Last Update: Jan. 1, 2000 Navigation: Main Menu Poe's Misc Next Section[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, "Eureka [Section 1]" from The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, vol. II, 1850, pp. 117-129.]
[TO the few who love me and whom I love — to those who feel rather than to those who think — to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities — I offer this book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth, constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: — let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.
What I here propound is true: — therefore it cannot die; or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will "rise again to the Life Everlasting."
Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that
I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.]
IT is with humility really unassumed — it is with a sentiment even of awe — that I pen the opening sentence of this work; for of all conceivable subjects, I approach the reader with the most solemn, the most comprehensive, the most difficult, the most august.
What terms shall I find sufficiently simple in their sublimity — sufficiently sublime in their simplicity — for the mere enunciation of my theme?
I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical — of the Material and Spiritual Universe; of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition, and its Destiny. I shall be so rash, moreover, as to challenge the conclusions, and thus, in effect, to question the sagacity, of many of the greatest and most justly reverenced of men.
In the beginning, let me as distinctly as possible
announce, not the theorem which I hope to demonstrate — for, whatever the
My general proposition, then, is this: — In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.
In illustration of this idea, I propose to take such a survey of the Universe that the mind may be able really to receive and to perceive an individual impression.
He who from the top of AEtna casts his eyes leisurely around, is affected chiefly by the extent and diversity of the scene. Only by a rapid whirling on his heel could he hope to comprehend the panorama in the sublimity of its oneness. But as, on the summit of AEtna, no man has thought of whirling on his heel, so no man has ever taken into his brain the full uniqueness of the prospect; and so, again, whatever considerations lie involved in this uniqueness have as yet no practical existence for mankind.
I do not know a treatise in which a survey of the Universe — using the word in its most comprehensive and only legitimate acceptation — is taken at all; and it may be as well here to mention that by the term “Universe,” wherever employed without qualification in this essay, I mean, in most cases, to designate the utmost conceivable expanse of space, with all things, spiritual and material, that can he imagined to exist within the compass of that expanse. In speaking of what is ordinarily implied by the expression “Universe,” I shall take a phrase of limitation — “the Universe of Stars.” Why this distinction is considered necessary will be seen in the sequel.
But even of treatises on the really limited, although
always assumed as the unlimited, Universe of Stars, I know
none in which a survey, even of this limited Universe, is so taken as to
warrant deductions from its individuality. The nearest approach
to such a work is made in the “Cosmos” of Alexander Von Humboldt. He presents
the subject, however, not in its individuality but in its generality. His
theme, in its last result, is the law of each portion of the merely
physical Universe, as this law is related to the laws of every other
portion of this merely physical Universe. His design is simply synoeretical.
In a word, he discusses the
It seems to me that, in aiming at this latter effect, and, through it, at the consequences — the conclusions, the suggestions, the speculations, or, if nothing better offer itself, the mere guesses — which may result from it, we require something like a mental gyration on the heel. We need so rapid a revolution of all things about the central point of sight that, while the minutiae vanish altogether, even the more conspicuous objects become blended into one. Among the vanishing minutiae, in a survey of this kind, would be all exclusively terrestrial matters. The Earth would be considered in its planetary relations alone. A man, in this view, becomes Mankind; Mankind a member of the cosmical family of Intelligences.
And now, before proceeding to our subject proper, let me beg the reader’s attention to an extract or two from a somewhat remarkable letter, which appears to have been found corked in a bottle and floating on the Mare Tenebrarum — an ocean well described by the Nubian geographer, Ptolemy Hephaestion, but little frequented in modern days unless by the Transcendentalists and some other divers for crotchets. The date of this letter, I confess, surprises me even more particularly than its contents; for it seems to have been written in the year two thousand eight hundred and forty-eight. As for the passages I am about to transcribe, they, I fancy, will speak for themselves.
“Do you know, my dear friend,” says the writer, addressing,
no doubt, a contemporary — “Do you know that it is scarcely more than eight
or nine hundred years ago since the metaphysicians first consented to relieve
the people of the singular fancy that there exist but two practicable
roads to Truth? Believe it if you can! It appears, however, that
long, long ago, in the night of Time, there lived a Turkish philosopher
called Aries and surnamed Tottle. [Here, possibly, the letter-writer means
Aristotle; the best
“Well, Aries Tottle flourished supreme, until the advent of one Hog, surnamed ‘the Ettrick shepherd,’ who preached an entirely different system, which he called the a posteriori or inductive. His plan referred altogether to sensation. He proceeded by observing, analyzing, and classifying facts—instantiae Naturae, as they were somewhat affectedly called — and arranging them into general laws. In a word, while the mode of Aries rested on noumena, that of Hog depended on phenomena; and so great was the admiration excited by this latter system that, at its first introduction, Aries fell into general disrepute. Finally, however, he recovered ground, and was permitted to divide the empire of Philosophy with his more modern rival; the savants contenting themselves with proscribing all other competitors, past, present, and to come; putting an end to all controversy on the topic by the promulgation of a Median law, to the effect that the Aristotelian and Baconian roads are, and of right ought to be, the sole possible avenues to knowledge. ‘Baconian,’ you must know, my dear friend,” adds the letter-writer at this point, “was an adjective invented as equivalent to Hog-ian, while more dignified and euphonious.
“Now I do assure you most positively” — proceeds
the epistle — “that I represent these matters fairly; and you can easily
“Now, my dear friend,” continues the letter-writer,
“it cannot be maintained that, by the crawling system exclusively adopted,
men would arrive at the maximum amount of truth, even in any long series
of ages; for the repression of imagination was an evil not to be counterbalanced
even by absolute certainty in the snail processes. But their
certainty was very far from absolute. The error of our progenitors was
quite analogous with that of the wiseacre who fancies he must necessarily
see an object the more distinctly, the more closely he holds it to his
eyes. They blinded themselves, too, with the impalpable, titillating Scotch
snuff of detail; and thus the boasted facts of the Hog-ites
were by no means always facts — a point of little importance but for the
assumption that they always were. The vital taint, however, in Baconianism
— its most lamentable fount of error — lay in its tendency to throw power
and consideration into the hands of merely perceptive men — of those inter-Tritonic
minnows, the microscopical savants, the diggers and pedlers of minute facts,
for the most part
“Than the persons” — the letter goes on to say — “than the persons thus suddenly elevated by the Hog-ian philosophy into a station for which they were unfitted, thus transferred from the sculleries into the parlors of Science, from its pantries into its pulpits — than these individuals a more intolerant, a more intolerable, set of bigots and tyrants never existed on the face of the earth. Their creed, their text, and their sermon were, alike, the one word ‘fact;' but, for the most part, even of this one word they knew not even the meaning. On those who ventured to disturb their facts, with the view of putting them in order and to use, the disciples of Hog had no mercy whatever. All attempts at generalization were met at once by the words ‘theoretical,’ ‘theory,’ ‘theorist;’all thought, to be brief, was very properly resented as a personal affront to themselves. Cultivating the natural sciences to the exclusion of Metaphysics, the Mathematics, and Logic, many of these Bacon-engendered philosophers — one-idead, one-sided, and lame of a leg — were more wretchedly helpless, more miserably ignorant, in view of all the comprehensible objects of knowledge, than the veriest unlettered hind who proves that he knows something at least, in admitting that he knows absolutely nothing.
“Nor had our forefathers any better right to talk
about certainty, when pursuing, in blind confidence, the a
priori path of axioms, or of the Ram. At innumerable points this path
was scarcely as straight as a ram’s-horn. The simple truth is, that the
Aristotelians erected their castles upon a basis far less reliable than
air; for no such things as axioms ever existed or can possibly exist
at all. This they must have been very blind indeed not to see, or at
least to suspect; for, even in their own day, many of their long-admitted
‘axioms’ had been abandoned: ‘ex nihilo nihil fit,’ for example,
and a ‘thing cannot act where it is not,’ and ‘there cannot be antipodes,’
and ‘darkness cannot proceed from light.’ These and numerous similar propositions
formerly accepted, without hesitation,
“But, even through evidence afforded by themselves against themselves, it is easy to convict these a priori reasoners of the grossest unreason; it is easy to show the futility, the impalpability, of their axioms in general. I have now lying before me” — it will be observed that we still proceed with the letter — “I have now lying before me a book printed about a thousand years ago. Pundit assures me that it is decidedly the cleverest ancient work on its topic, which is ‘Logic.’ The author, who was much esteemed in his day, was one Miller, or Mill; and we find it recorded of him, as a point of some importance, that he rode a mill-horse whom he called Jeremy Bentham; — but let us glance at the volume itself.
“Ah! — ‘Ability or inability to conceive,’ says Mr. Mill, very properly, ‘is in no case to be received as a criterion of axiomatic truth.’ Now, that this is a palpable truism no one in his senses will deny. Not to admit the proposition, is to insinuate a charge of variability in Truth itself, whose very title is a synonym of the Steadfast. If ability to conceive be taken as a criterion of Truth, then a truth to David Hume would very seldom be a truth to Joe; and ninety-nine hundredths of what is undeniable in Heaven would be demonstrable falsity upon Earth. The proposition of Mr. Mill, then, is sustained. I will not grant it to be an axiom; and this merely because I am showing that no axioms exist; but, with a distinction which could not have been cavilled at even by Mr. Mill himself, I am ready to grant that, if an axiom there be, then the proposition of which we speak has the fullest right to be considered an axiom — that no more absolute axiom is; and, consequently, that any subsequent proposition which shall conflict with this one primarily advanced, must be either a falsity in itself — that is to say, no axiom — or, if admitted axiomatic, must at once neutralize both itself and its predecessor.
“And now, by the logic of their own propounder, let
us proceed to test any one of the axioms propounded. Let us give Mr. Mill
the fairest of play. We will bring the point to no ordinary issue.
“Now I do not quarrel with these ancients,” continues the letter-writer, “so much on account of the transparent frivolity of their logic — which, to be plain, was baseless, worthless, and fantastic altogether — as on account of their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths — the one of creeping and the other of crawling — to which, in their ignorant perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul — the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of ‘path.’
“By the by, my dear friend, is it not an evidence
of the mental slavery entailed upon those bigoted people by their Hogs
and Rams, that, in spite of the eternal prating of their savants about
roads to Truth, none of them fell, even by accident, into what we
now so distinctly perceive to be the broadest, the straightest, and most
available of all mere roads — the great thoroughfare — the majestic highway
of the Consistent? Is it not wonderful that they should have
failed to deduce from the works of God the vitally momentous consideration
that a perfect consistency can be nothing but an absolute truth?
How plain — how rapid our progress since the late announcement of this
proposition! By its means, investigation has been taken out of the hands
of the ground moles, and given as a duty, rather than as a task, to the
true, to the only true thinkers — to the generally educated men
of ardent imagination. These latter — our Keplers, our Laplaces — ‘speculate’
— ‘theorize’ — these are the terms; can you not fancy the shout of scorn
with which they would be received by our progenitors, were it possible
for them to be looking over my shoulders as I write? The Keplers, I repeat,
speculate — theorize — and their theories are merely corrected — reduced
— sifted — cleared, little by little, of their chaff of inconsistency —
until at length there
“I have often thought, my friend, that it must have puzzled these dogmaticians of a thousand years ago to determine, even, by which of their two boasted roads it is that the cryptographist attains the solution of the more complicated cyphers; or by which of them Champollion guided mankind to those important and innumerable truths which, for so many centuries, have lain entombed amid the phonetical hieroglyphics of Egypt. In especial, would it not have given these bigots some trouble to determine by which of their two roads was reached the most momentous and sublime of all their truths — the truth, the fact, of gravitation? Newton deduced it from the laws of Kepler. Kepler admitted that these laws he guessed — these laws whose investigation disclosed to the greatest of British astronomers that principle, the basis of all (existing) physical principle, in going behind which we enter at once the nebulous kingdom of Metaphysics. Yes! these vital laws Kepler guessed; that it is to say, he imagined them. Had he been asked to point out either the deductive or inductive route by which he attained them, his reply might have been — ‘I know nothing about routes, but I do know the machinery of the Universe. Here it is. I grasped it with my soul, I reached it through mere dint of intuition.’ Alas, poor ignorant old man! Could not any metaphysician have told him that what he called ‘intuition’ was but the conviction resulting from de ductions or in ductions of which the processes were so shadowy as to have escaped his consciousness, eluded his reason, or bidden defiance to his capacity of expression? How great a pity it is that some ‘moral philosopher’ had not enlightened him about all this! How it would have comforted him on his death-bed to know that, instead of having gone intuitively and thus unbecomingly, he had, in fact, proceeded decorously and legitimately — that is to say, Hog-ishly, or at least Ram-ishly — into the vast halls where lay gleaming, untended, and hitherto untouched by mortal hand, unseen by mortal eye, the imperishable and priceless secrets of the Universe!
“Yes, Kepler was essentially a theorist; but
this title, now of
Here end my quotations from this very unaccountable if not impertinent epistle; and perhaps it would be folly to comment, in any respect, upon the chimerical, not to say revolutionary, fancies of the writer — whoever he is — fancies so radically at war with the well-considered and well-settled opinions of this age. Let us proceed, then, to our legitimate thesis, The Universe.
This thesis admits a choice between two modes of
discussion: — We may ascend or descend. Beginning at our
own point of view, at the Earth on which we stand, we may pass to the other
planets of our system, thence to the Sun, thence to our system considered
collectively, and thence, through other systems, indefinitely outwards;
or, commencing on high at some point as definite as we can make it or conceive
it, we may come down to the habitation of Man. Usually,that is to
say, in ordinary essays on Astronomy, the first of these two modes is,
with certain reservations, adopted: this for the obvious reason that
astronomical facts, merely, and principles, being the object, that
object is best fulfilled in stepping from the known because proximate,
gradually onward to the point where all certitude becomes lost in the remote.
For my present purpose, however, that of enabling the mind to take in,
as if from afar and at one glance, a distant conception of the individual
Universe, it is clear that a descent to small from great — to the outskirts
from the centre (if we could establish a centre) — to the end from the
beginning (if we could fancy a beginning) — would be the preferable course,
but for the difficulty, if not impossibility, of presenting, in this course,
to the unastronomical, a picture at all comprehensible
Now, distinctness — intelligibility, at all points, is a primary feature in my general design. On important topics it is better to be a good deal prolix than even a very little obscure. But abstruseness is a quality appertaining to no subject in itself. All are alike, in facility of comprehension, to him who approaches them by properly graduated steps. It is merely because a stepping-stone, here and there, is heedlessly left unsupplied in our road to the Differential Calculus, that this latter is not altogether as simple a thing as a sonnet by Mr. Solomon Seesaw.
By way of admitting, then, no chance for misapprehension, I think it advisable to proceed as if even the more obvious facts of Astronomy were unknown to the reader. In combining the two modes of discussion to which I have referred, I propose to avail myself of the advantages peculiar to each, and very especially of the iteration in detail which will be unavoidable as a consequence of the plan. Commencing with a descent, I shall reserve for the return upwards those indispensable considerations of quantity to which allusion has already been made.
Let us begin, then, at once, with that merest of
words, “Infinity.” This, like “God,” “spirit,” and some other expressions
of which the equivalents exist in all languages, is by no means the expression
of an idea, but of an effort at one. It stands for the possible attempt
at an impossible conception. Man needed a term by which to point out the
direction of this effort — the cloud behind which lay, forever invisible,
the object of this attempt. A word, in fine, was demanded, by means
of which one human being might put himself in relation at once with another
human being and with a certain tendency of the human intellect.
Out of this demand arose the word “Infinity;” which is thus the representative
but of the thought of a thought.
[S:0 - Works, 1850]