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THE RIDDLE OF PROGRESS
THIS war, which is one such as had never yet been waged upon this earth of ours, leads us to consider the great problem of the future of mankind. Dare we hope that humanity will one day renounce these monstrous follies and that they will become altogether impossible? To this question, if we wish to meet it at its source, I see but one reply, which I have already given elsewhere and which I will here recapitulate and complete, namely, that we are engulfed in a universe which has no more limit in time than it has in space, which had no beginning, as it will have no end, and which has behind it as many myriads of myriads of years as it discovers ahead of it. Yesterday's eternity and to-morrow's are precisely identical. All that the universe is going to do it must have already done, for it has had as many opportunities of doing so as it will ever have. All the things that it has not done are things which it will never be able to do, because nothing will be added, in space or time, to what it has already possessed in space or time. It has necessarily made in the past all the efforts and all the experiments which it will make in the future; and all that has gone before, having been subject to the same chances, is perforce the same as all that is to follow.
It is probable, therefore, that there was once an infinity of worlds similar to our own, even as it is likely that there is an infinity of such similar worlds at present, the infinity of space being comparable with that of time. These coincidences, however difficult for us to picture, must inevitably occur and recur in the immeasurable and the innumerous in which we are immersed, that is, unless the infinity of possible combinations be less unlimited than those of time and space.
This is where our capacity of imagination halts, for it is easier for us to conceive the infinities of space and time than the infinity of combinations. To obtain some idea of the latter, we should have to understand the substance and the nature, the laws and the forces, in a word, the whole riddle of existence. None-the less is it true that this possible infinity of combinations is our only hope; without it there would be nothing more to expect of a universe which obviously would have tried and exhausted everything before our coming.
But, if this number of combinations is really infinite, it is open to us to say that the earth is an experiment which had not yet been made and an experiment which has failed, since suffering and evil have the upper hand of happiness and goodness. If the experiment has failed, we are its victims; but we are not forbidden to hope that our efforts will in some way modify combinations which will be more fortunate in other places or at another time. If the experiment has failed, it does not follow that others have not succeeded and are not more fortunate, at this very moment, in other worlds than ours. We may even suppose that, in the infinity of these combinations and experiments, the most successful tend to become fixed and crystallized and that, in view of their infinite number, they will bring about successfully in the future what they have not brought about successfully in the past. This is a hazardous glimmer; but I doubt whether any others will be discovered to keep us uplifted above despair.
Let us for a moment assume that the experiment of this world had not miscarried as it has; that the mind of man, which, since the beginning, has been struggling painfully against matter and winning but a few brief, uncertain and precarious victories, were a million times more powerful and better-armed. It would no doubt have triumphed over all that weighs us down and keeps us where we are; it would have freed itself from the apparently illusory fetters of space and time. It is not unreasonable to admit that, among the myriads of worlds which people the infinite, there are some in which these better conditions are realized. Perhaps, after all, it would be impossible to imagine anything that does not exist somewhere in reality, for we may very rightly maintain that our imaginings can be nothing more than stray reflections of things that already exist. Now, if we lived in one of those worlds and if we could see, as we should perhaps be allowed to see, all that is happening at this moment on the earth which we now inhabit and on others which are perhaps even worse and more unfortunate, it seems to us that we should know neither rest nor ease until we had intervened and helped to make it better and wiser and more habitable.
For that matter, no one can tell us that this is not so now and that all our spiritual victories, all that seems, at certain moments, to be leading us towards a future less hideous than the past, all the mysterious currents of good that sometimes flow through our world, all that awaits us after death, no one, I say, can tell us that all this is not due to the intervention of one of those worlds. It is true that we cannot perceive the act of intervention, that we are hardly sensible of it; but it is also true that these creatures of a higher world, being of necessity less encumbered with matter and more spiritual than we, must necessarily remain invisible to us. In the infinity of the firmament we discover myriads of worlds that are material worlds like our own; and we are able to discover only these, because all that does not more or less closely resemble our own world must needs escape us. But the space lying between the stars, which to us appears void, is infinitely wider than the space which they themselves occupy; and it would be strange indeed if it were not filled with worlds which we cannot perceive at all, or rather if it were not itself one vast world which our eyes are incapable of taking in. It is, moreover, thinkable that, if we do not see these other worlds, they, not being material worlds, do not perceive matter and are consequently as unaware of us as we are unaware of them; for we are doubtless mistaken in believing that, because we are visible to one another, we are necessarily visible to all other beings. On the contrary, there is reason to presume that these spiritual beings pass through us without suspecting our presence and that, as they are conscious and sensible only of that which emanates from the spirit, they do not suspect or discover our existence except in so far as we approach the conditions in which they exist.
Consider the earth in its origin: at first, a shapeless nebula, becoming gradually more and more condensed; next, a globe of fire, of rocks in fusion, whirling for millions of years through space, with no other object than that of forming into a mass and cooling: an inconceivable incandescence, which none of our sources of heat can enable us to picture; an essential, scientific, absolute barrenness which may well have proclaimed itself irremediable and everlasting. Who would have thought that from these torrents of matter in eruption, which seemed to have destroyed for ever all life or the least germ of life, there would emerge each and every form of life itself, from the most enormous, the strongest, the most enduring, the most impetuous, the most abundant, down to the slightest, the least visible, the most precarious, the most ephemeral, the most exiguous? Who above all could have dared foresee that they would give birth to what seems so utterly alien to the liquefied or pasty rocks and metals that alone formed the surface, the nucleus and the very entity of our globe, I mean our human intelligence and consciousness?
Is it possible to imagine a more unexpected evolution and ending? What could astonish us after so great an astonishment and what are we not entitled to hope of a world which, after being what it was, has produced what we see and what we are? Considering that it started from a sort of negation of life, from integral barrenness and from worse than nothing, in order to end in us, where will it not end after starting from ourselves? If its birth and formation have elaborated such prodigies, what prodigies may not its existence, its indefinite prolongation and its dissolution hold in store for us? There are an immeasurable distance and inconceivable transformations between the one frightful material of the early days and the human thought of this moment; and there will doubtless be a like distance and like transformations as difficult to conceive between the thought of this moment and that which will succeed it in the infinity of time.
It seems as if, in the beginning, our earth did not know what to do with its material and with its force, which inter. devoured each other. In the vast, flaming void in which it was being consumed, it had not yet the shadow of an object or an idea; to-day, it has so many that our scholars wear out their lives to no purpose in seeking them and are overwhelmed by the number of its mysterious and inexhaustible combinations.
At that time it disposed of but a single force, the most destructive that we knew, fire. If everything was born of fire, which itself seemed to be .born only to destroy, what will not be born of that which seems to be born only to produce, beget and multiply? If it was able to do so much with the lava and the red-hot cinders which were the only elements that it possessed, what will it not be able to do with all that it will end by possessing?
It is well sometimes to tell ourselves that we are at least living in a world which has not yet exhausted its future and which is much nearer to its beginning than to its end. It was born only yesterday and has but lately disentangled its original chaos. It is at the starting-point of its hopes and its experiments. We believe that it is making for death, whereas all its past, on the contrary, shows that it is much more probably making for life. In any case, as its years pass by, the quantity and still more the quality of the life which it engenders and maintains tend to increase and to improve. It has given us only the first-fruits of its miracles; and in all likelihood there is no more connection between what it was and what it is than there will be between what it is and what it will be. No doubt, when its greatest marvels burst into being, we shall no longer possess the lives which we possess to-day; but we shall still be there under another form, we shall still be existing somewhere, on its surface or in its depths; and it is not utterly improbable that one of its last prodigies will reach us in our dust, awaken us and recall us to life, in order to impart to us at last the share of happiness which we had not enjoyed and to teach us that we were wrong not to interest ourselves, on the further side of our graves, in the destiny of this earth of ours, of which we had never ceased to be the immortal offspring.