Roger Ebert has written a wonderful essay that considers humanity’s place in an indifferent, unfathomable universe — what Camus called “the unreasonable silence of the world” — and the need for wonder, curiosity, existential courage, and art:
The universe is too large for me to comprehend how large that really might be. I’ve seen those animations where Earth shrinks to a pin point, and then the sun shrinks to a pin point, and then the Milky Way shrinks to a pin point. The whole map might as well shrink to a pin point, along with the horse it rode on.
None of this immensity is affected by what I think about it. It doesn’t depend on being thought about. If it is true that our galaxy alone might contain 30 to 80 million earth-like planets, and if every one of them were occupied by sentient beings, it doesn’t depend on what they’re thinking, either. It all simply exists. […]
Socrates told us, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I think he’s calling for curiosity, more than knowledge. In every human society at all times and at all levels, the curious are at the leading edge.
But what good does it do me to think of the universe as an unthinking mechanism vast beyond comprehension? It gives me the consolation of believing I conceive it as it really is. […]
My curiosity leads me to science, my admiration for logic leads me to the Theory of Evolution, my pride rejects simplistic fables to describe the facts I observe. Where do I find my consolations? There are many ways to be consoled. Everyone deserves to find their own way, and find such peace as they can. I find my greatest consolations come from Art. An artist can express my feelings as in the same way as an intelligent signal received from one of those 1,235 dots. Such a signal might translate as, “Yes, I exist, and I want to shout to you across space and time that we are not alone.”
A message from light years away would probably miss me in my box of space and time, but I find that Art can shout to me across a few years or centuries, and it carries the same message: “Yes, I exist, and you are not alone.”
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals —
and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Man delights not me — nor woman neither,
though by your smiling you seem to say so.
That’s what we are, a quintessence of dust. That Shakespeare could so conclude, and then end with a little joke is, to me, a great comfort.
There’s much more to it. Read it here.
(Image via Journey Etc.)