Tuesday 13 February 2024

What are the Stars?

Now, the sun, the moon, and the stars, besides that they are a necessary part of the universe, afford also a spectacle to mankind; a spectacle how glorious! with which we can never be cloyed, affording ample matter for our speculations. By computing the course of the stars, we have distinguished the different seasons, their vicissitudes, and duration. And, since these are known only to man, it is best to suppose they were made for his service.
Thomas Herring, Letters from the late most reverend Dr. Thomas Herring: Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, to William Duncombe (London: printed for J. Johnson, 1777), pp. 304-5 [Remarks on Lord Bolingbroke’s Notion of a God]. Cf. Cicero, De natura deorum II.5.15.
‘But what are they really? What do they say they are?’  the small young lady asked me. We were looking up at the Stars, which were quivering that night in splendid hosts above the lawns and trees.
   So I tried to explain some of the views that have been held about them. How people first of all had thought them mere candles set in the sky, to guide their own footsteps when the Sun was gone; till wise men, sitting on the Chaldean plains, and watching them with aged eyes, became impressed with the solemn view that those still and shining lights were the executioners of God’s decrees, and irresistible instruments of His Wrath; and that they moved fatally among their celestial Houses to ordain and set out the fortunes and misfortunes of each race of newborn mortals. And so it was believed that every man or woman had, from the cradle, fighting for or against him or her, some great Star, Formalhaut, perhaps, Aldebaran, Altaïr: while great Heroes and Princes were more splendidly attended, and marched out to their forgotten battles with troops and armies of heavenly Constellations.
   But this noble old view was not believed in now; the Stars were no longer regarded as malignant or beneficent Powers; and I explained how most serious people thought that somewhere—though just where they did not know—above the vault of Sky, was to be found the final home of earnest men and women; where, as a reward for their right views and conduct, they were to rejoice forever, wearing those diamonds of the starry night arranged in glorious crowns. This notion, however, had been disputed by
Poets and Lovers: it was Love, according to these young astronomers, that moved the Sun and other Stars; the Constellations being heavenly palaces, where people who had adored each other were to meet and live always together after Death.
   Then I spoke of the modern and real immensity of the unfathomed Skies. But suddenly the vast meaning of my words rushed into my mind; I felt myself dwindling, falling through the blue. And yet, in these silent seconds, there thrilled through me in the cool sweet air and night no chill of death or nothingness; but the taste and joy of this Earth, this orchard-plot of earth, floating unknown, far away in unfathomed space, with its Moon and meadows.
Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia (London: Constable & Company, 1933), p. 24.