Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/September 1892/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Geography II

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3. The Inhabitants of the Earth. — Even while the question of the sphericity of the earth was undecided, another question had been suggested which the Church held to be of far greater importance. The doctrine of the earth's sphericity naturally led to thought upon the tenants of the earth's surface, and another ancient germ idea was warmed into life — the idea of the antipodes — of human beings on the earth's opposite sides.

At this the theological warriors of the Church waxed valiant. Those great and good churchmen determined to fight. To all of them this idea seemed dangerous, to most of them it seemed damnable. St. Basil and St. Ambrose were tolerant enough to allow that a man might be saved who thought the earth inhabited on its opposite sides, but the great majority of the fathers of the Church doubted the possibility of salvation to such misbelievers.

Lactantius asks: "Is there any one so senseless as to believe that there are men whose footsteps are higher than their heads? . . . that the crops and trees grow downward? . . . that the rains and snow and hail fall upward toward the earth? . . . I am at a loss what to say of those who, when they have once erred, steadily persevere in their folly, and defend one vain thing by another."

But a still greater man followed on the same side. St. tine seemed inclined to yield a little in regard to the sphericity of the earth, but he fought the idea that men exist on the other side of it, saying that "Scripture speaks of no such descendants of Adam." He insists that men could not be allowed by the Almighty to live there, since if they did they could not see Christ at his second coming descending through the air. But his most cogent appeal, one which we find echoed from theologian to theologian during a thousand years afterward, is to the nineteenth Psalm, and to its confirmation in the Epistle to the Romans; to the words, "Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." He dwells with great force on the fact that St. Paul based one of his most powerful arguments upon this declaration regarding the preachers of the gospel, declaring even more explicitly that "verily their sound went into all the earth, their words unto the ends of the world." Henceforth we find it constantly declared that, as those preachers did not go to the antipodes, no antipodes can exist; and therefore that the supporters of this geographical doctrine "give the lie direct to King David and to St. Paul, and therefore to the Holy Ghost." Augustine taught the whole world for over a thousand years that as there was no preaching of the gospel on the opposite side of the earth, there could be no human beings there.

The great authority of Augustine and the cogency of his scriptural argument held the Church, as a rule, firmly against the doctrine of the antipodes; yet that the doctrine continued to have life is shown by the fact that in the sixth century Procopius of Gaza attacks it with a tremendous argument. He declares that if there be men on the other side of the earth, Christ must have come to save them; and, therefore, that there must have been there, as necessary preliminaries to his coming, a duplicate Eden, Adam, Serpent, and Deluge.

Cosmas Indicopleustes also attacked the doctrine with especial bitterness, citing a passage from St. Luke to prove that antipodes are theologically impossible.

At the end of the sixth century comes a man from whom much might be expected—St. Isidore of Seville. He had pondered over ancient thought in science, and, as we have seen, had dared proclaim his belief in the sphericity of the earth; but with that he stopped. As to the antipodes, the authority of the Psalmist, St. Paul, and St. Augustine silences him; he shuns the whole question as unlawful, subjects reason to faith, and declares that men can not and ought not to exist on opposite sides of the earth.[1] Under such pressure this scientific truth seems to have disappeared for nearly two hundred years, but by the eighth century the sphericity of the earth had come to be generally accepted among the leaders of thought, and now the doctrine of the antipodes was again asserted by a bishop, Virgil of Salzburg.

There then stood in Germany, in those first years of the eighth century, one of the greatest and noblest of men St. Boniface. His learning was of the best then known. In labors he was a worthy successor of the apostles; his genius for Christian work made him unwillingly primate of Germany; his devotion to duty led him willingly to martyrdom. There sat too, at that time, on the papal throne a great Christian statesman—Pope Zachary. Boniface immediately declared against the revival of such a heresy as the doctrine of the antipodes; he stigmatized it as an assertion that there are men beyond the reach of the appointed means of salvation; he attacked Virgil, and called on Pope Zachary for aid.

The Pope, as the infallible teacher of Christendom, makes a strong response. He cites passages from the book of Job and the Wisdom of Solomon against the doctrine of the antipodes; he declares it "perverse, iniquitous, and against Virgil's own soul," and indicates a purpose of driving him from his bishopric. Whether this purpose was carried out or not, the old theological view, by virtue of the Pope's divinely ordered and protected "inerrancy," was re-established, and the doctrine that the earth has inhabitants on but one of its sides became more than ever orthodox, and, in the mind of the Church, necessary to salvation.[2]

This decision seems to have been regarded as final, and two centuries later the great encyclopedist of the middle ages, Vincent de Beauvais, though he accepts the sphericity of the earth, treats the doctrine of the antipodes as utterly disproved. Yet the doctrine still lived. Just as it had been previously revived by William of Conches and then laid to rest, so now it is somewhat timidly brought out in the thirteenth century by no less a personage than Albert the Great, the most noted man of science in that time. But his utterances are perhaps purposely obscure. Again it disappears beneath the theological wave, and a hundred years later Nicolas'd'Oresme, Geographer of the King of France, a light of science, is forced to yield to the clear teaching of the Scripture as cited by St. Augustine.

Nor was this the worst. In Italy, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Church thought it necessary to deal with questions of this sort by rack and fagot. In 1316 Peter of Abano, famous as a physician, having promulgated this with other obnoxious doctrines in science, only escaped the Inquisition by death; and in 1327 Cecco'd'Ascoli, noted as an astronomer, was for this and similar crimes driven from his professorship at Bologna and burned alive at Florence. Nor was this all his punishment: that great painter, Orcagna, whose terrible works still exist on the walls of the Campo Santo at Pisa, immortalized Cecco by representing him in the names of hell.[3]

Years rolled on, and there comes in the fifteenth century one from whom the world had a right to expect much. Pierre d'Ailly, by force of thought and study had risen to be Provost of the College of St. Dié in Lorraine; his ability had made that little country village a center of scientific thought for all Europe, and finally made him Archbishop of Cambray and a cardinal. In 1483 was printed what Cardinal'd'Ailly had written long before as a summing up of his best thought and research—the collection of essays known as the Ymago Mundi. It gives us one of the most striking examples in history of a great man in theological fetters. As he approaches this question he states it with such clearness that we expect to hear him assert the truth; but there stands the argument of St. Augustine; there, too, stands the biblical texts on which it is founded; the text from the Psalms and the explicit declaration of St. Paul to the Romans, "Their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world."

D'Ailly attempts to reason, but he is overawed, and gives to the world virtually nothing.

Still, the doctrine of the antipodes lived and moved: so much so, that the eminent Spanish theologian Tostatus, even as late as the age of Columbus, feels called upon to protest against it as "unsafe." He has shaped the old missile of St. Augustine into the following syllogism: "The apostles were commanded to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature; they did not go to any such part of the world as the antipodes; they did not preach to any creatures there; ergo, no antipodes exist."

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well—how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth's sphericity, with which the theory of antipodes was so closely connected, the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI, having been appealed to as an umpire between the claims of Spain and Portugal to the newly discovered parts of the earth, issued a bull laying down upon the earth's surface a line of demarkation between the two powers. This line was drawn from north to south a hundred leagues west of the Azores; and the Pope in the plenitude of his knowledge declared that all lands discovered east of this line should belong to the Portuguese and all west of it should belong to the Spaniards. This was hailed as an exercise of divinely illuminated power by the Church; but difficulties arose, and in 1506 another attempt was made by Pope Julius II to draw the line three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verd Islands. This, again, was supposed to bring divine wisdom to settle the question, but shortly overwhelming difficulties arose; for the Portuguese claimed Brazil, and, of course, had no difficulty in showing that they could reach it by sailing to the east of the line, provided they sailed long enough. The lines laid down by Popes Alexander and Julius may still be found upon the maps of the period, but their bulls have quietly passed into the catalogue of ludicrous errors.

Yet the theological barriers to this geographical truth yielded but slowly. Plain as it had become to scholars, they hesitated to declare it to the world at large. Eleven hundred years had passed since St. Augustine had proved its antagonism to Scripture, when Gregory Reysch gave forth his famous encyclopædia, the Margarita Philosophica. Edition after edition was issued, and everywhere appeared in it the orthodox statements; but they were evidently strained to the breaking point; for, while in treating of the antipodes Keysch refers respectfully to St. Augustine as objecting to the scientific doctrine, he is careful not to cite Scripture against it, and is not less careful to cite geographical reasoning in favor of it.

But in 1519 science gains a crushing victory. Magellan makes his famous voyage. He proves the earth to be round, for his expedition circumnavigates it; he proves the doctrine of the antipodes, for he sees the peoples of the antipodes. Yet even this does not end the war. Many conscientious men oppose the doctrine for two hundred years longer. Then the French astronomers make their measurements of degrees in equatorial and polar regions, and add to their proofs that of the lengthened pendulum. When this was done, when the deductions of science were seen to be established by the simple test of measurement, beautifully and perfectly, and when a long line of trustworthy explorers had sent home accounts of the antipodes, then, and then only, this war of twelve centuries ended.

Such was the main result of this long war; but there were other results not so fortunate. The efforts of Eusebius, Basil, and Lactantius to deaden scientific thought; the efforts of Augustine to combat it; the efforts of Cosmas to crush it by dogmatism; the efforts of Boniface and Zachary to crush it by force, conscientious as they all were, had resulted simply in impressing upon many noble minds the conviction that science and religion are enemies.

On the other hand, what was gained by the warriors of science for religion? Certainly a far more worthy conception of the world and a far more ennobling conception of that Power which pervades and directs it. "Which is more consistent with a great religion, the cosmography of Cosmas or that of Isaac Newton? Which presents a nobler field for religious thought, the diatribes of Lactantius or the calm statements of Humboldt?[4]

4. The Size of the Earth.—But at an early period another subject in geography had stirred the minds of thinking men the earth's size. Various ancient investigators had by different methods reached measurements more or less near the truth; these methods were continued into the middle ages, supplemented by new thought, and among the more striking results were those obtained by Roger Bacon and Gerbert, afterward Pope Sylvester II. They handed down to after-time the torch of knowledge, but, as their reward among their contemporaries, they fell under the charge of sorcery.

Far more consonant with the theological spirit of the middle ages was a solution of the problem from Scripture, and this solution deserves to be given as an example of a very curious theological error, chancing to result in great good. The second book of Esdras, which among Protestants is placed in the Apocrypha, was held by many of the foremost men of the ancient Church as fully inspired: though Jerome looked with suspicion on this book, it was regarded as prophetic by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Ambrose, and the Church acquiesced in that view. In the Eastern Church it held an especially high place, and in the Western Church, before the Reformation, was generally considered by the most eminent authorities to be part of the sacred canon. In the sixth chapter of this book there is a summary of the works of creation, and in this occur the following verses:

"Upon the third day thou didst command that the waters should be gathered in the seventh part of the earth; six parts hast thou dried up and kept them to the intent that of these some, being planted of God and tilled, might serve thee."

"Upon the fifth day thou saidst unto the seventh part where the waters were gathered, that it should bring forth living creatures, fowls and fishes, and so it came to pass."

These statements were reiterated in other verses, and were naturally considered as of controlling authority.

Among the scholars who pondered on this as on all other things likely to increase knowledge was Cardinal Pierre'd' Ailly. As we have seen, this great man, while he denied the existence of the antipodes as St. Augustine had done, believed firmly in the sphericity of the earth, and, interpreting these statements of the book of Esdras in connection with this belief, he held that, as only one seventh of the earth's surface was covered by water, the ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia could not be very wide. Knowing, as he thought, the extent of the land upon the globe, he felt that in view of this divinely authorized statement the globe must be much smaller, and the land of "Zipango," reached by Marco Polo, on the extreme east coast of Asia, much nearer than had been generally believed.

On this point he laid stress in his great work, the Ymago Mundi, and an edition of it having been published in the days when Columbus was thinking most closely upon the problem of a westward voyage, it naturally exercised much influence upon his reasonings. Among the treasures of the library at Seville, there is nothing more interesting than a copy of this work annotated by Columbus himself; from this very copy it was that Columbus obtained confirmation of his belief that the passage across the ocean to Marco Polo's land of Zipango in Asia was short. But for this error, based upon a text supposed to be inspired, it is unlikely that Columbus would have had the courage to undertake his voyage. It is a curious fact that this single theological error thus promoted a series of voyages which completely destroyed not only this but every other conception of geography based upon the sacred writings.[5]

5. The Character of the Earth's Surface.—It would be hardly just to dismiss the struggle for geographical truth without referring to one passage more in the history of the Protestant Church, for it shows clearly the difficulties in the way of the simplest statement of geographical truth which conflicted with the words of the sacred books.

In the year 1553 Michael Servetus was on trial for his life at Geneva on the charge of Arianism. Servetus had rendered many services to scientific truth, and one of these was an edition of Ptolemy's Geography, in which Judea was spoken of, not as "a land flowing with milk and honey," but, in strict accordance with the truth, as, in the main, meager, barren, and inhospitable. In his trial this simple statement of geographical truth was used against him by his arch-enemy John Calvin with fearful power. In vain did Servetus state the fact that he had simply drawn the words from a previous edition of Ptolemy; in vain did he declare that this statement was a simple geographical truth of which there were ample proofs; it was answered that such language "necessarily inculpated Moses, and so grievously outraged the Holy Ghost."[6]

In summing up the action of the Church upon Geography, we must say, then, that the dogmas developed in the strict adherence to Scripture and the conceptions held in the Church during many centuries "always, everywhere, and by all," were, on the whole, steadily hostile to truth; but it is only just to make a distinction here between the religious and the theological spirit. To the religious spirit are largely due several of the noblest among the great voyages of discovery. A deep longing to extend the realms of Christianity influenced the minds of Prince John, of Portugal, in his great series of efforts along the African coast; of Vasco da Gama, in his circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope; of Magellan, in his voyage around the world, and doubtless found a place among the more worldly motives of Columbus.

Thus, in this field also, from the supremacy accorded to theology, we find resulting that tendency to dogmatism which has shown itself in all ages the deadly foe not only of scientific inquiry but of the higher religious spirit itself, while from the love of truth for truth's sake, which has been the inspiration of all fruitful work in science, nothing but advantage has ever resulted to true religion.

The Japanese dragon is supposed by Mr. Charles De Kay to be possibly a remnant of the original native religion which was superseded by Buddhism in China and Japan. Compared with the monster as depicted in stone and colors by artists of our middle ages, it is a graceful creature. Dragons a foot or two long, made of an incredible number of pieces held together, are among the marvels of Japanese workers in iron and bronze, and great prices are paid when the foundry-man or ironsmith is a famous artist. The figures sometimes have a character of their own which justifies one in placing them among serious works of art. When taken in the hand their flexibility and coldness make them seem alive; while their singular motions and threatening look express capitally the fierceness and wayward nature attributed to a symbol of the least stable of elements. To us and to skeptical natives the image is a curious, ingenious plaything, but to the Japanese of the old religions or to the Buddhist it means a good deal more: it is a talisman to exorcise the dangers that lie on land and sea.


  1. For the opinions of Basil, Ambrose, and others, see Leeky, History of Rationalism in Europe, New York, 1812, vol. i, p. 279, note. Also Letronne, in Revue des Deux Mondes, March, 1834. For Lactantius, see citations already given. For St. Augustine's opinion, see the Civ. Dei, xvi, 9, where this great father of the Church shows that the existence of the antipodes "nulla ratione credendum est." Also citations in Buckle's Posthumous Works, vol. ii, p. 645. For Procopius of Gaza see Kretschiner, p. 55. See also, on the general subject, Peschel, Geschichte der Erdkunde, pp. 96, 97. For Isidore, see citations already given. To understand the embarrassment caused by these utterances of the fathers to scientific men of a later period, see Letter of Agricola to Joachimus Vadianus in 1514. Agricola asks Vadianus to give his views regarding the antipodes, saying that he himself does not know what to do, between the fathers on the one side and the learned men of modern times on the other. On the other hand, for the embarrassment caused to the Church by this mistaken zeal of the fathers, see Kepler's references and Fromund's replies; also De Morgan, Paradoxes, p. 58. Kepler appears to have taken great delight in throwing the views of Lactantius into the teeth of his adversaries.
  2. For Virgil of Salzburg, see Neander's History of the Christian Church, Torrey's translation, vol. iii, p. 63. Also Herzog, Real Encyclopaedic, etc., recent edition by Prof. Hauck, in verb. Virgilius. Also Kretschmer. See Whewell, i, p. 197; but for best choice of authorities and for most careful winnowing out of conclusions, see De Morgan, pp. 2426. For very full notes as to pagan and Christian advocates of the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth and of the antipodes, and for extract from Zachary's letter, see Migne, Patrologia, vol. vi, p. 426, and vol. xli, p. 487. For St. Boniface's part, see Bonifacii Epistoke, ed. Giles, i, 173.
  3. For Vincent de Beauvais and the antipodes, see his Speculum Naturales, Book VII, with citations from St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, cap. xvi. For Albert the Great's doctrine regarding the antipodes, compare Kretschmer as above with Eicken, Geschichte, etc., p. 621. Kretschmer finds that Albert supports the doctrine, and Eicken finds that he denies it—a fair proof that Albert was not inclined to state his views with dangerous clearness. For D'Oresme, see Santarem, Histoire de la Cosmographie, vol. i, p. 142. For Peter of Abano, or Apono, as he is often called, see Tiraboschi; also Ginguene, vol. ii, p. 293; also Naudé, Histoire des Grands Hommes de Magie. For Cecco'd'Ascoli, see Montucla, Histoire des Mathematiques, i, 528; also Daunou, Études Historiques, vol. vi, p. 320; also Kretschmer, p. 59. Concerning Orcagna's representation of Cecco in flames of hell, see Eenan, Averroes et l'Averroisme, Paris, 1867, p. 328.
  4. For D'Ailly's acceptance of St Augustine's argument, see the Ymago Mundi, Paris, 1490, cap. vii. For Tostatus, see Zöckler, voL i, pp. 467, 468. He based his opposition on Romans, x, 18. For Columbus, see Winsor, Fiske, and Adams; also Humboldt, Histoire de la Géographie du Nouveau Continent. For the bull of Alexander VI, see Daunou, Ètudes Historiques, vol. ii, p. 417; also Peschel, Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, Book II, chap. iv. The text of the bull is given with the English translation in Arber's reprint of The First Three English Books on America, etc., etc., Birmingham, 1885, pp. 201-204; also especially Peschel, Die Theilung der Erde unter Papst Alexander "VT. und Julius II., Leipsic, 1871, pp. 14 et seq. For remarks on the power under which the line was drawn by Alexander VI, see Mamiani, Del Papato ne'i Tre Ultimi Secoli, p. 170. For maps showing lines of division, see Kohl, Die beiden altesten General-Karten von Amerika, Weimar, 1860, where maps of 1527 and 1529 are reproduced; also Mercator, Atlas, tenth edition, Amsterdam, 1628, pp. 70, 71. For latest discussion on The Demarkation Line of Alexander VI, see E. G. Bourne in Yale Review, May, 1892. For the Margarita Philosophiea, see the editions of 1503, 1509, 1517, lib. vii, cap. 48. For the effect of Magellan's voyages, and the reluctance to yield to proof, see Henri Martin, Histoire de France, vol. xiv, p. 395; St. Martin's Histoire de la Géographie, p. 369; Peschel, Geschichte des Zeitalters der Entdeckungen, concluding chapters; and for an admirable summary, Draper, Hist. Int. Devel. of Europe, pp. 451-153; also an interesting passage in Sir Thomas Browne's Vulgar and Common Errors, Book I, chap. vi. For general statement as to supplementary proof by measurement of degrees and by pendulum, see Somerville, Phys. Geog., chap, i, par. 6, note; also Humboldt, Cosmos, vol. ii, p. 736, and v, pp. 16, 32; also Montucla, iv, 138.
  5. For this error, so fruitful in discovery, see D'Ailly, Ymago Mundi (my own copy is of 1490); the passage referred to is folio 12 verso. For the passage from Esdras, see chap, vi, verses 42, 47, 50, and 52; see also Zockler, Geschichte der Beziehungen zwischen Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, vol. i, p. 461. For one of the best recent statements, see Ruge, Gesch. des Zeitalters der Entdeckungen, Berlin, 1882, pp. 221 et seq. For the letter of Columbus acknowledging his indebtedness to this mistake in Esdras, see Navarrete, Viajes y Descubrimientos, Madrid, 1825, tome i, pp. 242-264; also Humboldt, Hist, de la Geographic du Nouveau Continent, vol. i, pp. 68, 69.
  6. For Servetus's geographical offense, see Willis, Servetus and Calvin, London, 1877, p. 325. The passage condemned is in the Ptolemy of 1535, folio 41. It was discreetly retrenched in a reprint of the same edition. As to the mixture in the motives of Columbus, it may be well to compare with the earlier biographies the recent ones by Dr. Winsor and President Adams.