My question about this answer was tangential, but I'm very curious to know where the idea comes from that people believed in a flat Earth. For example, were there Greek philosophers that held this view, and made arguments for it? Or is this an idea that began showing up later, as in, "oh, yeah, people used to believe that"?

  • Are you asking whether the concept of a flat earth was based on research or assumptions? And if it was research, if there is any source still available?
    – Joachim
    Jul 14, 2019 at 20:02
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    Some of these sources can be found through the Wikipedia page.
    – Joachim
    Jul 14, 2019 at 20:09
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    @DavidBlomstrom Bringing us back to OP question...
    – christo183
    Jul 15, 2019 at 15:24
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    It's interesting that nobody has answered the question by quoting any philosophical documents. I alse wonder how many humans ever believed in a flat Earth, outside of a Terry Pratchett novel. It's not an idea that makes even the slightest sense and even a few thousand years ago humans beings were quite clever.
    – user20253
    Jul 16, 2019 at 17:29

3 Answers 3


Many ancient models of cosmology had a flat earth, but not in the sort of uninformed way that people imagine when they say things like, "Well, they used to think the Earth was flat!" Well, yes and no. From the earliest Greek cosmology that I know of, the shape of the earth was a topic of debate and one that great thinkers understood was an open question. Anaximander famously held a flat earth, but, again, his model was extremely sophisticated and modeled the Earth after a cylinder to accommodate a plethora of other keen observations. His model can also be extended to a spherical earth without significant loss. Even though Anaximander held a flat earth (of a sort), his model was a radical breakthrough for cosmology, since it explained how the Earth could remain steady without needing to rest on anything below it (like a turtle). It's hard to overstate how profound an effect this has on the picture of the universe that we have today, perhaps more significant than a spherical earth. Features such as this would pave the way for overcoming the great limitation of Aristotle's physics, which was that his physical laws were not uniform in all parts of the universe. Moreover, there is evidence that Plato, in the Phaedo, held the earth to be spherical in response to Anaximander's model. In short, ancients did not simply assume the earth was flat because it looked flat, but understood this as an important question that needed to be settled by scientific means. Their thoughts on the topic were informed---as ours are---by the best science of their day.

There is a great deal more to be said, but even from this small and insufficient survey I think you can get a general answer to your question. There's a lot of information out there on the cosmology of pre-Socratic philosophers. These models were being created by thinkers on busy port cities where ideas flowed as freely as material goods, many of whom themselves traveled abroad. In particular they were quite influenced by ideas coming from Egypt (they liked Egyptian ideas as much as their textiles). I'm not sure whether Egyptian cosmologies had a flat earth or not.


The flat earth movement is very recent: it started in the 1840s, around the same time Kierkegaard was writing his Postscript, when an amateur cosmologist named Samuel Rowbotham, writing under the pen name “Parallax,” began self-publishing anguished screeds on the Satanic science of astrology and the evil deception of a globular earth.

From Village Atheists, Village Idiots, by Sam Kriss. Brilliant and insightful essay, well worth your time to read, on the folly of those who so loudly proclaim that the earth is round. As Kierkegaard observed, this is no evidence of sanity.

Soren Kierkegaard, the great enemy of all pedants, offers a story that might shed considerable light. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he describes a psychiatric patient who escapes from the asylum, climbing out a window and running through the gardens to rejoin the world at large. But the madman worries: out in the world, if anyone discovers that he is insane, he will instantly be sent back. So he has to watch what he says, and make sure none of it betrays his inner imbalance—in short, as the not-altogether unmad Danish genius put it, to “convince everyone by the objective truth of what he says that all is in order as far as his sanity is concerned.” Finding a skittle-bowl on the ground and popping it in his pocket, he has an ingenious idea: who could possibly deny that the world is round? So he goes into town and starts endlessly repeating that fact, proffering it over and over again as he wanders about with his small furious paces, the skittle-bowl in his coat clanking, in strict conformity with Newton’s laws, against what Kierkegaard euphemistically refers to as his “a–.” Of course, the poor insistent soul is then sent right back to the asylum.


Samuel Birley Rowbotham (/ˈroʊbɒtəm/;[1] 1816 – 23 December 1884, in London) was an English inventor and writer who wrote Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe under the pseudonym Parallax. His work was originally published as a 16-page pamphlet (1849), and later expanded into a book (1865). He dropped out of school at the age of 9.

Rowbotham's method, which he called zetetic astronomy, models the Earth as an enclosed plane centered at the North Pole and bounded along its perimeter by a wall of ice, with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars moving only several hundred miles above the surface of Earth.


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    This isn't accurate - belief in a flat earth goes back way further than that. For example, Anaximander. Also re: "the folly of those who so loudly proclaim that the earth is round," what? How is that relevant to the question? Jul 14, 2019 at 21:33
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    Directly from the question: "For example, were there Greek philosophers that held this view, and made arguments for it?" The question isn't asking about the specific history of its modern formation, and I've downvoted because this doesn't actually address the question well. And as to Kriss' essay, in the interests of politeness I'm going to limit myself to saying that we're going to have to disagree about it's quality. Jul 14, 2019 at 21:41
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    Also from the question: "I'm very curious to know where the idea comes from that people believed in a flat Earth" (emphasis mine). That is, not the origin of the idea in current times, but the origin of the notion that this was an idea held in the past (and whether that notion is accurate). Jul 14, 2019 at 21:42
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    For all intents and purposes, the earth appears flat from the perspective of a human (just as the sun appears to rise and set). There is no reason to believe it would be other than flat without the application of some fairly sophisticated geometry and astronomy, and in fact the idea of a spherical earth seems not to have gained traction in the West until somewhere between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC. The modern 'flat earth' movement is unrelated: a fairly petulant reaction to modern scientific hegemony. Jul 14, 2019 at 22:47
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    I think it was Paul Valery who called the 20th century as the century of fact. And that's a strong pejorative: the synonymization of truth with fact. "Alternative facts" follows next 😉
    – Rushi
    Jul 21, 2019 at 5:38

All documents are technically historical documents, and people still believe the Earth is flat, based on documents that exist today. There's even a whole wiki: https://wiki.tfes.org/Flat_Earth_-_Frequently_Asked_Questions

As for the origin of Flat Earth Theory, no one can truly know, and it in fact may have sprouted from multiple different locations. It makes sense empirically. You see a flat stretch of land, you think the land is flat until you have better evidence that it isn't.

  • "All documents are technically historical documents..." That's a fact! :) Jul 15, 2019 at 0:54

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