Friday, August 19, 2016

From Way up Here

If you were lifted high enough above the earth to see it all at once, what would it look like? This question has nagged human beings for at least two thousand years. It is not only a matter of boyish curiosity. Seeing the whole earth, it’s been supposed, gives you a philosophical understanding of the great stage on which the entire human drama plays out. No wonder then that this hypothetical question troubled humankind, and first the Romans, masters of the world.

The earliest use of the trope I can find is in Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, an episode that comes at the very end of his De re publica. In the story Cicero tells, it’s 146 BC, and Scipio, the general at the head of Rome’s African legions, is on the verge of conquering and razing Carthage, vaulting Rome to dominance of the whole known earth. But on the eve of battle he dreams, and is lifted up by the ghost of his grandfather to the Milky Way, from where he sees the orb of the world. He says:
I saw stars which we never see from the ground, and all of their vastness, which we never dreamt could exist. The smallest one was among them, farthest from the height of heaven, shining closest to earth with borrowed light. Now the spheres of the stars easily overwhelmed the size of the earth. And now the earth itself looked so small to me that I was pained at our Empire, by which we have grasped only the tiniest point of it. 
Scipio’s grandfather soon speaks:
You behold the seat and home of men. If it seems small to you – and it is surely small – then look always at the things in heaven, and spurn human affairs! And you, what fame among men, what glory can you gain from the Earth?
It is no accident that this musing comes at the end of a work on politics. Empire-building, which to a Roman made a man into a god, is now seen in its proper context. The great state looks from the ground like it’s the biggest thing; but it’s not even close; seen against the depths of space, it’s just as little and vain as private life.

One hundred years later, Seneca had the same thought, but the zealous Stoic expressed it more fervently and personally than Cicero had:
Happy is the one who wanders among the stars themselves, and laughs at the avenues of riches, and the earth with all its gold…When he travels around the whole world, he can spurn porticos, and ceilings that shine with ivory, and manicured woodlands, and channels of water that pass through mansions. Looking down on the earth from above, narrow and covered with the sea; in a large part ugly, burned, or frozen, he says to himself: This, then, is that point which is split up between so many peoples by fire and sword? Oh, how laughable are the borders of mortals! … If anyone gave the mind of men to ants, would not they too divide a single patch of sand into many provinces? But when you yourself are carried to the true heights of the cosmos, countless times you’ll see armies going about with waving flags, as if something important were happening. ... For the comings and goings of suffering man in such a narrow space are really the scurryings of ants. What separates us from them except the sizes of our tiny bodies? The earth is but a point in which you sail, in which you wage war, in which you set up kingdoms; tiny kingdoms, even if they reach the Ocean on all sides. But there are vast spaces above, which the soul might come to possess so long as she takes as little of the body along with it as possible; if she scours herself of everything base, and if unshackled, light, and happy, she soars calmly upward. Seneca, Naturales Quæstiones, pref. 7–11
Here we have an way out from the earth more clearly outlined. It is impossible to do anything that isn’t petty under the sun, but it is possible to live a life on celestial lines that transcends the mud and pain of the world.

The last example is from Pliny, who interpolated the following paragraph into his Natural History after describing the earth’s parts.
Consider the extent of so many rivers and great swamps; add the lakes, ponds, and heaven-scraping and harsh mountains; add forests, steep valleys, deserts and lands empty for a thousand reasons; take away all these parts from the earth—or, as most say, from the point of the world (for the world is but a point in the cosmos): this is the stuff of our glory; this the seat. Here we struggle for honour; here we exercise power; here we long for wealth; here we enrage the human race; here we wage war, even civil war; here we butcher ourselves to increase our own lands! Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist. II.lxviii.174–5
Another bit of Cicero: “What looks great in human affairs
to a man who knows all eternity and the measure of the earth?”
These examples all tell the same story. The world is a tiny smudge against the background of the entire universe. It is dwarfed both by the physical expanse of space and by the deep well of time that it’s plunged in. It is, in a word, unimportant. The moral consequences of this astronomical observation follow readily: everything that a human being does on earth is futile. Human designs are born in a day and die in a day; and though it seems from the ground that an earthly conquest is vast, or that human happiness is in harmony with the universe, in fact it is all vanity and striving after wind.

Furthermore: for all three of these writers, the vision of the earth should impress on us the desire to transcend the world with our virtue. Nothing in the world stays, but virtue is eternal, or at least allows us to participate in the eternal cosmic order that dwarfs our earth. It is not hard to imagine the Christian application of this principle. For Thomas Browne in the Religio Medici (cf. §12), and for Pascal in his Penseés, the thought of the earth’s smallness was enough to make it contemptible. The tiny earth can perish; eternal God is there lurking outside it, and his human sons can join him.

These thoughts were immensely influential on Western intellectual history. Of course, for two millennia after Cicero wrote the Dream of Scipio, the thought of seeing the world from afar was purely hypothetical, and no one dreamt that it ever might be actually possible. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen, a small group of common tropes was able to grow up around seeing the earth from afar:
  1. The world is a tiny point in the huge and dark universe.
  2. We only inhabit a tiny portion of that point.
  3. Human beings think we can achieve something of cosmic value on the earth. But we are prevented both by our tininess in relation to the earth and the earth’s in relation to the cosmos.
  4. The cruelty committed for the sake of gaining property, fame, and land is therefore utterly pointless.
  5. Human beings, then, must set our minds and lives on higher things than the lowly earth.
It is worth repeating that these five principles were conceived before anyone ever had what we would call an astronomical view of the earth from afar. They were born from an original insight into the vanity and smallness of man’s life, and cultivated by the classical tradition.

This changed in the beginning of 1990, when NASA’s Voyager 1 probe was on the verge of leaving the solar system. Carl Sagan had been nagging NASA for a decade with an odd request: to turn the probe’s cameras around and take a final photograph of the earth, as best as it could be made out from nearly four billion miles away. On 14 February, NASA agreed to his request and ordered the Voyager craft to take the photograph. Here is what its cameras sent home:

That’s us halfway up the rightmost sunbeam.
Sagan said the following about this photograph shortly before his death.
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity—in all this vastness—there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Most of this is in keeping with what we have already seen. Sagan hit points 1–4 of the list which I gave above. He expressed the small-earth commonplace just as beautifully as Cicero had, and reformulated it for twentieth-century humankind, which had just been forced by space-travel to consider anew its own place in space and eternity.

In fact, Sagan’s agreement with the ancients is astonishing. He repeated the Roman commonplaces about the ‘pinprick earth’ so closely that I’m tempted to wonder why he thought it was necessary to take the photograph at all. There are two possibilities for the similarity: first, the sight of the earth from space produced in Sagan’s mind exactly the thoughts which had struck Cicero, Pliny and Seneca. Or Sagan was borrowing, whether consciously or unconsciously, from the classical sources.

The latter is more likely. To show this it’s almost enough to say that Carl Sagan was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago from 1951–4. Chicago undergraduates, as I can attest, read the classics. (That’s /rɛd/—now they’re mostly free to study things like Global Cultures of Exchange.) In that time Sagan wrote a notebook that survives in the Library of Congress. It records Sagan’s notes on dozens of books on philosophy, stretching from Aristotle to Max Weber. This document reveals an wide-ranging mind, or at least a mind that had been exposed to an admirably broad curriculum. Here was a young man for whom Aquinas was as familiar a figure as Tycho Brahe or Charles Darwin. I cannot find a direct reference to the Dream of Scipio in this particular notebook. But it only covers a single year of Sagan’s education, and I would be surprised to learn if he didn’t eventually get around to Cicero’s philosophical works, whether as part of the Common Core or in his own reading; whether at Chicago or afterwards.

One thing is left to say. Sagan agreed with the ancients that the earth is pitifully small, that human labours are trivial, and that war is a stupid contest among puffed-up men. But he differed crucially from them on one point: he did not subscribe to point 5 of the list above. He did not insist that human beings find their happiness elsewhere than the earth. To quote the last paragraph again: “To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

This is twentieth-century humanism making war against the old Western pessimism. The difference cannot be explained by the fact that Sagan had actually, and the Romans only mentally, seen the earth from heaven. Sagan made no innovation on Cicero or Pliny that necessarily relied on the NASA photograph. We are looking at no scientific advancement, but a philosophical innovation.

A certain line of thought runs all the way down Western history, according to which human beings derive all the worth of their lives from somewhere besides their earthly life. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man was a famous expression of it. We are strange hybrids, he said, with our feet on earth and our eyes gazing at the sky. If we are to be worthwhile beings, we will choose the heavens over the earth, devoting ourselves to virtue and God, shunning the disgusting lusts of our animal nature. Pico thought that human beings were dignified, not for being earthly humans, but but because humanity had access to the glories of heaven. This sky-seeking contempt for the world infuses all of the pre-modern passages that I’ve cited here.

Sagan’s humanism had a very different cast. Human happiness, he thought, is not to be found in some heavenly virtue, but in man’s own efforts to act decently. The great sky, in this view of things, is not the seat of goodness: it is merely a reminder of the ultimate smallness—and preciousness—of humanity’s native gifts. We are to win peace, beauty, and justice by improving the earth, not by looking for them in heaven.

On the other hand, it’s worth emphasising Sagan’s similarity with the Romans over his differences. The reason becomes clear when we consider what might be thought upon contemplating the earth. Sagan contended that a tender and pacifistic spirit is a natural result of looking at the earth from far away. But it certainly isn’t: someone looking at the earth from far away could come to very different conclusions. As a professor recently pointed out to me, Harry Lyme in The Third Man also sees human beings from far away, atop the Vienna ferris wheel – and comes to very different conclusions. ‘Look down there,’ he says. ‘Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?’

With this possibility in mind, the peace-loving, moral outlooks of Cicero and Sagan look awfully similar after all. It’s a fantasy to think that simply looking at the small earth will sow any specific set of thoughts into an unprompted mind. A given observer could come up with really anything; whether humanist or anti-humanist, triumphant or melancholy, religious or reprobate. Hence the importance of tradition, which gave Sagan something authoritative, old, and sane to say—and a warm love of mankind, which gave him grounds for innovation.