Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

HEAVEN OF THE ANCIENTS.

Were a silkworm to denominate the small quantity of downy substance surrounding its ball, heaven, it would reason just as correctly as all the ancients, when they applied that term to the atmosphere; which, as M. de Fontenelle has well observed in his “Plurality of Worlds,” is the down of our ball.

The vapors which rise from our seas and land, and which form the clouds, meteors, and thunder, were supposed, in the early ages of the world, to be the residence of gods. Homer always makes the gods descend in clouds of gold; and hence painters still represent them seated on a cloud. How can any one be seated on water? It was perfectly correct to place the master of the gods more at ease than the rest; he had an eagle to carry him, because the eagle soars higher than the other birds.

The ancient Greeks, observing that the lords of cities resided in citadels on the tops of mountains, supposed that the gods might also have their citadel, and placed it in Thessaly, on Mount Olympus, whose summit is sometimes hidden in clouds; so that their palace was on the same floor with their heaven.

Afterwards, the stars and planets, which appear fixed to the blue vault of our atmosphere, became the abodes of gods; seven of them had each a planet, and the rest found a lodging where they could. The general council of gods was held in a spacious hall which lay beyond the Milky Way; for it was but reasonable that the gods should have a hall in the air, as men had town-halls and courts of assembly upon earth.

When the Titans, a species of animal between gods and men, declared their just and necessary war against these same gods in order to recover a part of their patrimony, by the father’s side, as they were the sons of heaven and earth; they contented themselves with piling two or three mountains upon one another, thinking that would be quite enough to make them masters of heaven, and of the castle of Olympus.

Neve foret terris securior arduus æther,

Affectasse ferunt regnum celeste gigantes;

Altaque congestos struxisse ad sidera montes.

— Ovid’s Metamorph., i. 151-153.

Nor heaven itself was more secure than earth;

Against the gods the Titans levied wars,

And piled up mountains till they reached the stars.

It is, however, more than six hundred leagues from these stars to Mount Olympus, and from some stars infinitely farther.

Virgil (Eclogue v, 57) does not hesitate to say: “Sub pedibusque videt nubes et sidera Daphnis.”

Daphnis, the guest of heaven, with wondering eyes,

Views in the Milky Way, the Starry skies,

And far beneath him, from the shining sphere

Beholds the morning clouds, and rolling year.

— Dryden.

But where then could Daphnis possibly place himself?

At the opera, and in more serious productions, the gods are introduced descending in the midst of tempests, clouds, and thunder; that is, God is brought forward in the midst of the vapors of our petty globe. These notions are so suitable to our weak minds, that they appear to us grand and sublime.

This philosophy of children and old women was of prodigious antiquity; it is believed, however, that the Chaldæans entertained nearly as correct ideas as ourselves on the subject of what is called heaven. They placed the sun in the midst of our planetary system, nearly at the same distance from our globe as our calculation computes it; and they supposed the earth and some planets to revolve round that star; this we learn from Aristarchus of Samos. It is nearly the system of the world since established by Copernicus: but the philosophers kept the secret to themselves, in order to obtain greater respect both from kings and people, or rather perhaps, to avoid the danger of persecution.

The language of error is so familiar to mankind that we still apply the name of heaven to our vapors, and the space between the earth and moon. We use the expression of ascending to heaven, just as we say the sun turns round, although we well know that it does not. We are, probably, the heaven of the inhabitants of the moon; and every planet places its heaven in that planet nearest to itself.

Had Homer been asked, to what heaven the soul of Sarpedon had fled, or where that of Hercules resided, Homer would have been a good deal embarrassed, and would have answered by some harmonious verses.

What assurance could there be, that the ethereal soul of Hercules would be more at its ease in the planet Venus or in Saturn, than upon our own globe? Could its mansion be in the sun? In that flaming and consuming furnace, it would appear difficult for it to endure its station. In short, what was it that the ancients meant by heaven? They knew nothing about it; they were always exclaiming, “Heaven and earth,” thus placing completely different things in most absurd connection. It would be just as judicious to exclaim, and connect in the same manner, infinity and an atom. Properly speaking, there is no heaven. There are a prodigious number of globes revolving in the immensity of space, and our globe revolves like the rest.

The ancients thought that to go to heaven was to ascend; but there is no ascent from one globe to another. The heavenly bodies are sometimes above our horizon, and sometimes below it. Thus, let us suppose that Venus, after visiting Paphos, should return to her own planet, when that planet had set; the goddess would not in that case ascend, in reference to our horizon; she would descend, and the proper expression would be then, descended to heaven. But the ancients did not discriminate with such nicety; on every subject of natural philosophy, their notions were vague, uncertain and contradictory. Volumes have been composed in order to ascertain and point out what they thought upon many questions of this description. Six words would have been sufficient —“they did not think at all.” We must always except a small number of sages; but they appeared at too late a period, and but rarely disclosed their thoughts; and when they did so, the charlatans in power took care to send them to heaven by the shortest way.

A writer, if I am not mistaken, of the name of Pluche, has been recently exhibiting Moses as a great natural philosopher; another had previously harmonized Moses with Descartes, and published a book, which he called, “Cartesius Mosaisans”; according to him, Moses was the real inventor of “Vortices,” and the subtile matter; but we full well know, that when God made Moses a great legislator and prophet, it was no part of His scheme to make him also a professor of physics. Moses instructed the Jews in their duty, and did not teach them a single word of philosophy. Calmet, who compiled a great deal, but never reasoned at all, talks of the system of the Hebrews; but that stupid people never had any system. They had not even a school of geometry; the very name was utterly unknown to them. The whole of their science was comprised in money-changing and usury.

We find in their books ideas on the structure of heaven, confused, incoherent, and in every respect worthy of a people immersed in barbarism. Their first heaven was the air, the second the firmament in which the stars were fixed. This firmament was solid and made of glass, and supported the superior waters which issued from the vast reservoirs by flood-gates, sluices, and cataracts, at the time of the deluge.

Above the firmament or these superior waters was the third heaven, or the empyream, to which St. Paul was caught up. The firmament was a sort of demi-vault which came close down to the earth.

It is clear that, according to this opinion, there could be no antipodes. Accordingly, St. Augustine treats the idea of antipodes as an absurdity; and Lactantius, whom we have already quoted, expressly says “can there possibly be any persons so simple as to believe that there are men whose heads are lower than their feet?” etc.

St. Chrysostom exclaims, in his fourteenth homily, “Where are they who pretend that the heavens are movable, and that their form is circular?”

Lactantius, once more, says, in the third book of his “Institutions,” “I could prove to you by many arguments that it is impossible heaven should surround the earth.”

The author of the “Spectacle of Nature” may repeat to M. le Chevalier as often as he pleases, that Lactantius and St. Chrysostom are great philosophers. He will be told in reply that they were great saints; and that to be a great saint, it is not at all necessary to be a great astronomer. It will be believed that they are in heaven, although it will be admitted to be impossible to say precisely in what part of it.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25