Here to return to
OUR FATE IN THOSE INFINITIES
THE first infinity, the ideal infinity, corresponds most nearly with the requirements of our reason, which does not justify us in giving it the preference. It is impossible for us to foresee what we shall become in it, because it seems to exclude any becoming. It therefore but remains for us to address ourselves to the second, to that which we see and imagine in time and space. Furthermore, it is possible that it may precede the other. However absolute our conception of the universe, we have seen that we can always admit that what has not taken place in the eternity before us will happen in the eternity after us and that there is nothing save an untold number of chances to prevent the universe from acquiring in the end that perfect consciousness which will establish it at its zenith.
Behold us, then, in the infinity of those worlds, the stellar infinity, the infinity of the heavens, which assuredly veils other things from our eyes, but which cannot be a total illusion. It seems to us to be peopled only with objects — planets, suns, stars, nebulae, atoms, imponderous fluids — which move, unite and separate, repel and attract one another, which shrink and expand, are for ever shifting and never arrive, which measure space in that which has no confines and number the hours in that which has no term. In a word, we are in an infinity that seems to have almost the same character and the same habits as that power in the midst of which we breathe and which, upon our earth, we call nature or life.
What will be our fate in that infinity? We are asking ourselves no idle question, even if we should unite with it after losing all consciousness, all notion of the ego, even if we should exist there as no more than a little nameless substance — soul or matter, we cannot tell — suspended in the equally nameless abyss that replaces time and space. It is not an idle question, for it concerns the history of the worlds or of the universe; and this history, far more than that of our petty existence, is our own great history, in which perhaps something of ourselves or something incomparably better and vaster will end by meeting us again some day.
Shall we be unhappy there? It is hardly reassuring when we consider the ways of nature and remember that we form part of a universe that has not yet gathered its wisdom. We have seen, it is true, that good and bad fortune exist only in so far as regards our body and that, when we have lost the organ of suffering, we shall not meet any of the earthly sorrows again. But our anxiety does not end here; and will not our mind, lingering upon our erstwhile sorrows, drifting derelict from world to world, unknown to itself in an unknowable that seeks itself hopelessly, will not our mind know here the frightful torture of which we have already spoken and which is doubtless the last that imagination can touch with its wing? Finally, if there were nothing left of our body and our mind, there would still remain the matter and the spirit (or, at least, the obviously single force to which we give that double name) which composed them and whose fate must be no more indifferent to us than our own fate; for, let us repeat, from our death onwards, the adventure of the universe becomes our own adventure. Let us not, therefore, say to ourselves:
“What can it matter? We shall not be there.” We shall be there always, because everything will be there.
And will this everything wherein we shall be included, in a world ever seeking itself, continue a prey to new and perpetual and perhaps painful experiences? Since the part that we were was unhappy, why should the part that we shall be enjoy a better fortune? Who can assure us that yonder the unending combinations and endeavours will not be more sorrowful, more stupid and more baneful than those which we are leaving; and how shall we explain that these have come about after so many millions of others which ought to have opened the eyes of the genius of infinity? It is idle to persuade ourselves, as Hindu wisdom would, that our sorrows are but illusions and appearances: it is none the less true that they make us very really unhappy. Has the universe elsewhere a more complete consciousness, a more just and serene understanding than on this earth and in the worlds which we discern? And, if it be true that it has somewhere attained that better understanding, why does the mind that presides over the destinies of our earth not profit by it? Is no communication possible between worlds which must have been born of the same idea and which lie in its depths? What would be the mystery of that isolation? Are we to believe that the earth marks the farthest stage and the most successful experiment? What, then, can the mind of the universe have done and against what darkness must it have struggled, to have come only to this? But, on the other hand, that darkness and those barriers which can have come only from itself, since they could have arisen no elsewhere, have they the power to stay its progress? Who then could have set those insoluble problems to infinity and from what more remote and profound region than itself could they have issued? Some one, after all, must know the answer; and, as behind infinity there can be none that is not infinity itself, it is impossible to imagine a malignant will in a will that leaves no point around it which is not wholly covered. Or are the experiments begun in the stars continued mechanically, by virtue of the force acquired, without regard to their uselessness and their pitiful consequences, according to the custom of nature, who knows nothing of our parsimony and squanders the suns in space as she does the seed on earth, knowing that nothing can be lost? Or, again, is the whole question of our peace and happiness, like that of the fate of the worlds, reduced to knowing whether or not the infinity of endeavours and combinations be equal to that of eternity? Or, lastly, to come to what is most likely, is it we who deceive ourselves, who know nothing, who see nothing and who consider imperfect that which is perhaps faultless, we who are but an infinitesimal fragment of the intelligence which we judge by the aid of the little shreds of understanding which it has vouchsafed to lend us?
How could we reply, how could our thoughts and glances penetrate the infinite and the invisible, we who do not understand nor even see the thing by which we see and which is the source of all our thoughts? In fact, as has been very justly observed, man does not see light itself. He sees only matter, or rather the small part of the great worlds which he knows by the name of matter, touched by light. He does not perceive the immense rays that cross the heavens save at the moment when they stopped by an object akin to those with which his eye is familiar upon this earth: were it otherwise, the whole space filled with innumerable suns and boundless forces, instead of being an abyss of absolute darkness, absorbing and extinguishing shafts of light that shoot across it from every side, would be but a monstrous and unbearable ocean of flashes.
And, if we do not see the light, at least we think we know a few of its rays or its reflexions; but we are absolutely ignorant of that which is unquestionably the essential law of the universe, namely, gravitation. What is that force, the most powerful of all and the least visible, imperceptible to our senses, without form, without colour, without temperature, without substance, without savour and without voice, but so awful that it suspends and moves in space all the worlds which we see and all those which we shall never know? More rapid, more subtle, more incorporeal than thought, it wields such sway over everything that exists, from the infinitely great to the infinitely small, that there is not a grain of sand upon our earth nor a drop of blood in our veins but are penetrated, wrought upon and quickened by it until they act at every moment upon the farthest planet of the last solar system that we struggle to imagine beyond the bounds of our imagination.
Shakspeare’s famous lines,
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”
have long since become utterly inadequate. There are no longer more things than our philosophy can dream of or imagine: there is none but things which it cannot dream of, there is nothing but the unimaginable; and, if we do not even see the light, which is the one thing that we believed we saw, it may be said that there is nothing all around us but the invisible.
We move in the illusion of seeing and knowing that which is strictly indispensable to our little lives. As for all the rest, which is well-nigh everything, our organs not only debar us from reaching, seeing or feeling it, but even restrain us from suspecting what it is, just as they would prevent us from understanding it if an intelligence of a different order were to bethink itself of revealing or explaining it to us. The number and volume of those mysteries is as boundless as the universe itself. If mankind were one day to draw near to those which to-day it deems the greatest and the most inaccessible, such as the origin and the aim of life, it would at once behold rising up behind them, like eternal mountains, others quite as great and quite as unfathomable; and so on, without end. In relation to that which it would have to know in order to hold the key to the riddle of this world, it would always find itself at the same point of central ignorance. It would be just the same if we possessed an intelligence several million times greater and more penetrating than ours. All that its miraculously increased power could discover would encounter limits no less impassable than at present. All is boundless in that which has no bounds. We shall be the eternal prisoners of the universe. It is therefore impossible for us to appreciate in any degree whatsoever, in the smallest conceivable respect, the present state of the universe and to say, as long as we are men, whether it follows a straight line or describes an immense circle, whether it is growing wiser or madder, whether it is advancing towards the eternity which has no end or retracing its steps towards that which had no beginning. Our sole privilege within our tiny confines is to struggle towards that which appears to us the best and to remain heroically persuaded that no part of what we do within those confines can ever be wholly lost.
But let not all these insoluble questions drive us towards fear. From the point of view of our future beyond the grave, it is in no way necessary that we should have an answer to everything. Whether the universe have already found its consciousness, whether it find it one day or seek it everlastingly, it could not exist for the purpose of being unhappy and of suffering, either in its entirety, or in any one of its parts; and it matters little if the latter be invisible or incommensurable, considering that the smallest is as great as the greatest in what has neither limit nor measure. To torture a point is the same thing as to torture the worlds; and, if it torture the worlds, it is its own substance that it tortures. Its very fate, wherein we have our part, protects us; for we are simply morsels of infinity. It is inseparable from us as we are inseparable from it. Its breath is our breath, its aim is our aim and we bear within us all its mysteries. We participate in it everywhere. There is naught in us that escapes it; there is naught in it but belongs to us. It extends us, fills us, traverses us on every side. In space and time and in that which, beyond space and time, has as yet no name, we represent it and summarise it completely, with all its properties and all its future; and, if its immensity terrifies us, we are as terrifying as itself.
If, therefore, we had to suffer in it, our sufferings could be but ephemeral; and nothing matters that is not eternal. It is possible, although somewhat incomprehensible, that parts should err and go astray; but it is impossible that sorrow should be one of its lasting and necessary laws; for it would have brought that law to bear against itself. In like manner, the universe is and must be its own law and its sole master: if not, the law or the master whom it must obey would be the universe alone; and the centre of a word which we pronounce without being able to grasp its scope would be simply shifted. If it be unhappy, that means that it wills its own unhappiness; if it will its unhappiness, it is mad; and, if it appear to us mad, that means that our reason works contrary to everything and to the only laws possible, seeing that they are eternal, or, to speak more humbly, that it judges what it wholly fails to understand.
Everything, therefore, must end, Dr perhaps already be, if not in a state of happiness, at least in a state exempt from all suffering, all anxiety, all lasting unhappiness; and what, after all, is our happiness upon this earth, if it be not the absence of sorrow, anxiety and unhappiness?
But it is childish to talk of happiness and unhappiness where infinity is in question. The idea which we entertain of happiness and unhappiness is something so special, so human, so fragile that it does not exceed our stature and falls to dust as soon as we take it out of its little sphere. It proceeds entirely from a few contingencies of our nerves, which are made to appreciate very slight happenings, but which could as easily have felt everything the opposite way and taken pleasure in that which is now pain.
I do not know if my readers remember the striking passage in which Sir William Crookes shows how well-nigh all that we consider as essential laws of nature would be falsified in the eyes of a microscopic man, while forces of which we are almost wholly ignorant, such as surface-tension, capillarity or the Brownian movements, would preponderate. Walking on a cabbage-leaf, for instance, after the dew had fallen, and seeing it studded with huge crystal globes, he would infer that water was a solid body which assumes spherical form and rises in the air. At no great distance, he might come to a pond, when he would observe that this same matter, instead of rising upwards, now seems to slope downwards in a vast curve from the brink. If he managed, with the aid of his friends, to throw into the water one of those enormous steel bars which we call needles, he would see that it made a sort of concave trough on the surface and floated tranquilly. From these experiments and a thousand others which he might make, he would naturally deduce theories diametrically opposed to those upon which our entire existence is based. It would be the same if the changes were made in the direction of time, to take an hypothesis imagined by the philosopher William James:
“Suppose we were able, within the length of a second, to note distinctly ten thousand events instead of barely ten, as now; if our life were then destined to hold the same number of impressions it might be a thousand times as short. We should live less than a month, and personally know nothing of the change of seasons. If born in winter, we should believe in summer as we now believe in the heats of the carboniferous era. The motions of organic beings would be so slow to our senses as to be inferred, not seen. The sun would stand still in the sky, the moon be almost free from change and so on. But now reverse the hypothesis, and suppose a being to get only one thousandth part of the sensations that we get in a given time, and consequently to live a thousand times as long. Winters and summers will be to him like quarters of an hour. Mushrooms and the swifter growing plants will shoot into being so rapidly as to appear instantaneous creations; annual shrubs will rise and fall from the earth like restlessly boiling water-springs; the motions of animals will be as invisible as are to us the movements of bullets and cannon-balls; the sun will scour through the sky like a meteor, leaving a fiery trail behind him, &c. That such imaginary cases (barring the super-human longevity) may be realised somewhere in the animal kingdom, it would be rash to deny.”
We believe that we see nothing hanging over us hut catastrophes, deaths, torments and disasters; we shiver at the mere thought of the great interplanetary spaces, with their intense cold and their awful and gloomy, solitudes; and we imagine that the worlds that revolve through space are as unhappy as ourselves because they freeze, or disaggregate, or clash together, or are consumed in unutterable flames. We infer from this that the genius of the universe is an abominable tyrant, seized with a monstrous madness, delighting only in the torture of itself and all that it contains. To millions of stars, each many thousand times larger than our sun, to nebulae whose nature and dimensions no figure, no word in our language is able to express, we attribute our momentary sensibility, the little ephemeral play of our nerves; and we are convinced that life there must be impossible or appalling, because we should feel too hot or too cold. It were much wiser to say to ourselves that it would need but a trifle, a few papillae more or less to our skin, the slightest modification of our eyes and ears, to turn the temperature of space, its silence and its darkness into a delicious springtime, an incomparable music, a divine light.
“Nothing is too wonderful to be true,” said Faraday.
It were much more reasonable to persuade ourselves that the catastrophes which our imagination sees there are life itself, the joy and one or other of those immense festivals of mind and matter in which death, thrusting aside at last our two enemies, time and space, will soon permit us to take part. Each world dissolving, extinguished, crumbling, burnt or colliding with another world and pulverised means the commencement of a magnificent experiment, the dawn of a marvellous hope and perhaps an unexpected happiness drawn direct from the inexhaustible unknown. What though they freeze or flame, collect or disperse, pursue or flee one another: mind and matter, no longer united by the same pitiful hazard that joined them in us, must rejoice at all that happens; for all is but birth and rebirth, a departure into an unknown filled with wonderful promises and maybe an anticipation of some ineffable event.