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From 'Visible Gods'

by Douglas Harding

Chapter One

Socrates: ... though I admit it‘s not much like Homer’s idea of Hades.

Canopus: I should think not – just look at those stars! Well, shall we leave it at that, my dear Socrates, and agree to differ? The Archdeacon here evidently regards this place as a supernatural anteroom, where we wait about for our summons to the Last Judgment, though he doesn’t rule out the possibility that he's dreaming it all. Professor Cowen and I, on the other hand, are working on a theory that we’ve somehow been switched from our own world into another which is just as physical and secular, but whose dimensions of time and space don‘t happen to square with ours – after all, it isn‘t so very different here; quite comfortable, in fact. As for Dr. Schmidt, he prefers not to make up his mind. What all four of us are agreed on is that our arrival here arose out of a frightful accident. On the third of May l970, the Z-bomb went off. But it‘s a great consolation to find you here – Socrates, of all people!

Socrates: My dear friends, the awful catastrophe which dispatched you is a godsend for me. You couldn‘t be more welcome. It‘s over 23 centuries since I retired to this place (whatever you choose to call it) and all this time knowledge has been piling up in your world. I‘ve heard plenty about your wonderful discoveries – and even picked up some of the jargon – but understood little or nothing. Now I have the lucky chance, by becoming your pupil, of learning from the best and latest masters. Only I beg you to be patient with my ignorance, remembering that I am in effect a child who is younger than you by millenniums.

Canopus: You‘re too modest Socrates. It is we who are privileged to meet you, the great pioneer. And, besides underestimating yourself, you overestimate us. For one thing – though I‘m an astronomer, and really know nothing about philosophy and art and ethics – I doubt whether there's been any great or certain progress in these things since your day. What do you think Archdeacon?

Brown: Well, philosophers still seem to be asking the kind of questions you used to ask, Socrates, or – more often – have given up trying to answer them. And certainly if we moderns have bettered the Odyssey or the Parthenon or the Hermes of Praxiteles, I’ve still to hear about it. As for wisdom and virtue, I doubt – to put it mildly – whether the proportion of good men to bad and of wise to foolish is any greater now than it was in the Athens of Pericles. In fact, many would say we’ve gone back. For instance in politics and religion...

Socrates: But your science?

Canopus: I was coming to that, Socrates. In pure and applied science – in our knowledge of the world, and in our use of that knowledge to control the world…

Socrates: The Z-bomb?

Canopus: Well, leave aside the question of control. At any rate in our knowledge of the universe about us there has, particularly during recent centuries, been a huge increase. This is certainly not because we’re cleverer than you, Socrates, but because we’ve hit on methods of observation and verification, and techniques of mathematical analysis, which have made for very rapid accumulation of knowledge. The credit doesn’t belong to us as individuals but rather to our increasing division of labour, and to our giving up speculation for empiricism, so that even a quite stupid specialist can, by starting where his teachers leave off, push a little further into the unknown. Yes, my dear Socrates, of one thing we moderns may reasonably be proud, and that’s our discovery – however incomplete – of what the world is really like.

Socrates: This is wonderful news! To know the universe – however incompletely – by Zeus, what an achievement! And I, poor ignoramus, never got anywhere near to knowing that tiny fragment of it called man! Well, like a good child starting school, I’m ready to forget the tales of the nursery and learn the wisdom of men. Let me give you an instance. Many of us in ancient Greece liked to think of the universe as full of life and divinity, of the sun and stars as visible gods, and of the blue sky as the heaven of the blessed. We looked up into heavens at once theological and astronomical, and the further from us they were the more lively and divine they were likely to be. Physical height went with spiritual status. All childish imaginings which – so they tell me – are now completely disproved. You distinguished gentlemen have the facts, and I shall let no such fancies stand in their way.

Canopus: In your time, Socrates, such beliefs were plausible enough. But I’m afraid anyone who held them nowadays would invite – not, it’s true, a dose of hemlock, but something quite bad enough – psychological treatment from Dr. Schmidt here – private treatment if he were rolling in money, institutional if he weren’t.

Schmidt: Sir Hugo likes to have his little dig at us.

Socrates: To speak plainly, a man holding such opinions would be thought mad?

Schmidt: Let’s say eccentric, though probably quite harmless; anyhow, a most interesting case. I remember a patient of mine…

Canopus: If I may interrupt, Dr. Schmidt, I think – before we go any further – we ought to give Socrates some rough idea of the universe we moderns find ourselves in.

Socrates: I should be very grateful, Sir Hugo. But don’t forget I'm a baby in these things. Come down off your professional high horse and be as chatty and informal as you can, otherwise I’ll never understand you.

Canopus: Very well, then. Try to think of the Earth as a tiny spinning globe sweeping out yearly a great circle, a couple of hundred million miles wide, about the Sun, which is big enough to hold more than a million Earths, and made of very hot material – far too hot, I assure you, to support any form of life. The rest of the planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and some others observed since your time, Socrates – move like the Earth, but at different speeds and in different orbits, round the Sun; and the whole collection we call the Solar System. But collection’s hardly the word: it’s a real whole, for not only did the planets doubtless come from the Sun in the first place – they’ve never left it. They’re the Sun’s own growth or development, the petals of a star that has burst into bloom. Or – to be more prosaic – think of this expanded star as an egg broken into a frying pan, with the Sun as the yolk and the planets as bubbles of various sizes in the white. Better still, imagine the bubbles swimming round and round the pan so swiftly that they become circles.

Socrates: You make the universe sound most appetizing!

Canopus: That’s only the first course. You must now think of this huge rotating fried egg as no more than an almost invisible bubble in the white of another rotating fried egg called the Galaxy. To give you any true idea of the size of the Galaxy is almost impossible, but let me try. It contains many thousands of millions of stars comparable with our own, and the nearest of them is millions of millions of miles away. The centre of the whole revolving system is thousands of times more distant still.

Socrates: My head’s swimming too!

Canopus: Now for the third course! Our Galaxy itself is only one of millions of visible galaxies or nebulae – to say nothing of those that no doubt lie beyond the range of our telescopes… In short, Socrates, our seemingly vast and central and all-important Earth is really an infinitesimal dust-grain, which happens at the moment to exist in an immense universe that is certainly neither made for the dust-grain’s convenience nor likely to worry about the dust-grain’s fate – to say nothing of the fate of men, who are this dust-grain’s own dust. The human needle is quite lost in the cosmic haystack.

Socrates: And yet, as you’ve shown quite well, it’s acutely aware of the haystack, and in that sense contains it. A curiously compressible haystack, I must say, or else a curiously capacious needle – and one which demonstrates that it has found rather than lost its bearings! It can only be your admirable modesty which makes you gloss over the fact.

Canopus: That’s all very well, Socrates, from the needle’s private point of view, the subjective one. But it’s precisely this viewpoint that we scientists try to avoid. To the detached observer, living creatures in general, and conscious living creatures in particular, are the rarest things in the world and quite untypical.

Socrates: So this human needle looks at itself objectively, from a universal point of view – doesn’t that make it far more remarkable still? Nor should I hold its rarity against it: after all, it’s the rarest stone which is the most precious. And who would think, my dear Sir Hugo, of measuring your significance solely by your bulk or your commonness? A man’s ability to entertain and weigh up this wonderful universe of stars and galaxies is surely at least as revealing as his ability to turn the scale at so many pounds. To me, at least, you are more interesting than all the lifeless worlds which, when they enter into your life, can scarcely escape its infection. And certainly you are ten thousand times more handsome – and that’s not to be sniffed at either!

Canopus: Spare my blushes, Socrates. But no doubt, after allowance has been made for Socratic buttering up, there’s a lot in what you say. The mind of one speck of this Earth-speck of ours can easily take a few million galaxies in its stride… However I didn’t mean to suggest that, apart from our planet, there’s no life at all in our universe. Mars possibly supports living creatures, and some of my friends think it certainly does. Venus is a more doubtful case. (To say – without going thoroughly into it – that all the ‘evidence’ for flying saucers must be rubbish is mere provincialism and lack of imagination, blind worship of the human parish pump.) The other planets of our system are almost certainly dead worlds. So are all the stars – as mere stars. But according to recent theories, many of them are likely to have developed into solar systems similar to our own – in which case some no doubt contain planets like our Earth, with all the conditions necessary for life. And where such conditions occur… But now I’m straying out of the astronomer’s province into yours, Professor Cowen.

Cowen: Where the conditions of life are found – the right temperature and the right chemical ingredients – there, we believe, life will eventually be found also. It would follow that, though the universe which Sir Hugo has described is a vast desert of lifeless space, thinly dotted with equally lifeless condensations of matter, it does contain here and there many infinitesimal life-specks.

Socrates: Some of which may surpass our own?

Cowen: It would be odd if none did.

Socrates: I suppose the chances are that, to find the more accomplished – the more superhuman – of these life–specks, we should need to look further and further afield from our Earth-centre.

Cowen I don’t follow.

Socrates: The further you look the vaster and more embracing the heavenly objects you come across, and the more life they are likely to contain. And more life means more life to choose from. The realm of the nine planets is plainly not such promising country as the remoter realm of the stars – the hundreds of millions of stars of our own Galaxy, supporting goodness knows how many planets. Nor is this realm a millionth part as rich in celestial possibilities as the still remoter realm of the galaxies, with their unthinkable great star-population.

Canopus: That’s true enough.

Socrates: Now I wonder if the more godlike of the creatures who live in these realms above could find some way of influencing men without their knowing it. What do you think, Dr. Schmidt?

Schmidt: Well, telepathy does occur. Minds have hidden ways of getting at one another.

Socrates: Unfortunately the distance between the stars is so great.

Schmidt: It seems that distance has nothing to do with it.

Socrates: Well, gentlemen, let me try to sum up what I’ve learned so far. It seems that – after all – a man may enjoy the thought, whenever he looks up into the starry sky, that he’s not idly staring at a mere rubbish dump or cemetery, but at the many-storied home of beings who may so far excel him that they merit his reverence as divine. Indeed his thoughts of them may be in part their own work, and directly inspired.

You speak of these beings as if it were somehow to their discredit that their dwelling is on so grand – so truly celestial – a scale, but in my day the palace was the measure of the king. Do yours live in hovels? And it’s not as if the universe’s royal family were unaware of their palace, or lost in its endless corridors: on the contrary, they carry the whole thing in their royal heads.

But the palace, you inform me, is “a vast desert of lifeless space”. What has it failed to do, or done, to earn from you such disparagement? By virtue of this despised empty space, all the wonders of Earth and heaven are freely presented to you, so that wherever you are there you find the whole, marvelously gathered up into a point. In fact it is you who, without it, are utterly empty. It is filled to overflowing, and you are filled, if at all, at its inexhaustible fountain. All you’ve told me goes to show that, so far from being mean and poor, this royal suite – and this miraculous union of expanse and concentration, of presence and omnipresence – is furnished with a splendour beyond description, and well deserves our awestruck admiration. What is this space, considered not in the abstract but as it actually comes to us – saturating and saturated with our mind, if no other – but Heaven itself? It is indeed a very comical mind that spends its time trying to sweep the universe clear of itself (thus doing quite the opposite thing), and then goes on to complain that the universe is mindless!

As for the design of these heavenly mansions, I find it strangely familiar. Apparently there’s good reason, after all, for matching physical height and spiritual status. Distance lends more than enchantment.

In short, my friends, if I hadn’t been told otherwise, I’d have said you were out to defend my ancient universe instead of shatter it!

(Visible Gods was completed by Douglas Harding in 1955, and first published in 2012.)

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