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The Existence of God: Sections 17-23

By Francois Fenelon

      SECTION XVII. Of the Sun.

      But besides the constant course by which the sun forms days and nights it makes us sensible of another, by which for the space of six months it approaches one of the poles, and at the end of those six months goes back with equal speed to visit the other pole. This excellent order makes one sun sufficient for the whole earth. If it were of a larger size at the same distance, it would set the whole globe on fire and the earth would be burnt to ashes; and if, at the same distance, it were lesser, the earth would be all over frozen and uninhabitable. Again, if in the same magnitude it were nearer us, it would set us in flames; and if more remote, we should not be able to live on the terrestrial globe for want of heat. What pair of compasses, whose circumference encircles both heaven and earth, has fixed such just dimensions? That star does no less befriend that part of the earth from which it removes, in order to temper it, than that it approaches to favour it with its beams. Its kind, beneficent aspect fertilises all it shines upon. This change produces that of the seasons, whose variety is so agreeable. The spring silences bleak frosty winds, brings forth blossoms and flowers, and promises fruits. The summer yields rich harvests. The autumn bestows the fruits promised by the spring. The winter, which is a kind of night wherein man refreshes and rests himself, lays up all the treasures of the earth in its centre with no other design but that the next spring may display them with all the graces of novelty. Thus nature, variously attired, yields so many fine prospects that she never gives man leisure to be disgusted with what he possesses.

      But how is it possible for the course of the sun to be so regular? It appears that star is only a globe of most subtle flame. Now, what is it that keeps that flame, so restless and so impetuous, within the exact bounds of a perfect globe? What hand leads that flame in so strait a way and never suffers it to slip one side or other? That flame is held by nothing, and there is no body that can either guide it or keep it under; for it would soon consume whatever body it should be enclosed in. Whither is it going? Who has taught it incessantly and so regularly to turn in a space where it is free and unconstrained? Does it not circulate about us on purpose to serve us? Now if this flame does not turn, and if on the contrary it is our earth that turns, I would fain know how it comes to be so well placed in the centre of the universe, as it were the focus or the heart of all nature. I would fain know also how it comes to pass that a globe of so subtle matter never slips on any side in that immense space that surrounds it, and wherein it seems to stand with reason that all fluid bodies ought to yield to the impetuosity of that flame.

      In fine, I would fain know how it comes to pass that the globe of the earth, which is so very hard, turns so regularly about that planet in a space where no solid body keeps it fast to regulate its course. Let men with the help of physics contrive the most ingenious reasons to explain this phenomenon; all their arguments, supposing them to be true, will become proofs of the Deity. The more the great spring that directs the machine of the universe is exact, simple, constant, certain, and productive of abundance of useful effects, the more it is plain that a most potent and most artful hand knew how to pitch upon the spring which is the most perfect of all.

      SECTION XVIII. Of the Stars.

      But let us once more view that immense arched roof where the stars shine, and which covers our heads like a canopy. If it be a solid vault, what architect built it? Who is it that has fixed so many great luminous bodies to certain places of that arch and at certain distances? Who is it that makes that vault turn so regularly about us? If on the contrary the skies are only immense spaces full of fluid bodies, like the air that surrounds us, how comes it to pass that so many solid bodies float in them without ever sinking or ever coming nearer one another? For all astronomical observations that have been made in so many ages not the least disorder or irregular motion has yet been discovered in the heavens. Will a fluid body range in such constant and regular order bodies that swim circularly within its sphere? But what does that almost innumerable multitude of stars mean? The profusion with which the hand of God has scattered them through His work shows nothing is difficult to His power. He has cast them about the skies as a magnificent prince either scatters money by handfuls or studs his clothes with precious stones. Let who will say, if he pleases, that the stars are as many worlds like the earth we inhabit; I grant it for one moment; but then, how potent and wise must He be who makes worlds as numberless as the grains of sand that cover the sea-shore, and who, without any trouble, for so many ages governs all these wandering worlds as a shepherd does a flock of sheep? If on the contrary they are only, as it were, lighted torches to shine in our eyes in this small globe called earth, how great is that power which nothing can fatigue, nothing can exhaust? What a profuse liberality it is to give man in this little corner of the universe so marvellous a spectacle!

      But among those stars I perceive the moon, which seems to share with the sun the care and office of lighting us. She appears at set times with all the other stars, when the sun is obliged to go and carry back the day to the other hemisphere. Thus night itself, notwithstanding its darkness, has a light, duskish indeed, but soft and useful. That light is borrowed from the sun, though absent: and thus everything is managed with such excellent art in the universe that a globe near the earth, and as dark as she of itself, serves, nevertheless, to send back to her, by reflection, the rays it receives from the sun; and that the sun lights by means of the moon the people that cannot see him while he must light others.

      It may be said that the motion of the stars is settled and regulated by unchangeable laws. I suppose it is; but this very supposition proves what I labour to evince. Who is it that has given to all nature laws at once so constant and so wholesome, laws so very simple, that one is tempted to believe they establish themselves of their own accord, and so productive of beneficial and useful effects that one cannot avoid acknowledging a marvellous art in them? Whence proceeds the government of that universal machine which incessantly works for us without so much as our thinking upon it? To whom shall we ascribe the choice and gathering of so many deep and so well conceited springs, and of so many bodies, great and small, visible and invisible, which equally concur to serve us? The least atom of this machine that should happen to be out of order would unhinge all nature. For the springs and movements of a watch are not put together with so much art and niceness as those of the universe. What then must be a design so extensive, so coherent, so excellent, so beneficial? The necessity of those laws, instead of deterring me from inquiring into their author, does but heighten my curiosity and admiration. Certainly, it required a hand equally artful and powerful to put in His work an order equally simple and teeming, constant and useful. Wherefore I will not scruple to say with the Scripture, "Let every star haste to go whither the Lord sends it; and when He speaks let them answer with trembling, Here we are," Ecce adsumus.

      SECTION XIX. Of Animals, Beasts, Fowl, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, and Insects.

      But let us turn our eyes towards animals, which still are more worthy of admiration than either the skies or stars. Their species are numberless. Some have but two feet, others four, others again a great many. Some walk; others crawl, or creep; others fly; others swim; others fly, walk, or swim, by turns. The wings of birds, and the fins of fishes, are like oars, that cut the waves either of air or water, and steer the floating body either of the bird, or fish, whose structure is like that of a ship. But the pinions of birds have feathers with a down, that swells in the air, and which would grow unwieldy in the water. And, on the contrary, the fins of fishes have sharp and dry points, which cut the water, without imbibing it, and which do not grow heavier by being wet. A sort of fowl that swim, such as swans, keep their wings and most of their feathers above water, both lest they should wet them and that they may serve them, as it were, for sails. They have the art to turn those feathers against the wind, and, in a manner, to tack, as ships do when the wind does not serve. Water-fowls, such as ducks, have at their feet large skins that stretch, somewhat like rackets, to keep them from sinking on the oozy and miry banks of rivers.

      Amongst the animals, wild beasts, such as lions, have their biggest muscles about the shoulders, thighs, and legs; and therefore these animals are nimble, brisk, nervous, and ready to rush forward. Their jaw-bones are prodigiously large, in proportion to the rest of their bodies. They have teeth and claws, which serve them, as terrible weapons, to tear in pieces and devour other animals. For the same reason, birds of prey, such as eagles, have a beak and pounces that pierce everything. The muscles of their pinions are extreme large and brawny, that their wings may have a stronger and more rapid motion: and so those creatures, though somewhat heavy, soar aloft and tower up easily to the very clouds, from whence they shoot, like a thunderbolt, on the quarry they have in view. Other animals have horns. The greatest strength of some lies in their backs and necks; and others can only kick. Every species, however, has both offensive and defensive arms. Their hunting is a kind of war, which they wage one against another, for the necessities of life. They have also laws and a government among themselves. Some, like tortoises, carry the house wherein they were born; others build theirs, as birds do, on the highest branches of trees, to preserve their young from the insult of unwinged creatures, and they even lay their nests in the thickest boughs to hide them from their enemies. Another, such as the beaver, builds in the very bottom of a pond the sanctuary he prepares for himself, and knows how to cast up dikes around it, to preserve himself by the neighbouring inundation. Another, like a mole, has so pointed and so sharp a snout, that in one moment he pierces through the hardest ground in order to provide for himself a subterranean retreat. The cunning fox digs a kennel with two holes to go out and come in at, that he may not be either surprised or trapped by the huntsmen. The reptiles are of another make. They curl, wind, shrink, and stretch by the springs of their muscles; they creep, twist about, squeeze, and hold fast the bodies they meet in their way; and easily slide everywhere. Their organs are almost independent one on the other; so that they still live when they are cut into two. The long-legged birds, says Cicero, are also long-necked in proportion, that they may bring down their bill to the ground, and take up their food. It is the same with the camel; but the elephant, whose neck through its bigness would be too heavy if it were as long as that of the camel, was furnished with a trunk, which is a contexture of nerves and muscles, which he stretches, shrinks, winds, and turns every way, to seize on bodies, lift them up, or throw them off: for which reason the Latins called that trunk a hand.

      Certain animals seem to be made on purpose for man. The dog is born to caress and fawn upon him; to obey and be under command; to give him an agreeable image of society, friendship, fidelity, and tenderness; to be true to his trust; eagerly to hunt down, course, and catch several other creatures, to leave them afterwards to man, without retaining any part of the quarry. The horse, and such other animals, are within the reach and power of man; to ease him of his labour, and to take upon them a thousand burdens. They are born to carry, to walk, to supply man's weakness, and to obey all his motions. Oxen are endowed with strength and patience, in order to draw the plough and till the ground. Cows yield streams of milk. Sheep have in their fleeces a superfluity which is not for them, and which still grows and renews, as it were to invite men to shear them every year. Even goats furnish man with a long hair, for which they have no use, and of which he makes stuffs to cover himself. The skins of some beasts supply men with the finest and best linings, in the countries that are most remote from the sun.

      Thus the Author of nature has clothed beasts according to their necessities; and their spoils serve afterwards to clothe men, and keep them warm in those frozen climes. The living creatures that have little or no hair have a very thick and very hard skin, like scales; others have even scales that cover one another, as tiles on the top of a house, and which either open or shut, as it best suits with the living creature, either to extend itself or shrink. These skins and scales serve the necessities of men: and thus in nature, not only plants but animals also are made for our use. Wild beasts themselves either grow tame or, at least, are afraid of man. If all countries were peopled and governed as they ought to be, there would not be anywhere beasts should attack men. For no wild beasts would be found but in remote forests, and they would be preserved in order to exercise the courage, strength, and dexterity of mankind, by a sport that should represent war; so that there never would be any occasion for real wars among nations. But observe that living creatures that are noxious to man are the least teeming, and that the most useful multiply most. There are, beyond comparison, more oxen and sheep killed than bears or wolves; and nevertheless the number of bears and wolves is infinitely less than that of oxen and sheep still on earth. Observe likewise, with Cicero, that the females of every species have a number of teats proportioned to that of the young ones they generally bring forth. The more young they bear, with the more milk-springs has nature supplied them, to suckle them.

      While sheep let their wool grow for our use, silk-worms, in emulation with each other, spin rich stuffs and spend themselves to bestow them upon us. They make of their cod a kind of tomb, and shutting up themselves in their own work, they are new-born under another figure, in order to perpetuate themselves. On the other hand, the bees carefully suck and gather the juice of odorous and fragrant flowers, in order to make their honey; and range it in such an order as may serve for a pattern to men. Several insects are transformed, sometimes into flies, sometimes into worms, or maggots. If one should think such insects useless, let him consider that what makes a part of the great spectacle of the universe, and contributes to its variety, is not altogether useless to sedate and contemplative men. What can be more noble, and more magnificent, than that great number of commonwealths of living creatures so well governed, and every species of which has a different frame from the other? Everything shows how much the skill and workmanship of the artificer surpasses the vile matter he has worked upon. Every living creature, nay even gnats, appear wonderful to me. If one finds them troublesome, he ought to consider that it is necessary that some anxiety and pain be mixed with man's conveniences: for if nothing should moderate his pleasures, and exercise his patience, he would either grow soft and effeminate, or forget himself.

      SECTION XX. Admirable Order in which all the Bodies that make up the Universe are ranged.

      Let us now consider the wonders that shine equally both in the largest and the smallest bodies. On the one side, I see the sun so many thousand times bigger than the earth; I see him circulating in a space, in comparison of which he is himself but a bright atom. I see other stars, perhaps still bigger than he, that roll in other regions, still farther distant from us. Beyond those regions, which escape all measure, I still confusedly perceive other stars, which can neither be counted nor distinguished. The earth, on which I stand, is but one point, in proportion to the whole, in which no bound can ever be found. The whole is so well put together, that not one single atom can be put out of its place without unhinging this immense machine; and it moves in such excellent order that its very motion perpetuates its variety and perfection. Sure it must be the hand of a being that does everything without any trouble that still keeps steady, and governs this great work for so many ages; and whose fingers play with the universe, to speak with the Scripture.

      SECTION XXI. Wonders of the Infinitely Little.

      On the other hand the work is no less to be admired in little than in great: for I find as well in little as in great a kind of infinite that astonishes me. It surpasses my imagination to find in a hand-worm, as one does in an elephant or whale, limbs perfectly well organised; a head, a body, legs, and feet, as distinct and as well formed as those of the biggest animals. There are in every part of those living atoms, muscles, nerves, veins, arteries, blood; and in that blood ramous particles and humours; in these humours some drops that are themselves composed of several particles: nor can one ever stop in the discussion of this infinite composition of so infinite a whole.

      The microscope discovers to us in every object as it were a thousand other objects that had escaped our notice. But how many other objects are there in every object discovered by the microscope which the microscope itself cannot discover? What should not we see if we could still subtilise and improve more and more the instruments that help out weak and dull sight? Let us supply by our imagination what our eyes are defective in; and let our fancy itself be a kind of microscope, and represent to us in every atom a thousand new and invisible worlds: but it will never be able incessantly to paint to us new discoveries in little bodies; it will be tired, and forced at last to stop, and sink, leaving in the smallest organ of a body a thousand wonders undiscovered.

      SECTION XXII. Of the Structure or Frame of the Animal.

      Let us confine ourselves within the animal's machine, which has three things that never can be too much admired: First, it has in it wherewithal to defend itself against those that attack it, in order to destroy it. Secondly, it has a faculty of reviving itself by food. Thirdly, it has wherewithal to perpetuate its species by generation. Let us bestow some considerations on these three things.

      SECTION XXIII. Of the Instinct of the Animal.

      Animals are endowed with what is called instinct, both to approach useful and beneficial objects, and to avoid such as may be noxious and destructive to them. Let us not inquire wherein this instinct consists, but content ourselves with matter of fact, without reasoning upon it.

      The tender lamb smells his dam afar off, and runs to meet her. A sheep is seized with horror at the approach of a wolf, and flies away before he can discern him. The hound is almost infallible in finding out a stag, a buck, or a hare, only by the scent. There is in every animal an impetuous spring, which, on a sudden, gathers all the spirits; distends all the nerves; renders all the joints more supple and pliant; and increases in an incredible manner, upon sudden dangers, his strength, agility, speed, and cunning, in order to make him avoid the object that threatens his destruction. The question in this place is not to know whether beasts are endowed with reason or understanding; for I do not pretend to engage in any philosophical inquiry. The motions I speak of are entirely indeliberate, even in the machine of man. If, for instance, a man that dances on a rope should, at that time, reason on the laws and rules of equilibrium, his reasoning would make him lose that very equilibrium which he preserves admirably well without arguing upon the matter, and reason would then be of no other use to him but to throw him on the ground. The same happens with beasts; nor will it avail anything to object that they reason as well as men, for this objection does not in the least weaken my proof; and their reasoning can never serve to account for the motions we admire most in them. Will any one affirm that they know the nicest rules of mechanics, which they observe with perfect exactness, whenever they are to run, leap, swim, hide themselves, double, use shifts to avoid pursuing hounds, or to make use of the strongest part of their bodies to defend themselves? Will he say that they naturally understand the mathematics which men are ignorant of? Will he dare to advance that they perform with deliberation and knowledge all those impetuous and yet so exact motions which even men perform without study or premeditation? Will he allow them to make use of reason in those motions, wherein it is certain man does not? It is an instinct, will he say, that beasts are governed by. I grant it: for it is, indeed, an instinct. But this instinct is an admirable sagacity and dexterity, not in the beasts, who neither do, nor can then, have time to reason, but in the superior wisdom that governs them. That instinct, or wisdom, that thinks and watches for beasts, in indeliberate things, wherein they could neither watch nor think, even supposing them to be as reasonable as we, can be no other than the wisdom of the Artificer that made these machines. Let us therefore talk no more of instinct or nature, which are but fine empty names in the mouth of the generality that pronounce them. There is in what they call nature and instinct a superior art and contrivance, of which human invention is but a shadow. What is beyond all question is, that there are in beasts a prodigious number of motions entirely indeliberate, and which yet are performed according to the nicest rules of mechanics. It is the machine alone that follows those rules: which is a fact independent from all philosophy; and matter of fact is ever decisive. What would a man think of a watch that should fly or slip away, turn, again, or defend itself, for its own preservation, if he went about to break it? Would he not admire the skill of the artificer? Could he be induced to believe that the springs of that watch had formed, proportioned, ranged, and united themselves, by mere chance? Could he imagine that he had clearly explained and accounted for such industrious and skilful operation by talking of the nature and instinct of a watch that should exactly show the hour to his master, and slip away from such as should go about to break its springs to pieces?

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See Also:
   Sections 1-6
   Sections 7-16
   Sections 17-23
   Sections 24-30
   Sections 31-40
   Sections 41-50
   Sections 51-60
   Sections 62-69
   Sections 70-81
   Sections 82-92


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