Usbek to Hassein, der­vich of the moun­tain of Jaron

O thou wise der­vich, whose curious mind shi­nes from so much know­ledge, lis­ten to what I have to tell thee.

There are phi­lo­so­phers here who in truth have not attai­ned the sum­mit of orien­tal wis­dom ; they have not been rap­tu­red to the lumi­nous throne ; they have nei­ther heard the inef­fa­ble words with which the concerts of angels resound, nor expe­rien­ced the power­ful sur­ges of a divine fury ; but left to them­sel­ves, depri­ved of holy mar­vels, they pur­sue in silence the tracks of human rea­son.

You could not believe how far this guide has led them. They have sor­ted out the chaos1 and have explai­ned by sim­ple mecha­nics the order of divine archi­tec­ture. The author of nature has given move­ment to mat­ter : it took no more to pro­duce this pro­di­gious variety of effects that we see in the uni­verse.2

Let ordi­nary legis­la­tors pro­pose laws to us to regu­late socie­ties of men, laws as sub­ject to change as the minds of those who pro­pose them and the peo­ples who observe them ; but these speak to us only of laws that are gene­ral, immu­ta­ble, and eter­nal, which are obser­ved without any excep­tion,3 with an order, a regu­la­rity and infi­nite promp­ti­tude in the immen­sity of space.

And what do you believe, divine man, that these laws might be ? Perhaps you ima­gine that, ente­ring into the coun­sel of the Eternal, you are going to be asto­ni­shed by the subli­mity of the mys­te­ries : you renoun­cing unders­tan­ding in advance, inten­ding only to admire.

But you will soon change your way of thin­king. These laws do not dazzle by a false res­pect ; their sim­pli­city long cau­sed them not to be seen ; it is only after much reflec­tion that all their fer­ti­lity and breadth has been unders­tood.

The first is that any body tends to des­cribe a straight line4 unless it encoun­ters some obs­ta­cle that deflects it away ; and the second, which sim­ply deri­ves from the first, is that any body that turns about a cen­ter tends to flee it, because the more dis­tant it is, the more the line it des­cri­bes approa­ches a straight line.

And that, sublime der­vish, is the key to nature. Those are fer­tile prin­ci­ples, from which conse­quen­ces can be drawn as far as the eye can see, as I shall make clear to you in a pri­vate let­ter.

The know­ledge of five or six truths has made their phi­lo­so­phy full of mira­cles, and has made them accom­plish more won­ders and mar­vels that all we are told of our holy pro­phets.

For in short I am per­sua­ded that there is not one of our doc­tors who would not have been baf­fled if he had been asked to weigh all the air sur­roun­ding the earth in a scale,5 or to mea­sure all the water that falls each year on its sur­face6 ; and who would not have thought more than four times before saying how many lea­gues sound tra­vels in an hour7 and the time a ray of light from the sun to reach us.8 How many fathoms is it from here to Saturn,9 Along what curve must a ves­sel be sha­ped to be the best sai­ling ship pos­si­ble ?10

Perhaps if some divine man had gra­ced the works of these phi­lo­so­phers with lofty and sublime words, and if he had added bold figu­res and mys­te­rious alle­go­ries to them, he would have made a fine work second only to the holy Qur’an.

Yet if I must to tell you what I think, I do not think much of figu­ra­tive style. In our Qur’an there are a large num­ber of infan­tile things11 which always so appear to me, although they are enhan­ced by the force and live­li­ness of the expres­sion. At first it seems that ins­pi­red books are only divine thoughts ren­de­red in human lan­guage ; on the contrary, in our holy books, we find the lan­guage of God and the thoughts of men, as if by some won­drous whim God had dic­ta­ted the words, and man had sup­plied the ideas.12

You will per­haps say that I speak too freely about what is most holy among us ; you will believe that it is the pro­duct of the inde­pen­dence they live in here. No, thank hea­ven, the mind has not cor­rup­ted the heart ; and so long as I shall live, Ali shall be my Prophet.

Paris this 15th day of the moon of Chahban 1716

This is the term traditionally used to designate the earth “without form and void” of Genesis 1:2.

An essentially Cartesian position : God is the primum mobile “who in his unlimited power had created matter with motion and stillness, and now preserves the universe” (Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part II, §36 ; Œuvres et letters, Paris : Pléiade, 1953, p. 632).

Implicitly, this proposition with deistic overtones categorically excludes miracles.

It would be more accurate to say any body that moves : this is the “second law of nature” according to Descartes, or the principle of inertia, from which centrifugal force derives (Principles of Philosophy, Part 2, §39, op. cit., p. 634-636) – Usbek’s “second law” in the next sentence.

Allusion, with some hyperbole, to numerous experiments on the weight of air and atmospheric pressure, notably those of Robert Boyle (Exercitationes de atmosphaeris corporum consistentium, 1673), Robert Hooke (a colleague of Boyle’s at Oxford and inventor of barometers and anemometers), and Edme Mariotte (De la nature de l’air, 1679). The Encyclopédie, citing the theories of Boyle and Mariotte, will give a calculation of the weight of air on the entire globe (art. “Air”, vol. I, p. 229).

This subject was much discussed early in the century. The experiments of Philippe de La Hire to measure the quantity of rainfall in a year are reported in the Journal des savants in 1695, 1699 and 1703 ; cf. Encyclopédie (vol. XII, p. 794). Once divine attributes – “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span […] ?” (Isaiah 40:12) – now implicitly pass into human hands.

Several people had worked on the speed of sound ; the Encyclopédie will mention several values proposed : 968 feet/second according to Newton, 1200 according to Boyle, 1142 according to Flamsteed and Halley, 1474 according to Mersenne (art. “Son”, vol. XV, p. 344).

Le Journal des savants reported in 1676 on the demonstration made by Danish astronomer Olaüs Roemer (Olav Römer) on the base of observations of a satellite of Jupiter, according to which light can travel a space of 3000 leagues (the diameter of the Earth) in less than a second ; the Encyclopédie concludes : “MM. Roemer and Newton have established beyond doubt […] that light from the sun takes about seven minutes to reach Earth”.

Observations of Saturn by Huygens and Cassini in particular had appeared in the Journal des Savants in 1669, 1672 and 1677 ; see Huygens’s Systema Saturnianum (1695).

Bernard Renau d’Eliçagaray (1652-1719) had published in 1689 his Théorie de la manœuvre des vaisseaux ; Huygens and Renau argued over it in a series of letters in the Journal des savants in 1695 and 1697. Voltaire will comment : “Today we know, after the long disputes between M. Huyghens and M. Renaud, the determination of the most advantageous angle for a rudder from the keel ; but Christopher Columbus had discovered America without any notion of that angle” (Letters philosophiques, 1734, letter 24).

An audacious thought which, by implication, applies to the Bible as well.

An ambiguous formula based perhaps on St. Paul’s notion of the divine inspiration of men : “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21).