Chapter VI. Astronomy.
GOVERNMENTS and parliaments must find that astronomy is one of the sciences which cost most dear: the least instrument costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, the least observatory costs millions; each eclipse carries with it supplementary appropriations. And all that for stars which are so far away, which are complete strangers to our electoral contests, and in all probability will never take any part in them. It must be that our politicians have retained a remnant of idealism, a vague instinct for what is grand; truly, I think they have been calumniated; they should be encouraged and shown that this instinct does not deceive them, that they are not dupes of that idealism.
We might indeed speak to them of navigation, of which no one can underestimate the importance, and which has need of astronomy. But this would be to take the question by its smaller side.
Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand; that is what we should say. It shows us how small is man's body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony. Thus we attain the consciousness of our power, and this is something which can not cost too dear, since this consciousness makes us mightier.
But what I should wish before all to show is, to what point astronomy has facilitated the work of the other sciences, more directly useful, since it has given us a soul capable of comprehending nature.
Think how diminished humanity would be if, under heavens constantly overclouded, as Jupiter's must be, it had forever remained ignorant of the stars. Do you think that in such a world we should be what we are? I know well that under this somber vault we should have been deprived of the light of the sun, necessary to organisms like those which inhabit the earth. But if you please, we shall assume that these clouds are phosphorescent and emit a soft and constant light. Since we are making hypotheses, another will cost no more. Well! I repeat my question: Do you think that in such a world we should be what we are?