And now, while thanking my readers for having followed me so far in this descriptive account of the marvels of the Cosmos, I must inquire what philosophical impression has been produced on their minds by these celestial excursions to the other worlds? Are you left indifferent to the pageant of the Heavens? When your imagination was borne away to these distant stars, suns of the infinite, these innumerable stellar systems disseminated through a boundless eternity, did you ask what exist
On the Earth, it is Life and Thought that flourish; and it is Life and Thought that we seek again in these starry constellations strewn to Infinitude amid the immeasurable fields of Heaven.
The humble little planet that we inhabit presents itself to us as a brimming cup, overflowing at every outlet. Life is everywhere. From the bottom of the seas, from the valleys to the mountains, from the vegetation that carpets the soil, from the mold in the fields and woods, from the air we breathe, arises an immense, prodigious, and perpetual murmur. Listen! it is the great voice of Nature, the sum of all the unknown and mysterious voices that are forever calling to us, from the ocean waves, from the forest winds, from the 300,000 kinds of insects that are redundant everywhere, and make a lively community on the surface of our globe. A drop of water contains thousands of curious and agile creatures. A grain of dust from the streets of Paris is the home of 130,000 bacteria. If we turn over the soil of a garden, field, or meadow, we find the earthworms working to produce assimilable slime. If we lift a stone in the path, we discover a crawling population. If we gather a flower, detach a leaf, we everywhere find little insects living a parasitic existence. Swarms of midges fly in the sun, the trees of the wood are peopled with nests, the birds sing, and chase each other at play, the lizards dart away at our approach, we trample down the antheaps and the molehills. Life enwraps us in an inexorable encroachment of which we are at once the heroes and the victims, perpetuating itself to its own detriment, as imposed upon it by an eternal reproduction. And this from all time, for the very stones of which we build our houses are full of fossils so prodigiously multiplied that one gram of such stone will often contain millions of shells, marvels of geometrical perfection. The infinitely little is equal to the infinitely great.
Life appears to us as a fatal law, an imperious force which all obey, as the result and the aim of the association of atoms. This is illustrated for us upon the Earth, our only field of direct observation. We must be blind not to see this spectacle, deaf not to hear its reaching. On what pretext could one suppose that our little globe which, as we have seen, has received no privileges from Nature, is the exception; and that the entire Universe, save for one insignificant isle, is devoted to vacancy, solitude, and death?
We have a tendency to imagine that Life can not exist under conditions other than terrestrial, and that the other worlds can only be inhabited on the condition of being similar to our own. But terrestrial nature itself demonstrates to us the error of this way of thinking. We die in the water: fishes die out of the water. Again, short-sighted naturalists affirm categorically that Life is impossible at the bottom of the sea: 1, because it is in complete darkness; 2, because the terrible pressure would burst any organism; 3, because all motion would be impossible there, and so on. Some inquisitive person sends down a dredge, and brings up lovely creatures, so delicate in structure that the daintiest touch must proceed with circumspection. There is no light in these depths: they make it with their own phosphorescence. Other inquirers visit subterranean caverns, and discover animals and plants whose organs have been transformed by adaptation to their gloomy environment.
What right have we to say to the vital energy that radiates round every Sun of the Universe: "Thus far shalt thou come, and no further"? In the name of Science? An absolute mistake. The Known is an infinitesimal island in the midst of the vast ocean of the Unknown. The deep seas which seemed to be a barrier are, as we have seen, peopled with special life. Some one objects: But after all, there is air there, there is oxygen: oxygen is indispensable: a world without oxygen would be a world of death, an eternally sterile desert. Why? Because we have not yet come across beings that can breathe without air, and live without oxygen? Another mistake. Even if we did not know of any, it would not prove that they do not exist. But as it happens, we do know of such: the anærobia. These beings live without air, without oxygen. Better still: oxygen kills them!
All the evidence goes to show that in interpreting as we ought the spectacle of terrestrial life, and the positive facts acquired by Science, we should enlarge the circle of our conceptions and our judgments, and not limit extra-terrestrial existence to the servile image of what is in existence here below. Terrestrial organic forms are due to local causes upon our planet. The chemical constitution of water and of the atmosphere, temperature, light, density, weight, are so many elements that have gone to form our bodies. Our flesh is composed of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen combined in the state of water, and of some other elements, among which we may instance sodium chloride (salt). The flesh of animals is not chemically different from our own. All this comes from the water and the air, and returns to them again. The same elements, in very minute quantities, make up all living bodies. The ox that browses on the grass is formed of the same flesh as the man who eats the beef. All organized terrestrial matter is only carbon combined in variable proportions with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc.
But we have no right to forbid Nature to act differently in worlds from which carbon is absent. A world, for example, in which silica replaces carbon, silicic acid carbonic acid, might be inhabited by organisms absolutely different from those which exist on the Earth, different not only in form, but also in substance. We already know stars and suns for which spectral analysis reveals a predominance of silica, e.g., Rigel and Deneb. In a world where chlorine predominated, we might expect to find hydrochloric acid, and all the fecund family of chlorides, playing an important part in the phenomena of life. Might not bromine be associated in other formations? Why, indeed, should we draw the line at terrestrial chemistry? What is to prove that these elements are really simple? May not hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulphur all be compounds? Their equivalents are multiples of the first: 1, 6, 8, 14, 16. And is even hydrogen the most simple of the elements? Is not its molecule composed of atoms, and may there not exist a single species of primitive atom, whose geometric arrangement and various associations might constitute the molecules of the so-called simple elements?
In our own solar system we discover the essential differences between certain planets. In the spectrum of Jupiter, for instance, we are aware of the action of an unknown substance that manifests itself by a marked absorption of certain red rays. This gas, which does not exist upon the Earth, is seen still more obviously in the atmospheres of Saturn and Uranus. Indeed, upon this last planet the atmosphere appears, apart from its water vapor, to have no sort of analogy with our own. And in the solar spectrum itself, many of the lines have not yet been identified with terrestrial substances.
The interrelation of the planets is of course incontrovertible, since they are all children of the same parent. But they differ among themselves, not merely in respect of situation, position, volume, mass, density, temperature, atmosphere, but again in physical and chemical constitution. And the point we would now accent is that this diversity should not be regarded as an obstacle to the manifestations of life, but, on the contrary, as a new field open to the infinite fecundity of the universal mother.
When our thoughts take wing, not only to our neighbors, Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn, but still more toward the myriads of unknown worlds that gravitate round the suns disseminated in space, we have no plausible reason for imagining that the inhabitants of these other worlds of Heaven resemble us in any way, whether in form, or even in organic substance.
The substance of the terrestrial human body is due to the elements of our planet, and notably to carbon. The terrestrial human form derives from the ancestral animal forms to which it has gradually raised itself by the continuous progress of the transformation of species. To us it seems obvious that we are man or woman, because we have a head, a heart, lungs, two legs, two arms, and so on. Nothing is less a matter of course. That we are constituted as we are, is simply the result of our pro-simian ancestors having also had a head, a heart, lungs, legs, and arms—less elegant than your own, it is true, Madam, but still of the same anatomy. And more and more, by the progress of paleontology, we are delving down to the origin of beings. As certain as it is that the bird derives from the reptile by a process of organic evolution, so certain is it that terrestrial Humanity represents the topmost branches of the huge genealogical tree, whereof all the limbs are brothers, and the roots of which are plunged into the very rudiments of the most elementary and primitive organisms.
The multitude of worlds is surely peopled by every imaginable and unimaginable form. Terrestrial man is endowed with five senses, or perhaps it is better to say six. Why should Nature stop at this point? Why, for instance, may she not have given to certain beings an electrical sense, a magnetic sense, a sense of orientation, an organ able to perceive the ethereal vibrations of the infra-red or ultra-violet, or permitted them to hear at a distance, or to see through walls? We eat and digest like coarse animals, we are slaves to our digestive tube: may there not be worlds in which a nutritive atmosphere enables its fortunate inhabitants to dispense with this absurd process? The least sparrow, even the dusky bat, has an advantage over us in that it can fly through the air. Think how inferior are our conditions, since the man of greatest genius, the most exquisite woman, are nailed to the soil like any vulgar caterpillar before its metamorphosis! Would it be a disadvantage to inhabit a world in which we might fly whither we would; a world of scented luxury, full of animated flowers; a world where the winds would be incapable of exciting a tempest, where several suns of different colors—the diamond glowing with the ruby, or the emerald with the sapphire—would burn night and day (azure nights and scarlet days) in the glory of an eternal spring; with multi-colored moons sleeping in the mirror of the waters, phosphorescent mountains, aerial inhabitants,—men, women, or perhaps of other sexes,—perfect in their forms, gifted with multiple sensibilities, luminous at will, incombustible as asbestos, perhaps immortal, unless they commit suicide out of curiosity? Lilliputian atoms as we are, let us once for all be convinced that our imagination is but sterility, in the midst of an infinitude hardly glimpsed by the telescope.
One important point seems always to be ignored expressly by those who blindly deny the doctrine of the plurality of worlds. It is that this doctrine does not apply more particularly to the present epoch than to any other. Our time is of no importance, no absolute value. Eternity is the field of the Eternal Sower. There is no reason why the other worlds should be inhabited now more than at any other epoch.
What, indeed, is the Present Moment? It is an open trap through which the Future falls incessantly into the gulf of the Past.
The immensity of Heaven bears in its bosom cradles as well as tombs, worlds to come and perished worlds. It abounds in extinct suns, and cemeteries. In all probability Jupiter is not yet inhabited. What does this prove? The Earth was not inhabited during its primordial period: what did that prove to the inhabitants of Mars or of the Moon, who were perhaps observing it at that epoch, a few million years ago?
To pretend that our globe must be the only inhabited world because the others do not resemble it, is to reason, not like a philosopher, but, as we remarked before, like a fish. Every rational fish ought to assume that it is impossible to live out of water, since its outlook and its philosophy do not extend beyond its daily life. There is no answer to this order of reasoning, except to advise a little wider perception, and extension of the too narrow horizon of habitual ideas.
For us the resources of Nature may be considered infinite, and "positive" science, founded upon our senses only, is altogether inadequate, although it is the only possible basis of our reasoning. We must learn to see with the eyes of our spirit.
As to the planetary systems other than our own, we are no longer reduced to hypotheses. We already know with certainty that our Sun is no exception, as was suggested, and is still maintained, by some theorists. The discovery in itself is curious enough.
It is surely an exceptional situation that, given a sidereal system composed of a central sun, and of one or more stars gravitating round him, the plane of such a system should fall just within our line of vision, and that it should revolve in such a way that the globes of which it is composed pass exactly between this sun and ourselves in turning round him, eclipsing him more or less during this transit. As, on the other hand, the eclipses would be our only means of determining the existence of these unknown planets (save indeed from perturbation, as in the case of Sirius and Procyon), it might have seemed quixotic to hope for like conditions in order to discover solar systems other than our own. But these exceptional circumstances have reproduced themselves at different parts of the Heavens.
Thus, for instance, we have seen that the variable star Algol owes its variations in brilliancy, which reduce it from second to fourth magnitude every sixty-nine hours, to the interposition of a body between itself and the Earth, and celestial mechanics has already been able to determine accurately the orbit of this body, its dimensions and its mass, and even the flattening of the sun Algol. Here, then, is a system in which we know the sun and an enormous planet, whose revolution is effected in sixty-nine hours with extreme rapidity, as measured by the spectroscope.
The star δ of Cepheus is in the same case: it is an orb eclipsed in a period of 129 hours, and its eclipsing planet also revolves in the plane of our vision. The variable star in Ophiuchus has an analogous system, and observation has already revealed a great number of others.
Since, then, a certain number of solar systems differing from our own have been revealed, as it were in section, to terrestrial observation, this affords us sufficient evidence of the existence of an innumerable quantity of solar systems scattered through the immensities of space, and we are no longer reduced to conjecture.
On the other hand, analysis of the motions of several stars, such as Sirius, Procyon, Altaïr, proves that these distant orbs have companions,—planets not yet discovered by the telescope, and that perhaps never will be discovered, because they are obscure, and lost in the radiation of the star.
Some savants have asserted that Life can not germinate if the conditions of the environment differ too much from terrestrial conditions.
This hypothesis is purely gratuitous, and we will now discuss it.
In order to examine what is happening on the Earth, let us mount the ladder of time for a moment, to follow the evolutions of Nature.
There was an epoch when the Earth did not exist. Our planet, the future world of our habitation, slept in the bosom of the solar nebula.
At last it came to birth, this cherished Earth, a gaseous, luminous ball, poor reflection of the King of Orbs, its parent. Millions of years rolled by before the condensation and cooling of this new globe were sufficiently transformed to permit life to manifest itself in its most rudimentary aspects.
The first organic forms of the protoplasm, the first aggregations of cells, the protozoons, the zoophytes or plant-animals, the gelatinous mussels of the still warm seas, were succeeded by the fishes, then by the reptiles, the birds, the mammals, and lastly man, who at present occupies the top of the genealogical tree, and crowns the animal kingdom.
Humanity is comparatively young upon the Earth. We may attribute some thousands of centuries of existence to it ... and some five years of reason!
The terrestrial organisms, from the lowest up to man, are the resultant of the forces in action at the surface of our planet. The earliest seem to have been produced by the combinations of carbon with hydrogen and nitrogen; they were, so to speak, without animation, save for some very rudimentary sensibility; the sponges, corals, polyps, and medusæ, give us a notion of these primitive beings. They were formed in the tepid waters of the primary epoch. As long as there were no continents, no islands emerging from the level of the universal ocean, there were no beings breathing in the air. The first aquatic creatures were succeeded by the amphibia, the reptiles. Later on were developed the mammals and the birds.
What, again, do we not owe to the plant-world of the primary epoch, of the secondary epoch, of the tertiary epoch, which slowly prepared the good nutritious soil of to-day, in which the roses flourish, and the peach and strawberry ripen?
Before it gave birth to a Helen or a Cleopatra, life manifested itself under the roughest forms, and in the most varied conditions. A long-period comet passing in sight of the Earth from time to time would have seen modifications of existence in each of its transits, in accordance with a slow evolution, corresponding to the variation of the conditions of existence, and progressing incessantly, for if Life is the goal of nature, Progress is the supreme law.
The history of our planet is the history of life, with all its metamorphoses. It is the same for all the worlds, with some exceptions of orbs arrested in their development.
The constitution of living beings is in absolute relation with the substances of which they are composed, the environment in which they move, temperature, light, weight, density, the length of day and night, the seasons, etc.—in a word, with all the cosmographic elements of a world.
If, for example, we compare between themselves two worlds such as the Earth and Neptune, utterly different from the point of view of distance from the Sun, we could not for an instant suppose that organic structures could have followed a parallel development on these planets. The average temperature must be much lower on Neptune than on the Earth, and the same holds for intensity of light. The years and seasons there are 165 times longer than with us, the density of matter is three times as weak, and weight is, on the contrary, a little greater. Under conditions so different from our own, the activities of Nature would have to translate themselves under other forms. And doubtless the elementary bodies would not be found there in the same proportions. Consequently we have to conclude that organs and senses would not be the same there as here. The optic nerve, for instance, which has formed and developed here from the rudimentary organ of the trilobite to the marvels of the human eye, must be incomparably more sensitive upon Neptune than in our dazzling solar luminosity, in order to perceive radiations that we do not perceive here. In all probability, it is replaced there by some other organ. The lungs, functioning there in another atmosphere, are different from our own. So, too, for the stomach and digestive organs. Corporeal forms, animal and human, can not resemble those which exist upon the Earth.
Certain savants contend that if the conditions differed too much from terrestrial conditions, life could not be produced there at all. Yet we have no right to limit the powers of Nature to the narrow bounds of our sphere of observation, and to pretend that our planet and our Humanity are the type of all the worlds. That is a hypothesis as ridiculous as it is childish.
Do not let us be "personal," like children, and old people who never see beyond their room. Let us learn to live in the Infinite and the Eternal.
From this larger point of view, the doctrine of the plurality of worlds is the complement and the natural crown of Astronomy. What interests us most in the study of the Universe is surely to know what goes on there.
These considerations show that, in all the ages, what really constitutes a planet is not its skeleton but the life that vibrates upon its surface.
And again, if we analyze things, we see that for the Procession of Nature, life is all, and matter nothing.
What has become of our ancestors, the millions of human beings who preceded us upon this globe? Where are their bodies? What is left of them? Search everywhere. Nothing is left but the molecules of air, water, dust, atoms of hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc., which are incorporated in turn in the organism of every living being.
The whole Earth is a vast cemetery, and its finest cities are rooted in the catacombs. But now, in crossing Paris, I passed for at least the thousandth time near the Church of St. Germain-l'Auxerrois, and was obliged to turn out of the direct way, on account of excavations. I looked down, and saw that immediately below the pavement, they had just uncovered some stone coffins still containing the skeletons that had reposed there for ten centuries. From time immemorial the passers-by had trampled them unwittingly under foot. And I reflected that it is much the same in every quarter of Paris. Only yesterday, some Roman tombs and a coin with the effigy of Nero were found in a garden near the Observatory.
And from the most general standpoint of Life, the whole world is in the same case, and even more so, seeing that all that exists, all that lives, is formed of elements that have already been incorporated in other beings, no longer living. The roses that adorn the bosom of the fair ... but I will not enlarge upon this topic.
And you, so strong and virile, of what elements is your splendid body formed? Where have the elements you absorb to-day in respiration and assimilation been drawn from, what lugubrious adventures have they been subject to? Think away from it: do not insist on this point: on no account consider it....
And yet, let us dwell on it, since this reality is the most evident demonstration of the ideal; since what exists is you, is all of us, is Life; and matter is only its substance, like the materials of a house, and even less so, since its particles only pass rapidly through the framework of our bodies. A heap of stones does not make a house. Quintillions of tons of materials would not represent the Earth or any other world.
Yes, what really exists, what constitutes a complete orb, is the city of Life. Let us recognize that the flower of life flourishes on the surface of our planet, embellishing it with its perfume; that it is just this life that we see and admire,—of which we form part,—and which is the raison d'être of things; that matter floats, and crosses, and crosses back again, in the web of living beings,—and the reality, the goal, is not matter—it is the life matter is employed upon.
Yes, matter passes, and being also, after sharing in the concerted symphony of life.
And indeed everything passes rapidly!
What irrepressible grief, what deep melancholy, what ineffaceable regrets we feel, when as age comes on we look back, when we see our friends fallen upon the road one after the other, above all when we visit the beloved scenes of our childhood, those homes of other years, that witnessed our first start in terrestrial existence, our first games, our first affections—those affections of childhood that seemed eternal—when we wander over those fields and valleys and hills, when we see again the landscape whose aspect has hardly changed, and whose image is so intimately linked with our first impressions. There near this fireside the grandfather danced us on his knee, and told us blood-curdling stories; here the kind grandmother came to see if we were comfortably tucked in, and not likely to fall out of the big bed; in this little wood, along these alleys that seemed endless, we spread our nets for birds; in this stream we fished for crayfish; there on the path we played at soldiers with our elders, who were always captains; on these slopes we found rare stones and fossils, and mysterious petrifactions; on this hill we admired the fine sunsets, the appearance of the stars, the form of the constellations. There we began to live, to think, to love, to form attachments, to dream, to question every problem, to breathe intellectually and physically. And now, where is this beloved grandfather? the good grandmother? where are all whom we knew in infancy? where are our dreams of childhood? Winged thoughts still seem to flutter in the air, and that is all. People, caresses, voices, all have gone and vanished. The cemetery has closed over them all. There is a silent void. Were all those fine and sunny hours an illusion? Was it only to weep one day over this negation that our childish hearts were so tenderly attached to these fleeting shadows? Is there nothing, down the long length of human history, but eternal delusion?
It is here, above all, that we find ourselves in presence of the greatest problems. Life is the goal, it is Life that produces the conditions of Thought. Without Thought, where would be the Universe?
We feel that without life and thought, the Universe would be an empty theater, and Astronomy itself, sublime science, a vain research. We feel that this is the truth, veiled as yet to actual science, and that human races kindred with our own exist there in the immensities of space. Yes, we feel that this is truth.
But we would fain go a little further in our knowledge of the universe, and penetrate in some measure the secret of our destinies. We would know if these distant and unknown Humanities are not attached to us by mysterious cords, if our life, which will assuredly be extinguished at some definite moment here below, will not be prolonged into the regions of Eternity.
A moment ago we said that nothing is left of the body. Millions of organisms have lived, there are no remains of them. Air, water, smoke, dust. Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem revertebis. Remember oh man! that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return, says the priest to the faithful, when he scatters the ashes on the day after the carnival.
The body disappears entirely. It goes where the corpse of Cæsar went an hour after the extinction of his pyre. Nor will there be more remains of any of us. And the whole of Humanity, and the Earth itself, will also disappear one day. Let no one talk of the Progress of Humanity as an end! That would be too gross a decoy.
If the soul were also to disappear in smoke, what would be left of the vital and intellectual organization of the world? Nothing.
On this hypothesis, all would be reduced to nothing.
Our reason is not immense, our terrestrial faculties are sufficiently limited, but this reason and these faculties suffice none the less to make us feel the improbability, the absurdity, of this hypothesis, and we reject it as incompatible with the sublime grandeur of the spectacle of the universe.
Undoubtedly, Creation does not seem to concern itself with us. It proceeds on its inexorable course without consulting our sensations. With the poet we regret the implacable serenity of Nature, opposing the irony of its smiling splendor to our mourning, our revolts, and our despair.
Que peu de temps suffit pour changer toutes choses!
Nature au front serein, comme vous oubliez!
Et comme vous brisez dans vos métamorphoses
Les fils mystérieux où nos cœurs sont liés.
D'autres vont maintenant passer où nous passâmes;
Nous y sommes venus, d'autres vont y venir,
Et le songe qu'avaient ébauché nos deux âmes,
Ils le continueront sans pouvoir le finir.
Car personne ici-bas ne termine et n'acheve;
Les pires des humains sont comme les meilleurs;
Nous nous éveillons tous au même endroit du rêve:
Tout commence en ce monde et tout finit ailleurs.
Répondez, vallon pur, répondez, solitude!
O Nature, abritée en ce désert si beau,
Quand nous serons couchés tous deux, dans l'attitude
Que donne aux morts pensifs la forme du tombeau,
Est-ce que vous serez à ce point insensible,
De nous savoir perdus, morts avec nos amours,
Et de continuer votre fête paisible
Et de toujours sourire et de chanter toujours?
How brief a time suffices for all things to change! Serene-fronted Nature, too soon you will forget!... in your metamorphoses ruthlessly snapping the cords that bind our hearts together!
Others will pass where we pass; we have arrived, and others will arrive after us: the thought sketched out by our souls will be pursued by theirs ... and they will not find the solution of it.
For no one here begins or finishes: the worst are as the best of humans; we all awake at the same moment of the dream: we all begin in this world, and end otherwhere.
Reply, sweet valley, reply, solitude; O Nature, sheltering in this splendid desert, when we are both asleep, and cast by the tomb into the attitude of pensive death.
Will you to the last verge be so insensible, that, knowing us lost, and dead with our loves, you will pursue your cheerful feast, and smile, and sing always?
Yes, mortals may say that when they are sleeping in the grave, spring and summer will still smile and sing; husband and wife may ask themselves if they will meet again some day, in another sphere; but do we not feel that our destinies can not be terminated here, and that short of absolute and final nonentity for everything, they must be renewed beyond, in that starry Heaven to which every dream has flown instinctively since the first origins of Humanity?
As our planet is only a province of the Infinite Heavens, so our actual existence is only a stage in Eternal Life. Astronomy, by giving us wings, conducts us to the sanctuary of truth. The specter of death has departed from our Heaven. The beams of every star shed a ray of hope into our hearts. On each sphere Nature chants the pæan of Life Eternal.