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Jacques Dufresne



To the ancients it was a house, the vault of the sky its roof. Today, to us, the cosmos is a spaceship. The sense that we belong to one another has diminished: We feel less attached to a vehicle than we would to a permanent dwelling place.

Our word “cosmetic” is distantly related to the word “cosmos”— that which stands against chaos; “cosmos” is the word that designates the universe, to the extent that it possesses form, order, and beauty. For a long time, the vault of the sky, likened to a roof, gave people — at least in the west – the reassuring feeling that they lived in a house. In this conception of things, the earth was believed to be the centre of the universe. Copernicus taught us otherwise, taught us that it is rather the sun which is at the centre of the universe. And this centre is now, for us, no more than one star among millions of others, calling to mind the words of Blaise Pascal: “The universe is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” The vault of the sky has splintered, taking with it some part of humanity’s sense of belonging to the universe and consequently hurling us into anguish. To this anguish, Pascal also bore witness: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” From the time of Pythagorus, we interpreted the universe with the help of “forms” and “perfect numbers”; through them we attempted to explain it. With the onset of modernity, when the vault of the sky became fragmented, we moved from “form” to “force” to explain the universe. And we did it in such a way that it bears less and less resemblance to the cosmos of the Greeks and that, if the universe maintains any form at all, it is not of divine origin, but is established by the relationship between and among forces, as per the Newtonian theory of gravitation.

These changes in the relationship of humanity and the universe could not help but affect the relationship between and among human beings and, conversely, their new relationship could not help but alter their vision of the universe.
In order to master the universe, humanity had to appeal to a science that required people to distance themselves even further, to sever their bonds of belonging with the universe. The result was the isolation of mankind from the universe, upon which many scholars have remarked. For example, Jacques Monod, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, writes: “Human beings must finally wake up from their ancient dream and discover their utter isolation, their radical otherness. [...] The universe is deaf to the music of humans, indifferent to their hopes just as to their suffering or their crimes ....”

Isn't there a connection between this isolation of people in relation to the universe and their isolation in their communities? The two seem to develop in tandem. The number of people living alone today is without precedent in history: In Canada, between 1951 and 2000, the proportion of people aged 15 and older, and living alone, grew from three percent to twelve percent. In San Francisco, 40 percent of people aged 60 or older live alone. Granted, some people are happy to be alone. But how many others are alone and miserable?

Such is the consequence of the viewpoint that analyses the universe and distances itself from it in order to better master it. Happily, a different perspective also exists, which is captivated by the beauty of the universe and draws closer to it. Many scholars and contemporary poets have looked at the universe from this latter perspective. Does such a “re-enchantment” of the world bring people closer together? Many examples from the past and from other cultures suggest that it can. We know, for example, that the Pythagoreans created a warm, vibrant community. Following is a lovely evocation of the connection between their community and their belonging to the universe. To better understand this text, it is important to know that the Pythagoreans postulated the existence of a central, invisible fire from which the sun drew its light.

“The circular course of the divine luminaries which had been raised by the fictitious counter-earth to the sacred number ten was described as a ''dance.'' The rhythm of this starry dance was set to the sounds arising from the motion itself, and making unceasing music, which was recognized and known as ''harmony of the spheres.'' Next, the universal fire, which was the central point of the celestial procession, was known by many names. It was called the ''mother of the gods,'' the ''citadel of Zeus,'' and so forth, but two of its titles may be mentioned as especially characteristic. These were the ''altar'' and the ''hearth of the universe.'' The stars revolved round the sacred source of all life and motion like worshippers round an altar, and the universal hearth was the center of the world or cosmos as a man's domestic hearth was honored at the sacred center of his home, or as the flame that burned and was never extinguished in the civic hearth of the Prytaneum formed the holy rallying point of every Greek community. Hence streamed the rays of light and heat, hence the sun derived his beams and communicated them again to both earth and to the moon, just as the mother of the bride lighted at a Greek wedding the fire of the new home from the parental hearth, or as a new colony would borrow its fire from the hearth of the mother-city. All the threads of the Greek view of life are combined here.
We see the exalted joy in existence, the loving awe for the universe ruled by divine forces, the sublime sense of beauty, symmetry, and harmony, and not least the comfortable affection for civic and domestic peace. Those, then, who held these views, and whose universe was surrounded by the fire-circle of Olympus as by a strong wall, found in their home, their sanctuary and the type of their art. Nowhere else do we find a picture of the universe at once so genial and so sublime”.

Theodor Gomperz, Greek Thinkers, A history of Ancient Philosophy, Book 1 - p.117


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Jacques Dufresne's

The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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