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Bill Bucko


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Great Free-Thinkers of History



by Bill Bucko

Suppose you were an educated free-thinker living in Europe in the 1640’s. You would be well aware that the fledgling sciences were struggling against religious dogma and superstition. You would know that the Roman Catholic Inquisition had just forced Galileo to deny that the earth moved—a grave warning to all who questioned authority. All around you Catholics and Protestants would be slaughtering each other in the Thirty Years’ War, or burning “witches.” You would know that an outspoken public attack on religion could put your life in danger.

But suppose you still wanted to strike a blow for reason. What weapon would you use?

Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) chose the weapon of satire. Yes, there was a real Cyrano, just as witty, dashing and courageous as the fictionalized Cyrano created by playwright Edmond Rostand. In his short life he was a soldier, a ferocious duelist who put to flight a hundred men at once, a poet, a gambler and frequenter of taverns—and a fantastically imaginative writer.

The real Cyrano was not, as Rostand would have it, a noble Gascon. His actual name was Hercule Savinien de Cyrano. His father, a lawyer, bought the small castle of Bergerac near Paris, and in later life Cyrano liked to style himself “de Bergerac Cyrano.” The young Cyrano became a free-thinker after reading the Roman satirist Lucian, whom he preferred to “the stupidity of the catechism.” He shocked his fellow student LeBret by insisting they swear friendship not by the Virgin, but by Bacchus and Venus. After leaving school Cyrano joined the army and became a famous duellist. Seriously wounded at the siege of Arras, he retired to devote himself to philosophy and literature. It didn’t make him any friendlier toward religion when he saw his cousin Robineau (or Roxanne) de Neuvillette retire to a convent after the death of her husband, scourge her body, and become a hideous travesty of her former self.

Cyrano’s most brilliant surviving work is L’Autre Monde or The Other World (sometimes translated with the descriptive title The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon.) In The Other World Cyrano (or rather, his alter-ego, the ingenuous “Drycona”) attempts to fly by attaching flasks of dew to his body. He is borne up above the clouds from the neighborhood of Paris, comes straight down again after a few hours, and finds himself in Canada. Taken before the governor, he tells him that the earth must have rotated beneath his feet. The governor counters with the opinion that the world may turn, not for the reasons Copernicus argued,

"but because the fire of hell (according to Holy Scripture) being shut up in the center of the earth, the damned try to flee the ardor of the flames, and clamber against the vault to get away from them, making the earth turn, as a dog makes a turnspit go around when he runs inside of it."

“Drycona” piously applauds that very Christian idea.

He finally gets to the moon by a combination of fireworks rockets and beef marrow (which, as everyone “knows,” is attracted by the moon!) Arriving there, he crashes into a tree that breaks his fall. The tree is part of the Garden of Eden, which somehow found its way to the moon. (The idea is bizarre, but Cyrano uses it to write what was probably the first satire on the Old Testament ever written.) Cyrano mocks God for His absentmindedness, and is thrown out of the Garden of Eden “to show the irreconcilable hatred of God to atheists.”

On the rest of the moon’s surface Cyrano (who lived only 36 years) finds that the old honor and obey the young, poetry serves as money, and virginity is viewed as a crime. A big nose (like Cyrano’s) is regarded as the sign of a great-spirited man. Those with small noses are sterilized.

The moon people, who go on all fours, debate whether Cyrano is a man, an ape, or a parrot. They decide he is a parrot, and keep him in a cage. He performs tricks to please his captors, and eventually learns the moon language. That upsets the dogma of the moon clergy, who excommunicate all who believe Cyrano is capable of reason. He is eventually recognized to be a man, but forced to publicly deny his claim that he came from another world: “I declare to you, that this moon here is not a moon, but a world; and that the world below is not a world, but a moon; this the priests think fit you should believe.”

Cyrano may never have heard the term “rationalism” (in the sense of: the use of concepts divorced from facts) but, living in a Christian country, he knew what it was, and he wildly lampoons it. An inhabitant of the sun argues with him and “proves” that

"the sin of murdering a man is not so great as to cut a cabbage and deprive it of life, because one day the man will live again while the cabbage has no other life to hope for. By killing a cabbage you annihilate its soul; but by killing a man you simply make him change his domicile [i.e. to heaven]."

God is too lofty a being to prefer some of His creatures over others; but if He did, He would probably love cabbages more than men, for they are born without Original Sin: “we know very well that the first cabbage did not offend its Creator in the Earthly Paradise.” Although cabbages were not granted immortality, God is just, and “without doubt they received some other advantage, the briefness of whose existence is compensated for by its grandeur.” Perhaps they have a perfect knowledge of all causes. “And if you ask me how I know that cabbages have these fine thoughts, I ask you how you know that they do not have them?”

In Cyrano’s whimsical tale, earthly customs are turned on their head. When the moon king sends him a messenger finely dressed in lunar fashion (i.e. stark naked), Cyrano, to show him honor, sits down and puts on his hat. He finds that on the moon wearing a phallic symbol (celebrating one’s biological origin) is a sign of nobility, while wearing a sword (the tool of the executioner) is shameful. And when the moon people take their leave, they salute each other: “Remember to live free (Songés à librement vivre).”

Cyrano puts his most dangerously irreligious statements in the mouth of a disreputable character, his innkeeper’s son. He listens in amazement as the latter argues against the possibility of miracles and the resurrection of the body. Do souls up in heaven really see, without eyes, just as well as they did on earth? Then eyes aren’t necessary, and we ought to whip the blind for pretending they can’t see ... Suppose you ate a Mohammedan, and then engender a son. Suppose the son’s atoms all come from the Mohammedan; yet the son is a Christian. But a person is a union of soul and body. Should God now damn him as a Mohammedan, or save him as a Christian? In fact, there is no God at all. If there really were a God, wouldn’t He reveal Himself to us, rather than play hide-and-seek, as He seems to do now? And even if there were a God, He could not justly punish unbelievers, for it’s no sin to deny what you have no knowledge of.

Cyrano or “Drycona,” shocked, tries to reply, but a hairy black devil suddenly appears and carries the irreligious moon-man up the chimney! Cyrano grabs hold of the blasphemer, is carried through space back to the earth, and lets go just before the demon drags his prey down a volcano’s crater on the way to hell ... He concludes that it is well for the moon men to be isolated in their sphere, where they cannot corrupt the good Christians on earth.

Cyrano’s original Other World circulated during his lifetime only in manuscript form. After his death his friend LeBret published it in a heavily censored version, with almost all the impieties cut and the ending completely rewritten. It was not until 1908 that the original manuscript was published in French. The only uncut English translation available is that of Richard Aldington, titled Voyages to the Moon and the Sun.

That volume also reprints Cyrano’s journey to the sun, a continuation of the story. It seems that after his return to earth Cyrano (or “Drycona”) enjoyed a brief celebrity, but was soon accused of sorcery. (After all, by his own admission he had returned to the earth with the devil’s aid!) Cyrano is pursued, captured, escapes and is caught again. The clergy imprison him at the top of a tall tower, so they can give him a “fair trial” and then burn him at the stake. But by the intervention of noble friends he is allowed tools and materials to idly tinker with. Not realizing the danger, his wardens allow him to have ... an icosahedron mirror. The irrepressible Cyrano constructs a box with the mirror on top, to rarify the atmosphere inside, and off he goes into space—this time on his way to the sun! There he has adventures with talking trees and birds (who put him on trial for the crime of being a man), and converses with departed earthly philosophers. There are long passages advancing an atomistic philosophy, which Cyrano believed to be the most scientific. The work ends abruptly, cut short by Cyrano’s untimely death in 1655, probably due to syphilis (perhaps aggravated by a serious head injury he received from a falling log—possibly an accident, possibly a murder attempt on the part of his enemies, as in Rostand’s play).

His cousin Roxanne and his sister (whom Roxanne had persuaded to become a nun) tried to convert Cyrano on his deathbed. To get rid of them, he confessed that his past “libertinage” now appeared “monstrous” to him. But the next day, when they came back, they found he had had himself carried to another house, where he could die in peace.

Cyrano’s wildly imaginative fiction served as an inspiration for the much better-known Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726). In his ideas he was clearly a man out of step with his times, though he found companionship in the free-thinking taverns of Paris and in the company of scholars like Gassendi (whose own atomistic writings were published only after his death). In a letter titled “Against Sorcerers” Cyrano dared to attack the whole idea of witchcraft and demonic possession. If witches can really change their shape into that of a cat, he pointed out, then once they’re caught they can easily change into a fly and escape! But they obviously don’t. So witchcraft is just another imaginary shackle on the human mind.

Cyrano, as his friend LeBret said, “had a horror of all subjection, moral or material.” Like Edmond Rostand’s fictional hero, he wanted to be “free in thought, word, and deed.” He proudly declared that he would follow no philosopher, not even Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, unless convinced by sound arguments: “La raison seule est ma reyne (Reason alone is my queen).”

Other figures to be covered in this series on great freethinkers (unless the author is struck down by lightning) include: Edward Gibbon, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Colonel Bob Ingersoll.

Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bucko


Les Oeuvres Libertines de Cyrano de Bergerac, Parisien (1619-1655), edited, introduction and notes by Fréderic Lachèvre (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 2 vols., 1921)

La Vie de Cyrano de Bergerac, by Louis-Raymond Lefèvre (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1927)

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, by Cyrano de Bergerac, translated and introduction by Richard Aldington (London: George Routledge & Sons, n.d.)

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First of all, thanks for this little essay. It's important.

I just found this link about Chanticleer:

I include these links because I think more people should no about this neat little Rostand play. I desperately want someone to make a movie about it.

What do you think Bill?

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... What do you think Bill?

Thank you for the information.

I comment briefly on "Chantecler" in my essay on Rostand's "The Eaglet." Tore Boeckmann offers some profound analysis of the play in the newly released Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

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