“In the World Above”: True Reality in Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland and Plato’s Republic

“Fantasy,” J. R. R. Tolkien writes, concluding his essay On Faerie Stories, “can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (Tolkein).  Any fairy tale, from the Grimm brothers’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, reveals the existence of an unseen reality. Since every fairy-tale ultimately points us towards the same truth—the Christian myth of the God who is Truth—each myth builds on the body of stories that came before, repeating the same plot and character patterns. By reworking Plato’s cave myth into a two-dimensional world of nineteenth-century mathematics, Abbott’s novella Flatland reminds his readers that our physical realm is not the true reality.

Edwin A. Abbott, like Plato millennia before, asks his readers to “imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling” (Plato, pg. 1132). The cave’s prisoners are chained to the floor with their faces fixed in only one direction, unable to see anything besides the dark figures dancing on the wall; similarly, the Flatland shapes are bound to a two-dimensional world, only able to see along a flat plane and unable to look up into the Third Dimension. Plato’s and Abbott’s characters face the same dilemma—they are trapped in a false reality with no way of knowing of or escaping their ignorance. Both the prisoners and shapes “would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows” (Plato 1133) and denounce anyone who questioned the readily apparent reality “a fool” (Abbott 53).

 The cave’s captives and Flatland’s shapes have only one chance to escape their false reality—an Outsider must enter the shadow world, unbind a prisoner, and make him examine his comfortable home. In the Republic, the captive then sees that the dancing figures on the wall are not real, tangible things, but only shadows cast by a fire and puppets. In Flatland, the Sphere enters the two-dimensional world and compels A. Square to look around him for evidence of a third dimension. When confronted with blasphemous knowledge, both the prisoner and A. Square refuse to believe the Outsider. Like the cave’s hostage who “turn[s] around and flee[s] towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown” (Plato 1133), A. Square clings to the Circles’ orthodoxy, desperate for the equanimity of his ordinary two-dimensional life.

But the Sphere does not allow A. Square to reclaim his complacency. The Sphere, like the Outsider in Republic, pulls A. Square “away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight” (Plato 1133). As the prisoner is “pained” and “unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true” (Plato 1133) when he first arrives in the world outside the cave, A. Square feels “an unspeakable horror” and “a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing” (Abbott 64). As the former prisoner “need[s] time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above,” (Plato 1134), A. Square needs a moment to recover from his initial terror. When he does open his eyes, he sees “a new world” lying beneath him: Flatland as it really is (Abbott 64).

Of course, neither Plato’s cave myth nor Flatland ends well. The prisoner who sees the “world above” (Plato 1133) descends into the cave, wanting to lead his fellows out into the sunlight. But the other captives think him mad, refuse to believe his story, and “kill him” (Plato 1134). This is precisely what happens in Flatland: A. Square returns to Flatland determined to spread “the Gospel of Three Dimensions” (Abbott 77) to his fellow “inmates” (Abbott 65), only to be arrested and imprisoned for his heterodox views.

The Christian reader will want to find some hope in the Plato and Abbott’s dark conclusions—and one will find it. Plato and Abbott have reminded us that there is something more out there: there is the Sun outside the cave, and a realm of infinite dimensions outside Flatland. Plato and Abbot have demonstrated that an Outsider can descend into the cave or Flatland and lead a captive into the sunshine or the infinite dimensions of Space. If these two fairy-tales are true, then why cannot the Sun itself or the Infinite Space itself descend into the cave or into Flatland and reveal itself to the prisoners inside? Why cannot the unseen Source of all reality descend into our physical world as a physical being? With the question comes the hope—the hope that True Reality will enter into our unreality and rend the veil between the spiritual and the physical, between fairy-tales and history, between God and man.

Works Cited

Abbott, Edwin A. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992. Print.

Plato. “Republic.” Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Trans. G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing   Company, 1997. 971-1223. Print.  

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Faerie Stories.” Brainstorm Services. Web. 26 Oct. 2010. http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf

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Filed under Being a Bookworm, Philthy: Philosophy & Theology

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