Here to return to
THE TWO ASPECTS OF INFINITY
LET us turn our thoughts towards it. The problem goes beyond humanity and em‑ braces all things. It is possible, I think, to view infinity under two distinct aspects. Let us contemplate the first of them. We are plunged in a universe that has no limits in space or time. It can neither go forward nor go back. It has no origin. It never began, nor will it ever end. The myriads of years behind it are even as the myriads which it has yet to unroll. From all time it has been at the boundless centre of the days. It could have no aim, for, if it had one, it would have attained it in the infinity of the years that lie behind us; besides, that aim would lie outside itself and, if anything lay outside it, infinity would be bounded by that thing and would cease to be infinity. It is not making for anywhere, for it would have arrived there; consequently, all that the worlds within its pale, all that we ourselves do can have no influence upon it. All that it will do it has done. All that it has not done remains undone because it can never do it. If it have no mind, it will never have one. If it have one, that mind has been at its climax from all time and will remain there, changeless and immovable. It is as young as it has ever been and as old as it will ever be. It has made in the past all the efforts and all the trials which it will make in the future; and, as all the possible combinations have been exhausted since what we cannot even call the beginning, it does not seem as if that which has not taken place in the eternity that stretches before our birth can happen in the eternity that will follow our death. If it have not become conscious, it will never become conscious; if it know not what it wishes, it will continue in ignorance, hopelessly, knowing all or knowing nothing and remaining as near its end as its beginning.
This is the gloomiest thought to which man can attain. So far, I do not think that its depths have been sufficiently sounded. If it were really irrefutable — and some may contend that it is — if it actually contained the last word of the great riddle, it would be almost impossible to live in its shadow. Naught save the certainty that our conceptions of time and space are illusive and absurd can lighten the abyss wherein our last hope would perish.
The universe thus conceived would be, if not intelligible, at least admissible by our reason; but in that universe float billions of worlds limited by space and time. They are born, they die and they are born again. They form part of the whole; and we see, therefore, that parts of that which has neither beginning nor end themselves begin and end. We, in fact, know only those parts; and they are of a number so infinite that in our eyes they fill all infinity. That which is going nowhere teems with that which appears to be going somewhere. That which has always known what it wants, or will never learn, seems to be eternally experimenting with more or less ill-success. At what goal is it aiming, since it is already there? Everything that we discover in that which could not possibly have an object looks as though it were pursuing one with inconceivable ardour; and the mind that animates what we see, in that which should know everything and possess itself, seems to know nothing and to seek itself without intermission. Thus all that is apparent to our senses in infinity gainsays that which our reason is compelled to ascribe to it. According as we fathom it, we come to understand how deep is our want of understanding; and, the more we strive to penetrate the two incomprehensible problems that stand face to face, the more they contradict each other.
What will become of us amid all this confusion? Shall we leave the finite wherein we dwell to be swallowed up in this or the other infinite? In other words, shall we end by absorption in the infinite which our reason conceives, or shall we remain eternally in that which our eyes behold, that is to say, in numberless changing and ephemeral worlds? Shall we never leave those worlds which seem doomed to die and to be reborn eternally, to enter at last into that which, from all eternity, can neither have been born nor have died and which exists without either future ar past? Shall we one day escape, with all that surrounds us, from this unhappy speculation, to find our way at last into peace, wisdom, changeless and boundless consciousness, or into hopeless unconsciousness? Shall we have the fate which our senses foretell, or that which our intelligence demands? Or are both senses and intelligence only illusions, puny implements, vain weapons of an hour, which were never intended to examine or defy the universe? If there really be a contradiction, is it wise to accept it and deem impossible that which we do not understand, seeing that we understand almost nothing? Is truth not at an immeasurable distance from these inconsistencies which appear to us enormous and irreducible and which, doubtless, are of no more importance than the rain that falls upon the sea?
But, even to our poor understanding of to-day, the discrepancy between the infinity conceived by our reason and that perceived by our senses is perhaps more apparent than real. When we say that, in a universe that has existed since all eternity, every experiment, every possible combination has been made; when we declare that there is no chance that what has not taken place in the immeasurable past can take place in the immeasurable future, our imagination perhaps attributes to the infinity of time a preponderance which it cannot possess. In truth, all that infinity contains must be as infinite as the time at its disposal; and the chances, encounters and combinations that lie therein have not been exhausted in the eternity that has gone before us any more than they could be in the eternity that will, come after us. The infinity of time is no vaster than the infinity of the substance of the universe. Events, forces, chances, causes, effects, phenomena, fusions, combinations, coincidences, harmonies, unions, possibilities, lives are represented in it by countless numbers that entirely fill a bottomless and vergeless abyss where they have been shaken together from what we call the beginning of the world that had no beginning and where they will be stirred up until the end of a world that will have no end. There is, therefore, no climax, no changelessness, no immovability. It is probable that the universe is seeking and finding itself every day, that it has not become entirely conscious and does not yet know what it wants. It is possible that its ideal is still veiled by the shadow of its immensity; it is also possible that experiments and chances are following one upon the other in unimaginable worlds, compared wherewith all those which we see on starry nights are no more than a pinch of gold-dust in the ocean depths. Lastly, if either be true, it is also true that we ourselves, or what remains of us — it matters not — will profit one day by those experiments and those chances. That which has not yet happened may suddenly supervene; and the next state, with the supreme wisdom which will recognise and be able to establish that state, is perhaps ready to arise from the clash of circumstances. It would not be at all astonishing if the consciousness of the universe, in the endeavour to form itself, had not yet encountered the combination of necessary chances and if human thought were actually supporting one of those decisive chances. Here there is a hope. Small as man and his brain may appear, they have exactly the value of the most enormous forces that they are able to conceive, since there is neither great nor small in the immensurable; and, if our body equalled the dimensions of all the worlds which our eyes can see, it would have exactly the same weight and the same importance, as compared with the universe, that it has to-day. The mind alone perhaps occupies in infinity a space which comparisons do not reduce to nothing.
For the rest, if everything must be said, at the cost of constantly and shamelessly contradicting one’s self in the dark, and to return to the first supposition, the idea of possible progress, it is extremely probable that this again is one of those childish disorders of our brain which prevent us from seeing the thing that is. It is quite as probable, as we have seen above, that there never was, that there never will be any progress, because there could not be a goal. At most there may occur a few ephemeral combinations which, to our poor eyes, will seem happier or more beautiful than the others. Even so we think gold more beautiful than the mud in the street, or the flower in a splendid garden happier than the stone at the bottom of a drain; but all this, obviously, is of no importance, has no corresponding reality and proves nothing in particular.
The more we reflect upon it, the more pronounced is the infirmity of our intelligence which cannot succeed in reconciling the idea of progress and even the idea of experiment with the supreme idea of infinity. Although nature has been incessantly and indefatigably repeating herself before our eyes for thousands of years, reproducing the same trees and the same animals, we cannot contrive to understand why the universe indefinitely recommences experiments that have been made billions of times. It is inevitable that, in the innumerable combinations that have been and are being made in termless time and boundless space, there have been and still are millions of planets and consequently millions of human races exactly similar to our own, side by side with myriads of others more or less different from it. Let us not say to ourselves that it would require an unimaginable concourse of circumstances to reproduce a globe like unto our earth in every respect. We must remember that we are in the infinite and that this unimaginable concourse must necessarily take place in the innumerousness which we are unable to imagine. Though it need billions and billions of cases for two features to coincide, those billions and billions will encumber infinity no more than would a single case. Place an infinite number of worlds in an infinite number of infinitely diverse circumstances: there will always be an infinite number for which those circumstances will be alike; if not, we should be setting bounds to our idea of the universe, which would forthwith become more incomprehensible still. From the moment that we insist sufficiently upon that thought, we necessarily arrive at these conclusions. If they have not struck us hitherto, it is because we never go to the farthest point of our imagination. Now the farthest point of our imagination is but the beginning of reality and gives us only a small, purely human universe, which, vast as it may seem, dances in the real universe like an apple on the sea. I repeat, if we do not admit that thousands of worlds, similar in all points to our own, in spite of the billions of adverse chances, have always existed and still exist to-day, we are sapping the foundations of the only possible conception of the universe or of infinity.
Now how is it that those millions of exactly similar human races, which from all time suffer what we have suffered and are still suffering, profit us nothing, that all their experiences and all their schools have had no influence upon our first efforts and that everything has to be done again and begun again incessantly?
As we see, the two theories balance each other. It is well to acquire by degrees the habit of understanding nothing. There remains to us the faculty of choosing the less gloomy of the two or persuading ourselves that the mists of the other exist only in our brain. As that strange visionary, William Blake, said:
“Nor is it possible to thought A greater than itself to know.”
Let us add that it is not possible for it to know anything other than itself. What we do not know would be enough to create the world afresh; and what we do know cannot add one moment to the life of a fly. Who can tell but that our chief mistake lies in believing that an intelligence, were it an intelligence thousands of times as great as ours, directs the universe? It may be a force of quite another nature, a force that differs as widely from that on which our brain prides itself as electricity, for instance, differs from the wind that blows. That is why it is fairly probable that our mind, however powerful it become, will always grope in mystery. If it be certain that everything in us must also be in nature, because everything comes to us from her, if the mind and all the logic which it has placed at the culminating point of our being direct or seem to direct all the actions of our life, it by no means follows that there is not in the universe a force greatly superior to thought, a force having no imaginable relation to the mind, a force which animates and governs all things according to other laws and of which nothing is found in us but almost imperceptible traces, even as almost imperceptible traces of thought are all that can be found in plants and minerals.
In any case, there is nothing here to make us lose courage. It is necessarily the human illusion of evil, ugliness, uselessness and impossibility that is to blame. We must wait not for the universe to be transformed, but for our intelligence to expand or to take part in the other force; and we must maintain our confidence in a world which knows nothing of our conceptions of purpose and progress, because it doubtless has ideas whereof we have no idea, a world, moreover, which could scarcely wish itself harm.
“These are but vain speculations,” it will be said. “What matters, after all, the idea which we form of those things which belong to the unknowable, seeing that the unknowable, were we a thousand times as intelligent as we are, is closed to us for ever and that the idea which we form of it will never have any value?”
That is true; but there are degrees in our ignorance of the unknowable; and each of these degrees marks a triumph of the intelligence. To estimate more and more completely the extent of what it does not know is all that man’s knowledge can hope for. Our idea of the unknowable was and always will be valueless, I admit; but it nevertheless is and will remain the most important idea of mankind. All our morality, all that is in the highest degree noble and profound in our existence has always been based on this idea devoid of real value. To-day, as yesterday, even though it be possible to recognise more clearly that it is too incomplete and relative ever to have any actual value, it is necessary to carry it as high and as far as we can. It alone creates the only atmosphere wherein the best part of ourselves can live. Yes, it is the unknowable into which we shall not enter; but that is no reason for saying to ourselves:
“I am closing all the doors and all the windows; henceforth, I shall interest myself only in things which my everyday intelligence can compass. Those things alone have the right to influence my actions and my thoughts.”
Where should we arrive at that rate? What things can my intelligence compass? Is there a thing in this world that can be separated from the inconceivable? Since there is no means of eliminating that inconceivable, it is reasonable and salutary to make the best of it and therefore to imagine it as stupendously vast as we are able. The gravest reproach that can be brought against the positive religions and notably against Christianity is that they have too often, if not in theory, at least in practice, encouraged such a narrowing of the mystery of the universe. By broadening it, we broaden the space wherein our mind will move. It is for us what we make it: let us then form it of all that we can reach on the horizon of ourselves. As for the mystery itself, we shall, of course, never reach it; but we have a much greater chance of approaching it by facing it and going whither it draws us than by turning our backs upon it and returning to that place where we well know that it no longer is. Not by diminishing our thoughts shall we diminish the distance that separates us from the ultimate truths; but by enlarging them as much as possible we are sure of deceiving ourselves as little as possible. And the loftier our idea of the infinite, the more buoyant and the purer becomes the spiritual atmosphere wherein we live and the wider and deeper the horizon against which our thoughts and feelings stand out, the horizon which is all their life and which they inspire.
“Perpetually to construct ideas requiring the utmost stretch of our faculties,” wrote Herbert Spencer, “and perpetually to find that such ideas must be abandoned as futile imaginations, may realise to us more fully than any other course the greatness of that which we vainly strive to grasp.... By continually seeking to know and being continually thrown back with a deepened conviction of the impossibility of knowing, we may keep alive the consciousness that it is alike our highest wisdom and our highest duty to regard that through which all things exist as the Unknowable.”
Whatever the ultimate truth may be, whether we admit the abstract, absolute and perfect infinity — the changeless, immovable infinity which has attained perfection and which knows everything, to which our reason tends — or whether we prefer that offered to us by the evidence, undeniable here below, of our senses — the infinity which seeks itself, which is still evolving and not yet established — it behoves us above all to foresee in it our fate, which, for that matter, must, in either case, end by absorption in that very infinity.