We’re about to experience a Transit of America
Running along the Hudson River today, I passed three men dressed tweedishly standing around a trench-coat wearing woman with a telescope. They were staring at the sun, wearing weird glasses, saying, “There it is!” Looking like characters out of Indiana Jones, they were definitely out of place in the crowd of runners and dog walkers.
But they didn’t seem to care: Their Eureka-like cries suggested they had just happened upon some amazing discovery of which all those iPod-wearing plebeians passing by were sadly ignorant.
On what felt like a February day in June, the clouds had briefly decided to disperse, making visible the rare astronomical phenomena, the Transit of Venus, when Venus moves between the Earth and the Sun, appearing as a moving dot on the Sun for seven hours.
It’s no big deal. Except for that fact that no one reading this will ever see it again, unless we start living well into our 100s. Sorry, Mayor Bloomberg, even with your soda pop ban, that’s probably unlikely.
Before the 20th century, stargazers used these rare Transits as opportunities to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It was a big event: Captain Cook once went to Tahiti to observe it, but the weather was bad so the world had to wait about two more centuries until NASA technology made it possible to learn something scientific from Venus’s little dance between the Earth and the Sun.
But thinking of Venus as a little fly passing between us and the Sun got me thinking all philosophical. Way back in the last days of the Roman republic, the great statesman Cicero wrote a piece of political theory called “The Dream of Scipio.”
Scipio, a great Roman general and senior statesman, is taken in a dream by his dead grandfather (the Romans liked that stuff; similar to the afterlife dream scenes in Gladiator) to the heavens. Hovering not too far above the Earth, the dead grandfather shows Scipio how small the vast Roman Empire is in relation to Earth. Rising higher, the apparition reveals to Scipio that the Earth—this unique, life-filled planet, the home of the whole drama of human life—is nothing more than a dot, a mere spec, in relation to the whole universe. Just the way Venus looks to us.
The message to Scipio, this great statesman, was: You’re insignificant. You’re not as powerful as you think you are.
But there was a flip side to that message: Yeah, you’re still insignificant. But, Cicero wrote, the fact that the Creator asked Scipio’s dead grandfather to show him the wonders of the universe means that every individual on that spec called Earth matters. And those in authority, who have responsibility over people, have a grave obligation to ensure their citizens thrive and prosper in safe, moral societies.
Like the Transit of Venus, sometimes in life an opportunity comes around just briefly—never to return again, at least in your lifetime. If you don’t seize it, it’s lost forever. On a personal level, it could be that beautiful Polish girl you hung out with at a cafe, never to be seen again because you didn’t get her number. On a national level, we have one of those opportunities this fall: America is going to choose to go in one direction or another. Do we want dependency and decay, or prosperity and freedom? You can sit this one out, but you won’t get a second chance. The choice will be decisive, there is no in between. We can go the route of Big Government unfettered by Constitutional restraints protecting our liberties, or we can restore an appreciation for the principles of freedom that made America flourish.
Maybe we all need an experience like Scipio’s Dream to remind us of just what’s at stake. Tonight, during the Transit of Venus, I continued running past the tweed coat club because I didn’t care enough to stop and check out this incredibly rare, amazingly stunning natural event. It would interfere with my run–something I will have forgotten about by next week.
But it doesn’t matter. My life goes on. I’ll see pictures of the Transit of Venus tomorrow.
The Transit of America, approaching this fall, is of a different nature. It will affect all of us. Don’t miss it. An opportunity like this—an election that will decisively turn a nation in one direction or another–only passes by every century or so. If we choose wisely, the next Transit of Venus just might be viewed by our descendants in peace, prosperity, and freedom. If not, we’ll have plenty of time to stargaze when we’re out of work–if the government allows us that luxury.