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Its apparent magnitudes in the vaulted roof are as its apparent elevations; and it is the same with the moon, and with a comet.*
It is not habit, it is not the intervention of tracts of land, it is not the refraction of the atmosphere which produce this effect. Malebranche and Regis have disputed with each other on the subject; but Robert Smith has calculated.t
Observe the two stars, which, being at a prodigious distance from each other, and at very different depths, in the immensity of space, are here considered as placed in the circle which the sun appears to traverse. You perceive them distant from each other in the great circle, but approximating to each other in every circle smaller, or within that described by the path of the
It is in this manner that you see the material heaven. It is by these invariable laws of optics that you perceive the planets sometimes retrograde and sometimes stationary; there is in fact nothing of the kind. Were you stationed in the sun, we should perceive all the planets and comets moving regularly round it in those elliptic orbits which God assigns. But we are upon the planet of the earth, in a corner of the universe, where it is impossible for us to enjoy the sight of every thing.
Let us not then blame the errors of our senses, like Malebranche; the steady laws of nature originating in the immutable will of the Almighty, and adapted to the structure of our organs, cannot be errors.
We can only see the appearances of things, and not things themselves. We are no more deceived when the sun, the work of the divinity—that star a million times larger than our earth—appears to us quite flat and two feet in width, than when, in a convex mirror, which is the work of our own hands, we see a man only a few inches high.
* See Smith's “ Optics."
+ The opinion of Smith is fundamentally the same as that of Malebranche. Since the stars at the zenith, and at the horizon, are seen under an angle nearly equal, the apparent difference in size can arise only from the same cause as induces us to judge a body of a hundred cubic inches, when seen at the distance of a hundred feet, larger than a body of a single cubic inclı, when seen at the distance of a single foot; and this cause can be no other than a conclusion of the mind become habitual, and of which, on that very account, we have ceased to retain a distinct conscious
If the Chaldean Magi were the first who employed the understanding, which God bestowed upon them, to measure and arrange in their respective stations the heavenly bodies, other nations more gross and unintelligent made no advance towards imitating them.
These childish and savage populations imagined the earth to be flat, supported, I know not how, by its own weight in the air; the sun, moon, and stars to move continually upon a solid vaulted roof called a firmament; and this roof to sustain waters, and have floodgates at regular distances, through which these waters issued to moisten and fertilise the earth.
But how did the sun, the moon, and all the stars, reappear after their sitting? Of this they know nothing at all.
The heaven touched the flat earth; and there were no means by which the sun, moon, and stars, could turn under the earth, and go to rise in the east after having set in the west. It is true, that these children of ignorance were right by chance in not entertaining the idea that the sun and fixed stars moved round the earth. But they were far from conceiving that the sun was immoveable, and the earth with its satellite revolving round him in space together with the other planets. Their fables were more distant from the true system of the world than darkness from light.
They thought the sun and stars returned by cera tain unknown roads after having refreshed themselves for their course at some spot, not precisely ascertained, in the Mediterranean sea. This was the amount of astronomy, even in the time of Homer, who is comparatively recent; for the Chaldeans kept their science to themselves, in order to obtain thereby greater respect from other nations. Homer says, more than once, that the sun plunges into the ocean (and this ocean, be it observed, is nothing but the Nile): here, by the freshness of the waters, he repairs during the night the fatigue and exhaustion of the day, after which, he goes to the place of his regular rising by ways unknown to mortals. This idea is very like that of baron Foneste, who says, that the cause of our not seeing the sun when he goes back, is that he goes back by night.
As, at that time, the nations of Syria and the Greeks were somewhat acquainted with Asia and a small part of Europe, and had no notion of the countries which lie to the north of the Euxine sea and to the south of the Nile, they laid it down as a certainty that the earth was a full third longer than it was wide; consequently the heaven, which touched the earth and embraced it, was also more long than wide. Hence came down to us degrees of longitude and latitude, names which we have always retained, although with far more correct ideas than those which originally suggested them.
The book of Job, composed by an ancient Arab who possessed some knowledge of astronomy, since he speaks of the constellations, contains nevertheless the following passage: “ Where wert thou, when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who hath taken the dimensions thereof? On what are its foundations fixed ? Who hath laid the corner-stone thereof?”.
The least informed schoolboy, at the present day, would tell him, in answer: The earth has neither corner-stone nor foundation; and, as to its dimensions, we know them perfectly well, as from Magellan to Bougainville, various navigators have sailed round it. The same schoolboy would put to silence the
pompous declaimer Lactantius, and all those who before and since his time have decided that the earth was fixed
upon the water, and that there can be no heaven under the earth; and that, consequently, it is both ridiculous and impious to suppose the existence of antipodes.
It is curious to observe with what disdain, with what contemptuous pity, Lactantius looks down upon all the philosophers, who, from about four hundred years before his time, had begun to be acquainted with the
apparent revolutions of the sun and planets, with the roundness of the earth, and the liquid and yielding nature of the heaven through which the planets revolved in their orbits, &c. He enquires, “ by what degrees philosophers attained such excess of folly as to conceive the earth to be a globe, and to surround that globe with heaven.'
These reasonings are upon a par with those he has adduced on the subject of the sibyls.
Our young scholar would address some such language as this to all these consequential doctors : “ You are to learn, that there are no such things as solid heavens placed one over another, as you have been told ; that there are no real circles in which the stars move on a pretended firmament; that the sun is the centre of our planetary world ; and that the earth and the planets move round it in space, in orbits not circular but elliptic. You must learn that there is, in fact, neither above nor below, but that the planets and the comets tend all towards the sun, their common centre, and that the sun tends towards them, according to an eternal law of gravitation."
Lactantius and his gabbling associates would be perfectly astonished, when the true system of the world was thus unfolded to them.
HEAVEN OF THE ANCIENTS.
Were a silkworm to denominate the small quantity of downy substance surrounding its ball, heaven, it would reason just as correctly as all the ancients, when they applied that term to the atmosphere; which, as M. de Fontenelle has well observed, in his “ Plurality of Worlds,” is the down of our ball.
* Lactantius, book iii. chap. xxiv. ; and the clergy of France, solemnly assembled, in the year 1770, seriously cited, as a father of the church, this very Lactantius, whom the pupils of the school of Alexandria, in his own time, would have absolutely laughed at, if they had happened to cast their eyes upon his contemptible rhapsodies.
vapours which rise from our seas and land, and which form the clouds, meteors, and thunder, were supposed, in the early ages of the world, to be the residence of gods. Homer always makes the gods descend in clouds of gold; and hence painters still represent them seated on a cloud. How can any one be seated on water? It was perfectly correct to place the master of the gods more at ease than the rest : He had an eagle to carry him, because the eagle soars higher than the other birds.
The ancient Greeks, observing that the lords of cities resided in citadels on the top of some mountain, supposed that the gods might also have their citadel, and placed it in Thessaly, on Mount Olympus, whose summit is sometimes hid in clouds; so that their palace was on the same floor with their heaven.
Afterwards, the stars and planets, which appear fixed to the blue vault of our atmosphere, became the abodes of gods;
of them had each a planet, and the rest found a lodging where they could. The general council of gods was held in a spacious hall which lay beyond the milky way; for it was but reasonable that the gods should have a hall in the air, as men had town-halls and courts of assembly upon earth.
When the Titans, a species of animal between gods and men, declared their just and necessary war against these same gods, in order to recover a part of their patrimony, by the father's side, as they were the sons of heaven and earth; they contented themselves with piling two or three mountains upon one another, thinking, that would be quite enough to make them masters of heaven, and of the castle of Olympus.
Neve foret terris securior arduus æther,
Ovid's Metamorph. i. 151–153.