Micromégas, by Voltaire

Chapter II.

Conversation between the inhabitant of Sirius and that of Saturn.

After his excellency laid himself down to rest the secretary approached him.

“You have to admit,” said Micromegas, “that nature is extremely varied.”

“Yes,” said the Saturnian, “nature is like a flower bed wherein the flowers —”

“Ugh!” said the other, “leave off with flower beds.”

The secretary began again. “Nature is like an assembly of blonde and brown-haired girls whose jewels —”

“What am I supposed to do with your brown-haired girls?” said the other.

“Then she is like a gallery of paintings whose features —”

“Certainly not!” said the voyager. “I say again that nature is like nature. Why bother looking for comparisons?”

“To please you,” replied the Secretary.

“I do not want to be pleased,” answered the voyager. “I want to be taught. Tell me how many senses the men of your planet have.”

“We only have 72,” said the academic, “and we always complain about it. Our imagination surpasses our needs. We find that with our 72 senses, our ring, our five moons, we are too restricted; and in spite of all our curiosity and the fairly large number of passions that result from our 72 senses, we have plenty of time to get bored.”

“I believe it,” said Micromegas, “for on our planet we have almost 1,000 senses; and yet we still have a kind of vague feeling, a sort of worry, that warns us that there are even more perfect beings. I have traveled a bit; and I have seen mortals that surpass us, some far superior. But I have not seen any that desire only what they truly need, and who need only what they indulge in. Maybe someday I will happen upon a country that lacks nothing; but so far no one has given me any word of a place like that.”

The Saturnian and the Sirian proceeded to wear themselves out in speculating; but after a lot of very ingenious and very dubious reasoning, it was necessary to return to the facts.

“How long do you live?” said the Sirian.

“Oh! For a very short time,” replied the small man from Saturn.

“Same with us,” said the Sirian. “we always complain about it. It must be a universal law of nature.”

“Alas! We only live through 500 revolutions around the sun,” said the Saturnian. (This translates to about 15,000 years, by our standards.) “You can see yourself that this is to die almost at the moment one is born; our existence is a point, our lifespan an instant, our planet an atom. Hardly do we begin to learn a little when death arrives, before we get any experience. As for me, I do not dare make any plans. I see myself as a drop of water in an immense ocean. I am ashamed, most of all before you, of how ridiculously I figure in this world.”

Micromegas replied, “If you were not a philosopher, I would fear burdening you by telling you that our lifespan is 700 times longer than yours; but you know very well when it is necessary to return your body to the elements, and reanimate nature in another form, which we call death. When this moment of metamorphosis comes, to have lived an eternity or to have lived a day amounts to precisely the same thing. I have been to countries where they live a thousand times longer than we do, and they also die. But people everywhere have the good sense to know their role and to thank the Author of nature. He has scattered across this universe a profusion of varieties with a kind of admirable uniformity. For example, all the thinking beings are different, and all resemble one another in the gift of thought and desire. Matter is extended everywhere, but has different properties on each planet. How many diverse properties do you count in yours?”

“If you mean those properties,” said the Saturnian, “without which we believe that the planet could not subsist as it is, we count 300 of them, like extension, impenetrability, mobility, gravity, divisibility, and the rest.”

“Apparently,” replied the voyager, “this small number suffices for what the Creator had in store for your dwelling. I admire his wisdom in everything; I see differences everywhere, but also proportion. Your planet is small, your inhabitants are as well. You have few sensations; your matter has few properties; all this is the work of Providence. What color is your sun upon examination?”

“A very yellowish white,” said the Saturnian. “And when we divide one of its rays, we find that it contains seven colors.”

“Our sun strains at red,” said the Sirian, “and we have 39 primary colors. There is no one sun, among those that I have gotten close to that resembles it, just as there is no one face among you that is identical to the others.”

After numerous questions of this nature, he learned how many essentially different substances are found on Saturn. He learned that there were only about thirty, like God, space, matter, the beings with extension that sense, the beings with extension that sense and think, the thinking beings that have no extension; those that are penetrable, those that are not, and the rest. The Sirian, whose home contained 300 and who had discovered 3,000 of them in his voyages, prodigiously surprised the philosopher of Saturn. Finally, after having told each other a little of what they knew and a lot of what they did not know, after having reasoned over the course of a revolution around the sun, they resolved to go on a small philosophical voyage together.

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