Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 5.  The Age of Englightenment.

excerpts from
Micromegas:  A Tale of Interplanetary Travel (1752)
by Voltaire (1694 -1778)

Voyage from Sirius to Saturn

On one of those planets that revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a young man of much intelligence whose acquaintance I had the honor of making on the last voyage he made to our little anthill.  His name was Micromegas....  He was eight leagues tall:  by eight leagues I mean twenty-four thousand paces of five feet each.

Some mathematicians, people always useful to the public, will immediately take up their pens and find that since Monsieur Micromegas, inhabitant of the land of Sirius, is twenty-four thousand paces from head to foot, which makes a hundred and twenty thousand royal feet, and since we citizens of the earth are scarcely five feet tall and our globe is nine thousand leagues around -- they will find, I say, that the globe which produced him must necessarily have a circumference just twenty-one million six hundred thousand times greater than our little earth.  Nothing in nature is simpler and more ordinary.  The states of certain sovereigns in Germany and Italy, which one can circle in half an hour, compared with the empire of Turkey, of Muscovy, or of China, give only a very feeble picture of the prodigious differences that nature has placed between all beings.

His Excellency's height being as I have said, all our sculptors and painters will agree without difficulty that his waist may be fifty thousand royal feet around; which makes a very pretty proportion.  His nose being one-third the height of his face, and his handsome face being the seventh part of the height of his handsome body, it must be admitted that the Sirian's nose is six thousand three hundred and thirty-three royal feet long plus a fraction, which was to be demonstrated.

As for his mind, it is one of the most cultivated that we have; he knows many things....  He set about traveling from planet to planet to complete the formation of his mind and heart, as the saying goes.  Those who travel [on earth] will doubtless be astonished at the kind of carriages they use up there; for we, on our little pile of mud, can conceive nothing beyond our own practices.  Our traveler had a marvelous knowledge of the laws of gravitation and of all the forces of attraction and repulsion.  He made use of them so aptly that, now with the help of a sunbeam, now by the availability of a comet, he went from globe to globe, he and his men, as a bird flits from branch to branch.  In a short time he crossed the Milky Way....

After a good tour, Micromegas arrived on the globe of Saturn.  Accustomed though he was to see new things, he could not at first, on seeing the smallness of that globe and its inhabitants, refrain from that smile of superiority that sometimes escapes even the wisest.  For after all Saturn is barely nine hundred times larger than the earth, and the citizens of the country are dwarfs only a thousand fathoms high or thereabouts.  He laughed at them a little at first ... but since the Sirian was intelligent, he understood very soon that a thinking being may well not be ridiculous just because he is only six thousand feet tall.  After astounding the Saturnians, he grew familiar with them.  He formed a close friendship with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, a man of much wit, who indeed had invented nothing but gave a very good account of the inventions of others, and who passably produced little verses and big calculations.  I shall here report for the satisfaction of the readers a singular conversation that Micromegas had one day with Mr. Secretary.

A Conversation between the Sirian and the Saturnian

After His Excellency had lain down and the Secretary had approached his face:....

"I want to be instructed," said the Sirian.  "Start right in by telling me how many senses the men of your globe have."

"We have seventy-two," said the academician, "and we complain every day of having so few.  Our imagination goes beyond our needs; we find that with our seventy-two senses, our ring, our five moons, we are too limited; and in spite of all our curiosity and the other rather large number of passions that result from our seventy-two senses, we have plenty of time to be bored."

"I can well believe it," said Micromegas, "for we in our globe have nearly a thousand senses, and still there remains in us I know not what vague desire, what uneasiness, that incessantly reminds us that we are nothing much and there are beings much more perfect.  I have traveled a bit, I have seen mortals well below us, I have seen some well above us, but I have seen none who do not have more desires than real needs and more needs than satisfactions.  Maybe someday I shall reach the country where nothing is lacking; but up to now no one has given me any positive news of that country."

The Saturnian and the Sirian then exhausted themselves in conjectures; after many reasonings, very ingenious and very uncertain, they had to come back to facts.

"How long do you live?" said the Sirian.

"Oh, a very short time," replied the little man of Saturn.

"That is just as with us," said the Sirian, "we always complain how short.  That must be a universal law of nature."

"Alas!" said the Saturnian, "we live for only five hundred great revolutions of the sun."  (That comes to fifteen thousand years or thereabouts, counting in our way.)  "You can readily see that that is dying almost at the moment we are born; our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom.  Hardly has a man begun to get a little education when death comes before he has experience.  For my part I do not dare make any plans; I feel like a drop of water in an immense ocean.  I am ashamed, especially in front of you, of the ridiculous figure I cut in this world."

Micromegas replied:

"If you were not a philosopher, I should fear to distress you by telling you that our life is seven hundred times longer than yours; but you know too well that when we must return our body to the elements and reanimate nature under another form which is called dying; when the moment of metamorphosis comes, to have lived an eternity or lived a day comes to precisely the same thing.  I have been in countries where they live a thousand times longer than in mine, and I have found that they still murmur about it.  But everywhere there are people of good sense who know how to make the best of their lot and give thanks to the Author of nature.  He has spread over the universe a profusion of varieties with a sort of wonderful uniformity.  For example, all thinking beings are different, and at bottom they are all alike by the gift of thought and of desires.  Matter is spread out everywhere, but in each globe it has different properties.  How many different properties do you count in your matter?"

"If you are speaking of those properties," said the Saturnian, "without which we believe that this globe could not subsist as it is, we count three hundred, such as extension, impenetrability, mobility, gravitation, divisibility, and the rest."

"Apparently," replied the traveler, "that small number suffices for the plans the Creator had for your little habitation.  I marvel at his wisdom in all things; I see everywhere differences, but also everywhere proportions.  Your globe is small, your inhabitants are too; you have few sensations, your matter has few properties:  all that is the work of Providence.  What color is your sun, if you examine it carefully?"

"A very yellowish white," said the Saturnian, "and when we split up one of its rays, we find that it contains seven colors."

"Our sun is somewhat reddish," said the Sirian, "and we have thirty-nine primary colors.  There is not one sun among all those I have approached that is like another, just as there is not one face among you that is not different from all the others."...

Finally, after communicating to each other a little of what they knew and much of what they did not know, after reasoning for one revolution of the sun, they resolved to make a little philosophical journey together.

Journey of the Sirian and the Saturnian

... Our two sight-seers left; first they jumped onto the ring of Saturn, which they found rather flat, as an illustrious inhabitant of our globe [Christiaan Huygens] has very soundly conjectured; from there they went from moon to moon.  A comet was passing right next to the last of these; they sprang upon it with their servants and their instruments.  When they had gone about a hundred and fifty million leagues, they came upon the satellites of Jupiter.  They passed on to Jupiter itself and stayed there a year, during which they learned some very fine secrets which would be going to press right now but for My Lords the Inquisitors, who found certain propositions a little hard to take....

Leaving Jupiter, they crossed a space of about a hundred million leagues and skirted the planet Mars, which, as is well known, is five times smaller than our little globe; they saw two moons which serve this planet, and which have escaped the observation of our astronomers....  Our friends found Mars so small that they feared they might not find enough room to lie down for the night, and they continued on their road like two travelers who disdain a wretched village inn and push on to the nearest town.  But the Sirian and his companion soon repented; they went on for a long time and found nothing.  At last they perceived a little glimmer; it was the earth; it was a pitiful sight to people coming from Jupiter.  However, for fear of repenting a second time, they resolved to disembark.  They passed onto the tail of the comet and, finding an aurora borealis all ready, they got inside, and arrived on the earth on the northern shore of the Baltic Sea, July the fifth, 1737, new style.

Their Adventures on the Earth

After resting awhile, they ate for their breakfast two big mountains, which their men prepared rather nicely for them.  Then they decided to reconnoiter the little country they were in. They first went from north to south.  The ordinary steps of the Sirian and his men were about thirty thousand royal feet; the dwarf from Saturn followed panting at a distance; for he had to take about a dozen steps when the other took only one stride.  Picture to yourself (if it is permissible to make such comparisons) a very tiny lap dog following a captain of the King of Prussia's guards.

Since these foreigners move pretty fast, they had gone around the globe in thirty-six hours; true, the sun, or rather the earth, makes a like journey in a day; but we must keep in mind that it is much easier to turn on one's axis than to walk on one's feet.  So here they are back where they started, after seeing that pool, almost imperceptible to them, that is called the Mediterranean, and that other little pond, which, under the name of the Great Ocean, surrounds the molehill.  The dwarf had never been in above his knees, and the other had barely wet his heel.  They did everything they could as they went to and fro, up and down, to try to see whether this globe was inhabited or not.  They stooped, they lay down, they groped all over, but since their eyes and their hands were not proportioned to the little beings who crawl around here, they did not receive the slightest sensation that could make them suspect that we and our colleagues, the other inhabitants of this globe, have the honor of existing.

The dwarf, who sometimes judged a bit too hastily, at first decided that there was no one on the earth.  His first reason was that he had seen no one.  Micromegas politely made him sense that this was rather bad reasoning.

"For," he said, "you do not see with your little eyes certain stars of the fiftieth magnitude that I perceive very distinctly; do you conclude from this that these stars do not exist?"

"But," said the dwarf, "I have searched well."

"But," replied the other, "you have perceived badly."

"But," said the dwarf, "this globe is so badly constructed, it is so irregular, and the shape of it seems to me so ridiculous!  Everything here seems to be in chaos:  do you see these little streams, not one of which runs straight, these ponds, which are neither round, nor square, nor oval, nor of any regular form, all these little pointed grains with which this globe is prickly, and which have scraped the skin off my feet?"  (He meant the mountains.)  "Do you notice also the shape of the globe as a whole, how it is flat at the poles, how it turns around the sun at a clumsy angle, so that the polar climes are necessarily untilled?  In truth, what makes me think there is no one here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to stay here."

"Well," said Micromegas, "maybe the people who inhabit it are not sensible.  But after all, there is some suggestion that this was not made for nothing.  Everything here seems irregular to you, you say, because everything is straight as a die in Saturn and Jupiter.  Well, perhaps it is for that very reason that there is a little confusion here.  Didn't I tell you that in my travels I have always observed variety?"

The Saturnian answered all these arguments; the dispute would never have ended if Micromegas, in the heat of discussion, had not by good fortune broken the string of his diamond necklace.  The diamonds fell; they were pretty little stones, rather unequal in size, the largest one of which weighed four hundred pounds and the smallest fifty.  The dwarf picked up a few; he perceived, bringing them close to his eyes, that because of the way they were cut these diamonds were excellent microscopes.  So he took a little microscope a hundred and sixty feet in diameter and applied it to his eye; and Micromegas selected one two thousand five hundred feet wide.  They were excellent, but at first no one could see anything with the help of them; they had to make adjustments.  Finally the inhabitant of Saturn saw something imperceptible stirring under water in the Baltic Sea; it was a whale.  He picked it up very adroitly with his little finger, and, putting it on his thumbnail, he showed it to the Sirian, who burst out laughing for the second time at the excessive smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.  The Saturnian, now convinced that our world was inhabited, very soon made the assumption that it was inhabited only by whales; and since he was a great reasoner, he tried to guess whence so small an atom derived its movement, whether it had ideas, a will, freedom.  Micromegas was much puzzled over this; he examined the animal most patiently, and the result of the examination was that it was impossible to believe there was a soul lodged there.  So the two travelers were inclined to think that there is no intelligence in our dwelling place, when with the aid of the microscope they perceived something as big as a whale floating on the Baltic Sea.

It is well known that at that very time a flock of philosophers were returning from the polar circle, beneath which they had made observations that no one had thought of until then.  The newspapers said that their vessel was wrecked on the coast of Bothnia and that they had much difficulty escaping; but we never know the inside truth in this world.  I shall relate candidly how the thing happened, without putting in anything of my own; which is no small effort for a historian.

The Sirian and the Saturnian Investigate Their Discovery

Micromegas stretched out his hand very gently toward the spot where the object appeared, and, putting forth two fingers and then drawing them back for fear of being mistaken, then opening and closing them, very adroitly took the vessel carrying those gentlemen and put it likewise on his nail without squeezing it too much, for fear of crushing it.

"Here is a very different animal from the first," said the dwarf from Saturn.  The Sirian put the supposed animal in the hollow of his hand.

The passengers and crewmen, who had thought themselves swept up by a hurricane and thought they were on some sort of rock, all start to move about; the sailors take casks of wine, throw them overboard onto Micromegas' hand, and cast themselves after.  The geometricians take their quadrants, their sectors, and some Lapland girls, and descend onto the Sirian's fingers.  They made such an ado that he finally felt some moving thing tickling his fingers; it was an iron-shod stick that was being driven a foot deep into his index finger; he judged by this pricking that something had come out of the little animal he held, but at first he suspected nothing more.  The microscope, which barely let them discern a whale and a ship, had no power to show a being as imperceptible as man.  I have no intention here of shocking anyone's vanity, but I am obliged to beg the self-important to join me in noting one little fact.  Taking men's height at about five feet, we cut no greater figure on the earth than would, on a ball ten feet round, an animal about one six hundred thousandth of a foot high.  Imagine a being that could hold the earth in his hand and had organs proportionate to ours -- and it may very well be that there are a great number of such beings.  Now conceive, I pray you, what they would think of those battles which have won us a village that had to be surrendered later.

I have no doubt that if some captain of tall grenadiers ever reads this work, he will raise his troops' hats at least two full feet, but I warn him it will be no use, that he and his men will never be anything but infinitely small.

What marvelous skill did not our Sirian philosopher need, then, to perceive the atoms I have just been speaking of?  When Leeuwenhoek and Hartsoeker were the first to see, or to think they saw, the seed of which we are formed, they made nowhere near so astounding a discovery.  What pleasure Micromegas felt in seeing these little machines move, examining all their tricks, following them in all their operations!  How he cried out!  How he joyfully put one of his microscopes in the hands of his traveling companion!

"I see them," they both said at the same time; "don't you see them carrying burdens, stooping down, getting up again?"

As they spoke thus, their hands trembled with pleasure at seeing objects so new, and with fear of losing them.  The Saturnian, passing from an excess of wariness to an excess of credulity, thought he observed them engaged in the work of propagation.

"Ah," he said "I've caught nature in the act."

But he was deceived by appearances, which happens only too often, whether or not we use microscopes.

Observations of Men

Micromegas, a much better observer than his dwarf, saw clearly that the atoms were speaking to each other, and pointed it out to his companion, who, ashamed at having been mistaken on the subject of generation, would not believe that such species could communicate ideas.  He had the gift of tongues as well as the Sirian; he did not hear our atoms speak, and he assumed that they did not speak.  Besides, how should such imperceptible beings have vocal organs, and what should they have to say?  To speak, one must think, or just about; but if they thought, then they would have the equivalent of a soul.  Now to attribute to this species the equivalent of a soul, that seemed to him absurd.

"But," said the Sirian, "you thought just now that they were making love; do you think anyone can make love without thinking and without uttering some word, or without at least making himself understood?  Moreover, do you suppose it is harder to produce an argument than a child?  To me, both seem great mysteries."

"I no longer dare either to believe or deny," said the dwarf.  "I have no opinion any more.  We must try to examine these insects, we will reason about them afterward."

"That is very well said," replied Micromegas; and immediately he pulled out a pair of scissors, cut his nails with them, and from a piece of his thumbnail he straightway made a sort of great speaking trumpet like a vast funnel, the tube end of which he put in his ear.  The circumference of the funnel enveloped the ship and all the crew; the faintest voice entered the circular fibers of the nail; so that thanks to his ingenuity, the philosopher from up above heard perfectly the buzzing of our insects from down below.  In a few hours he succeeded in distinguishing words, and finally in understanding French; the dwarf did the same, though with more difficulty.

The astonishment of the travelers redoubled each instant.  They heard mites talking rather good sense; this sport of nature seemed to them inexplicable.  You may well believe that the Sirian and his dwarf burned with impatience to join in conversation with the atoms.  The dwarf feared that his voice of thunder, and especially that of Micromegas, might deafen the mites without being understood.  They had to diminish its strength.  They put in their mouths a sort of little toothpick whose very tapering end reached close to the ship.  The Sirian held the dwarf on his knees and the ship with the crew on his nail; he bent his head down and spoke low; finally with the help of all these precautions and many others besides, he began his speech thus:

"Invisible insects, whom the hand of the Creator has been pleased to bring to birth in the abyss of the infinitely small, I thank him for having deigned to reveal to me secrets which seemed impenetrable.  Maybe people at my court would not deign to look at you, but I disdain no one, and I offer you my protection."

If ever anyone was astonished, it was the people who heard these words.  They could not guess where they came from.  The ship's chaplain recited the prayers for exorcism, the sailors swore, and the ship's philosophers constructed a system; but no matter what system they made, they never could guess who was speaking to them.  The dwarf from Saturn, who had a softer voice than Micromegas, then informed them in a few words what species they were dealing with; he told them about the journey from Saturn; let them know who Monsieur Micromegas was; and after sympathizing with them for being so little, he asked them whether they had always been in this miserable state so near to annihilation, what they were doing in a globe that appeared to belong to whales, whether they were happy, whether they multiplied, whether they had a soul, and a hundred other questions of that nature.

One reasoner in the party, bolder than the others, and shocked that someone doubted he had a soul, observed the interlocutor through the eyepiece of a quadrant from two stations, and at the third spoke thus:

"You believe, then, sir, that because you are a thousand fathoms from head to foot, you are a...."

"A thousand fathoms!" cried the dwarf.  "Good heavens, how can he know my height?  A thousand fathoms!  He's not an inch off.  What?  This atom has measured me?  He is a geometrician, he knows my size; and I, who see him only through a microscope, I do not yet know his?"

"Yes, I have measured you," said the physicist, "and I shall certainly measure your big friend too."

The proposition was accepted, His Excellency stretched out full length; for if he had remained standing, his head would have been too far above the clouds.  Our philosophers planted in him a big tree in a place which Dr. Swift would name, but which I shall take good care not to call by name because of my great respect for the ladies; then by a series of interrelated triangles they concluded that what they saw was indeed a handsome young man one hundred and twenty thousand royal feet tall.

Then Micromegas uttered these words:

"I see more than ever that never must we judge anything by its apparent greatness.  O God!  who have given intelligence to substances which seem so contemptible, the infinitely small costs you as little as the infinitely great; and if it is possible that there are beings smaller than these, they may yet have minds superior to those of the superb animals I have seen in the sky, whose foot alone would cover the globe on which I have alighted."

One of the philosophers answered that he might believe in all certainty that there are indeed intelligent beings much smaller than man; he related to him, not all the fables that Virgil has told about the bees, but what Swammerdam discovered and what Reaumur learned by his dissections.  He taught them finally that there are animals which are to bees what bees are to man, what the Sirian himself was to those vast animals he spoke of, and what those great animals are to other creatures compared with which they seem but atoms.  Bit by bit the conversation grew interesting, and Micromegas spoke as follows.

Conversation with Men

"O intelligent atoms in whom the eternal Being has taken pleasure in manifesting his skill and his power, you must doubtless taste very pure joys on your globe; for having so little matter, and seeming to be all spirit, you must spend your lives in love and in thought; that is the true life of spirits.  I have nowhere seen true happiness, but without doubt it is here."

At this speech all the philosophers shook their heads, and one of them, franker than the others, admitted candidly that with the exception of a small number of none too highly considered inhabitants, all the rest is an assemblage of madmen, wicked men, and unhappy men.

"We have more matter than we need," he said, "for doing much evil, if evil comes from matter, and only too much spirit if evil comes from spirit.  Do you realize, for example, that at this moment when I am speaking to you there are a hundred thousand madmen of our species covered with hats killing a hundred thousand other animals covered with turbans, or being massacred by them, and that over almost all the earth that is how people have behaved from time immemorial?"

The Sirian shuddered and asked what could be the subject of these horrible quarrels between such puny animals.

"At stake," said the philosopher, "is some mud heap the size of your heel.  Not that any one of these millions of men who are getting their throats cut has a straw's worth of claim to this mud heap.  The point is to determine whether it shall belong to a certain man called Sultan or another called, I know not why, Czar.  Neither one has ever seen, or will ever see, the little spot of land at issue, and hardly one of these animals who are cutting each other's throats has ever seen the animal for whom they are cutting them."

"Ah! wretches!"  cried the Sirian in indignation.  "Can anyone conceive such an excess of frenzied rage?  I have a mind to take three steps and stamp out this whole anthill of ridiculous assassins."

"Don't take the trouble," was the answer; "they are working hard enough at their own ruin.  Know that after ten years there is never the hundredth part of these wretches left; know that even if they were not to have drawn their sword, hunger, fatigue, or intemperance carry them nearly all off.  Besides, it is not they who should be punished, but those sedentary barbarians who, from the privacy of their cabinet and while busy digesting, order the massacre of a million men and then have solemn thanks given to God for it."

The traveler felt moved to pity for the little human race, in which he was discovering such astounding contrasts.

"Since you are of the small number of the wise," he said to these gentlemen, "and since you apparently do not kill anyone for money, tell me, I pray you, how you occupy yourselves."

"We dissect flies," said the philosopher, "we measure lines, we assemble numbers; we agree about two or three points that we understand, and we argue about two or three thousand that we do not understand."

Immediately the Sirian and the Saturnian took a notion to question these thinking atoms to see what things they agreed on.

"How far do you reckon it," said he, "from the Dog Star to the great star in Gemini?"

They all answered together:  "Thirty-two and a half degrees."

"How far do you reckon it from here to the moon?"

"Sixty half-diameters of the earth, in round numbers."

"How much does your air weigh?"  He thought he would catch them, but they all told him that air weighs approximately nine hundred times less than an equal volume of the lightest water, and nineteen thousand times less than pure gold.  The little dwarf from Saturn, astounded by their answers, was tempted to take for sorcerers these same people to whom a quarter of an hour before he had refused a soul.

Finally Micromegas said to them:  "Since you know so well what is outside of you, no doubt you know even better what is inside; tell me ... how you form your ideas."

The philosophers all spoke at once as before, but they were all of different opinions.  The oldest quoted Aristotle, another pronounced the name of Descartes, this one of Malebranche, that one of Leibniz, another of Locke.  An old Peripatetic said loudly and confidently:

"Aristotle declares expressly on page 633 of the Louvre edition: 

"I don't understand Greek too well," said the giant.

"Nor do I," said the philosophic mite.

"Then why," retorted the Sirian, "do you quote a certain Aristotle in Greek?"

"Because," replied the scholar, "it is essential to quote what we do not understand at all in the language we understand the least."...

[The philosopher atoms shared their views, each in his turn.] --

A little partisan of Locke, when at last he was spoken to said:

"I do not know how I think, but I know I have never thought except at the stimulation of my senses...."

The animal from Sirius smiled; he considered that one the wisest of them all; and the dwarf from Saturn would have embraced the disciple of Locke but for their extreme [difference in size.]

[Finally, the last tiny thinker looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down and announced that their persons, their worlds, their suns, their stars, everything was made solely for the use and admiration of man.]

At this speech our two travelers fell back on each other, choking with inextinguishable laughter; their shoulders and their stomachs heaved; and in these convulsions the ship, which the Sirian had on his nail, fell into a pocket of the Saturnian's breeches.  These two good people looked a long time for it; finally they found it, and readjusted it very nicely.  The Sirian picked up the little mites again; he still spoke to them with much kindness, although at the bottom of his heart he was a little bit angry to see that infinitely small creatures should have a pride almost infinitely great.

Go to:
  • The World, or Treatise on Light (1629-1633), by René Descartes (1596-1650)
  • The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World (1666), by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)
  • Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757)
  • An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750), by Thomas Wright (1711-1786)
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes