Micromégas, by Voltaire

Chapter VI.

What happened to them among men.

Micromegas, a much better observer than his dwarf, clearly saw that the atoms were speaking to each other, and pointed this out to his companion, who, ashamed of being mistaken about them reproducing, did not want to believe that such a species could communicate. He had the gift of language as well as the Sirian. He could not hear the atoms talk, and he supposed that they did not speak. Moreover, how could these impossibly small beings have vocal organs, and what would they have to say? To speak, one must think, more or less; but if they think, they must therefore have the equivalent of a soul. But to attribute the equivalent of a soul to this species seemed absurd to him.

“But,” said the Sirian, “you believed right away that they made love. Do you believe that one can make love without thinking and without uttering one word, or at least without making oneself heard? Do you suppose as well that it is more difficult to produce an argument than an infant? Both appear to be great mysteries to me.”

“I do not dare believe or deny it,” said the dwarf. “I have no more opinions. We must try to examine these insects and reason after.”

“That is very well said,” echoed Micromegas, and he briskly took out a pair of scissors with which he cut his fingernails, and from the parings of his thumbnail he improvised a kind of speaking-trumpet, like a vast funnel, and put the end up to his ear. The circumference of the funnel enveloped the vessel and the entire crew. The weakest voice entered into the circular fibers of the nails in such a way that, thanks to his industriousness, the philosopher above could hear the drone of our insects below perfectly. In a small number of hours he was able to distinguish words, and finally to understand French. The dwarf managed to do the same, though with more difficulty. The voyagers’ surprise redoubled each second. They heard the mites speak fairly intelligently. This performance of nature’s seemed inexplicable to them. You may well believe that the Sirian and the dwarf burned with impatience to converse with the atoms. The dwarf feared that his thunderous voice, and assuredly Micromegas, would deafen the mites without being understood. They had to diminish its force. They placed toothpicks in their mouths, whose tapered ends fell around the ship. The Sirian put the dwarf on his knees and the ship with its crew on a fingernail. He lowered his head and spoke softly. Finally, relying on these precautions and many others, he began his speech like so:

“Invisible insects, that the hand of the Creator has caused to spring up in the abyss of the infinitely small, I thank him for allowing me to uncover these seemingly impenetrable secrets. Perhaps those at my court would not deign to give you audience, but I mistrust no one, and I offer you my protection.”

If anyone has ever been surprised, it was the people who heard these words. They could not figure out where they were coming from. The chaplain of the vessel recited the exorcism prayers, the sailors swore, and the philosophers of the vessel constructed systems; but no matter what systems they came up with, they could not figure out who was talking. The dwarf from Saturn, who had a softer voice than Micromegas, told them in a few words what species they were dealing with. He told them about the voyage from Saturn, brought them up to speed on what Mr. Micromegas was, and after lamenting how small they were, asked them if they had always been in this miserable state so near nothingness, what they were doing on a globe that appeared to belong to whales, whether they were happy, if they reproduced, if they had a soul, and a hundred other questions of this nature.

A reasoner among the troop, more daring than the others, and shocked that someone might doubt his soul, observed the interlocutor with sight-vanes pointed at a quarter circle from two different stations, and at the third spoke thusly: “You believe then, Sir, that because you are a thousand fathoms tall from head to toe, that you are a —”

“A thousand fathoms!” cried the dwarf. “Good heavens! How could he know my height? A thousand fathoms! You cannot mistake him for a flea. This atom just measured me! He is a surveyor, he knows my size; and I, who can only see him through a microscope, I still do not know his!”

“Yes, I measured you,” said the physician, “and I will measure your large companion as well.” The proposition was accepted, his excellency laid down flat; for were he to stay upright his head would have been among the clouds. Our philosophers planted a great shaft on him, in a place that doctor Swift would have named, but that I will restrain myself from calling by its name, out of respect for the ladies. Next, by a series of triangles linked together, they concluded that what they saw was in effect a young man of 120,000 feet16.

So Micromegas delivered these words: “I see more than ever that one must not judge anything by its apparent size. Oh God! you who have given intelligence to substance that appears contemptible. The infinitely small costs you as little as the infinitely large; and if it is possible that there are such small beings as these, there may just as well be a spirit bigger than those of the superb animals that I have seen in the heavens, whose feet alone would cover this planet.”

One of the philosophers responded that he could certainly imagine that there are intelligent beings much smaller than man. He recounted, not every fabulous thing Virgil says about bees, but what Swammerdam discovered, and what Réaumur has anatomized. He explained finally that there are animals that are to bees what bees are to man, what the Sirian himself was for the vast animals he had spoken of, and what these large animals are to other substances before which they looked like atoms. Little by little the conversation became interesting, and Micromegas spoke thusly:

16The edition I believe to be original reads, “a beautiful young . . . of 120,000 feet.” B.

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