Miscellanea Berolinensia I
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MIND, BODY AND SOUL
FREE WILL AND NECESSITY
POLITICS, LAW AND ETHICS
LEIBNIZ: A NOTE ABOUT THE LIGHT THAT SOME CALL AURORA BOREALIS
"In the months of August, September and October, armies were seen in the night sky, and a brightness like that of daytime shone unbroken from the east to the north, from which issued forth bloody columns that moved in different directions." Thus it is written in the Annals of Bertin in the year 859.1
From this we learn what historians sometimes mean by Armies seen in the sky. What writers call bloody is, I think, red. This is a certain northern brightness which has also been observed in our times, repeatedly issuing enormous streaks of light. A Saxon chronicler, whom I was the first to publish, also alluded to such a northern light in the year 993 with these words:
"On the night of the Feast of St Stephen the First Martyr,2 we saw a miracle unheard of in past centuries, namely that such a great light shone forth from the north around the first cock crow3 that many people declared the day had broken; this continued for a full hour, and after reddening the sky a bit the normal colour returned."4
The old chronicle of Quedlinburg (which I have also published) has almost the same words in the same year.5
Since Pierre Gassendi has observed and described something similar in his work on the philosophy of Epicurus, p 113 and onwards,6 and the Exercitations on Fludd, addition 13,7 it will be worth the trouble to bring his account together with these. At present it will be sufficient for our purposes to take a short cut, copying out what he pronounced on this subject in the third book of the life of Peiresc:8
"Peiresc was already troubled for eight days with kidney pains and the strangury, before the beginning whereof he was not able to observe this marvel, which caused wonder not only in the camp itself but also in Paris, and was seen all over France and elsewhere. Truly the brightness was remarkable, which in the night following the twelfth day (of September 1621)9 was seen everywhere in the northern part of the sky, so that for many hours it imitated the clearest dawn.10 It was extraordinary, the moon not shining, but more extraordinary was a vapour seen spread over this region and projected up to the pole, in such a way that it was divided into certain columns, as it were, that were whitish and somewhat obscure, laid down in turns, so that when they were perfectly on the horizon they moved very slowly from east to west. Finally, it was a miracle that shortly afterwards certain pyramids or obelisks arose from the whitish columns, reaching to the top of the sky, out of which very thin and very white vapours were cast out in such a swift motion that they resembled lightning. I mention this because Peirsec was glad that we had observed the event, whereby it became more certain that it was nothing other than a sport of nature, which many had interpreted as a military preparation or rather the idea of an army.11 Truly, some had added that the armies were seen fitted out, with lines of advancing soldiers on foot and on horse, and that eventually they were seen to collide with the explosion of balls from cannon pipes. It is remarkable that they did not proclaim at the same time to have heard the blast of trumpets and the clamour of men given that the same credulity and human frailty is the cause of those figments. It is entirely credible that if not all then very many similar accounts recorded in histories are of the same origin, and are worthy of no greater trust."
1. Annales de Saint-Bertin, ed. Félix Grat, Jeanne Vielliard, Suzanne Clémencet, and Léon Levillain (Paris, 1964), 81.
2. That is, December 26th.
3. "gallicinum". This refers to the part of the night before dawn, and was sometimes used to mean midnight, not in the sense of 12pm but rather "middle of the night".
4. This is a quotation from "Chronographus Saxo" in G. W. Leibniz (ed), Accessiones historicae, quibus utilia superiorum temporum historiis illustrandis scripta monumentaque nondum hactenus edita inque iis scriptores diu desiderati continentur (Leipzig, 1698), 202.
5. See the entry for 993 (i.e. DCCCCXCIII) in "Chronicon Saxonum Quedlinburgense" in G. W. Leibniz (ed), Scriptores Rerum Brunsvicensium illustrantium tomus secundus (Hanover, 1710), 281.
6. Pierre Gassendi, Animadversiones in decimum librum Diogenis Laertii, qui est De Vita, moribus, placitisque Epicuri (Lyon, 1649), 1137-1139.
7. Pierre Gassendi, Theologi epistolica exercitatio, in qua principa philosophiae Roberti Fluddi medici reteguntur (Paris, 1630), 313-318.
8. Pierre Gassendi, Viri illustris Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc, senatoris Aquisextiensis vita (The Hague, 1655, 3ed), 144.
9. "(of September 1621)" is Leibniz's interpolation in the quoted passage.
10. "Aurora borealis" literally means "northern dawn", which is why Leibniz emphasized those words in this passage. Gassendi, however, did not.
11. Probably "idea" in the sense of "Platonic idea".
© Lloyd Strickland 2016