The Big Bang according to Poe - 1848
Divine Volition, or the Big Bang according to Edgar Allen Poe
"Eureka, an Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe"
by Edgar Allen Poe (first published, 1848)
Mention Edgar Allen Poe and most people will conjure up images
of horror, insanity and death with most likely a fair dose of
remorse, gloom and despair. This is because Poe's masterful tales
and poems, such as "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Tell-Tale
Heart" and "The Raven" have earned their part in the American
I have always enjoyed Poe's stories (equally so his less well
known stories of humor, adventure and fantasy) and was pleased to
come across a collection of his complete writings (the 10-volume
Cameo Edition of The Works of Edgar Allen Poe, published by Funk &
Wagnalls in 1904) at my local second-hand bookstore, the Tin Can
Living where I do (near the city of Eureka, in Humboldt County,
California), I was immediately drawn by an essay entitled "Eureka!,
An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe"; dedicated to
Alexander Von Humboldt and originally published in 1848.
This essay, which Poe spent nearly a year writing, was a failure
on the lecture circuit and derided by his editors as "pseudoscience"
and a "hoax". In it, Poe proceeds to unify into a theological
philosophy the principles of Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the
Big Bang Theory, nearly a century before these appeared in the
scientific literature! This, as far as I am aware, is the first and
only theological cosmology based on the science of astrophysics.
As you probably now think me a lunatic I will proceed with
excerpts from "Eureka", letting you, the reader, decide for
yourself. However, first, let us review a few of the modern
theories and principles of astrophysics:
Gravity - obviously not a "modern" discovery but essential to
all that follows; Isaac Newton (in 1666) was the man who quantified
the law of gravity; leading of course to the foundation of
Newtonian physics. The law of gravity states that any two objects
(including individual atoms) exert an attractive force upon each
other that is proportional to the mass of the two objects and
inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Relativity and Quantum physics - Beginning about 1887 and
culminating with the work of Albert Einstein in the early Twentieth
Century, Newtonian physics was appended with a new theory which
accounted for the relationships between time, matter and energy.
According to this theory, time and space are really just two
different ways of looking at the same thing (and your perceptions
of them are relative to where you are in the spacetime curve, thus
two clocks, one moving and the other "stationary" will record
different amounts of time transpired when they again meet.)
Also, matter and energy are the same thing only in different forms.
This matter/energy continuum (or duality if you prefer) is made of
"particles" (everything from the familiar electrons, protons,
neutrons, photons, etc... to the more indefinite subatomic
particles like neutrinos and quarks) which are acted upon by four
forces; gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear, and "internal"
(forces controlled by the quantum principle). (In Poe's time, the
latter two were referred to as "the ether.") According to quantum
physics, gravity is the dominating force in the universe, and under
certain conditions (those found in black holes and quasars, and at
the beginning and end of the universe) "gravitational collapse" can
occur causing the *disappearance* of the elementary particles.
The Big Bang Theory - In the late 1920's Edwin Hubble discovered
that the Universe is expanding, leading to the Big Bang Theory
which first appeared in the scientific literature about 1938. This
theory postulates that the Universe started in one micro-instant
from an unimaginably large explosion and has been expanding ever
since. Astrophysicists are not sure what the Universe was like
just before the Big Bang and there is presently a controversy over
whether the universe will keep expanding forever or begin to fall
back (due to gravity), eventually coalescing and perhaps causing a
new Big Bang.
And now for Poe, 1848. (Note, CAPS are used where Poe used
"Here let the reader pause with me, for a moment, in
contemplation of the miraculous--of the ineffable--of the
altogether unimaginable complexity of relation involved in the fact
that EACH ATOM ATTRACTS EVERY OTHER ATOM...in a wilderness of atoms
so numerous that those which go to the composition of a single
cannon-ball, exceed, probably, in mere point of number, all the
stars which go to the constitution of the Universe..."
"...but what is it we are actually called upon to comprehend?
That each atom attracts--sympathizes with the most delicate
movements of every other atom and with each and with all at the
same time, and forever..."
"If I propose to ascertain the influence of one mote in a
sunbeam upon its neighboring mote, I cannot accomplish my purpose
without first counting and weighing all the atoms in the Universe,
and defining the precise positions of all at one particular moment.
If I venture to displace, by even the billionth part of an inch,
the microscopical speck of dust which lies now upon the point of my
finger, what is the character of that act upon which I have
adventured? I have done a deed which shakes the Moon in her path,
which causes the sun to be no longer the sun, and which alters
forever the destiny of the multitudinous myriads of stars that roll
and glow in the majestic presence of their Creator."
"THESE ideas--conceptions such as THESE--unthoughtlike thoughts-
-soul-reveries rather than conclusions...are such as we can alone
hope profitably to entertain in any effort at grasping the great
principle, ATTRACTION." [attraction is synonomous with gravity]
On the Big Bang:
"...I now assert--that an intuition altogether irresistible,
although inexpressible, forces me to the conclusion that what God
originally created--that Matter which, by dint of his Volition, he
first made from his Spirit, or from Nihility, could have been
nothing but Matter in its utmost conceivable state of--what?--of
"Let us now endeavor to conceive what Matter must be, when, or
if, in its absolute extreme of SIMPLICITY. Here the Reason flies
at once to Imparticularity--to a particle--to ONE particle--a
particle of ONE kind--of ONE character--of ONE nature--of ONE size-
-of one form--a particle, therefore, "WITHOUT form and void..."
"ONENESS, then, is all that I predicate of the originally
created Matter; but I propose to show that this ONENESS IS A
PRINCIPLE ABUNDANTLY SUFFICIENT TO ACCOUNT FOR THE CONSTITUTION,
THE EXISTING PHENOMENA AND THE PLAINLY INEVITABLE ANNIHILATION OF
AT LEAST THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE."
"Does not so evident a brotherhood among the atoms [the
universality of gravity] point to a common parentage? Does not a
sympathy so omniprevalent, so ineradicable, and so thoroughly
irrespective, suggest a common paternity as its source? Does not
one extreme impel the reason to the other? Does not the infinitude
of division refer to the utterness of individuality? Does not the
entireness of the complex hint at the perfection of the simple? It
is NOT that the atoms, as we see them, are divided or that they are
complex in their relations--but that they are inconceivably divided
and unutterably complex: it is the extremeness of the conditions to
which I now allude, rather than to the conditions themselves. In
a word, is it not because the atoms were, at some remote epoch of
time, EVEN MORE THAN TOGETHER--is it not because originally, and
therefore normally, they were ONE--that now, in all circumstances--
at all points--in all directions--by all modes of approach--in all
relations and through all conditions--they struggle BACK to this
absolutely, this irrelatively, this unconditionally ONE?"
"Some person may here demand:--"Why--since it is to the ONE that
the atoms struggle back--do we not find and define Attraction 'a
merely general tendency to a centre?'--why, in especial, do not
YOUR atoms--the atoms which you describe as having been irradiated
from a centre--proceed at once rectilinearly, back to the central
point of their origin?""
"I reply that THEY DO. ... [but] it is not to any POINT that the
atoms are aligned...Nothing like LOCATION was conceived as their
origin. Their source lies in the principle, UNITY. THIS is their
lost parent. THIS they always seek--immediately and in all
directions--wherever it is even partially to be found; thus
appeasing, in some measure, the ineradicable tendency, while on the
way to its absolute satisfaction in the end."
"Going boldly beyond the vulgar thought, we have to conceive,
metaphysically, that the gravitating principle appertains to Matter
TEMPORARILY--only while diffused--only while existing as Many
instead of One--appertains to it by virtue of its state of
irradiation alone--appertains, in a word, altogether to its
CONDITION, and not in the slightest degree to itself. In this
view, when the irradiation shall have returned into its source--
when the reaction shall be completed--the gravitating principle
will no longer exist."
"To conclude this branch of the subject:--I am fully warranted
in announcing that THE LAW WHICH WE HAVE BEEN IN THE HABIT OF
CALLING GRAVITY EXISTS ON ACCOUNT OF MATTER'S HAVING BEEN
IRRADIATED, AT ITS ORIGIN, ATOMICALLY, INTO A LIMITED SPHERE OF
SPACE, FROM ONE, INDIVIDUAL, UNCONDITIONAL, IRRELATIVE, AND
ABSOLUTE PARTICLE PROPER."
On matter equalling energy:
"Discarding now the two equivocal terms, 'gravitation' and
'electricity' "[into which Poe includes "the various physical
appearances of light, heat and magnetism"], "let us adopt the more
definite expressions, 'ATTRACTION' and 'REPULSION.' The former is
the body; the latter the soul: the one the material; the other the
spiritual, principle of the Universe. NO OTHER PRINCIPLES EXIST.
ALL phenomena are referable to one, or to the other, or to both
"...Attraction and Repulsion being undeniably the sole
properties by which Matter is manifested to Mind, we are justified
in assuming that Matter EXISTS only as Attraction and Repulsion--in
other words that Attraction and Repulsion are Matter; there being
no conceivable case in which we may not employ the term Matter and
the terms 'Attraction' and 'Repulsion' taken together, as
equivalent, and therefore convertible expressions of Logic."
On space and time and Relativity:
"Our fancies thus occupied with the cosmical distances, let us
take this opportunity of referring to the difficulty which we have
so often experienced, while pursuing the BEATEN PATH of
astronomical reflection, IN ACCOUNTING for the measurable voids
alluded to--in comprehending why chasms so totally unoccupied and
therefore apparently so needless, have been made to intervene
between star and star--between cluster and cluster--in
understanding, to be brief, a sufficient reason for the Titanic
scale, in respect of mere SPACE, on which the Universe is seen to
be constructed. A rational cause for the phenomenon, I maintain
that Astronomy has palpably failed to assign:--but the
considerations through which, in this essay, we have proceeded step
by step, enable us clearly and immediately to perceive that SPACE
AND DURATION ARE ONE."
"...Throughout all this we have no difficulty in understanding
the Divine ADAPTATION. The density of the stars, respectively,
proceeds, of course, as their condensation diminishes... Thus in
the density of the globes, we have the measure in which their
purposes are fulfilled. As density proceeds--AS the Divine
intentions ARE accomplished--as less and still less remains TO BE
accomplished--so--in the same ratio--should we expect to find an
acceleration of THE END."
[An aside, here: Gravity, as we have defined, is in proportion to
the square of the distance between two objects of some mass;
Einstein's famous equation of E=mc2 relates that energy is in
proportion to the square of the constant c (speed of light) times
the mass of an object. Poe has gone one step further with time and
space with what follows next...]
"...the Divine designs in constituting the stars, advance
MATHEMATICALLY to their fulfillment:--and more; it will readily give
the advance a mathematical expression; it will decide that this
advance [in time] is inversely proportional with the squares of the
distances [space] of all created things from the starting point and
goal of their creation."
"...Not only is this Divine adaptation, however, mathematically
accurate, but there is that about it which stamps it AS DIVINE...
I allude to the complete mutuality of adaptation. For example; in
human constructions a particular cause has a particular effect; a
particular intention brings to pass a particular object; but this
is all; we see no reciprocity. The effect does not re-act upon the
cause; the intention does not change relations with the object. In
Divine constructions the object is either design or object as we
choose to regard it--and we may take at any time a cause for an
effect, or the converse--so that we can never absolutely decide
which is which.
On 'The Future' and the disappearance of matter:
"We have now reached a point from which we behold the Universe
as a spherical space, interspersed, UNEQUABLY, with CLUSTERS. It
will be noticed that here I prefer the adverb "unequably" to the
phrase "with a merely general equability"...It is evident, in fact,
that the equability of distribution will diminish in the ratio of
the agglomerative processes--that is to say, as the things
distributed diminish in number. Thus the increase in INequability-
-an increase which must continue until, sooner or later, an epoch
will arrive at which the largest agglomeration will absorb all the
others--should be viewed as, simply, a corroborative indication of
the TENDENCY TO ONE."
"...there must occur...a chaotic or seemingly chaotic
precipitation, of the moons upon the planets, the planets upon the
suns, and the suns upon the nuclei; and the general result of this
precipitation must be the gathering of the myriad now-existing
stars of the firmament into an almost infinitely less number of
almost infinitely superior spheres... But all this will be merely
a climacic magnificence foreboding the great End. Of this End the
new genesis described, can be but a very partial postponment.
While undergoing consolidation, the clusters [galaxies] themselves,
with a speed prodigiously accumulative, have been rushing towards
their own general centre--and now with a thousand-fold electric
velocity, commensurate only with their material grandeur and with
the spiritual passion of their appetite for oneness, the majestic
remnants of the tribe of Stars flash, at length, into a common
"In this view, we are enabled to perceive Matter as a Means--not
as an End. Its purposes are thus seen to have been comprehended in
its diffusion; and with the return into Unity these purposes cease.
The absolutely consolidated globe of globes would be OBJECTLESS--
therefore not for a moment could it continue to exist. Matter,
created for an end, would unquestionably, on fulfillment of that
end, be Matter no longer. Let us endeavor to understand that it
would disappear, and that God would remain all in all."
"Now the very definition of Attraction implies particularity--
the existance of parts, particles, or atoms... Of course where
there are no parts--where there is absolute Unity--where the
tendency to oneness is satisfied--there can be no Attraction:--this
has been fully shown, and all Philosophy admits it. When, on
fulfillment of its purposes, then, Matter shall have returned into
its original condition of ONE--a condition which presupposes the
expulsion of the separative ether [nuclear and quantum forces],
whose province and whose capacity are limited to keeping the atoms
apart until that great day when, this ether is no longer needed,
the overwhelming pressure of the finally collective Attraction
shall at length just sufficiently predominate and expel it...
Gravity, therefore must be the strongest of the forces... Matter
finally expelling the Ether, shall have returned into absolute
Unity,--it will then (to speak paradoxically for the moment) be
Matter without Attraction and without Repulsion--in other words
Matter without Matter--in other words again, MATTER NO MORE. In
sinking into Unity, it will sink at once into that Nothingness
which, to all Finite Perception, Unity must be--into that Material
Nihility from which alone we can conceive it to have been evoked--
to have been CREATED by the Volition of God."
"I repeat, then--Let us endeavor to comprehend that the final
globe of globes will instantaneously disappear, and that God will
remain, all in all."
"But are we here to pause? Not so. On the Universal
agglomeration and dissolution, we can readily conceive that a new
and perhaps totally different series of conditions may ensue--
another creation and irradiation, returning into itself--another
action and reaction of the Divine Will. Guiding our imaginations
by that omniprevalent law of laws, the law of periodicity, are we
not, indeed, more than justified in entertaining a belief--let us
say, rather, in indulging a hope--that the processes we have
ventured to contemplate will be renewed forever, and forever, and
forever; a novel Universe swelling into existance, and then
subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine?"
On the "proof" of the above discussions:
"The reversal of our processes has thus brought us to an
identical result; but while in the one process INTUITION was the
starting point, in the other it was the goal. In commencing the
former journey I could only say that, with an irresistible
intuition, I FELT Simplicity to have been made the characteristic
of the original action of God:--in ending the letter I can only
declare that with an irresistible intuition, I perceive Unity to
have been the source of the observed phenomena of the Newtonian
gravitation. Thus, according to the schools, I PROVE nothing. So
be it:--I design but to suggest--and to CONVINCE through the
suggestion...there is no mathematical demonstration which could
bring the least additional TRUE PROOF of the great TRUTH which I
have advanced--THE TRUTH OF ORIGINAL UNITY AS THE SOURCE--AS THE
PRINCIPLE OF THE UNIVERSAL PHENOMENA. For my part I am not sure
that I speak and see--I am not so sure that my heart beats and that
my soul lives--of the rising of tomorrow's sun--a probability that
as yet lies in the Future--I do not pretend to be one thousandth
part as sure--as I am of the irretrievably bygone FACT that All
Things and All Thoughts of Things, with all their ineffable
Multiplicity of Relation, sprang at once into being from the
primordial and irrelative ONE."
Like many people, I have searched for a theology that is
sympathetic with my view of the natural world. I have, at various
times, called myself an atheist, an agnostic, and a pantheist. I
think now, perhaps, I'll call myself a Poeist!
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