31: Place Your Bets!

The son of Cyrano’s dinner host has just explained the quite astounding mobility of the Moon’s architecture. Cyrano earnestly asks to hear more. The speaker laughs, but probably less at what Cyrano says than how he says it...

I think he wanted to end his speech at that point, so I spoke up: “Goodness gracious, sir, I would never have thought that such an expert builder could be a philosopher if you hadn’t shown me. Since we are not leaving today, you will have the time to explain to us the eternal origin of the world you mentioned a while ago. In exchange, I promise that as soon as I get home from the Moon — which is where my mentor (I pointed to my familiar spirit) will tell you I come from — I will repeat the fine things you say and enhance your reputation.

“I see you are laughing at this promise, because you do not think the moon is a world and believe even less that I am one of its inhabitants. But I can tell you that the people of that world, who think this one is only a moon, will scoff at me when I tell them their Moon is a world and that the fields here are made of dirt and that you are people.”

He answered only with a smile and began speaking: “When we wish to consider the origin of the universe, we necessarily encounter three or four absurdities. It is therefore quite reasonable to take the path with the fewest obstacles, and the first obstacle is the eternity of the world. The mind of man is not strong enough to conceive of it, nor can it imagine that this great universe, which is so beautiful and well regulated, could have come about of itself.

“Therefore men resort to the Creation. But they are like a man who would dive into a river to keep from getting wet in the rain. They run from the arms of a dwarf and throw themselves upon the mercy of a giant. And even then they do not escape: they take eternity away from the universe because they can’t comprehend it, and they give it to God as though it were easier for them to imagine it in one place rather than another.

“This absurdity, then, or the giant I mentioned, is Creation. Tell me, has anyone ever actually conceived how something could be made from nothing? Alas! Between nothing and only one atom there is such an infinite disproportion that the keenest mind cannot penetrate it. To escape from this inexplicable labyrinth, you will have to admit that matter is as eternal as God. And then you no longer need postulate God, since the world could have existed without him.

“But you will say, ‘Even if I granted you that matter is eternal, how did this chaos become organized, all by itself?’ Aha! I will tell you. You must, my little animal, first mentally separate each small, visible body into an infinity of small, invisible bodies. Then you must imagine that the infinite Universe is composed of nothing but these infinite atoms. They are very solid, incorruptible and simple. Some are cubical; others are parallelograms; still others are angular, round, pointed, pyramidal, hexagonal or oval. Each acts according to its shape.

“And if you don’t think it is so, put a very round ivory ball on a very flat place. Give it the slightest impetus and it will roll for ten minutes without stopping. Moreover, if it were as perfectly round as some of the atoms I mentioned, it would never stop.

“If artifice can incline an object to perpetual motion, why shall we not believe that nature can do it? The same is true of the other shapes. The square, for example, requires perpetual immobility; others, a sideways motion; still others a half-motion like oscillation. If a round shape, whose nature is to move, happens to join with a pyramidal, it may make what we call fire. Not only does fire keep in motion, it also pierces and penetrates easily.

“Besides that, fire has different effects according to the size and number of angles where the round atoms are joined. For example, the fire of pepper is different from that of sugar; the fire of sugar, from that of cinnamon; the fire of cinnamon, from that of cloves; and the fire of cloves, from that of a burning stick of wood. Fire constructs and destroys the parts of the whole of the Universe. It grows and collects in an oak tree the number of shapes necessary to make up that tree.

“But you will say, ‘How can chance assemble in one place all the things necessary to produce an oak tree?’ My answer is that it would be no miracle if the matter thus arranged had not formed an oak. But it would have been a very great miracle if, once the matter was thus arranged, an oak had not been formed. A few less of some shapes, and it would have been an elm, a poplar, a willow, an elder, heather or moss. A little more of some other shapes and it might have been a sensitive plant, an oyster in its shell, a worm, a fly, a frog, a sparrow, an ape or a man.

“When you throw three dice on a table top and they come up all twos; or three, four and five; or two, six and one, do you say, ‘What a miracle! Each die rolled the same point when so many other points could have come up. What a miracle! The three dice rolled three consecutive numbers. What a miracle! The dice rolled two, six and the face opposite six!’ I am very sure that as an intelligent man you would not make those exclamations. Since there are only so many numbers on the dice, one of them had to turn up.”

Readers in the 21st century will find that the Moon-being’s account of ancient atomic theory and an implied theory of genetics are not only strikingly modern, they’re also very pretty; the ideas might have inspired an Expressionist painter, such as Kandinsky.

However, the atomists in general and the Epicureans in particular met with fierce hostility from the followers of Plato, Aristotle and others for well over two thousand years. Cyrano has a Moon-being expound the philosophy because its anti-authoritarian empiricism still makes it dangerously radical and unorthodox. A century later, Isaac Newton will quote Lucretius extensively in his Principia on the topic of inertia, but he will try to distance himself from the atheism implicit in Epicurean philosophy.