28: Go to the Cabbage, and Be Wise.

The cabbage has always been considered wholesome and, in Antiquity, it was thought to have medicinal properties. Modern science has found that both the ancients and popular belief were on the right track; it is indeed quite nutritious. In modern French, the word chou can even be used as a term of endearment. Now, after the Sun-being’s impassioned tirade, how can Cyrano enjoy his dinner?

We stretched out on very soft mattresses covered with large rugs. The odors came to us as before, at the hotel. A young servant took the oldest of our philosophers and led him into a small room off to the side.

“Come back when you’ve finished dinner,” our preceptor called out to him. He promised to do so.

This odd notion of dining separately aroused my curiosity, and I asked the reason for it.

“I’m told he does not partake of the odor of meat or even that of vegetables that have not perished naturally, because he thinks they are capable of feeling pain.”

“I am not very surprised,” I replied, “that he abstains from meat or anything that has had a life with sensation. In our world, the Pythagoreans and even a few religious hermits adopted that diet. But not to cut up a cabbage, for example, for fear of hurting it seems completely ridiculous to me.”

“And I find his opinion quite reasonable,” answered my familiar spirit. “Tell me, is the cabbage you mention not as much a creature of God as you? Do you not both have God and potentiality for your father and mother? For all eternity has God not occupied His intellect with the cabbage’s birth as well as yours?

“It also seems that He has necessarily provided more for the birth of the vegetable than for the thinking being. He leaves the procreation of a man up to the whim of his father, who, for his pleasure, may or may not cause him to be conceived.

“However, God has refrained from dealing so severely with the cabbage. He has not left it to the discretion of the father to plant the seed of his son, as though He were more concerned that cabbage species might die out than man might perish. He makes them give being to one another willy-nilly, unlike people, who could not have more than about twenty offspring in their lives. Cabbages, on the other hand, produce four hundred thousand offspring per head.

“However, to say that God has loved man more than cabbages is a joke we tell ourselves. Since God is incapable of passion, He cannot hate or love anyone. And if He were capable of love, He would have more tenderness for this cabbage you’re holding, which cannot offend Him, than for a man who has already given Him cause for insult. Moreover, man cannot be born without guilt, because he is a part of the first man, who made him guilty. But we know full well that the first cabbage did not offend the Creator in the Garden of Eden.

“Will anyone say that we are born in the image of the Sovereign Being, while cabbages are not? Even if it were true, we have effaced that resemblance by soiling our soul in the way in which we resembled Him, because there is nothing more contrary to God than sin. If our soul, then, is no longer His image, we still do not resemble Him by our hands, feet, mouth, face and ears any more than the cabbage does by its leaves, flowers, stem, heart or head.

“Indeed, do you not think that if this poor plant could speak when you are about to cut it, it might not say, ‘Man, my dear brother, what have I done to you to deserve death? I grow only in your gardens, and I am never found in the wild where I might live in safety. I do not deign to be cultivated by other hands than yours, but hardly do I leave your hands than I come back to them. I arise from the earth, I blossom, I extend my arms to you, I offer you my children as seed. And as a reward for my courtesy you cut off my head!’

“That is what the cabbage would say if it could talk. Can we justly do it all the harm it cannot prevent, simply because it can’t complain? If I find a victim tied up, can I kill him without committing a crime simply because he cannot defend himself? On the contrary, my victim’s helplessness would make my cruelty all the worse. However much this unfortunate creature may be poor and lacking in all our advantages, that is no reason it deserves death.

“Indeed, of all the advantages of life it has only that of vegetating, and we rip it away. It is less a sin to kill a man, because he will live again one day, than it is to chop up a cabbage and take its life when it has none other to hope for. You destroy the cabbage’s soul when you kill it but, in killing a man, you simply give him a change of address.

“Moreover, since God, the father of all things, cherishes all His works equally, is it not reasonable that He would have shared His beneficence equally between us and plants? True, we were born first but, in the family of God, age confers no rights. Thus, if cabbages are not granted a share in immortality along with us, then they must have some other advantage that compensates for the brevity of their life.

“Perhaps it is a universal intellect, perhaps a complete knowledge of the causes of all things. That may also be the reason that the wise Prime Mover did not give them organs like ours. For all practical purposes, our organs have only simple powers of reason, and they are often mistaken. Cabbages may have others that are more ingeniously constructed, stronger and more numerous to serve them in their philosophical conversations.

“You may ask me why they have never communicated their great thoughts to us. Tell me, have angels ever taught us more than they? Since there is no proportion, relationship or harmony between man’s imbecilic faculties and those of the divine creatures, these intellectual cabbages would have striven in vain to have us understand the hidden cause of all marvelous events. We lack the senses necessary to receive these great thoughts.

“Moses was the greatest of all philosophers because, as you say, he drew the knowlege of nature from its source in nature itself. He pointed to this truth when he spoke of the Tree of Knowledge; he wanted to use that image to teach us that plants possess perfect philosophy.

“Remember then, you who are the most vainglorious of all animals, that even though the cabbage you cut says not a word to you, it thinks none the less. But the poor vegetable has no mouth to scream, as we do. It cannot tremble or even weep. And yet it has the means to bewail the evil you do to it, and it calls down upon you the vengeance of Heaven. If you ask me how I know that cabbages have these fine thoughts, I will ask you how you know they do not. And how do you know that when a cabbage goes to sleep at night it does not say, ‘I am, Sir Curly Cole, your humble servant, Drumhead Cabbage’.”

Science fiction stories about planets inhabited by intelligent vegetation are far from unknown. In this episode, Cyrano’s guide, the Sun-being, points out one of the difficulties in communicating not only with space aliens but with non-human species on Earth: how do we know they are not talking among themselves or not trying to talk to us, especially if we don’t have the senses required to perceive it? The Sun-being can only say, in effect, “There’s no evidence for it, but denying it is merely another supposition.”

After the Wars of Religion, an uneasy truce prevails in the form of a political compromise: Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes. However, religious tolerance and freedom of speech do not yet exist; Cyrano is brave to have even the Sun-being express unorthodox views.

Some of the radical ideas are outright parody of religious doctrine:

  • Vegetable germination is systematic and profuse compared to human procreation, which is subject to caprice. God must therefore be less concerned with preserving mankind than with preserving cabbages as a species.
  • God must logically favor cabbages, because vegetables cannot be guilty of sin. It is therefore no more plausible that man would embody the image of God than a cabbage would.
  • Since religion promises man immortality, it is less sinful and calamitous to kill a man than to kill a cabbage. Since religion holds that vegetables are denied resurrection, they must therefore have some compensating advantage, such as an intellect superior to man’s.
  • Man is caught between the non-human (e.g. vegetables) and the supernatural (e.g. angels) and is unable to communicate with either realm.

However, the implications are interesting, to say the least. Two, in particular, emerge from this theology turned upside down:

  • The concept of the organic unity of nature.
  • Radical tolerance: if a cabbage deserves so much respect because we cannot prove or disprove that it thinks and feels, what do people deserve, when we know they do?

Although the Sun-being makes an eloquent appeal to learning about nature from nature, his argument parodies the a priori reasoning of medieval theologians; he admits it is not based on empirical data. In contrast, Proverbs 6:6-8 (“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise”) enjoins learning from observation.

Be that as it may, this episode could serve as a space explorers’ training-manual lesson in first contact. Be careful where you tread and what you eat; what looks like a cabbage may be a philosopher.