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It is, however, more than six hundred leagues from these stars to Mount Olympus, and from some stars infinitely farther.
Virgil (Eclogue v. 57.) does not hesitate to say,—
Sub pedibusque videt nubes et sidera Daphnis.
And far beneath him, from the shining sphere
Beholds the morning clouds, and roiling year.-Dryden. But where then could Daphnis possibly place himself?
At the opera, and in more serious productions, the gods are introduced descending in the midst of tempests, clouds and thunder; that is, God is brought forward in the midst of the vapours of our petty globe. These notions are so suitable to our weak minds, that they appear to us grand and sublime.
This philosophy of children and old women was of prodigious antiquity; it is believed, however, that the Chaldeans entertained nearly as correct ideas as ourselves on the subject of what is called heaven. They placed the sun in the midst of our planetary system, nearly at the same distance from our globe as our calculation computes it; and they supposed the earth and some planets to revolve round that star; this we learn from Aristarchus of Samos. It is nearly the system of the world since established by Copernicus: but the philosophers kept the secret to themselves, in order to obtain greater respect both from kings and people, or rather perhaps, to avoid the danger of persecution.
The language of error is so familiar to mankind, that we still apply the name of heaven to our vapours, and the space between the earth and moon. We use the expression of ascending to heaven, just as we say the sun turns round, although we well know that it does not. We are, probably, the heaven of the inhabitants of the moon; and every planet places its heaven in that planet nearest to itself.
Had Homer been asked, to what heaven the soul of Sarpedon had fled, or where that of Hercules re
sided, Homer would have been a good deal embarrassed, and would have answered by some harmonious verses.
What assurance could there be, that the etherial soul of Hercules would be more at its ease in the planet Venus or in Saturn, than upon our own globe? Could its mansion be in the sun? In that flaming and consuming furnace, it would appear difficult for it to endure its station. In short, what was it that the ancients meant by heaven? They knew nothing about it; they were always exclaiming " Heaven and earth," thus placing completely different things in most absurd connection. It would be just as judicious to exclaim, and connect in the same manner, infinity and an atom. Properly speaking, there is no heaven. There is a prodigious number of globes revolving in the immensity of space, and our globe revolves like the rest.
The ancients thought, that to go to heaven was to ascend; but there is no ascent from one globe to another. The heavenly bodies are sometimes above our horizon, and sometimes below it. Thus, let us suppose that Venus, after visiting Paphos, should return to her own planet, when that planet had set; the goddess would not in that case ascend, in reference to our horizon; she would descend, and the proper expression would be then, descended to heaven. But the ancients did not discriminate with such nicety; on every subject of natural philosophy, their notions were vague, uncertain and contradictory. Volumes have been composed in order to ascertain and point out, what they thought upon many questions of this description. Six words would have been sufficient- 66 they did not think at all." We must always except a small number of sages; but they appeared at too late a period, and but rarely disclosed their thoughts; and when they did so, the charlatans in power took care to send them to heaven by the shortest way.
A writer, if I am not mistaken, of the name of Pluche, has been recently exhibiting Moses as a great natural philosopher; another writer had pre
viously harmonized Moses with Descartes, and published a book, which he called "Cartesius Mosaisans;" according to him, Moses was the real inventor of "Vortices," and the subtle matter; but we full well know, that when God made Moses a great legislator and prophet, it was no part of his scheme to make him also a professor of physics. Moses instructed the Jews in their duty, and did not teach them a single word of philosophy. Calmet, who compiled a great deal, but never reasoned at all, talks of the system of the Hebrews; but that stupid people never had any system. They had not even a school of geometry; the very name was utterly unknown to them. The whole of their science was comprised in money changing and usury.
We find in their books ideas on the structure of heaven, confused, incoherent, and in every respect worthy of a people immersed in barbarism. Their first heaven was the air, the second the firmament in which the stars were fixed. This firmament was solid and made of glass, and supported the superior waters which issued from the vast reservoirs by food-gates, sluices, and cataracts, at the time of the deluge.
Above the firmament or these superior waters was the third heaven, or the empyreum, to which St. Paul was caught up. The firmament was a sort of demivault which came close down to the earth.
It is clear that, according to this opinion, there could be no antipodes. Accordingly, St. Augustin treats the idea of antipodes as an absurdity; and Lactantius, whom we have already quoted, expressly says 66 can there possibly be any persons so simple as to believe that there are men whose heads are lower than their feet?" &c.
St. Chrysostom exclaims, in his fourteenth homily, "Where are they who pretend that the heavens are moveable, and that their form is circular?"
Lactantius, once more, says, in the third book of his Institutions, "I could prove to you by many arguments that it is impossible heaven should surround the earth."
The author of the "Spectacle of Nature" may repeat to M. le Chevalier as often as he pleases, that Lanctantius and St. Crysostom are great philosophers. He will be told in reply that they were great saints; and that to be a great saint, it is not at all necessary to be a great astronomer. It will be believed that they are in heaven, although it will be admitted to be impossible to say precisely in what part of it.
INFERNUM, subterranean; the regions below, or the infernal regions. Nations which buried the dead placed them in the inferior or infernal regions. Their soul, then, was with them in those regions. Such were the first physics and the first metaphysics of the Egyptians and Greeks.
The Indians, who were far more ancient, who had invented the ingenious doctrine of the metempsychosis, never believed that souls existed in the infernal. regions.
The Japanese, Coreans, Chinese, and the inhabitants of the vast territory of eastern and western Tartary, never knew a word of the philosophy of the infernal regions.
The Greeks, in the course of time, constituted an immense kingdom of these infernal regions, which they liberally conferred on Pluto and his wife Proserpine. They assigned them three privy counsellors, three house-keepers called Furies, and three Fates to spin, wind, and cut the thread of human life. And, as in ancient times, every hero had his dog to guard his gate, so was Pluto attended and guarded by an immense dog with three heads; for everything, it seems, was to be done by threes. Of the three privy counsellors, Minos, acus, and Rhadamanthus, one judged Greece, another Asia Minor (for the Greeks were then unacquainted with the Greater Asia), and the third was for Europe.
The poets, having invented these infernal regions, or hell, were the first to laugh at them. Sometimes Vir
gil mentions hell in the Æniad in a style of seriousness, because that style was then suitable to his subject. Sometimes he speaks of it with contempt in his Georgics (ii. 490, &c.)
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas
The following lines from the Troad (chorus of act ii.) in which Pluto, Cerberus, Phlegethon, Styx, &c. are treated like dreams and childish tales, were repeated in the theatre of Rome, and applauded by forty thousand hands:
Lucretius and Horace express themselves equally strong. Cicero and Seneca used similar language in innumerable parts of their writings. The great emperor Marcus Aurelius reasons still more philosophically than all those I have mentioned.* "He who fears death, fears either to be deprived of all senses, or to experience other sensations. But, if you no longer retain your own senses, you will be no longer subject to any pain or grief. If you have senses of a different nature you will be a totally different being."
To this reasoning, profane philosophy had nothing to reply. Yet, agreeably to that contradiction or per-verseness which distinguishes the human species, and seems to constitute the very foundation of our nature, at the very time when Cicero publicly declared, that "not even an old woman was to be found who believed in such absurdities," Lucretius admitted that these ideas were very powerfully impressive upon men's minds; his object, he says, is to destroy them:—
* Book viii. No. 62.