We talk about the world moving ‘fast’ today but Europe in the 18th century must have been faster. Yes, these express technological developments are blinding and who knows how long it will take for us to finally understand what has been happening for the last 20 years or so, but Europe in the 18th century must have been at a different level purely due to the amount of ideas being thrown around — new ideas about ourselves, our world, new ideas about ideas!
It was the time after the Renaissance and giant thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Leibniz; time of men of science such as Kepler, Hooke and Newton. New interpretations of classic ideas were happening, art was developing, science was emerging and philosophy was changing — humanity was becoming something new!
It was in this mood that one of the definers of that space-time, the most popular interpreter of those years and people emerged: Voltaire and it was in this mood that his classic Micromégas appeared.
I had read on Wikipedia that this particular work of fiction was science fiction but my preconception got the better of me and it told me it was an exaggeration— after all what kind of science fiction could an 18th century philosopher write when science wasn’t even SCIENCE yet!
But I was surprised (and angry at myself at this habit of preconception).
This short story is about an inhabitant of a planet that revolves around Sirius — which is 24,000 times bigger than the Earth. His name is Mr. Micromégas. He is big (24000 geometrical paces of five feet each), he is old (600 years of age). He is a philosopher!
After being trialled for heretical observations he decides to travel the universe:
…sometimes by the help of a sunbeam, and sometimes by the convenience of a comet, he and his retinue glided from sphere to sphere, as the bird hops from one bough to another. He in a very little time posted through the milky way…
He reaches to the planet Saturn and notices that the inhabitants there were mere dwarfs compared to him (about a thousand fathoms high.) There he befiends the secretary of the Academy and they begin travelling together.
They slip from moon to moon and spring upon passing comets and they reach Jupiter. There they learn some secrets and leave. They traverse about one hundred million leagues and see two moons on Mars. They do not stay on Mars because they think it would be too small to accommodate them. So they continue on. Until…they are tired and want to rest. This is where they notice the Earth. There they resolve to land. They move toward the tail of a comet and finding an Aurora Borealis they embark. They arrive on the northern coast of the Baltic on the fifth day of July in the year 1737.
On Earth they encounter whales and think it to be the ruling animals. Finally, they encounter humans who are obviously visible to them only through microscopes and audible to them only through certain creative mechanisms. They do not believe that such small creatures could possess intelligence. They talk to humans and ask questions like — if they were happy, if they were inspired with souls, etc.
A human mathematician, astounded by the questions, measures them which makes them realize that one should not judge things by its external magnitude.
Then they begin conversing with philosophers and learn from them that the Earth-humans fight with each other a lot for leaders who never go to the place of conflict by wretches who possibly never behold the leaders who tell them to sacrifice.
Hearing about the barabarians who rule from their palaces, give orders for murdering millions the Sirian is fillied with compassion for the human race. He then recognizing that there are only few who are wise in the entire species, he asks questions about mathematics and science. Hearing the answers, he is impressed. And then he asks them about soul:
Tell me what is the soul, and how do your ideas originate?
What follows after this question is bombardment of ideas from the philosophers. Some quote Aristotle and some Descartes, some Mallebranche and some Leibniz and Locke. But all present different opinions.
A person tells them he can answer all the secrets (which was contained in the abridgment of St. Thomas) and after he surveys them from top to toe, he says that they too were made for the use of man!
When leaving, the Sirian presents a book to the humans which he says will demonstrates the very essence of things.
What he writes in that book, I will not write here. I suggest you read, or rather experience the work yourself.
All in all I think this book manages to beautifully illustrate the speed of that age in Europe — the variety, the hope and the excitement from all the intellectual developments happening. We humans tend to get carried away a lot. It is happening today as well, with our scientific and technological progress.
After reading this book I have realized that this is nothing new. I consider 18th century Europe to be crazier and more full of doubts and imaginations than today. It was a dangerous time, for it was a time where ideas and idea-generators were popular. Anything could have been thought, imagined and envisioned. Things could have gone anywhere, but it has reached here. Voltaire surely was influential in all this.