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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Primitive Beliefs Dismissed by Scientific Knowledge
By John William Draper (1811–1882)
 
From ‘History of the Intellectual Development of Europe’

AS man advances in knowledge, he discovers that of his primitive conclusions some are doubtless erroneous, and many require better evidence to establish their truth incontestably. A more prolonged and attentive examination gives him reason, in some of the most important particulars, to change his mind. He finds that the earth on which he lives is not a floor covered over with a starry dome, as he once supposed, but a globe self-balanced in space. The crystalline vault, or sky, is recognized to be an optical deception. It rests upon the earth nowhere, and is no boundary at all; there is no kingdom of happiness above it, but a limitless space adorned with planets and suns. Instead of a realm of darkness and woe in the depths on the other side of the earth, men like ourselves are found there, pursuing, in Australia and New Zealand, the innocent pleasures and encountering the ordinary labors of life. By the aid of such lights as knowledge gradually supplies, he comes at last to discover that this our terrestrial habitation, instead of being a chosen, a sacred spot, is only one of similar myriads, more numerous than the sands of the sea, and prodigally scattered through space.  1
  Never, perhaps, was a more important truth discovered. All the visible evidence was in direct opposition to it. The earth, which had hitherto seemed to be the very emblem of immobility, was demonstrated to be carried with a double motion, with prodigious velocity, through the heavens; the rising and setting of the stars were proved to be an illusion; and as respects the size of the globe, it was shown to be altogether insignificant when compared with multitudes of other neighboring ones—insignificant doubly by reason of its actual dimensions, and by the countless numbers of others like it in form, and doubtless like it the abodes of many orders of life.  2
  And so it turns out that our earth is a globe of about twenty-five thousand miles in circumference. The voyager who circumnavigates it spends no inconsiderable portion of his life in accomplishing his task. It moves round the sun in a year, but at so great a distance from that luminary that if seen from him, it would look like a little spark traversing the sky. It is thus recognized as one of the members of the solar system. Other similar bodies, some of which are of larger, some of smaller dimensions, perform similar revolutions round the sun in appropriate periods of time.  3
  If the magnitude of the earth be too great for us to attach to it any definite conception, what shall we say of the compass of the solar system? There is a defect in the human intellect, which incapacitates us for comprehending distances and periods that are either too colossal or too minute. We gain no clearer insight into the matter, when we are told that a comet which does not pass beyond the bounds of the system may perhaps be absent on its journey for more than a thousand years. Distances and periods such as these are beyond our grasp. They prove to us how far human reason excels imagination; the one measuring and comparing things of which the other can form no conception, but in the attempt is utterly bewildered and lost.  4
  But as there are other globes like our earth, so too there are other worlds like our solar system. There are self-luminous suns, exceeding in number all computation. The dimensions of this earth pass into nothingness in comparison with the dimensions of the solar system, and that system in its turn is only an invisible point if placed in relation with the countless hosts of other systems, which form with it clusters of stars. Our solar system, far from being alone in the universe, is only one of an extensive brotherhood, bound by common laws and subject to like influences. Even on the very verge of creation, where imagination might lay the beginning of the realms of chaos, we see unbounded proofs of order, a regularity in the arrangement of inanimate things, suggesting to us that there are other intellectual creatures like us, the tenants of those islands in the abysses of space.  5
  Though it may take a beam of light a million years to bring to our view those distant worlds, the end is not yet. Far away in the depths of space we catch the faint gleams of other groups of stars like our own. The finger of a man can hide them in their remoteness. Their vast distances from one another have dwindled into nothing. They and their movements have lost all individuality; the innumerable suns of which they are composed blend all their collected light into one pale milky glow.  6
  Thus extending our view from the earth to the solar system, from the solar system to the expanse of the group of stars to which we belong, we behold a series of gigantic nebular creations rising up one after another, and forming greater and greater colonies of worlds. No numbers can express them, for they make the firmament a haze of stars. Uniformity, even though it be the uniformity of magnificence, tires at last, and we abandon the survey; for our eyes can only behold a boundless prospect, and conscience tells us our own unspeakable insignificance.  7
  But what has become of the time-honored doctrine of the human destiny of the universe?—that doctrine for the sake of which the controversy I have described in this chapter was raised? It has disappeared. In vain was Bruno burnt and Galileo imprisoned; the truth forced its way, in spite of all opposition, at last. The end of the conflict was a total rejection of authority and tradition, and the adoption of scientific truth.  8
 
 
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