Uranie, by Camille Flammarion

iii.

To Be or Not to Be — What is the Human Being? — Nature, the Universe.

IT was precisely this phase of his intellectual life that had chiefly attracted Iclea. Happy in living, a flower opening to the light of life, a harp vibrating to all the harmonies of nature, the fair daughter of the North still thought at times, of the elfs and fays of her native land, of the angels and the mysteries of Christianity amid which her infancy had been cradled. But her piety, the blind faith of her youthful days, had not darkened her reason; her thoughts moved unshackled; she earnestly sought for truth, and while she regretted, it may be, that she could no longer believe in the Paradise of the preachers, she yet felt an imperious and ardent desire for continued existence. Death seemed to her a cruel injustice. She could never recall the image of her mother lying cold in death, in all the splendid beauty of her prime, carried in the time of roses, to a green and fragrant cemetery wilere birds sang, her name suddenly blotted from the book of life, while all nature continued to sing, to bloom, to shine. She could never recall, I say, the pale image of her mother without a cold shudder passing through her frame. No, her mother was not dead. She herself would never die, neither in her youthful beauty, nor ever. And he! He to die! This sublime intellect to become extinct through a stoppage of the breathing or the circulation! No, it was impossible. Mankind deceive themselves. One day they will know the truth.

Iclea too, sometimes pondered these problems, regarding them indeed rather under their aesthetic and sentimental than their scientific aspect, but she pondered them. All her questions, all her doubts, the secret aim of her conversation with, perhaps even of her sudden attachment for, her friend, were caused by the ardent desire for knowledge which consumed her soul. She fixed her hopes upon him because she had already found in his writings the solution of the weightiest problems. They had taught her to know the universe, and this knowledge she found more beautiful, more vital, more exalted, more poetic than her former illusions. Since the day on which she had learned from his lips that he had dedicated his life to the search after truth — a search in which he was destined, she was certain, one day to be successful — her intellect was attracted to him perhaps still more strongly than her heart.

They had thus led together for nearly three months a common intellectual life, spending several hours almost every day reading, in the original, works in different languages on the science of philosophy, the atomic theory, molecular physics, organic chemistry, thermo-dynamics, and the various sciences which have for their object a knowledge of being; discussing the apparent or real contradictions in hypotheses they severally presented; finding sometimes, in writings purely literary, surprising divinations of scientific truths, marveling at the prescience of many great authors. These readings, these investigations, these discussions were especially interesting to them because they progressed in knowledge, they were able to appreciate more justly the works of great writers from whose number, however, they soon found that nine-tenths, whose works are absolutely valueless, might be eliminated; and from the remaining tenth, one-half whose writings have only an apparent value. Having thus cleared the rubbish from the field of literature, they confined themselves with a certain satisfaction that was not without a mixture of pride, perhaps, to the narrow circle of superior intellects.

One day Spero came earlier than usual. “Eureka!” he cried. But quickly restraining himself, ”Perhaps,“ he added. Leaning against the chimney-piece wilere a blazing fire glowed, while his companion looked at him with eyes full of curiosity, he began to speak with unconscious solemnity, as if he were holding converse with his own soul in some desert solitude.

“All that you behold is but apparent. The reality is something altogether different.

“The sun seems to revolve around the earth, to rise in the morning and to set in the evening, and the earth on which we are seems to stand still. It is the reverse of this that is true. We dwell upon the surface of a body projected into space, revolving with a velocity seventy-five times greater than that of a cannon ball.

“A harmony of sweet sounds has just charmed your ears. The sound does not exist; it is nothing more than the impression made upon the sense of hearing by the vibrations of the atmosphere throughout a certain space and with a certain velocity, vibrations which themselves emit no sound. Without the auditory nerve and the brain, there could be no sound. In reality there is only motion.

“The rainbow expands its radiant circle, the rose and the corn-flower, wet by the rain, sparkle in the sunshine; the green field, the golden furrow diversify the landscape by their vivid colors. There are no colors, there is no light, there are only undulations in the air that set the optic nerve vibrating. It is all a delusion of the senses. The sun warms and fertilizes, the fire burns — there is no heat, only the sensation of heat; heat, like light, is only a form of motion, invisible motion, but all-potent, supreme.

“Here is a solid iron joist such as are commonly employed in building. It is fixed in the air at a height of thirty feet, on two walls, upon which rest its extremities. It is steadfast in truth. On its center is placed a weight of a thousand, two thousand, three thousand kilogrammes, and this enormous weight does not affect it in the least; hardly is there to be perceived by the level, the slightest flexure. Yet this joist is composed of molecules which do not touch each other, which are in perpetual vibration, and which expand under the influence of heat and contract under the influence of cold. Tell me, if you please, what it is that constitutes the solidity of this bar of iron? The atoms that compose it? Assuredly not, since they do not touch each other. The cause of this solidity is molecular attraction; that is to say, an invisible force.

“To speak with exactness, solidity does not exist. Let us take between our hands a heavy ball of iron; this ball is composed of invisibIe molecules which do not touch each other, which are composed of atoms which do not touch each other either. The continuity which the surface of this ball appears to have and its apparent solidity are then pure illusions. For the scientist who analyzes its structure it is as a cloud of gnats, like those which hover in the air on summer evenings. Again, let us heat this ball, which appears to us solid; it will flow; let us heat it still more, it will evaporate, without, therefore, changing its nature. A liquid or a gas, it will always continue to be iron.

“We are at this moment in a house. All these walls, these floors, these carpets, these articles of furniture, this marble chimney-piece, are composed of molecules which touch each other no more than do those of the iron ball. And all these molecules that constitute matter rotate around each other.

“It is the same thing with our body. It is composed of molecules perpetually rotating. It is a flame incessantly consumed, and incessantly renewing itself. It is a river on whose banks we sit fancying we see the same water flowing past, but of which its current renews each drop perpetually.

“Each globule of our blood is a world (and we have five millions of these to a cubic millemetre). Incessantly, without pause or truce, in our arteries, in our veins, in our flesh, in our brain, the atoms revolve, move, rush into a vortex of life as rapid, relatively, as that of the celestial bodies. Molecule by molecule, our brain, our skull, our eyes, our nerves, our flesh renew themselves without cessation, and so rapidly that in a few months our body is entirely reconstructed. By means of calculations based on molecular attraction, it has been estimated that the minutest possible drop of water held on the point of a pin, a drop invisible to the naked eye, measuring a thousandth of a cubic millemetre, there are more than two hundred and twenty-five millions of molecules.

“In the head of a pin there are no less than eight sextillions of atoms, or eight thousand thousand millions of thousand millions, and those atoms are separated the one from the other by distances considerably greater than their dimensions, these dimensions being, besides, invisible even under the most powerful microscope. If one desired to count the number of atoms contained in the head of a pin, taking from it in thought a thousand thousandth part every second, it would be necessary to continue the operation for fifty-three thousand years in order to finish their enumeration.

“In a drop of water on the head of a pin there are innumerably more atoms than all the stars which astronomers, armed with their most powerful telescopes, are able to discover in the sky.

“What is it, then, that sustains the earth, the sun and the stars of the universe in infinite space? What sustains this long bar of iron, which is to support the weight of a house, on two walls? What gives to every body its form? The attraction of gravitation.

“The universe, material and spiritual, all that we behold, is formed of invisible and imponderable atoms. The Universe is a manifestation of force. God is the soul of the Universe; in eo vivimus, movemus et summus.

“As the soul is the power that moves the body, so is the Infinite Being the power that moves the Universe. The theory of the purely material nature of the universe is untenable by the scientist who carries his investigations beyond the appearances of things. Human will is weak, it is true, compared to the cosmic forces. Yet, in sending a train from Paris to Marseilles, a ship from Marseilles to Suez, I displace by my will an infinitesimal part of the terrestrial mass, and I modify the course of the moon. Blind children of the nineteenth century, let us return to the words of the Swan of Mantua: Mens agitat molem.

“If I analyze matter I find everywhere the invisible atom; matter disappears like smoke in the atmosphere. If my eyes had power to see the reality of things, they would look through walls formed of separate molecules, through solid bodies, atomic vortexes. Our bodily eyes behold only that which is. It is with the eye of the spirit that we must see. Let us not trust to the sole testimony of our senses. There are as many stars above our head in the daytime as there are at night.

“There is in nature neither astronomy nor physics, nor chemistry nor mechanics; these are all only subjective methods of observation. All things are one. The infinitely great is identical with the infinitely little. Space is infinite without being large. Duration is eternal without being long. Stars and atoms are one.

“The Universe is made one by an invisible, imponderable, immateral force which puts its atoms in motion. If one single atom should cease to be moved by this force, the universe would come to a stop. The earth revolves around the sun. The sun gravitates around a sidereal fire in motion like himself. The millions, the myriads of suns which people the universe, move with greater velocity than a ball fired from a cannon. Those stars that seem to us motionless are suns projected into infinite space with a velocity of ten, twenty, thirty millions of kilometres per day, all moving toward an unknown goal — suns, planets, earths, satellites, wandering comets. The fixed point, the center of gravity sought for by the physicist, flees from him as he pursues it, and exists, in reality, nowhere. The constituent atoms of bodies move relatively with as much velocity as the stars in the heavens. Motion reigns everywhere, forms everything.

The atom itself is not inert matter. It is a center of force. The essential part of man, that which gives him his organization, is not his material part; it is neither the protoplasm nor the cell, nor those marvelous and fecund unions of carbon with hydrogen, of oxygen and azote; it is vital, invisible, immaterial Force. This it is that groups, directs and keeps together the innumerable molecules which compose the admirable harmony of the living body.

“Matter and force have never been found separated the one from the other. They are, it may be, identical. That the body should disintegrate all at once after death, as it disintegrates slowly, renewing itself perpetually during life, matters little. The soul remains. The psychic atom, the principle of organization, is the center of this force. This, too, is indestructible. That which we see is an illusion. The rest is the invisible.”

He walked up and down the room with rapid steps. The young girl listened to him as the disciple listens to his master, a well-beloved master, and although his words were for her only, he did not seem to take note of her presence, so silent and motionless had she remained. She drew near to him, and took his hand between both her own. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “if you have not yet grasped the truth, it will not long escape you.”

Then, with growing enthusiasm: “You believe,” she added, alluding to a doubt to which he had often given expression, “that it is impossible for the terrestrial being to attain to a complete knowledge of the truth, because he has only five senses, and a multitude of the phenomena of nature remain unknown to his mind, having no means by which to reach it. Just as we should be unable to see, if deprived of the optic nerve; to hear, if deprived of the auditory nerve, so would the vibration, the manifestations of force, which found no chord responsive to their vibration in the instrument of our organism, remain unknown to us.

“I conceive, and I am willing to grant, that the inhabitants of other worlds may be immeasurably more advanced than we are. But it seems to me that, although you belong to earth, you have found the truth.”

“Beloved friend,” he replied, seating himself beside her on the large sofa in the library, “it is very true that our terrestrial harp is wanting in chords, and it is very probable that an inhabitant of the system of Sirius would ridicule our pretensions to knowledge. The smallest magnet can more easily than Newton or Leibnitz discover the magnetic pole; and the swallow has more knowledge of the varieties of latitude than Christopher Columbus or Magellan had. What did I say a moment ago? That appearances are an illusion, and that the mind should be able to descry, through matter, the invisible force that animates it. Matter is not what it appears, and no one who is aware of the progress made in the exact sciences of today can pretend to be a materialist.”

“Then,” she rejoined, “the psychic atom of the brain, the principle of the human organism, would be immortal, like atoms everywhere, if we were to admit the fundamental axioms of chemistry. But it would differ from the others, in being superior to them, the soul being attached to it. But would it still be conscious of its existence? Can the soul partake of the nature of electricity? I once saw a flash of lightning pass through a room, putting out the lights. When they were relighted it was found that the gilding had disappeared from the clock and that the chased silver candlestick was gilded in several places. There you have a subtle force.

“Let us not reason by analogies; we should never arrive at the truth in that way. We all know that we shall die; but we do not believe it. How would it be possible for us to believe it? How could we comprehend what death, which is but a change of state from the known to the unknown, from the visible to the invisible, means? That the soul exists as force, we do not doubt, that it is one with the cerebral atom, the principle of organization, we may admit. That it thus survives the dissolution of the body, we conceive.”

“But what becomes of it? Whither does it go?”

“The greater number of souls are not even conscious of their own existence. Of the fourteen hundred millions of human beings who people our planet, ninety-nine hundredths do not think. What use, in Heaven’s name, should they make of immortality? As the molecule of iron floats without being conscious of it, in the blood which throbs beneath the brow of a Lamartine or a Victor Hugo, or remains for a time attached to the sword of a Cæsar, as a molecule of hydrogen shines in the gaslight of the foyer of the opera, or sinks in the drop of water swallowed by the fish, into the dark abysses of the sea, so do the living atoms which have never thought, slumber.

“To the souls which think belongs the gift of intellectual life. They are the guardians of the inheritance of humanity and augment it for the ages which are yet to come. Were it not that the human souls which are conscious of their existence and live by the spirit are immortal, the whole history of the earth would end in nothing, and the entire creation, that of the greatest worlds, as well as of our own insignificant planet, would be a specious absurdity, more vile and senseless than the meanest worm that crawls. This has a raison d’être, and the universe would have none! Can you picture to yourself myriads of worlds attaining to the utmost splendor of life and thought, succeeding each other endlessly in the history of the sidereal universe, for no other end than to give birth to hopes perpetually deceived, to grandeurs perpetually destroyed? It is in vain that we would humble ourselves; we cannot admit annihilation as the supreme end of progress, proved such by the whole history of nature. Souls are the seed of the planetary populations.”

“Can souls, then, transport themselves from one planet to another?”

“Nothing is so difficult to comprehend as that which we are ignorant of; nothing is simpler than what we know. Who wonders today at seeing the telegraphic wires transmit human thought instantaneously across continents and oceans? Who wonders at seeing light transmitted from one star to another with a velocity of three hundred thousand kilometres a second? Besides, only philosophers would be able to appreciate these marvels; the vulgar herd is surprised at nothing. If, by means of some new discovery, we were able tomorrow to send messages to the inhabitants of Mars, and to receive answers in return, three-fourths of mankind would have ceased to wonder at it the day after.

“Yes, living principles of force can transport themselves from one world to another, not always and not everywhere, assuredly not, nor all of them. There are laws and conditions to be observed. My will, by the aid of my muscles, has power to move my arm to throw a stone; if I take in my hand a weight of twenty kilogrammes it still has power to move my arm; but if I try to raise a weight of a thousand kilogrammes, it can no longer do so. Certain spirits are incapable of any species of activity whatsoever; others have attained to transcendent powers. Mozart, at six years of age, made all who heard him feel the spell of his musical genius, and published, at eighteen, his two first works of sonnets, while the greatest dramatist who has ever lived, Shakespeare, had written nothing worthy of his name before thirty. We must not think the soul belongs to some supernatural world. There is nothing that is not in nature. It is scarcely more than a hundred thousand years since terrestrial humanity emerged from its chrysalis state of being. During millions of years, during the primary, secondary and tertiary periods, there was not upon the Earth a single mind to appreciate the glorious spectacles it offered, a single human glance to note them. The progress of evolution gradually developed from plants and animals, souls of an inferior grade; man is of recent date upon the planet. Nature is an unceasing progress; the Universe is a perpetual becoming, a never-ending ascent.”

“All the worlds,” he added, “are not at present inhabited. Some are in the dawn, others in the twilight of their existence. In our solar system, for instance, Mars, Venus, Saturn, and several of the satellites, are in the full activity of life. Jupiter appears to have passed his primary period; the moon is perhaps no longer inhabited. The present epoch of our history possesses no greater importance in the general history of the universe than does our anthill in the infinity of space. Before the earth existed there had been, from all eternity, worlds peopled by human beings; when our earth shall have yielded up her latest sigh, and the last human family shall have fallen asleep in the last sleep, on the borders of the remotest lake of the frozen ocean, suns without number shall still shine in infinite space, still shall there be mornings and evenings, spring time and flowers, hopes and joys. New suns, new earths, new human beings. Boundless space is peopled by tombs and cradles. But life, thought, eternal progress are the final end of creation.

“The Earth is a satellite of a star. Now, as in the future, we are inhabitants of the skies. Whether we know it or whether we are ignorant of it, we live, in reality, among the stars.”

Thus did the two friends hold converse on the mighty problems which occupied their thoughts. When they arrived at a solution, even an incomplete one, of one of these, they experienced a genuine happiness in having made one step forward in the search into the unknown, and they were able to converse with more tranquility afterward, on the ordinary matters of life. They were two intellects equally eager for knowledge, thinking, with the fervor of youth, that they could isolate themselves from the world, conquer human feelings and reach, soaring into celestial heights, the star of Truth which shone above their heads, in the altitudes of space.

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