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Bertrand Russell : On Comets

Bertrand Russell

In Praise Of Idleness

And Other Essays



IF I were a comet, I should consider the men of our present age a degenerate breed.

In former times, the respect for comets was universal and profound. One of them foreshadowed the death of Caesar; another was regarded as indicating the approaching death of the Emperor Vespasian. He himself was a strong-minded man, and maintained that the comet must have some other significance, since it was hairy and he was bald ; but there were few who shared this extreme of rationalism.

The Venerable Bede said that “comets portend revolutions of kingdoms, pestilence, war, winds, or heat.” John Knox regarded comets as evidences of divine anger, and other Scottish Protestants thought them “a warning to the King to extirpate the Papists.” America, and especially New England, came in for a due share of cometary attention.

In 1652 a comet appeared just at the moment when the eminent Mr. Cotton fell ill, and disappeared at his death. Only ten years later, the wicked inhabitants of Boston were warned by a new comet to abstain from “voluptuousness and abuse of the good creatures of God by licentiousness in drinking and fashions in apparel.”

Increase Mather, the eminent divine, considered that comets and eclipses had portended the deaths of Presidents of Harvard and Colonial Governors, and instructed his flock to pray to the Lord that he would not “take away stars and send comets to succeed them.”

All this superstition was gradually dispelled by Halley’s discovery that one comet, at least, went round the sun in an orderly ellipse, just like a sensible planet, and by Newton’s proof that comets obey the law of gravitation. For some time, Professors in the more old-fashioned universities were forbidden to mention these discoveries, but in the long fun the truth could not be concealed.

In our day, it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody, high and low, educated and uneducated, was preoccupied with comets, and filled with terror whenever one appeared.

Most of us have never seen a comet. I have seen two, but they were far less impressive than I had expected them to be.

The cause of the change in our attitude is not merely rationalism, but artificial lighting. In the streets of a modern city the night sky is invisible ; in rural districts, we move in cars with bright headlights. We have blotted out the heavens, and only a few scientists remain aware of stars and planets, meteorites and comets.

The world of our daily life is more man-made than at any previous epoch. In this there is loss as well as gain : Man, in the security of his dominion, is becoming trivial, arrogant, and

a little mad. But I do not think a comet would now produce the wholesome moral effect which it produced in Boston in 1662 ; a stronger medicine would now be needed.

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