All I Survey/Essay XLIII

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Essay XLII All I Survey
Essay XLIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XLIV



Essay XLIII: On the Solar System

THE Sun has made a fitful and what may fairly be called a meteoric appearance in my garden this afternoon. And since, by a curious coincidence, this portent has occurred at a time not very distant from Midsummer Day (which, as you truly remark, is the Feast of St. John the Baptist and the date of the Battle of Bannockburn), the symbolical character of the sun flamed all the more mysteriously in the imagination. This luminary, which has been seldom observed of late in our country, can nevertheless be to a large extent calculated by astronomers, touching its actual though invisible relations to the earth. It would be an exaggeration to say that the sun visits England in the manner of a rare and very remote comet. It occurs in our literature; some say more often in our literature than our life, and I have even read a literary theory according to which The Merry Month of May was a purely classical convention, taken wholesale by the English poets from the Provençal poets. So that Chaucer and Dunbar, huddled up in mackintoshes and cowering over stoves, wrote the praises of spring and summer with freezing fingers, and made purely ritual salutations to invisible flowers and impassable fields. I do not believe in this bitter interpretation, but then, I happen to be one of the few and rather unpopular persons who like the cool and troubled temper of the English climate. It was said that Germany wanted a place in the sun; I cannot sufficiently congratulate myself that England succeeded in finding a place in the shade. Not many people in England have agreed with me, this summer; though it is possible that I might find a few sympathizers in America, where there is a heat-wave. I remember once there was a heat-wave in England, and I found myself walking about on the Sussex Downs under that tropical oppression. And I remember that the rather hackneyed quotation from Browning came back to me; and I said with a groan: "Oh to be in April, now that England's here."

Anyhow, the sun has been made a symbol of all sorts of things, good, bad, and indifferent; and it would be easy to fill a page with all the significant parts it has played in human history; of what it meant to the Heretic Pharaoh and what to the Parsees; of why the rays of its rising are displayed on the blazon of Japan; of how it has been arrested by Joshua, worshipped by Julian, theorized about by Copernicus, quarrelled about by Galileo, pointed at by Napoleon, put in its proper place by Newton, and seriously disturbed and doubted about by Einstein--all this would give fascinating opportunity for that habit of wandering from the point which is the essence of an essay of this kind. For the moment, however, I prefer to regard the sun merely in the light of a strange star that has startled me by visiting my garden in the middle of summer, and rather to dwell upon the catastrophic and unearthly character of the event than to seek for any strictly scientific or merely rationalistic explanation of it.

One reason for reconciling oneself cheerfully to regarding the sun as a strange star is that it seems likely, in the light of the latest science, that we shall find it illuminating a very strange world. I am a child in these things; and so long as the child is allowed to play in the garden, he does not bother very much about the rules regulating the visits of that shining stranger, who has of late been very much of a stranger. But he does know enough about recent revolutions, in the ideas about space and light, and atomic structure, to know that not only the sun, but also the garden, grows more mysterious every day. We may come to regarding the sun almost as a secret; like the sun that wore the mask of the moon in Mr. Max Beerbohm's fairy-tale; a deceptive luminary; almost, if the contradiction be allowed, a dark luminary; with crooked rays; with invisible violet rays; with something resembling black rays, beyond the dreams of the blind. It seems to be anything but the simple golden globe with which the simple Victorian naturalists dealt so easily, when they taught us the use of the globes. Some of the things that are now said about it astonish me very much. For instance, Mr. René Fülop-Miller, the highly intelligent and impartial historian of the Bolshevist Revolution, has recently written a book about the Jesuits. The writer is equally detached about the Jesuits; he is entirely detached from the religion of the Jesuits. He is an ordinary modern rationalist; very emphatic upon the need to keep abreast of modern science. He narrates, as any rationalist would, as any reasonable man would, the victory of Galileo and the Copernican astronomy, with its earth going round the sun, over the old Ptolemaic astronomy, with its sun going round the earth. I should, of course, entirely accept that Copernican victory; it never would occur to me to do anything else. But I was considerably startled when Mr. Fülop-Miller, after stating the ordinary view of the Solar System, which everybody accepts, and I have naturally accepted, goes on calmly to write as follows:

"It is true that the most recent mathematical and physical theories necessitate a revision of this commonly held opinion, for no longer does the teaching of Ptolemy appear 'wholly false,' nor that of Copernicus 'alone true,' as Galileo thought. Rather does it appear that both the systems have fundamentally an equal claim to recognition, and that the superiority of the Copernican system rests solely on the greater simplicity of the astronomical calculations effected with its help. Cardinal Bellarmine had, however, already recognized this when he warned Galileo's pupils to regard the Copernican doctrine only as hypothetical and not as the sole truth."

In other words, the scientific rationalist, invoking the very latest scientific views, says something that I for one should never have dreamed of saying: that Galileo was as wrong as he was right; or at least that he was no more right than he was wrong, and no more right than his opponents were right. This seems to me a very amazing remark to appear in a book by an ordinary modern sceptic. Anyhow, it is a remark that will not be found in any book by me, or any of those who are regarded as religious reactionaries.

Let nobody go away and say that I made the remark. Let nobody wail aloud that I say the Solar System is a Solar Myth. I never interfered with the Solar System. I never disorganized the sun and moon; I never in my life gave the planets or the fixed stars the least cause for uneasiness. Copernicus and Newton are good enough for me. I only say the sun must be a very strange star, and must stand in a very strange relation to a very strange planet or satellite, if any sane sceptic can really say that it is just as true that the sun goes round the earth as that the earth goes round the sun. The real truth, which he has in mind, is probably some very subtle mathematical relation, to which both of those contrary images are merely relative. The only effect on me, at the moment, is a merely imaginative, or even a merely artistic effect. It makes the sun much more extraordinary; and it was extraordinary enough before. I have not the faintest intention of meddling with these problems in the higher world of mathematics. I only say that the immediate effect of them on the fancy is almost to bring back the sun into the world of mythology. In that sense, the sun is much more of a Sun Myth; it is at least a Sun Mystery. Phoebus Apollo, worshipped with such superb prayer and sacrifice, is still at least like that other pagan god whom St. Paul saluted as the Unknown God. And because I love everything that adds at least to the wonder of the world, and because I hate familiarity as I hate contempt, I am glad that the strange god in the garden grows stranger every day. For we need mystery to console and encourage us. And, like Voltaire, and other pious and devout characters, I quite agree that we must cultivate the garden.