A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
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 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 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?

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