In the age of Enlightenment, thinkers no longer considered mankind to be the epitome of perfection. Not quite atheists, but not quite blind believers either, they tried to give reason a more prominent place than it had before, turning their gaze toward man himself, trying to figure out how he can improve himself (or how he can be improved), and how he can be more of service to the society around him. Building on existing literature of fantastical voyages, inspired by travel literature written by various explorers, and also by personal travels, most 18th century books introduce even more doubt than the 17th century ones in the existing institutions, be it religious, political, legal, or societal. The alien worlds are presented somewhat in contrast with our world, in order to criticize or to emphasize the faults in the human society. I thought it would be interesting to take a short look at how alien morals are seen from a fictional (Kindermann, Voltaire), mystical (Swedenborg), and philosophical point of view (Kant).
Using a narrative technique that was popular at that time, of an outsider viewpoint to comment aspects of Western European culture, the German astronomer Eberhard Christian Kindermann, tried to showcase his celestial findings of what he thought to be a moon of Mars. In his proto-science-fiction book, The Speedy Journey (published in 1744), five men, named Auditus, Visus, Gustus, Tactus and Odor (representing the five senses) sail on a flying ship to that newly discovered moon, aiming to explore it. After many tribulations, they arrive to find there a race of people that converse regularly with God, who gave them only two commandments: to fear and love Him and to love each other. As such, all of the citizens of Fiat, the moon city, are equal, and any time a person found guilty of a crime he or she is executed immediately. The novel isn’t straight up satirical, like the ones by other writers (especially the next one); however it does show a better world than Earth.
Another author of a story containing alien morals (and perhaps better known) is French writer Voltaire, one of the most remarkable exponents of 18th century literature (some would say he was even the embodiment of Enlightenment). In his short story, Micromegas (1752), he describes the journey to Earth of two aliens: one from Sirius and the other from Saturn. Of course, as in the case of other writers, this is just a pretext for Voltaire to satirize the philosophical and religious beliefs of his time, and criticize the lack of morality in the human behavior: “‘Oh, you wretched people,’ cried the Sirian in indignation. ‘How can one conceive of such mad fury, such pointless violence? I feel like taking three steps forward and crushing this whole anthill of ridiculous assassins just like that, one, two, three.’ ‘Don’t trouble yourself,’ came the reply. ‘They’re doing enough to destroy themselves as it is. The fact is that after ten years there’s never a hundredth of the wretches left, and even if they never draw a sword, starvation or exhaustion or intemperance carry most of them off. Besides, they aren’t the ones who need punishing, it’s those barbarians sitting on their backsides in offices, who give orders for the massacre of a million men while they digest their meal, and then solemnly thank God for it.’” (Voltaire)
The Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, even with all his visions, was also a man of his time. Swedenborg was not a passive receptor of information; on the contrary, he sought it out, trying to provoke his visions (using a sort of self-hypnosis technique, holding his breath until passing out, to induce a state that, reportedly, was helping him contact other souls). Moreover, he did not just pass the information along, on the contrary, he tried to observe and describe in minute detail what he experiences; he maintained his scientific conduct (and training) all the way through, this making him, paradoxically, one of the most rational “mystics”, if there ever was one. In his book, The Earths in Our Solar System Which are called Planets and the Earths in the Starry Heaven, and Their Inhabitants; Also the Spirits and Angels There From Things Heard and Seen (1758), Swedenborg describes his visions that lead him to the conclusion that “Heaven corresponds to the Lord, and man as to each and all things corresponds to heaven, and hence heaven, before the Lord, is a man in a large effigy, and may be called the Greatest Man.” Here, he presents also his frequent talks with spirits from Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon, during which he learns about their nature and way of thinking. Thus, the spirits of Mercury represent the cosmic memory and are interested mostly in data; the ones from Jupiter are very wise and peaceful, living in harmony with one another; the Mars spirits are very honest, disliking any form of pretense and deceit; the Saturn ones are “upright and modest”; Venus has two types of spirits: “the first mild and humane, the second savage and almost like wild beasts”; the spirits of the Moon look like dwarfs and speak with a thundering voice that is a form of defense against people wishing them harm (Swedenborg).
The German thinker Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, tried to give a more rational, philosophical account about what kind of people aliens from another world could be in comparison to the people on Earth. He speculates that “the perfection of the spiritual as well as the material worlds in the planets from Mercury right up to Saturn, or perhaps beyond Saturn (insofar as there are still other planets), grows and advances in an appropriate sequence of stages proportional to their distance from the sun” (Kant). In that sense, he wondered whether the inhabitants of Earth and Mars (found at a relative middle distance between the Sun and the most distant planet) are more exposed to sinful temptations than the ones from other celestial bodies. The ones closer to the Sun are too primitive to think of sin, following only their animalistic natural instincts, whereas the people from Saturn and Jupiter are too superior to think about sinning. He concludes, optimistically, that this position can be, nevertheless, advantageous for spiritual development, because constant testing and constant resistance to sin strengthens a man’s willpower, thus becoming morally superior (Kant).
It’s interesting to note that even the most imaginative 18th century explorations of other worlds are quite rational. This is not escapist literature. There are no fanciful worlds described here, no pulpy monsters, no damsels in distress that need to be rescued, no great action heroes, no lush new planets. Reason is praised above all. Most fictional descriptions are dry, characters have no depth, and most dialogues are social commentaries. Even Swedenborg’s visions read like a scientific treatise. With a few exceptions (mostly Voltaire), these are not very “fun” books to read, by today’s standards. However, what the 18th century incursions into alien morals leave us with (beside long titles) are alternatives. Alternatives for a better way to live our lives, a better way to build our society, a better way to be human beings. Ultimately, they leave us with the idea of (and the hope for) a better future.
- Kant, Immanuel. Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, or An Essay on the Constitution and the Mechanical Origin of the Entire Structure of the Universe Based on Newtonian Principles (1755) (translated by Ian Johnston).
- Kindermann, Eberhard Christian. The Speedy Journey (1744) (edited and translated by Dwight R. Decker). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
- Swedenborg, Emanuel. The Earths in Our Solar System Which are called Planets and the Earths in the Starry Heaven, and Their Inhabitants; Also the Spirits and Angels There From Things Heard and Seen (1758).
- Voltaire. Micromegas (1752), in Candide and Other Stories (translated with an Introduction and Notes by Roger Pearson), Oxford University Press, 2006.