I have almost no idea how I created the graphic below. I started by pasting a thumbnail of William Sharp’s famous Thomas Paine engraving over a random snapshot that I took of sunlight filtered through some trees, and then ran the collage through several rounds of tweaking on Picasa. I came up with several images that I liked, but this particular one just evoked for me so many notions of eighteenth century Enlightenment, I thought it worthy of its own little post.
In particular, I found myself thinking of Paine’s very technical yet strangely poetic description of our solar system from the first part of The Age of Reason. There’s something hypnotic (to me, anyway) in the orderly repetition of words and ideas, as well as a touch of whimsy in designating the planets “he” and “she” (though I’m guessing that may have been a period language convention). At a recent academic conference on Paine, one of the scholars present gave a lot of play to the “concentric circles” described in this passage as part of an eighteenth century notion/image of empire and society: sun at the center — other worlds in their proper places and individual orbits. Here’s the passage:
“The Sun as before said being the center, the planet or world nearest the
Sun is Mercury; his distance from the Sun is thirty-four million miles, and he moves round in a circle always at that distance from the Sun, as a top may be supposed to spin round in the tract in which a horse goes in a mill. The second world is Venus; she is fifty-seven million miles distant from the Sun, and consequently moves round in a circle much greater than that of Mercury. The third world is this that we inhabit, and which is eighty-eight million miles distant from the Sun, and consequently moves round in a circle greater than that of Venus. The fourth world is Mars; he is distant from the sun one hundred and thirty-four million miles, and consequently moves round in a circle greater than that of our earth. The fifth is Jupiter; he is distant from the Sun five hundred and fifty-seven million miles, and consequently moves round in a circle greater than that of Mars. The sixth world is Saturn; he is distant from the Sun seven hundred and sixty-three million miles, and consequently moves round in a circle that surrounds the circles or orbits of all the other worlds or planets.
“The space, therefore, in the air, or in the immensity of space, that our solar system takes up for the several worlds to perform their revolutions in round the Sun, is of the extent in a strait line of the whole diameter of the orbit or circle in which Saturn moves round the Sun, which being double his distance from the Sun, is fifteen hundred and twenty-six million miles; and its circular extent is nearly five thousand million; and its globical content is almost three thousand five hundred million times three thousand five hundred million square miles.”