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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book 3: Art and Science
Chapter 4

Science is different.

The relative, which governs it, leaves its mark on it; and these successive stamps of the relative, more and more resembling the real, constitute the movable certainty of man.

In science, certain things have been masterpieces which are so no more. The hydraulic machine of Marly was a chef-d'œuvre.

Science seeks perpetual movement. She has found it; it is itself perpetual motion.

Science is continually moving in the benefit it confers.

Everything stirs up in science, everything changes, everything is constantly renewed. Everything denies, destroys, creates, replaces everything. That which was accepted yesterday is put again under the millstone to-day. The colossal machine, Science, never rests. It is never satisfied; it is everlastingly thirsting for improvement, which the absolute ignores. Vaccination is a problem, the lightning-rod is a problem. Jenner may have erred. Franklin may have deceived himself; let us go on seeking. This agitation is grand. Science is restless around man; it has its own reasons for this restlessness. Science plays in progress the part of utility. Let us worshiop this magnificent servant.

Science makes discoveries, art composes works. Science is an acquirement of man, science is a ladder; one savant overtops the other. Poetry is a lofty soaring.

Do you want examples? They abound. Here is one,-- the first which occurs to our mind.

Jacob Metzu, scientifically Metius, discovers the telescope by chance, as Newton did gravitation and Christopher Columbus, America. Let us open a parenthesis: there is no chance in the creation of "Orestes" or of "Paradise Lost." A chef-d'œuvre is the offspring of will. After Metzu comes Galileo, who improves the discovery of Metzu; then Kepler, who improves on the improvement of Galileo; then Descartes, who, although going somewhat astray in taking a concave glass for the eyepiece instead of a convex one, fructifies the improvement of Kepler; then the Capuchin Reita, who rectifies the reversing of objects; then Huyghens, who makes a great step by placing two convex glasses on the focus of the objective; and in less than fifty years, from 1610 to 1659, during the short interval which separates the "Nuncius Siderus" of Galileo from the "Oculus Eliæ et Enoch" of Father Reita, behold the original inventor, Metzu, obliterated. And it is constantly the same in science.

Vegetius was Count of Constantinople; but that is no obstacle to his tactics being forgotten,-- forgotten like the strategy of Polybius, forgotten like the strategy of Folard. The pig's-head of the phalanx and the pointed order of the legion have for a moment re-appeared, two hundred years ago, in the wedge of Gustavus Adolphus; but in our days, when there are no more pikemen as in the fourteenth century, nor lansquenets as in the seventeenth, the ponderous triangular attack, which was in other times the base of all tactics, is replaced by a crowd of Zouaves charging with the bayonet. Some day, sooner perhaps than people think, the charge with the bayonet will be itself superseded by peace, at first European, by-and-by universal, and then a whole science -- the military science -- will vanish away. For that science, its improvement lies in its disappearance.

Science goes on unceasingly erasing itself,-- fruitful erasures. Who knows now what is the "Homœmeria" of Anaximenes, which perhaps belongs in reality to Anaxagoras? Cosmography is notably amended since the time when this same Anaxagoras told Pericles that the sun was almost as large as the Peloponnesus. Many planets, and satellites of planets have been discovered since the four stars of Medici. Entomology has made some advance since the time when it was asserted that the scarabee was somewhat of a god and a cousin of the sun,-- firstly, on account of the thirty toes on its feet, which corrrespond to the thirty days of the solar month; secondly, because the scarabee is whithout a female, like the sun; and when Saint Clement of Alexandria, outbidding Plutarch, made the remark that the scarabee, like the sun, passes six months in the earth and six month under it. Do you wish to have proof of this?-- refer to the "Stromate," paragraph iv. Scholasticism itself, chimerical as it is, gives up the "Holy Meadow" of Moschus, laughs at the "Holy Ladder" of John Climacus, and is ashamed of the century in which Saint Bernard, adding fuel to the stake which the Viscounts of Campania wished to put out, called Arnaud de Bresse "a man with the head of the dove and the tail of the scorpion." The cardinal virtues are no longer the law in anthropology. The steyardes of the great Arnauld are decayed. However uncertain is meterology, it is far from discussing now, as it did in the twelfth century, whether a rain which saves an army from dying of thirst is due to the Christian prayers of the Melitine legion or to the Pagan intervention of Jupiter Pluvius. The astrologer, Marcian Posthumus, was for Jupiter; Tertullian was for the Melitine legion. No one stood in favour of the cloud and of the wind. Locomotion, if we go from the antique chariot of Laius to the railway, passing by the patache, the track-boat, the turgotine, the diligence, and the mail, has made some progress indeed. The time is gone by for the famous journey from Dijon to Paris, lasting a month; and we could not understand to-day the amazement of Henry IV asking of Joseph Scaliger, "Is it true, Monseiur l'Escale, that you have been from Paris to Dijon without relieving your bowels?" Micrography is now far beyoond Leuwenhoeck, who was himself far beyond Swammerdam. Look at the point to which spermatology and ovology are arrived to-day, and recollect Mariana reproaching Arnaud de Villenuve, who discovered alcohol and the oil of turpentine, with the strange crime of having tried human generation in a pumpkin. Grand-Jean de Fouchy, the not over-credulous life secretary of the Academy of Sciences, a hundred years ago, would have shaken his head if any one had told him that from the solar spectrum one would pass to the igneus spectrum, then to the stellar spectrum, and that by the aid of the spectrum of flames and of the spectrum of stars, would be discovered an entirely new method of grouping the heavenly bodies, and what might be called the chemical constellations. Orffyreus, who destroyed his machine rather than allow the Landgrave of Hesse to see inside it,--Offyreus so admired by S'Gravesande, the author of the "Mathesos Universalis Elementa,"-- would be laughed at by our mechanicians. A village veterinary surgeon would not inflict on horses the remedy which Galen treated the indigestions of Marcus Aurelius. What is the opinion of the eminent specialists of our times, Desmarres at the head of them, respecting the learned discoveries of the seventeenth century by the Bishop of Titiopolis in the nasal chambers? The mummies have got on; M. Gannal makes them differently, if not better, than the Taricheutes, the Parachistes, and the Cholchytes made them in the days of Herodotus,-- the first by washing the body, the second by opening it, and the third by embalming it. Five hundred years before Jesus Christ it was perfectly scientific, when a king of Mesopotamia had a daughter possessed by the devil, to send to Thebes for a god to cure her. It is not exactly our way to treat epilepsy. In the same way have we given up expecting the kings of France to cure scrofula.

In 371, under Valens, son of Gratian le Cordier, the judges summoned to their bar a table accused of sorcery. This table had an accomplice named Hilarius. Hilarius confessed the crime. Ammimanus Marcellinus has preserved for us his confession, received by Zosimus, count and fiscal advocate:--

"Construximus, magnifici judices, ad cortinæ similitudinem Dephicæ infaustam hanc mensulam quam videtis; movimus tandem."

Hilarius was beheaded. Who was his accuser? A learned geometrician and magician,-- the same who advised Valens to decapitate all those whose names began with a Theod. To-day you may call yourself Theodore, and even make a table turn, without the fear of a geometrician causing your head to be cut off.

One would very much astonish Solon the son of Execestidas, Zeno the stoic, Antipater, Eudoxus, Lysis of Tarentum, Cebes, Menedemus, Plato, Epicurus, Astistole, and Epimenides, if one were to tell Solon that it is not the moon which regulates the year; to Zeno, that it is not proved that the soul is divided into eight parts; to Antipater, that the heaven is not formed of five circles; to Eudoxus, that it is not certain that between the Egyptians embalming the dead, the Romans burning them, and the Pæonians throwing them into ponds, the Pæonians are those who are right; to Lysis of Tarentum, that it is not exact that the sight is a hot vapour; to Cebes, that it is false that the principle of elements is the oblong triangle and the isoceles triangle; to Menedemus, that it is not true that in order to know the secret bad intentions of men it suffices to stick on one's head an Arcadian hat with the twelve signs of the zodiac; to Plato, that sea-water does not cure all diseases; to Epicurus, that matter is divisible ad infinitum; to Aristotle, that the fifth element has not an orbicular movement, for the reason that there is no fifth element; to Epimenides, that the plague cannot be infallibly got rid of by letting black and white sheep go at random, and sacrificing to unknown gods hidden in the places where the sheep happen to stop.

If you should try to hint to Pythagoras how improbable it is that he should have been wounded at the seige of Troy,--he Pythagorus, by Menelaus, two hundred and seven years before his birth,-- he would reply that the fact is incontestable, and that it is proved by the fact that he perfectly recognizes, as having already seen it, the shield of Menelaus suspended under the statue of Apollo at Branchides, although entirely rotten, except the ivory face; that at the siege of Troy his own name was Euphorbus, and that before being Euphorbus he was Æthalides, son of Mercury, and that after having been Euphorbus, he was Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus, fisherman at Delos, then Pythagorus; that it is all evident and clear,-- as clear as it is clear that he was present the same day and the same minute at Metapontum and Crotona, as evident as it is evident that by writing with blood on a mirror exposed to the moon, one may see in the moon what he wrote in the mirror; and lastly, that he is Pythagorus, living at Metapontum, in the Street of the Muses, the author of the multiplication table, and of the square of the hypothenuse, the greatest of all mathematicians, the father of exact science, and that you, you are an imbecile.

Chrysippus of Tarsus, who lived about the hundred and thirtieth Olmpiad, forms an era in science. This philosopher, the same who died, literally died, of laughing on seeing a donkey eat figs out of a silver basin, had studied everything, gone into the depth of everything, written seven hundred and five volumes, of which three hundred and eleven were on dialectics, without having dedicated a single one to a king,-- a fact which astounds Diogenes Laertius. he condensed in his brain all human knowledge. His contemporaries named him Light. Chrysippus signifying "golden horse," they said that he had got detached from the chariot of the sun. He had taken for device "To Me." He knew innumerable things,-- among others these: The earth is flat. The universe is round and limited. The best food for man is human flesh. The community of women is the base of social order. The father ought to espouse his daughter. There is a word which kills the serpent, a word which tames the bear, a word which arrests the flight of eagles, and a word which drives the oxen from the beanfield. By pronouncing from hour to hour the three names of the Egyptian Trinity, Amon-Mouth-Khons, Andron of Argos contrived to cross the deserts of Libya without drinking. Coffins ought not to be manufactured of cypress wood, the scepter of Jupiter being made of that wood. Themistoclea, priestess of Delphi, had given birth to children, and yet had remained a virgin. The just alone having authority to swear, it is by equity that Jupiter has received the name of The Swearer. The phoenix of Arabia lives in the fire. The earth is carried by the air as by a car. The sun drinks from the ocean, and the moon from the rivers. For these reasons the Athenians raised a statue to him on the Ceramicus, with the inscription: "To Chrysippus, who knew everything."

About the same time, Sophocles wrote "Œdipus Rex."

And Aristotle believed in the story about Andron of Argos, and Plato in the social principle of the community of women, and Gorgisippus in the earth being flat; and Epicurus admitted as a fact that the earth was supported by the air, and Hermodamantes that magic words mastered the ox, the eagle, the bear, and the serpent; and Echecrates believed in the immaculate maternity of Themistoclea, and Pythagoras in Jupiter's sceptre made of cypress wood, and Posidonius in the ocean affording drink to the sun and in the rivers quenching the thirst of the moon, and Pyrrho in the phœnix existing in fire.

Excepting in this particular, Pyrrho was a sceptic. He made up for his belief in the phœnix by doubting everything else.

All that long groping is science. Cuvier was mistaken yesterday, Lagrange the day before yesterday, Leibnitz before Legrange, Gassendi before Leibnitz, Cardan before Gassendi, Cornelius Agrippa before Cardan, Averroes before Agrippa, Plotinus before Averroes, Artemidorus Daldian before Plotinus, Posidonius before Artemidorus, Democritus before Posidonius, Empedocles before Democritus, Carneades before Empedocles, Plato before Carneades, Pherecydes before Plato, Pittacus befofe Pherecydes, Thales before Pittacus, and before Thales Zoroaster, and before Zoroaster Sanchoniathon, and before Sanchoniathon Hermes,-- Hermes, which signifies science, as Orpheus signifies art. Oh, wonderful marvel, this heap swarming with dreams which engender the real! Oh, sacred errors, slow, blind and sainted mothers of truth!

Some savants, such as Kepler, Euler, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Arago, have brought into science nothing but light; they are rare.

At times science is an obstacle to science. The savants give way to scruples and cavil at study. Pliny is scandalized at Hipparchus; Hipparchus, with the aid of an imperfect astrolabe, tries to count the stars and to name them,--an impropriety towards God, says Pliny ("Ausus rem Deo improbam").

To count the stars is to commit a wickedness toward God. This accusation, started by Pliny against Hipparchus, is continued by the Inquisition against Campanella.

Science is the asymptote of truth. It approaches unceasingly and never touches. Nevertheless it has every greatness. It has will, precision, enthusiasm, profound attention, penetration, shrewdness, strength, patience by concatenation, permanent watching for phenomena, the ardour of progress, and even flashes of bravery,-- witness La Pérouse; witness Pilastre des Rosiers; witness John Franklin; witness Victor Jacquemont; witness Livingstone; witness Mazet; witness, at this very hour, Nadar.

But science is series. It proceeds by tests heaped one above the other, and the thick obscurity of which rises slowly to the level of truth.

Nothing like it in art. Art is not successive. All art is ensemble.

Let us sum up these few pages.

Hippocrates is outrun, Archimedes is outrun, Aratus is outrun, Avicenus is outrun, Paracelsus is outrun, Nicholas Flamel is outrun, Abrose Par&eactue; is outrun, Vésale is outrun, Copernicus is outrun, Galileo is outrun, Newton is outrun, Clairaut is outrun, Lavoisier is outrun, Montgolfier is outrun, Laplace is outrun. Pindar not, Phidias not.

Pascal the savant is outrn; Pascal the writer is not.

We no longer teach the astronomy of Ptolemy, the geography of Strabo, the climatology of Cleostratus, the zoology of Pliny, the algebra of Diphantus, the medicine of Tribumus, the surgery of Ronsil, the dialectics of Sphœrus, the myology of Steno, the uranology of Tatius, the stenography of Trithemius, the pisciculture of Sebastien de Medici, the arithmetic of Stifels, the geometry of Tartaglia, the chronology of Scaliger, the meteorology of Stoffler, the anatomy of Gassendi, the pathology of Fernel, the jurisprudence of Robert Barmne, the agrigulture of Quesnay, the hydrography of Bouguer, the nautics of Bourdé de Villehuet, the ballistics of Gribeauval, the veterinary practice of Garsault, the architectonics of Desgodets, the botany of Tournefort, the scholasticism of Abailard, the politics of Plato, the mechanics of Aristotle, the physics of Descartes, the theology of Stillingfleet. We taught yesterday, we teach to-day, we shall teach to-morrow, we shall teach forever, the "Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles."

Poetry lives a potential life. The sciences may extend its sphere, not increase its power. Homer had but four winds for his tempests; Virgil who has twelve, Dante who has twenty-four, Milton who has thirty-two, do not make their storms grander.

And it is probably that the tempests of Orpheus were as beautiful as those of Homer, although Orpheus had, to rais the waves, but two winds, the Phœnicias and the Aparctias,-- that is to say, the wind of the south and the wind of the north (often confounded, let us say in passing, with the Argestes, westerly summer wind, and the Libs, the westerly winter wind).

Some religions die away; and when they disappear, they bequeath a great artist to other religions coming after them. Serpio makes for the Venus Aversative of Athens a vase that the Holy Virgin accepts from Venus, and which to-day is used in the baptistery of Notre Dame at Gaëta.

Oh, eternity of art!

A man, a corpse, a shade, from the depth of the past, through the long ages, lays hold of you.

I remember, when a youth, one day at Romorantin, in an old house we had there, under a vine arbour open to air and light, I espied a book on a plank, the only book there was in the house,-- "De Rerum Natura," of Lucretius. My professors of rhetoric had spoken very ill of it, which was a recommendation to me. I opened the book. It was at that moment about midday. I came upon these powerful and calm lines:--

"Religion does not consist in truning unceasingly toward the veiled stone, nor in approaching all the altars, nor in throwing one's self prostrated on the ground, nor in raising the hands before the habitations of gods, nor deluging the temples with the blood of the beasts, nor in heaping vows upon vows, but in beholding all with a perfect soul."1

I stopped in thought; then I began to read again. Some moments afterward I could see nothing, hear nothing; I was immersed in the poet. At the dinner-hour I made a sign that I was not hungry; and at night, when the sun set, and when the herds were returning to their sheds, I was still in the same place reading the wonderful book; and by my side my father, with his white locks, seated on the door-sill of the low room, where his sword hung on a nail, indulging my prolonged reading, was gently calling the sheep; and they came in turn to eat a little salt in the hollow of his hand.

1. Nec pietas ulla est, velatum sæpe videri
Vertier ad lapidem, atque omnes accedre ad aras.
Nec procumbere humi prostratum, et pandere palmas
Ante deum delubra, neque aras sanguine multo
Spargere quadrupedum, nec votis nectere vota;
Sed mage placata posse omnia mente tueri.

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