Space and Time
1. Many definitions of space have been given. The principal one is this: space is the extent which separates two bodies; from which certain sophists have inferred, that, where no body is, there can be no space. Doctors of theology have taken this idea as the base of their belief, that there is necessarily an end to space, alleging that bodies limited to a certain number cannot form an infinite succession, and that where bodies no longer exist is also the end of space. Yet another definition of space is: the place where worlds move, the void where matter acts, etc. Let us leave, in the treatises where they repose, all these definitions, which define nothing.
Space is one of those words which represents a primitive and axiomatic idea, self-evident, to which the diverse definitions which are given serve only to obscure its meaning. We all know what space is; and I desire only to establish its infinity in order that our subsequent studies may find no barrier opposing itself to the investigation of our ideas.
Now, I say that space is infinite for this reason: that it is impossible to suppose any limit to it, and that, notwithstanding the difficulty of gaining a conception of infinitude, it is, however, easier to think of going eternally through space, than to decide upon a stopping-place in it beyond which no more space extends.
In order to grasp as far as is possible with our limited faculties the infinitude of space, let us suppose ourselves departing from Earth, lost in the midst of infinitude, towards any point in the universe, and that with the exceeding celerity of an electric spark, which traverses thousands of leagues in a second. Scarcely have we left our globe, having passed over millions of miles, we find ourselves in a place whence our Earth will appear to us only under the aspect of a pale star. An instant after, following always the same direction, we shall arrive near the far-distant stars, which you can scarcely distinguish from your terrestrial station; and whence not only the Earth is lost to our sight in the heavenly depths, but also your sun’s splendor is eclipsed by the distance which separates us from it. Propelled incessantly at the same lightning speed, we pass over planetary systems at every step as we advance in space, over islands of ethereal light, over starry ways, and glorious places where God has scattered worlds profusely, as he has sown plants on terrestrial prairies.
Now it is only a few minutes since we took our departure from Earth, and already hundreds of millions of millions of miles separate us from Earth, thousands of worlds have been displayed to our sight, and yet listen! We have in reality advanced but one step in the universe.
If we continue for years, ages, thousands of centuries, hundreds of millions of earthly periods of time, to transverse incessantly with the same lightning speed the fields of space, on whatever side we may go, toward whatsoever point we may direct ourselves from this invisible grain which we have quitted, and which is called Earth, the same immensity of space will be ever before us. This is space.
2. Time, like space, is a self-evident fact. One can make a better estimate of it by establishing its relation to the infinite whole.
Time is the succession of things. It is bound to eternity in the same manner as things are joined to infinitude. Let us suppose ourselves at the beginning of our world, at that primitive epoch where the Earth was not held in equilibrium by the divine impetus; in short, at the commencement of Genesis. Time has not arisen from the mysterious cradle of nature, and no one can tell at what epoch of the ages we are, since the pendulum of the centuries is not yet in motion.
But, silence! The first hour of a newborn Earth resounds through the air, and henceforth are night and morning. Beyond Earth eternity remains impassive and immovable, although time marches with steady feet in other worlds. Upon Earth time is enthroned, and during a series of generations, years and centuries of it will be counted.
Let us now transport ourselves to the last day of this world, to the hour when, its power for good being paralyzed by age and decay, it will be effaced from the book of life never more to reappear. Here the succession of events is arrested, the terrestrial movements which measure time are interrupted, and time is ended with them.
This simple exposition of natural things which give birth to time, perpetuate it, and then allow it to be extinguished, suffices to show that, seen from the point where we must place ourselves for our studies, time is a drop of water which falls from the cloud into the sea of which the fall is measured.
There are as many different and contradictory times as there are worlds in the vast expanse. Beyond worlds, eternity alone replaces these ephemeral inheritances and quietly fills with its light immovable the immensity of the heavens. Immensity and eternity without limits, — such are the two grand properties of universal nature.
The eye of the observer who traverses untiringly the immeasurable distances of space, as well as that of the geologist who peers into the secrets of the ages, descending even into the depths of a yawning eternity, where they will some day be engulfed, act in concert, each in his way, to acquire this double idea of infinitude, duration, and extent.
Now, in preserving this order of ideas, it will be easy for us to conceive that time being only connected with transitory things depending wholly upon things which can be measured, if, taking the terrestrial centuries for units, we piled them thousands upon thousands in order to form a colossal number, this number will never represent more than a moment in eternity, just as thousands of leagues joined to thousands of leagues are only a speck in boundless extent.
Thus, for example, time being unknown in eternity, and the ages being totally distinct from the ethereal life of the soul, we could write a number as long as the terrestrial equator, and suppose ourselves aged by this number of centuries, without making our soul one day older; and, adding to this uncountable number of ages a series of similar numbers as long as from here to the sun, or still more yet, imagining ourselves to live during the prodigious succession of circular periods represented by the addition of those numbers when we should have passed through them, the incomprehensible accumulation of years which would weigh upon our heads would be as though they were not: an entire eternity would always be before us.
Time is only a comparative measure of the inheritance of transitory things. Eternity is susceptible of no measure as regards duration of time: it owns no beginning or end; the present only belongs to it.
If centuries upon centuries are less than a second compared with eternity, what comparison does the duration of human life bear to it?