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The Enormity of the Universe | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
Should the vast size of the universe concern us? Could
indeed we fail to notice it? We have researchers trying to give us some
estimate of its distance in terms of light years and billions of years in the
making. Pascal, in a famous passage, said that the infinite spaces of the
heavens frightened him. Why did they not exhilarate him? Space is not so
overwhelming if we have reasons to think that it had a creator.
Yet, one of the reasons why people do not want the universe
to be created, even if it is created, is because of what it implies. It
suggests that a reason can be given for its existence, size and all. Further,
this reason may just have something to do with ourselves. That is, we may not
be just an afterthought in the whole system, as if we were utterly
insignificant. A quick way out of the implications of personal responsibility,
then, is simply to deny any meaning at all either to the universe or to
ourselves within it. That leaves us supposedly "free" but, at the same time,
meaningless, except for any possible meaning we might give ourselves, a meaning
that is not particularly consoling. Actually, this denial of an intelligent
origin of things usually does not leave us free either. Rather it leaves us
stuck in a determined universe that is doing what it must do. We are as a
result anything but free.
I often find philosophic principles in unexpected places.
Linus and Charlie Brown are standing on a knoll; the darkest of nights
surrounds them. While gazing into the mysterious night sky, Charlie says to
Linus, "Have you ever considered the enormity of the universe, Linus?" The question is definitely a new one for
Linus, who clearly has not thought of it.
In the next scene, with his arms wide as if taking it all
in, Charlie continues, "Nobody knows what lies out there beyond the stars."
This very observation suggests that we do wonder about what is "beyond the
stars." The third scene has no words. In awe, both Charlie and Linus continue
to stand and stare at the dark night. Finally, Linus, obviously reflecting on
the enormity question, says to Charlie, "I don't even know what's in the next
Both the enormity of the universe and what is going on in
the next block can be, perhaps ought to be, of concern to us. Our minds,
Aristotle said, are capable of knowing all things. We just do not have time in
this life to get around to them all, but we would like to if we could. That
very curious fact may be one of the reasons why we wonder about the given
insufficiency of this life to cover all that is. Why do we have such a power to know, which evidently comes first to
be fully aware of itself in our early twenties? It is a power that requires
more for its flourishing than we can possibly have time for in one lifetime. It
seems like a natural invitation to frustration. There are not a few who take it
I have often asked the question of myself, "Why is it all
right to be a human being?" You may wonder what Schall is mumbling about when
you see him walking across campus! But a turtle does not ask himself, "Why is
it all right to be a turtle?"--or at least I have never met one that did. But a
human being who does not ask himself such a question of himself, by
implication, is failing to be a human being. We are peculiar kinds of beings.
We not only are, but want to know what we are, why we are. For us, it is not
enough just to exist.
Yves Simon makes a very insightful remark in this regard.
The only way that we can be the kind of being we are, the one that does not
even know what is going on in the next block, is for us not to be anything else
but ourselves, but what we are. This means, logically, that I want what is not
myself to be precisely "not myself." The enormity of the universe is not, somehow, opposed to the obvious
particularity in the universe. Indeed, the power of intellect seems to suggest
that, in the end, I am really not deprived of what is not myself. If I set
myself to it, I can know what is not myself. Indeed, this endeavor to know what
is not myself seems to be what I am supposed to do.
Well, this is heavy stuff. But in the enormity of the
universe I do not want anyone to forget
Linus' earnest realization that he didn't even know what is going on in the
next block. It is amazing what we do not know about what is going on next door.
We do not in fact want anyone to know everything about ourselves or we them
unless we love them.
What is the conclusion to all this reflection on everything
and every thing? In his Lost in the Cosmos,
a title not wholly related to the enormity of the universe, Walker Percy asked the following pertinent
question: "Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab
Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know
about yourself, even though you've been living with yourself all your life?" As
I say, the universe is enormous and we are in it, as what is going on in the
next block. It may of course be mere babbling to think of these things, or it
may finally be a sign that you have begun to wonder about what is, including about yourself and what goes on in the
Originally published in The Hoya, Georgetown University, November 30, 2007.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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