Flat Earth Belief ≠ Neo-Medievalism

Paula Simons has no patience for people who believe that the earth is flat, and she is particularly upset, it seems, that Edmonton is hosting the first Flat Earth International Conference: “No Getting Around the Absurdity of Edmonton’s Flat Earth Conference.” She dismisses “flat earthers” as delusional conspiracy theorists, reasonably benign if you don’t think too long on the broader consequences that generally accompany conspiracy theories, e.g. dogmatic rejection of evidence as evidence; unassailable, baroque,[1] labyrinthine theories (probably with minotaurs lurking in the center); rejection of expertise as nothing more than some state sponsored system of oppression seeking to silence free thinking and expression. Such conspiracy theories, she rightly worries, are facilitated by the dissemination of information (false and true) on the internet.

We need only to poke a few buttons on our portable phones to find the most reliable, credible scientific data, in real time…. Alongside all the “real” information?[sic] We have an equal mass of junk knowledge. Just as it’s never been easier to find the truth, it’s never been easier to spread a lie. Or a fairy tale.

Her observation is as true for “credible scientific data” as it is for credible historical information. And here is where Simons goes horribly off the rails. Aping uncritically a common “fairy tale” she claims that since 2015 “flat earthers” have been using the internet to promote “neo-medievalism.”

I’ve said this before, a bunch of times, but just to be clear here: the belief in a flat earth is NOT a medieval belief. And so the current beliefs about a flat earth are not “renaissance” or any other sort of revival of earlier beliefs.

People in the middle ages did not believe in a flat earth nor did they subscribe to uncritical, irrational conspiracy theories about the natural world. Moreover, they did not, during the Middle Ages, reject “science,” though their science certainly looked different from ours. I fail to see, then, how the flat earther conspiracy Simons worries about has anything in common with the middle ages. Like so many people before her who have relied on “junk knowledge,” Simons is “spread[ing] a lie” that has the quality of truthiness but not of truth. The flat earth conspiracy is not an example of neo-medievalism except insofar as people ignorant of the Middle Ages invoke the period as a slur to attack opinions they dislike (Simons claim that it’s a neo-medievalism tells us more about her prejudices and ignorance than it does about either the flat earthers or the middle ages).

If you are going to criticize people for not respecting expertise, for ignoring credible and real information, for spreading lies and fairy tales, then you have an obligation to respect expertise, to seek credible and real information, and not to spread lies and fairy tales. To be sure, Simons parroting of the medieval origins of a flat earth is “relatively benign,” but ultimately undermines her efforts to defend expertise and jeopardizes her attack on “flat earthers.” If she can’t get her facts right, why should anybody listen to her?

Postscript

As a sort of postscript, I’m intrigued by her childhood experiences.

She opens by saying

So. When I was a kid, if you called someone a “flat earther” that meant that they were kind of, you know, deluded, silly. I mean, to call someone a “flat earther” was to suggest that they believe in the most impossible thing imaginable …

She must have grown up in a rough neighborhood, slinging insults like “flat earther” around. I’m imagining roving bands of hooligans with heliocentric tattoos, perhaps the Semmelweis and the Koch gangs embroiled in a biological turf war, while disaffected Mendelians lurked in doorways and alleys armed with peashooters. She probably also called kids Lamarckians and Tychonics and maybe even phlogistonists.


  1. Note, I intentionally did not use the adjective Byzantine, since that wrongly denigrates the Byzantine period/empire.  ↩

Who was Englishman John Digges?

No, really, who was John Digges? Apparently he witnessed the supernova in 1572 and helped “shred” the “hidebound view of the universe” and championed the “skepticism about Bible-infused group-think in the Middle Ages” that was the Ptolemaic system. John Digges also viewed the supernova as proof that the fixed stars weren’t fixed on some “kind of inert cap over the world.”

Oh wait. There was no John Digges. There was a John Dee. There was a Thomas Digges. They both might have witnessed the supernova in 1572. But that supernova had nothing to do with the fixity of the stars or a “Bible-infused group-think” (it certainly raised questions about other issues, e.g., the perfection of the heavens).

I want the author to realize this “photo” is a joke, but I fear he hasn’t.

It’s hard to take this polemic, “Was God Necessary for Creation? Science Says No,” seriously when it shreds history and seems to suffer from some rabid new-aethist-infused group-think. Most of the pseudo-history is totally pointless, adding nothing to the post.

The original photo linked in the article is clearly a joke. Note the description: “This is a vintage photo taken 13,730,8119,213 years ago. It is of course a scan of the original print, since digital photography had not been invented yet.…”

The core bit of the author’s rant is:

today science is able to convincingly demonstrate by peering into the tiniest of realms that in an infinite cosmos something can actually—and naturally—explode into being. Out of—as far as can be divined—absolutely nothing.1

Millennia of claims about spontaneous generation (either from rotting matter or from assumed sterile conditions) suggest that we will likely realize that no, something did not, in fact, come from nothing.2

Even a cursory encounter with history would have helped the author avoid some rather obvious errors. But that would require recognizing that history is a domain of expertise, not something this author apparently acknowledges.

Maybe we can just all agree to leave the history to historians.3


  1. Even John Digges would recognize the flaw in the logic that leads from this “finding” to the conclusion that science has proven that a god was not involved in the original creation of matter.  ↩

  2. For an excellent, readable history of ideas about spontaneous generation, see Daryn Lehoux’s Creatures Born of Mud and Slime: The Wonder and Complexity of Spontaneous Generation (JHU Press, 2017)  ↩

  3. I keep wanting this post to be sarcasm, to be a joke. But if it is, the author is so incredibly deadpan that I can’t detect the sarcasm. The egregiously erroneous history is not, alas, evidence of a joke—too many well educated, accomplished people regularly get history horribly and inexcusably wrong.  ↩

Aphorisms 11–20 from Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός

Here are aphorisms 11–20 from the copy of Ptolemy’s “Ὁ Καρπός” in BnF gr. 2180. As to be expected, there are a number of idiosyncrasies here, some going well beyond the orthographic changes (which are unsurprising really). In some cases, this copy of the text includes additional clauses that raise interesting questions. For example, the “τοῦ παρόντοϲ ἔργου” at the end of aphorism 11. How are we to understand the distinction between the common “τοῦ προκειμένου πράγματοϲ” and the added “τοῦ παρόντοϲ ἔργου” in this copy? Did the copiest understand a semantic difference between “πράγματοϲ” and “ἔργου”? And why did the later reader who glossed so much of the text ignore aphorism 15?

The first seventeen aphorisms from a 15th-century copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός.
Translation of Aphorisms 11–20 from BnF 2180
Aphorism BnF 2180 Translation
ια’ Μὴ πρώτερον ἐπιλέξεισ ἡμέραν καὶ ὥραν, πρὶν ἤ διαγνώναι τὴν ποιώτητα τοῦ προκειμένου πράγματοϲ, τοῦ παρόντοϲ ἔργου. Do not first select the day and hour before you discern the quality of the proposed matter, of the present action.
ιβ’ Ἡ φηλία καὶ τὸ μῖσοϲ κολύουσιν τὸ ὐπροβαίνειν ἀληθὴ τὸ ἀποτελέσμα, ἐλαττοῦσιν γὰρ τὰ μέγιστα καὶ μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ σμικρώτατα. Love and hate impede arriving at true astrological judgements, for they diminish strong things and magnify very weak things.
ιγ’ Ὅτε δηλώσει ἡ οὐρανία θέσει τι, χρῶ συνεργοῖϲ καὶ τοῖϲ φθαρτικοῖϲ ἄστροιϲ ἤτοι τοῖσ δευτερίοισ. When the celestial disposition signifies something, use the cooperating and the destructive stars, that is the secondary ones.
ιδ’ Ὢ ὁπόσα σφάληται ὁ ἐπιστήμων, ὅτε ὁ ἕβδομοϲ τόποϲ καὶ ὁ κύριοϲ αὐτοῦ ὦσιν κεκακομένοι. Oh, how many things baffle/frustrate the man wise in astrology, when the seventh house and its lord have been rendered unpropitious.
ιε’ Ὁ ὡροσκόποϲ τῶν ἐχθρῶν τοῦ βασιλέως ἢ τῆς βασιλείας εἰσὶν τὰ ἀποκεκληκότα ζῴδια ἀπὸ τοῦ ὡροσκόπου αὐταῖς, οἱ δὲ ὡροσκόποι τῶν κυρίων εἰσὶν τὰ κέντρα, καὶ οἱ ὡροσκόποῦντεσ τῶν δὲ ἐν αὐτοῖϲ ἀπὸστρεφωμένων εἰσὶν αἱ ἐπαναφοραί. τὸ αὐτὸ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν δογμάτων. The ascendent of the enemies of the king or the kingdom are the cadent signs from their ascendent, and the ascendent of their rulers are the cardinals, and the ascendents of those who dwell in them (what I read as ἀποστρεφομενων should probably be ἀναστρεφομενων) are the succedents. And the same thing in beliefs.
ιϛ’ Ὅτε κυριεύσουσιν οἱ ἀγαθοποιοὶ τὸν η’ τόπον, ἐπάγουσιν τὴν βλάβην ἀπὸ ἀνδρῶν ἀγα[θῶν], εἰ δὲ ἀγαθύνονται, ἀπαλάττουσι ταύτηϲ. When the benefics rule the eighth house they cause damage to good men, but if they are made good, they depart from this.
ιζ’ Ὅτε ἀποτελεῖσ περὶ τινοϲ ζωῆς γέροντοϲ, μὴ πρότερον ἀποτελέσεις, πρὶν ἂν καταμετρήσεις, πόσα ἐνδέχεται τοῦτον ἔτει ζῆσαι. When you forecast about a particular life of an old man, do not first forecast before you have measured how long it is possible that this one still lives.
ιη’ Ὅτε οἱ δύο φωστῆρεσ ἐν ἑνὶ λεπτῷ ὥσιν, ὡροσκοπεῖ δὲ καὶ ἀγαθοποιόϲ, ἐν πᾶσιν ἔσται εὐτυχὲισ τοῖϲ ἀνὰ χεῖρα ὁ γινόμενοϲ· ὡϲ αύτωϲ καὶ εἰ διαμετροῦσιν ἀλλήλοιϲ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὡροσκόπου καὶ τοῦ δύνοντοϲ. εἰ δὲ κακοποιόϲ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ ὡροσκόπῳ, νόει τὸ ἐναντίον. When the two luminaries [i.e., the sun and moon] are in a single minute, and also the benefic is the ascendent, the Native will be fortunate in all things that come his way. Just as also if they oppose each other from the ascendent and from the descendent. But if a malefic is on the ascendent, suspect the opposite.
ιθ’ Ἀμβλύνηται ἡ τοῦ καθαρσίου ἐνέργεια τῆσ [σελήνης] συνοδευούσησ τῷ Διί. The action/effect of purification loses is dulled when the moon is in conjunction with Jupiter.
κ’ Μὴ ἅψῃ μόριον σιδήρω ἡ σελήνη ἐπεχούσα τὼ ζῴδιον, ὃ κυριεύει τοῦ μορίου ἐκείνου. Do not touch a part of the body with iron when the moon is in the sign that rules that part of the body.

As always, I reserve the right to change these translations when I learn that I made a mistake. For example, I might revise aphorism 9 because there is, apparently, some debate about the meaning of the term “οἱ στοιχειοματικοὶ” (see “Ὁ Καρπός, Aphorisms 6–10”). Relying on classical sources, Liddell and Scott translate “στοιχειοματικοὶ” as “casters of nativities.” According to C. Blum, later sources indicate a shift in meaning to one that implies a more magical practice. Something closer to “making amulets” or “making talismans.” I haven’t finished the article, so I don’t know yet if the arguments it persuasive.

In honor of aphorism 20, warning against bleeding when the moon is in the sign that rules that part of the body, here’s a zodiacal man from later in that same codex with the standard mapping of signs onto the body, starting with Aries at the top of the head and ending with Pisces at the feet.

A zodiacal man maps the twelve signs onto parts of the body, starting at the head and working to the feet. From BnF 2180, f. 108r

Daughters of the Copernican Revolution

In honor of Copernicus’s 545th birthday, I thought I would read T. Koon’s best seller, The Copernican Revolutionary.

Imagine my surprise when I found folded inside the back cover the following certificate:

A certificate for The International Society of the Daughters of the Copernican Revolution

This certifies that Miss Etta Clara Hoyt is a regularly approved member of the International Society of the Daughters of the Copernican Revolution in connection with the Wahwilaway Chapter having been admitted by the International Board of Management by virtue of her descent from a proto-scientist who with unfailing loyalty rendered material aid to the cause of the Heliocentric System during the Revolutionary Struggle between the benighted geocentrists (that uneasy alliance between Ptolemaics and Tychonics) and the visionary heliocentrists (our beloved Copernicans).

I hadn’t heard of this society before and despite my best efforts (that is, doing a handful of internet searches), I found nothing about it. It seems to have been formed in the late 1800s, perhaps in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. Judging from the text, the society was modeled after the Daughters of the American Revolution, but for reasons I can’t fathom. If you know anything about this organization, let me know.

ὁ Καρπός, Aphorisms 6 – 10

As our reader continued to work through Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός he either was uninterested in the minor errors in the Greek or didn’t notice them (such as the τοῦ γενεθλίω which clearly should be τοῦ γενεθλίου). He did add a couple corrections, particularly when whole words were missing. And he continued adding Latin translations for nearly every Greek word.

Aphorisms 6 – 10 from the copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός in BnF gr. 2180.

Here is a transcription of these aphorisms. As in previous posts, I have not corrected the orthography or other mistakes.

Τότε ὠφελεῖ ἡ ἐπιλογὴ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, ὅτε ἐστὶν ὁ καιρὸϲ εὔθητοϲ ἀπὸ τοῦ γενεθλίω. εἰ γὰρ ἐναντίοϲ ἐστίν, οὐ λυσιτελεισει, εἰ τάχα καὶ πρὸϲ ἀγαθὴν ἀφορᾷ ἔκβασιν.
Οὐ δύναταί τισ καταλαβεῖν τὰϲ κράσεις τῶν [ἀστέρπων], εἰ μὴ πρώτερον διαγνῷ τὰϲ διαφορὰϲ καὶ τὰσ κράσεισ τὰϲ φυσικάϲ αὐτῶν.
Ἡ σοφὴ ψυχὴ συνεργεῖ τῇ οὐρανίᾳ ἐνεργείᾳ ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστοϲ γεωργὸϲ συνεργεῖ τῇ φύσει τῆϲ γὴσ δι ἀροτριάσεωσ καὶ ἀνὰκακθάρσεωσ.
Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. καὶ διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται οἱ στοιχειοματικοὶ τούτοισ, τὰϲ ἐπεμβάσεισ τῶν ἀστέρων ^σκοποῦντεσ ἐπ᾽αὐτήν ἐπ’αὐτά.
Χρῶ ἐν ταῖσ ἐπιλογαῖϲ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, τοῖϲ κακοποιοῖσ, ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστοϲ ἰατρὸϲ τοῖσ δηλητηρίοισ πρὸϲ θεραπείαν συμμήτρωσ.

These aphorisms resemble those in a later copy, BL Harley ms. 5597.

The first seven aphorisms from the copy of Ὁ Καρπός in BL Harley ms. 5597.
Comparison of Aphorisms ϛ’ to ι’ in BnF gr. 2180 and BL Harley ms. 5597
Aphorism BnF 2180 Harley ms 5597
ϛ’ Τότε ὠφελεῖ ἡ ἐπιλογὴ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, ὅτε ἐστὶν ὁ καιρὸϲ εὔθητοϲ ἀπὸ τοῦ γενεθλίω. εἰ γὰρ ἐναντίοϲ ἐστίν, οὐ λυσιτελεισει, εἰ τάχα καὶ πρὸϲ ἀγαθὴν ἀφορᾷ ἔκβασιν. Τότε ὠφελεῖ ἡ ἐπιλογὴ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, ὅτε ἐστὶν ὁ καιρὸς εὔθετος ἀπὸ τοῦ γενεθλὶου. εἰ γὰρ ἐναντίος ἐστίν, οὐ λυσιτελήσει, εἰ τάχα καὶ πρὸϲ ἀγαθὴν ἀφορᾷ ἔκβασιν.
ζ’ Οὐ δύναταί τισ καταλαβεῖν τὰϲ κράσεις τῶν [ἀστέρπων], εἰ μὴ πρώτερον διαγνῷ τὰϲ διαφορὰϲ καὶ τὰσ κράσεισ τὰϲ φυσικάϲ αὐτῶν. Οὐ δύναταί τις καταλαβεῖν τὰς κράσεις τῶν ἀστέρπων, εἰ μὴ πρότερον διαγνῷ τὰς διαφορὰς καὶ τὰς κράσεις τὰσ φυσικάς.
η’ Ἡ σοφὴ ψυχὴ συνεργεῖ τῇ οὐρανίᾳ ἐνεργείᾳ ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστοϲ γεωργὸϲ συνεργεῖ τῇ φύσει τῆϲ γὴσ δι ἀροτριάσεωσ καὶ ἀνὰκακθάρσεωσ. Ἡ σοφὴ ψυχὴ συνεργεῖ τῇ οὐρανίᾳ ἐνεργείᾳ ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστος γεωργὸς συνεργεῖ τῇ φύσει τῆς γὴς διὰ τῆς ἀροτριάσεως καὶ ἀνὰκαθάρσεως.
θ’ Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. καὶ διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται οἱ στοιχειοματικοὶ τούτοισ, τὰϲ ἐπεμβάσεισ τῶν ἀστέρων ^σκοποῦντεσ ἐπ᾽αὐτήν ἐπ’αὐτά. Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. καὶ διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται τούτοις οἱ στοιχειωματικοὶ τὰς ἐπεμβάσεις τῶν ἀστέρων σκοποῦντες ἐπ’αὐτήν.
ι’ Χρῶ ἐν ταῖσ ἐπιλογαῖϲ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, τοῖϲ κακοποιοῖσ, ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστοϲ ἰατρὸϲ τοῖσ δηλητηρίοισ πρὸϲ θεραπείαν συμμήτρωσ. Χρῶ ἐν ταῖς ἐπιλογαῖς τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, τοῖς κακοποιοῖσ, ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστος ἰατρὸς τοῖς δηλητηρίοις πρὸς θεραπείαν συμμέτρως.

As promised, here is an initial English translation of aphorisms 6 through 10. Some of these were rather odd and posed some challenges, but here you go:

Translations of Ptolemy’s Aphorisms ϛ’ to ι’
Aphorism Greek English
ϛ’ Τότε ὠφελεῖ ἡ ἐπιλογὴ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, ὅτε ἐστὶν ὁ καιρὸϲ εὔθητοϲ ἀπὸ τοῦ γενεθλίω. εἰ γὰρ ἐναντίοϲ ἐστίν, οὐ λυσιτελεισει, εἰ τάχα καὶ πρὸϲ ἀγαθὴν ἀφορᾷ ἔκβασιν. Then the choice of days and hours is beneficial when the time is properly arranged from the nativity. For if it is opposed, there will be no profit, even if it looks to a good outcome.
ζ’ Οὐ δύναταί τισ καταλαβεῖν τὰϲ κράσεις τῶν [ἀστέρπων], εἰ μὴ πρώτερον διαγνῷ τὰϲ διαφορὰϲ καὶ τὰσ κράσεισ τὰϲ φυσικάϲ αὐτῶν. A person cannot grasp the combinations of the stars, if he has not first discerned their differences and their natural dispositions.
η’ Ἡ σοφὴ ψυχὴ συνεργεῖ τῇ οὐρανίᾳ ἐνεργείᾳ ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστοϲ γεωργὸϲ συνεργεῖ τῇ φύσει τῆϲ γὴσ δι ἀροτριάσεωσ καὶ ἀνὰκακθάρσεωσ. The wise mind assists the heavenly influences, just as the best farmer assists the nature of the earth through plowing and clearing.
θ’ Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. καὶ διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται οἱ στοιχειοματικοὶ τούτοισ, τὰϲ ἐπεμβάσεισ τῶν ἀστέρων ^σκοποῦντεσ ἐπ᾽αὐτήν ἐπ’αὐτά. In their generation and corruption [terrestrial] forms are affected by the celestial forms. And for this reason casters of nativities makers of talismans (?)[1] consult them by examining the ingresses of the stars on them.
ι’ Χρῶ ἐν ταῖσ ἐπιλογαῖϲ τῶν ἡμερῶν καὶ τῶν ὡρῶν, τοῖϲ κακοποιοῖσ, ὥσπερ ὁ ἄριστοϲ ἰατρὸϲ τοῖσ δηλητηρίοισ πρὸϲ θεραπείαν συμμήτρωσ. Use the the malefics in the selection of days and of hours, just as the best physician uses poisons in moderation for cure.

Rather than continue posting every few aphorisms, as I work through Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός I will try to post a group of ten aphorisms every few days until I get to the end. Then I’ll go back and try to polish the translation. Why? Because it’s kinda fun in a totally nerdy way and a great way to avoid real work while doing something that feels more productive and useful than watching cat videos.[2]


  1. In working through these translations I came across an article that has prompted me to change at least for the moment my translation of στοιχειοματικοὶ from “casters of nativities” to “makers of talismans.” For more, see “Στοιχειωματικοί were casters of something.”
     ↩

  2. I don’t watch cat videos. I am not judging people who have or who do, I just don’t enjoy cat videos. But I recognize they represent the quintessential work avoidance time suck. So what I’m trying to say is transcribing and translating Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός is also work avoidance but marginally less useless.  ↩