Micromégas, by Voltaire

Chapter VII.

Conversation with the men.

“Oh intelligent atoms, in which the Eternal Being desired to make manifest his skill and his power, you must, no doubt, taste pure joys on your planet; for having so little matter, and appearing to be entirely spirit, you must live out your life thinking and loving, the veritable life of the mind. Nowhere have I seen true bliss, but it is here, without a doubt.”

At this all the philosophers shook their heads, and one of them, more frank than the others, avowed that if one excepts a small number of inhabitants held in poor regard, all the rest are an assembly of mad, vicious, and wretched people. “We have more substance than is necessary,” he said, “to do evil, if evil comes from substance; and too much spirit, if evil comes from spirit. Did you know, for example, that as I am speaking with you17, there are 100,000 madmen of our species wearing hats, killing 100,000 other animals wearing turbans, or being massacred by them, and that we have used almost surface of the Earth for this purpose since time immemorial?”

The Sirian shuddered, and asked the reason for these horrible quarrels between such puny animals.

“It is a matter,” said the philosopher, “of some piles of mud as big as your heel18. It is not that any of these millions of men that slit each other’s throats care about this pile of mud. It is only a matter of determining if it should belong to a certain man who we call ‘Sultan,’ or to another who we call, for whatever reason, ‘Czar.’ Neither one has ever seen nor will ever see the little piece of Earth, and almost none of these animals that mutually kill themselves have ever seen the animal for which they kill.”

“Oh! Cruel fate!” cried the Sirian with indignation, “who could conceive of this excess of maniacal rage! It makes me want to take three steps and crush this whole anthill of ridiculous assassins.”

“Do not waste your time,” someone responded, “they are working towards ruin quickly enough. Know that after ten years only one hundredth of these scoundrels will be here. Know that even if they have not drawn swords, hunger, fatigue, or intemperance will overtake them. Furthermore, it is not they that should be punished, it is those sedentary barbarians who from the depths of their offices order, while they are digesting their last meal, the massacre of a million men, and who subsequently give solemn thanks to God.”

The voyager was moved with pity for the small human race, where he was discovering such surprising contrasts.

“Since you are amongst the small number of wise men,” he told these sirs, “and since apparently you do not kill anyone for money, tell me, I beg of you, what occupies your time.”

“We dissect flies,” said the philosopher, “we measure lines, we gather figures; we agree with each other on two or three points that we do not understand.”

It suddenly took the Sirian and the Saturnian’s fancy to question these thinking atoms, to learn what it was they agreed on.

“What do you measure,” said the Saturnian, “from the Dog Star to the great star of the Gemini?”

They responded all at once, “thirty-two and a half degrees.”

“What do you measure from here to the moon?”

“60 radii of the Earth even.”

“How much does your air weigh?”

He thought he had caught them19, but they all told him that air weighed around 900 times less than an identical volume of the purest water, and 19,000 times less than a gold ducat. The little dwarf from Saturn, surprised at their responses, was tempted to accuse of witchcraft the same people he had refused a soul fifteen minutes earlier.

Finally Micromegas said to them, “Since you know what is exterior to you so well, you must know what is interior even better. Tell me what your soul is, and how you form ideas.” The philosophers spoke all at once as before, but they were of different views. The oldest cited Aristotle, another pronounced the name of Descartes; this one here, Malebranche; another Leibnitz; another Locke. An old peripatetic spoke up with confidence: “The soul is an entelechy, and a reason gives it the power to be what it is.” This is what Aristotle expressly declares, page 633 of the Louvre edition. He cited the passage20.

This passage of Aristotle, On the Soul, book II, chapter II, is translated thusly by Casaubon: Anima quaedam perfectio et actus ac ratio est quod potentiam habet ut ejusmodi sit. B.

“I do not understand Greek very well,” said the giant.

“Neither do I,” said the philosophical mite.

“Why then,” the Sirian retorted, “are you citing some man named Aristotle in the Greek?”

“Because,” replied the savant, “one should always cite what one does not understand at all in the language one understands the least.”

The Cartesian took the floor and said: “The soul is a pure spirit that has received in the belly of its mother all metaphysical ideas, and which, leaving that place, is obliged to go to school, and to learn all over again what it already knew, and will not know again.”

“It is not worth the trouble,” responded the animal with the height of eight leagues, “for your soul to be so knowledgeable in its mother’s stomach, only to be so ignorant when you have hair on your chin. But what do you understand by the mind?”

“You are asking me?” said the reasoner. “I have no idea. We say that it is not matter —”

“But do you at least know what matter is?”

“Certainly,” replied the man. “For example this stone is grey, has such and such a form, has three dimensions, is heavy and divisible.”

“Well!” said the Sirian, “this thing that appears to you to be divisible, heavy, and grey, will you tell me what it is? You see some attributes, but behind those, are you familiar with that?

“No,” said the other.

“— So you do not know what matter is.”

So Micromegas, addressing another sage that he held on a thumb, asked what his soul was, and what it did.

“Nothing at all,” said the Malebranchist philosopher21. “God does everything for me. I see everything in him, I do everything in him; it is he who does everything that I get mixed up in.”

“It would be just as well not to exist,” retorted the sage of Sirius. “And you, my friend,” he said to a Leibnitzian who was there, “what is your soul?”

“It is,” answered the Leibnitzian, “the hand of a clock that tells the time while my body rings out. Or, if you like, it is my soul that rings out while my body tells the time, or my soul is the mirror of the universe, and my body is the border of the mirror. All that is clear.”

A small partisan of Locke was nearby, and when he was finally given the floor: “I do not know,” said he, “how I think, but I know that I have only ever thought through my senses. That there are immaterial and intelligent substances I do not doubt, but that it is impossible for God to communicate thought to matter I doubt very much. I revere the eternal power. It is not my place to limit it. I affirm nothing, and content myself with believing that many more things are possible than one would think.”

The animal from Sirius smiled. He did not find this the least bit sage, while the dwarf from Saturn would have kissed the sectarian of Locke were it not for the extreme disproportion. But there was, unfortunately, a little animalcule in a square hat who interrupted all the other animalcule philosophers. He said that he knew the secret: that everything would be found in the Summa of Saint Thomas. He looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down. He argued that their people, their worlds, their suns, their stars, had all been made uniquely for mankind. At this speech, our two voyagers nearly fell over with that inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer22, is shared with the gods. Their shoulders and their stomachs heaved up and down, and in these convulsions the vessel that the Sirian had on his nail fell into one of the Saturnian’s trouser pockets. These two good men searched for it a long time, found it finally, and tidied it up neatly. The Sirian resumed his discussion with the little mites. He spoke to them with great kindness, although in the depths of his heart he was a little angry that the infinitely small had an almost infinitely great pride. He promised to make them a beautiful philosophical book23, written very small for their usage, and said that in this book they would see the point of everything. Indeed, he gave them this book before leaving. It was taken to the academy of science in Paris, but when the ancient24 secretary opened it, he saw nothing but blank pages. “Ah!” he said, “I suspected as much.”

17 We saw, at the end of chapter III, that the story occurs in 1737. Voltaire is referring to the war between the Turks and the Russians, from 1736 to 1739. B.

18 Crimea, which all the same was not reunited with Russia until 1783. B.

19 The edition I believe to be original reads “put them off” in place of “caught them.”

20 Here is the passage such as it is transcribed in the edition dated 1750: “Entele’xeia’ tis esi kai’ lo’gos toû dy’namin e’xontos toude’ ei’nai.”

21 See the opuscule entitled “All in God” in Miscellaneous (1796).

22 Illiad, I, 599. B.

23 The edition that I believe to be original, and the one dated 1750, reads, “philosophical book, that would teach them of admirable things, and show them the goodness of things.”

24 Although this scene occurs in 1737, as one saw in pages 177 to 188, one could assign the epithet of “old” to Fontenelle, who was 80 at that point, and who died 20 years later. In 1740 he resigned from his position as perpetual secretary.

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