Chapter 2 - Geography
The Inhabitants of the Earth
Even while the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth was
undecided, another question had been suggested which theologians
finally came to consider of far greater importance. The doctrine of
the sphericity of the earth naturally led to thought regarding its
inhabitants, and another ancient germ was warmed into life - the
idea of antipodes: of human beings on the earth's opposite sides.
In the Greek and Roman world this idea had found supporters and
opponents, Cicero and Pliny being among the former, and Epicurus,
Lucretius, and Plutarch among the latter. Thus the problem came
into the early Church unsolved.
Among the first churchmen to take it up was, in the East, St.
Gregory Nazianzen, who showed that to sail beyond Gibraltar was
impossible; and, in the West, Lactantius, who asked: "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."
In all this contention by Gregory and Lactantius there was nothing to be
especially regretted, for, whatever their motive, they simply supported
their inherited belief on grounds of natural law and probability.
Unfortunately, the discussion was not long allowed to rest on these
scientific and philosophical grounds; other Christian thinkers
followed, who in their ardour adduced texts of Scripture, and soon
the question had become theological; hostility to the belief in
antipodes became dogmatic. The universal Church was arrayed against
it, and in front of the vast phalanx stood, to a man, the fathers.
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 doubted
the possibility of salvation to such misbelievers.
The great champion of the orthodox view was St. Augustine. Though
he seemed inclined to yield a little in regard to the sphericity of
the earth, 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, and that he declared even
more explicitly that "Verily, their sound went into all the earth,
and their words unto the ends of the world." Thenceforth we find it
constantly declared that, as those preachers did not go to the
antipodes, no antipodes can exist; and hence that the supporters of
this geographical doctrine "give the lie direct to King David and
to St. Paul, and therefore to the Holy Ghost." Thus the great
Bishop of Hippo 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 firmly against the doctrine of the
antipodes; all schools of interpretation were now agreed - the
followers of the allegorical tendencies of Alexandria, the strictly
literal exegetes of Syria, the more eclectic theologians of the
West. For over a thousand years it was held in the Church,
"always, everywhere, and by all," that there could not be human
beings on the opposite sides of the earth, even if the earth had
opposite sides; and, when attacked by gainsayers, the great mass of
true believers, from the fourth century to the fifteenth, simply
used that opiate which had so soothing an effect on John Henry
Newman in the nineteenth century - securus judicat orbis terrarum.
Yet gainsayers still appeared. That the doctrine of the antipodes
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 gone there and suffered a second time 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 came 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.
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 labours 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, made a strong
response. He cited passages from the book of Job and the Wisdom of
Solomon against the doctrine of the antipodes; he declared it
"perverse, iniquitous, and against Virgil's own soul," and indicated
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 precious
in the mind of the Church.
This decision seems to have been regarded as final, and five
centuries later the great encyclopedist of the Middle Ages, Vincent
of Beauvais, though he accepts the sphericity of the earth, treats
the doctrine of the antipodes as disproved, because contrary to
Scripture. 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 other
results of thought, which brought him under suspicion of sorcery,
driven from his professorship at Bologna and burned alive at
Florence. Nor was this all his punishment: Orcagna, whose terrible
frescoes still exist on the walls of the Campo Santo at Pisa,
immortalized Cecco by representing him in the flames of hell.
Years rolled on, and there came 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.
Die in Lorraine; his ability had made that little village a centre
of scientific thought for all Europe, and finally made him
Archbishop of Cambray and a cardinal. Toward the end of the
fifteenth century 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
Imago 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, stand 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, felt called upon to protest against it as
"unsafe." He had 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 the 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 demarcation
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 Verde 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
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 encyclopaedia, 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, Reysch refers respectfully to St. Augustine as objecting
to the scientific doctrine, he is careful not to cite Scripture
against it, and not less careful to suggest geographical reasoning
in favour 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
his shipmates see 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, including devoted missionaries,
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
leading 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?