Higher Ground


Higher Ground

What clinicians should know about the "vertical dimension"

By Jonathan Haidt

January/February 2006


Our life is the creation of our minds, and we do much of that creating with metaphor. We see new things in terms of things we already understand: life is a journey, an argument is a war, personal growth is flowering. With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.

The metaphor that has most helped me to understand morality, religion, and the human quest for meaning is Flatland, a charming book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edwin Abbot. Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are all geometric figures. The protagonist is a square. One day the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plane—in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then re-entering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square doesn't get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness, in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where "up" does not mean from the North. The…

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