1884 Research

David Akers

My research into the time period in which Abbott wrote took several forms.

First I studied issues of the London Times, looking for.. 1) a general focus upon certain issues, in an attempt to determine the major concerns of the day. 2) articles which related specifically to Flatland or the specific interests of its author.

The London Times in 1884 appears to have been a paper primarily oriented toward commercial and/or professional interests. Every paper contained a multitude of "financial intelligence" designed to inform its readers of a quickly changing world. The paper also contained massive amounts of information on foreign policy. Each country had at least a paragraph or two describing the latest developments. There was often a long column devoted solely to the crisis in Egypt and the Sudan.

In this paper I also discovered an interesting article which quoted heavily from a graduation speech made at London University. The speech focused primarily upon the importance of encouraging womens' access to higher educational institutions. The speaker was obviously quite irate about the current state of women in society, and made his point forcefully.

While I was in the library, I also took the time to search for articles written by Edwin Abbott which might reveal more direct insights into his opinions about the society he lived in. It turns out that he wrote a 22 page article called "Illusion in Religion" in 1890. In this article, Abbott procedes to explain many of his views on religion. "I wish to show," Abbott states, "that in religion, as well as in science, we must be prepared for illusions, trying to discern the truth beneath them, and to get out of them as much good as we can, until the time arrives when the kernel of truth in them is separable from the husk of error." To illustrate his point concerning illusions, Abbott contrasts common perceptions of astronomy with the truth. "When we say 'The Sun is just setting,' we ought to say, 'The sun set seven or eight minutes ago.'" Abbott concludes that the same degree of scientific doubt should be applied toward religion, concluding: "Believers have been only too ready to take priests and theologians at their word, that theology is a dead, unprogressive scheme, no more to be explained than the rules of a game; and if you ask them, 'How can it be just that God should impute righteousness?' they stare at you as if you were saying, 'How can it be just that the pawn in chess should not move backward?' This attack upon priests is especially interesting considering the negative depictions of priests in Flatland.

You have found one of the best items in Abbott's writing, with respect to the Flatland story and his interaction with other authors in the period. That was written, I believe, in 1892 or 3, just about the time he resigned the Head Mastership of the City of London School to embark on twenty years of theological writing. There was a lecture based on that document, given at Toynbee Hall, and the subsequent correspondence in the Times was very interesting indeed. There were letters back and forth between Abbott and Thomas Huxley, the foremost exponent of Darwinism. Maybe you can locate that interchange, or related commentary?

The comparison of religion to a game of chess, or for that matter an axiomatic system, is certainly thought-provoking. Abbott dismissed such ultrarationalism, as is clear from reading a number of the conversations in Flatland. In a way, I think that this attack by Abbott on the folly of separating out intelligence into two areas, male rationality and female intuition, is a primary contribution of the book.

I would like to see a copy of the article on women's access to education. If it isn't too long, we could even enter it into our growing database?

Okay, here's the relevant portion of the article:

". . . No thoroughly indifferent, idle student ever became a successful man in later life, and no man who had worked earnestly and well in his student days ever failed wholly later. [The speaker] did not know any grounds upon which they might reckon that the same rule would hold in the case of the other and better sex. (laughter and cheers). Someone hereafter would perhaps make a similar exam on their account, but he thought that he might venture to say that it would be singularly strange if competing in this highest intellectual pursuit and in the business of life to which they naturally led, should bring about more discord, more error, more impracticalness, than the competition which had gone on for years in the fine arts and in music. (Hear, hear.) That University had now a somewhat large experience in the granting of diplomas to ladies, and nothing of the kind had been suggested. The University was rapidly collecting facts, however, for the consideration of those who were still in doubt as to the admission of ladies to the higher intellectual pursuits. For his own part he might say that he had not yet heard anything which would cause him to doubt that they were safe in trusting the reputation of the University in the hands of such ladies as had received their diplomas and certificates. (Cheers)"