Le Micromégas is a 1752 novella by the French philosopher and satirist Voltaire. Along with his story "Plato's Dream", it is an early example in the literary genre of science fiction that draws upon the author's reading of Lucian's Icaromenippus, or the Sky Man, and has its place in the development of the history of literature. Some uncertainty surrounds the first publication of Micromégas, with possible editions dating to 1751 or as early as 1739 but with the widely accepted publication being in 1752.
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The technique of using an outsider to comment on aspects of Western culture was popular in this period; Voltaire also used it in Zadig. There are, however far older examples with one of the earliest known being Lucian's Icaromenippus. Montesquieu, too, applied it in Persian Letters, as did José Cadalso in Cartas marruecas and Tomás Antônio Gonzaga in Cartas Chilenas.
The story is organized into seven brief chapters. The first describes Micromégas, whose name literally means "small-large", an inhabitant of a planet orbiting the star Sirius. Micromégas stands 120,000 royal feet (38.9 km) tall and his circumference at the waist is 50,000 royal feet (16.24 km). The Sirian's home world is calculated to be 21.6 million times greater in circumference than Earth using mathematical ratios in a passage intended to relativize Man's home on a cosmic scale. When he is almost 450 years old, approaching the end of what the inhabitants of the planet orbiting Sirius consider his childhood, Micromégas writes a scientific book examining the insects on his planet, which at 100 royal feet (32.5 m) are too small to be detected by ordinary Sirian microscopes, having already solved over fifty of Euclid's problems (eighteen more than Blaise Pascal) before the age of two-hundred-fifty years while studying at his planet's Jesuit college. This book is considered heresy by his country's mufti, and after a 200-year trial, he is banished from the court for a term of 800 years. Micromégas takes this as an opportunity to travel between the various planets in a quest to develop his heart and his mind.
Micromégas proceeds to begin his journey, traveling by taking advantage of gravity and "the forces of repulsion and attraction" (a reference endorsing the work of Sir Isaac Newton), and after extensive celestial travels he arrives on Saturn, where he befriends the native population and developed an intimate friendship with the secretary of the Academy of Saturn, a man less than a twentieth of his size (a "dwarf" standing only 6,000 royal feet (1.95 km) tall) and described as being clever but lacking the capacity for true genius. In the second chapter, they discuss the differences between their planets. The Saturnian has 72 senses while the Sirian has 1,000. The Saturnian lives for 15,000 Earth years while the Sirian lives for 10.5 million years; Micromégas reports that he has visited worlds where people live much longer than this, but who still consider their lifespans too short. All of this further relativizes the size of the Earth in relation to the extraterrestrials, but Micromégas also engages the Saturnian philosophically and found him disappointing. At the end of their conversation, they decide to take a philosophical journey together, and, in a comedic passage that begins chapter three, the Saturnian's mistress arrives with the intent of preventing her lover's departure. The Secretary woos her and she leaves to console herself with a local dandy.
The two aliens set off from Saturn in pursuit of knowledge, visiting Saturn's ring, its moons, Jupiter's moons, Jupiter itself (for one Earth-year), and Mars, which they find so small that they fear that they cannot even lay down. Eventually, they arrive on Earth on July 5, 1737 at the end of the third chapter and pause only to eat some mountains for lunch at the start of chapter four before circumnavigating the globe in 36 hours with the Saturnian only getting his lower legs wet in the deepest ocean and the Sirian barely wetting his ankles. The Saturnian decides that the planet must be devoid of life, since he had as of yet seen none but Micromégas chastises him, resisting the temptation to make hasty conclusions and using his reason to direct his search. The Sirian fashions a magnifying glass from a diamond in his necklace measuring 160 royal feet in diameter and spots a tiny speck in the Baltic sea which he discovers is a whale. The Saturnian proceeds to ask many questions, including how such a tiny "atom" could move, if it was sentient, and many others which embarrassed the Sirian. As they examine it, Micromégas finds a boatful of philosophers on their return from the Arctic Circle and carefully picks their ship up.
In chapter five, the space travelers examine the boat and notice the men aboard only upon their driving a pole into his finger. It is here that Voltaire breaks with the narrative to briefly relativize Man's diminutive size using the ratio of a man's height to the size of the Earth and uses the moment to perform the same calculus on the scale of human conflict. Using their magnifying-glass, the travelers become able to see the humans. In chapter six, the Secretary hastily concludes that the tiny beings are too small to be of any intelligence or spirit, and Micromégas reasons with him to convince his companion that what he sees is the humans speaking with each other. Still, they cannot yet hear them and the travelers devise a hearing tube made with the clippings of Micromégas's fingernails in order to hear the tiny voices. After listening for a while, they come to discern the words spoken and to understand French. In order to establish communication while fearing that their full voices might deafen the humans, they devise a method in which they carry their suppressed voices through toothpicks to the men on the Sirian's finger. They begin a conversation, wherein they are shocked to discover the breadth of the human intellect but also are exposed to human vanity and philosophy, which the travelers come to mock. The travelers first are amazed at the humans' ability to measure their visitors, establishing an equality of the mind at all scales, and informs the travelers that such creatures as bees exist and that animals exist that are equally as small to bees as men are to the Micromégas.
The seventh and final chapter sees the humans testing the philosophies of Aristotle, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz and Locke against the travelers' wisdom. Beginning the deeper conversation, one of the human philosophers explains to the extraterrestrial visitors that Mankind had not found lasting happiness and that, to the contrary, hundreds of thousands of men will go to war against each other for, in the novella's relativization, insignificant quarrels. At this, the Saturnian is impassioned with anger, entertaining the thought of stamping out the armies with three steps. The conversation shifts upon the travelers' learning the occupation of their interlocutors towards the scientific prowess of Man, which ends when philosophical questions are asked. Each philosopher espouses the teachings that he follows, and Micromégas finds fault in each theory save for that of the disciple of Locke, who exhibits philosophical modesty. When the travelers hear the theory of Aquinas from his Summa Theologica that the universe was made uniquely for mankind, they fall into an enormous fit of laughter which causes the ship and its philosophers to fall in the Sirian's pocket. Micromégas then is angry with the arrogance of Mankind and, taking pity on the humans, the Sirian decides to write them a book that will explain everything to them philosophically. When the volume is presented to the French Academy of Sciences, the Academy's secretary opens the book only to find blank pages.
The 1950's saw some controversy over the date of the composition of Micromégas. Conflicting arguments were put forth by Ira O. Wade, who argued that the novella was written much earlier than its 1752 edition, even as early as 1739, and William H. Barber, who responded to Wade with arguments that it could not have been written so early and that the 1752 edition was the first. Peter Lester Smith would weigh in in 1975 with an article in Modern Philology asserting that Micromégas was in print before 1752 based on a lawsuit filed on May 1, 1752 about an illegal reprint of the tale. This lawsuit was resolved by proof of an edition that was published six months earlier. Lester went on to further specify that some form of the novella was in print at least by August of 1751 due to the existence of correspondence between Lefebvre de Beauvray and Pierre-Michel Hennin that mentions Micromégas as a new work in circulation in London, Dresden, and Paris. Lester believed that Voltaire had handed the manuscript for the tale, among other things, for delivery to one Michel Lambert for publishing by Christoph Heinrich Von Ammon. According to Lester, the Lambert edition was published in April of 1751 sans Micromégas due to the intervention of Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes but the tale was soon published by Jean-François Grangé. Lester posits that initial publication was sometime in 1751, Wade that it was 1739, and Barber that it was 1752. The 1752 edition is the most commonly accepted generally as the first publication made with Voltaire's express consent. Another edition, one published in London in 1754, is widely considered to be the authoritative version of Micromégas and contains numerous edits made by the author.
Influence of LucianEdit
Ralph Arthur Nablow drew the connection between Micromégas and the work of the Ancient Assyrian satirist and rhetorician Lucian, particularly Lucian's Icaromenippus, or the Sky Man. Nablow looked to Voltaire's exile in England to find that the author had become familiar with Lucian's works due to his knowledge of Joseph Addison's Spectator, which led Voltaire to include several volumes containing Lucian's works in his personal library in London. Voltaire's work and letters contain numerous references to Lucian. He was quoted praising Lucian on June 5, 1751 for always making one think and saying that "we are always trying to add to his dialogues." This was, of course, very near the time of Micromégas's composition and publication as generally accepted and hints, according to Nablow, at Voltaire's recent re-reading of Lucian in relation to his writing Micromégas. Lucian's influence on Voltaire's tale, as argued by Nablow, is found in the wealth of similarities between Micromégas and Icaromenippus. Nablow points out that both works prominently deride contemporary philosophy for its contradictions and endless arguments over the metaphysical through the lens of observation upon the Earth from a great distance above. Both stories end with passages delivering messages critical of philosophers by delivering to mortal humans that it is impossible to know the fundamental truths that philosophers seek and that there is no point in speculating on them. In Icaromenippus this comes in the form of Zeus' condemnation of philosophers and in Micromégas it is the blank book of wisdom given to them by Micromégas. Both works also use the technique of observation from above in order to scale the Earth down to a miniscule scale as a means of emphasizing Man's smallness in the universe and to criticize human vanity. They also use this to show the absurdity of the concept of war. Voltaire takes this further to mock the misguided conclusions that can result from scientific speculation specifically.
- Le Micromégas de M. de Voltaire (1 ed.). A Londres (i. e. Paris, Michel Lambert). 1752. Retrieved 11 June 2016 – via Gallica.
- Smith, Peter Lester (August 1975). "New Light on the Publication of "Micromégas"". Modern Philology. 73 (1): 77–80. doi:10.1086/390620. ISSN 0026-8232. S2CID 161958773.
- Nablow, Ralph A. (1989-06-01). "Byron, Voltaire, and an Epigram on a French Woman". Notes and Queries. 36 (2): 174–175. doi:10.1093/nq/36-2-174. ISSN 1471-6941.
- A pied du Roi (Royal feet) is equal to 32.48 cm (1.066 ft) (see Units of measurement in France before the French Revolution)
- Sherman, Carol L., 1940- (1985). Reading Voltaire's contes : a semiotics of philosophical narration. Chapel Hill: U.N.C. Dept. of Romance Languages. ISBN 978-1-4696-4277-2. OCLC 1029210232.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Voltaire (1977). Redman, Ben Ray (ed.). The portable Voltaire. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-015041-2. OCLC 2874172.
- Fellows, Otis (November 1951). "Voltaire's Micromégas". Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures. 5 (2): 363–367. doi:10.1080/00397709.1951.10732359. ISSN 0039-7709.
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- Gutenberg Project Romans — Volume 3: Micromegas (in French)
- Gutenberg Project Romans — Volume 3: Micromegas (in English)
- An English translation of Micromegas
- Analysis and plot overview (in French)
- Micromégas, audio version (in French)
- Le Micromégas De M. de Voltaire, À Londres .
- Micromegas public domain audiobook at LibriVox