Voltaire? Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle? Edward Young? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous French philosopher and satirist Voltaire apparently wrote a story in which the universe consisted of millions of worlds, and Earth was designated a peculiar place:
Our little globe is the lunatic ward of the universe.
Would you please help me to find this story and determine precisely what Voltaire wrote?
Quote Investigator: This is a complex topic; hence, QI will split the response into three articles; the overview article is available at this link; the article centered on George Bernard Shaw’s quotation is available at this link; the article centered on Voltaire’s quotation is the one you are currently reading.
Voltaire wrote a story “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”) in the late 1740s and published it by 1749. The main character Memnon decides to become a great/perfect philosopher. Sadly, his quest results in a series of disasters that leave him impoverished and physically injured. He then meets an extraterrestrial being who gives him advice and insight. The being tells Memnon to stop his philosophical quest, and he discusses Earth’s place in the universe. Here is an English translation from 1807. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1
“Is it then impossible?” said Memnon.
“As impossible as to be perfectly wise, perfectly strong, perfectly powerful, perfectly happy. We ourselves are very far from it. There is a world indeed where all this takes place; but in the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, every thing goes on by degrees. There is less philosophy and less enjoyment in the second than in the first, less in the third than in the second, and so forth till the last in the scale, where all are completely fools.”
“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds, of which your Lordship does me the honour to speak.”
“Not quite,” said the spirit, “but very nearly: every thing must be in its proper place.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1686 Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle published “Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes” (“Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds”). The work discussed the planets and the heliocentric model. It included an interesting precursor expression in which the planet serving as a madhouse was Mercury instead of Earth. Here is an excerpt from a 1688 translation: 2
But what do you think then of the Inhabitants of Mercury? They are yet nearer to the Sun, and are so full of Fire, that they are absolutely mad…
… in short, Mercury is the Bedlam of the Universe …
Below is the corresponding French text from a 1701 edition of Fontenelle’s work. The English translation above rendered the term “Petites Maisons” as “Bedlam”, i.e., madhouse(s): 3
Mais que sera ce des Habitans de Mercure? Ils sont encore plus proches du Soleil; il faut qu’ils soient fous à force de vivacité…
…qu’enfin c’est dans Mercure que sont les Petites Maisons de l’Univers.
Interestingly, before Voltaire suggested that the Earth was an asylum the English poet Edward Young made the same assertion in the lengthy poem “The Complaint, Or, Night-thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality”. The work was split into a sequence of numbered “Nights”, and the expression occurred in “Night Nine” which was serialized in “The Scots Magazine” in 1747: 4
But what are we? You never heard of Man,
Or Earth; the Bedlam of the universe!
Where Reason, undiseas’d with you, runs mad,
And nurses Folly’s children as her own;
Below is the French text corresponding to the English excerpt from Voltaire’s story of “Memnon” given at the beginning of this article. The text is from a 1750 edition: 5
C’est donc une chose à laquelle il est impossible de parvenir, s’écria Memnon en soûpirant.
Aussi impossible, lui repliqua l’autre, que d’être parfaitement habile, parfaitement fort, parfaitement puissant, parfaitement heureux. Nous mêmes, nous en sommes bien loin. Il y a un Globe où tout cela se trouve, mais dans les cent mille millions de Mondes qui sont dispersés dans l’étenduë, tout se suit par degrés. On a moins de sagesse & de plaisirs dans le second que dans le premier, moins dans le troisieme que dans le second. Ainsi du reste jusqu’au dernier où tout le monde est complettement fou.
J’ai bien peur, dit Memnon, que notre petit Globe terraqué ne soit précisément les petites maisons de l’Univers dont vous me faites l’honneur de me parler.
Pas tout-à-fait, dit l’Esprit; mais il en approche: il faut que tout soit en sa place.
In 1773 “The Oxford Magazine” in London printed a different translation of Voltaire’s tale containing the following pertinent excerpt: 6
I am very much afraid, cries Memnon, that our little terraqueous globe is this very bedlam of the universe of which you have been speaking. Not absolutely, answered the spirit, but it very much resembles it.
In conclusion, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote that “Mercury is the Bedlam of the Universe” in 1686 in French. Edward Young called “Earth; the Bedlam of the universe” in 1747. Voltaire wrote that “our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds” by 1749 in French.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy asked about the connection to George Bernard Shaw. He operates a valuable website listing many quotations.)
- 1807, Classic Tales: Serious and Lively, Volume 2, Voltaire, Story: Memnon the Philosopher; or Human Wisdom, Start Page 181, Quote Page 188 and 189, Printed and Published by and for John Hunt & Carew Reynell, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1688, A Plurality of Worlds, Written in French by the Author of the Dialogues of the Dead (B. Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Translated into English by Mr. Glanvill, Chapter: The Fourth Evening, Quote Page 96, Printed for R. Bentley and S. Magnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1701, Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes par M. De Fontenelle de l’Academie Françoise (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Section: Quatrieme Soir, Quote Page 77, Chez Pierre Mortier, Librarie sur le Vygen-Dam, A Amsterdam. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1747 May, The Scots Magazine, Volume 9, Section: Poetical Essays, The Complaint, Night 9 and Last: The Consolation, (by Edward Young), Continuation of Complaint, Night 9, Start Page 221, Quote Page 225, Printed by W. Sands, A. Murray, and J. Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1750, Oeuvres de Mr. de Voltaire, Nouvelle Edition, Tome Neuvieme, Story: Memnon, Start Page 175, Quote Page 182, A Dresde, Chez George Conrad Walther, Librarire du Roi. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1773 March, The Oxford Magazine: Or, Universal Museum, By A Society of Gentlemen (Members of the University of Oxford), Volume 10, Story: The Vanity of Human Wisdom: A Moral Tale, Start Page 97, Quote Page 100, Printed for the Authors, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩