more
relevant and practical education for its urban, middle-class clientele.3
During the 1870s, he launched his prolific career as a writer, publishing
studies of theology, Shakespeare, and Bacon; textbooks on grammar
and composition; and even a Christian historical romance. Flatland
appeared, anonymously, in 1884. Five years later, Abbott retired from
the CLS to devote the remainder of his life to the exposition of his
theological system.