Yesterday evening the Great Bear stretched out along the edge of the horizon. Cassiopeia lifted her lanterns in a zigzag on the far side of the North Star. Vega, the blue star, was shining at the summit of the sky. Towards the west, Arcturus descended; between the two the Crown and the Pearl could be seen. In the east slender Andromeda lay down and, more to the North, the stars of Perseus fell from her like a broken necklace. The names are old; but the jewels of the sky are older than the names. The shepherds of the Chaldees saw them as we see them. In this season, at this hour, the first of the night, Virgil could see them climb from or plunge into the sea, just as Aeneas’ helmsman had.
When we bring our eyes back to the earth, where everything has changed, where everything changes so quickly from moment to moment, this great contrast cannot help but shake one’s thought to the depths. The torrent splits upon the rock; the rock itself disappears into sand; granite peaks show, by their shape, that they resist the snow and the rain; but these rocky, swelling slopes, with streaks of clay, would be seen to flow almost like water, if we only lived a little more slowly and if ten centuries became one second. Our passions change like reflections in water and our desires devour the time to come. But if we look again at the stars, time is suddenly abolished, and we observe order and eternity.
Plato was so struck by this that he taught that the gods gave us the stars for models, so that, despite all the things that flow away, we could put order and tranquillity into our ideas. Whether he spoke as a poet and whether he believed at bottom that it is we who are gods for an instant, is something we can’t know for sure, for he had the art of smiling for nurses and little children while he spoke to men. But it’s still the case that he here expresses a great and profound idea; for it’s certainly the movements of the heavens which gave human beings their first notion of an order to be sought in things, from which has come all their power and all their justice, really falling from the sky, but in a way quite different from how priests describe it.
This is why, even today, it is on the real sky of stars that a human life should depend; without it human whims and children’s cries would make our heads spin. This is the model for all human knowledge, for all human inventions, for all human wisdom. This is where the legislator of cities looks, and the person who legislates for himself, and the poet, and old women as well. All seek the same thing; some an arbitrary god, others a law, everyone a human sceptre and a human crown, each to their own liking. Some looking at the images, and others reading.
September 15th, 1909
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram