4 : What is a Burglar in Infinity?

Cyrano and Monsieur de Montmagny continue their seminar. The discussion of the earth’s rotation ends with what amounts to a joke. The conversation turns to much more far-reaching considerations, as the two gentlemen look outward, to interstellar space...

“The explanation of the two other motions is even less complicated. Now, if you will...”

At these words Monsieur de Montmagny interrupted: “I would just as soon save you the trouble. I have read a few books by Gassendi on the subject. Rather, hear me out on what one of our priests told me once in support of your opinion. He said, ‘Yes, I think the earth does rotate, but not for the reasons Copernicus gives. Hellfire, as the Holy Scripture teaches us, is enclosed in the center of the earth. The damned want to flee the heat of the flame and climb up to the ceiling to get away from it. They make the earth turn like a dog in a running wheel’.”

For a while we praised the zeal of the good priest. When Monsieur de Montmagny had finished his panegyric, he told me he was very surprised that such an unlikely system as Ptolemy’s was so widely received.

“Monsieur,” I answered, “most men judge only by their senses and let themselves be persuaded by what they see. Just as the man whose boat sails from shore to shore thinks he is stationary and that the shore moves, men turn with the earth under the sky and have believed that the sky was turning above them. On top of that, insufferable vanity has convinced humans that nature has been made only for them, as though the sun, a huge body four hundred and thirty-four times as large as the earth, had been lit only to ripen our crab apples and cabbages.

“I am not one to give in to the insolence of those brutes. I think the planets are worlds revolving around the sun and that the fixed stars are also suns that have planets revolving around them. We can’t see those worlds from here because they are so small and because the light they reflect cannot reach us. How can one honestly think that such spacious globes are only large, deserted fields? And that our world was made to lord it over all of them just because a dozen or so vain wretches like us happen to be crawling around on it? Do people really think that because the sun gives us light every day and year, it was made only to keep us from bumping into walls? No, no, this visible God gives light to man by accident, as a king’s torch accidentally shines upon a working man or burglar passing in the street.”

“But,” said Monsieur de Montmagny, “if the fixed stars are suns, as you say, one could conclude that the universe is infinite, because the people of the worlds revolving around the fixed star you call a sun would very likely discover other fixed stars in their skies, ones we cannot see from here, and so on to eternity.”

“Do not doubt it,” I answered. “As God has made the soul immortal, he has made the universe infinite, if it is true that eternity is nothing other than unlimited duration and infinity is space without limits. Suppose the universe were not infinite: God himself would be finite, because he could not be where there is nothing, and he could not increase the size of the universe without adding to his own size and come to be where he had not been before. Therefore we must believe that, just as we see Saturn and Jupiter, if we were on either one of those planets we would discover many worlds that we do not see from here, and that the same is true throughout the universe.”

First, my humble apologies to Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) for the title of this episode. It is a blatant... theft... from one of the best-known of his Pensées, the essay on the “two infinities,” where Pascal takes Cyrano’s vision to its logical conclusion:

Car enfin, qu’est-ce que l’homme dans la nature ? Un néant à l’égard de l’infini, un tout à l’égard du néant, un milieu entre rien et tout.

‘Finally, then, what is man in nature? Nothing with respect to infinity; everything with respect to nothingness; a middle ground between nothing and everything.’

“God gives light to man by accident”: Cyrano and his host are most interested in the implications of space that extends beyond man’s view, but the concept of accident is a philosophical “sleeper”: Cyrano would have relished Darwin’s discoveries, the rise of existentialism, and the controversy over Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium.” Cyrano shows quite forcefully that today’s debates over “creationism” and “intelligent design” are political rear-guard actions waged by those who follow the priest whom Monsieur de Montmagny cites.

As for that fictional priest, Cyrano says, “We praised him,” but Cyrano is just being ironically polite. He seems to let Monsieur de Montmagny do the panegyricizing.