Dialectics of Disaster

After months of tsunami, hurricane, and earthquake, Scott McLemee wonders if the trouble didn't really start on November 1, 1755...

November 1, 2005

An earthquake hit the city of Lisbon 250 years ago this morning. And while everybody is now probably just about sick to death of popular history books with subtitles like Styrofoam: The Extruded Polystyrene that Changed the World -- well, the Lisbon earthquake didn't just change the world, it shook the cosmos.

The present calendar year, with its rapid sequence of natural disasters -- from tsunami to hurricane, to earthquake, to whatever comes next -- has been memorable and terrifying. But in a sense, it has all happened in the wake of Lisbon. A range of options for understanding such catastrophes took shape then. It wasn't just one disaster, but a rapid string of them. The earthquake was followed by a firestorm that destroyed most of the buildings that hadn't already collapsed. Then came the flood, as ocean waves hit the reeling port city. So many people died that no reliable count was ever possible. Historians now give usually give estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 fatalities, though one contemporary source indicated it might be up to 70,000.

The tremors could be felt throughout the continent as well as northern Africa. And in any case, the large number of foreign visitors in Lisbon -- the fourth largest city in Europe, and the hub of Portugal's empire -- meant that the news hit home in country after country. (It was one of those moments in history when the world suddenly felt a lot smaller.)

After a month or so, pamphlets offering first-hand accounts of the destruction, and sermons on its meaning -- as well as analyses by the public intellectuals of the day, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant -- all began pouring forth from the presses, to be snapped up just as fast as they appeared. And it wasn't just the fascination that often a news event. Material on Lisbon kept coming out, year after year.

For a century and more afterward, the earthquake held its place in the public memory as the greatest natural disaster of modern times. As late as 1931, the German literary critic Walter Benjamin would deliver a lecture on the Lisbon catastrophe as part of an educational radio program for children. (The notion of this incredibly esoteric Marxist theorist playing Mister Rogers is a little hard to wrap one's mind around, but the talk is available in volume two of Harvard University Press's edition of Benjamin's Selected Writings.

One of the structures to collapse from the aftershock was that spirit of optimism that had been growing up, steadily, over the first half of the century. The wars of religion were looking like a nightmare from which civilization was finally able to wake up. Scientific research, post-Newton, was progressing by leaps and bounds. Scholars communicated at breathtaking speeds, thanks to the new learned societies. And in the larger cities, you could go to the coffee houses, not just for caffeine but to read newspapers and magazines and get into interesting arguments. (If you were illiterate, penniless, or female -- let alone some combination thereof -- the progress of enlightened optimism might not be quite so obvious, of course.)

The situation in Portugal before the earthquake would have seemed like evidence of the forward motion. King Jose I was a rather George W. Bush-esque sovereign, who seems to have been very interested in playing cards and otherwise remaining in a state of deep relaxation. But he had the good sense to delegate authority to an experienced diplomat and canny statesman named Pombal, whose policies were, on the whole, forward-looking. He challenged the influence of the Jesuits, and stood up for the interests of the country's rising merchant class.

Legend has it that underlings asked Pombal what to do after the earthquake, and he responded simply: "Bury the dead and feed the living." Maybe this never happened. But it sounds in keeping with his temperament; anyway, just don't tell anybody at FEMA that it was apocryphal.

Naturally, with the offense Pombal had given the Jesuits, it was not hard to put a theological spin on the earthquake: It was, in effect, the Lord's way of getting Europe's attention. Perhaps that sounds familiar?

But so might a story that was passed around among the more cynical members of the population: Many churches were destroyed, but it was said that a notorious row of brothels remained untouched. (Likewise, it was subtle of God to punish New Orleans, that den of vice, while leaving the French Quarter standing.)

So people adhering to the old-time religion, with its wrathful deity, had little difficulty explaining the earthquake. And to that minority of Enlightenment thinkers who considered God an unnecessary hypothesis, the whole sad story was equally unproblematic. As one of Diderot's biographers puts it, "The Lisbon earthquake presented him with no intellectual problem whatever."

Things were much harder for anyone who embraced the idea that the universe was the product of intelligent design by a rational and benign Creator. While the Supreme Being had given us the capacity to be rational and benign, too, He was not otherwise inclined to think about us all that much. But philosophers of this bent had argued -- with great ingenuity, and in a plausible enough manner -- that the deity had rigged things up to the long-term benefit of humanity. Even the seeming evils in the world were,
from this point of view, challenges to improve our understanding and behavior.

But it was hard to see what the Great Designer of the Universe had in mind with Lisbon.

Voltaire, in particular, took it hard -- and the result was one of the most durable works of satire ever written, Candide (1759), his ironic reckoning with the doctrine that we lived in "the best of all possible
worlds." (The first chapter ends with Candide watching the Lisbon earthquake from a ship off the coast. Things only get worse from there.)

But it was in the immediate aftermath of the disaster that Voltaire penned his most heartfelt response -- a long poem, published a few months after the event, that is by turns sarcastic and deeply bewildered at the collapse of what little remained of his religious faith. (I'll quote from a version in English that appeared in 1912, translated by Joseph McCabe. ) Weaving in descriptions of the scene he had read in news accounts, Voltaire tried to understand how it made sense, given his earlier sense of the world:

Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All's well,
"And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts --
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.

He had written for years, at great personal risk, against the dogmatism of the religious authorities. But now his own rationalistic "natural theology" seemed equally repulsive:

God either smites the inborn guilt of man,
Or, arbitrary lord of space and time,
Devoid alike of pity and of wrath,
Pursues the cold designs he has conceived....
Whatever side we take we needs must groan;
We nothing know, and everything must fear.

A little later, in August 1756, Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented on the poem in a long letter to Voltaire. It's hard to imagine how Voltaire could have read Rousseau's musings without yelling.

If the orthodox religious folk of the 1750s understood the earthquake in terms not too far from those used by their brethren today, Rousseau sounds a little like a contemporary survivalist, possibly living in Montana. For one thing, the letter opens by informing Voltaire that he's living in solitude. (There would be plenty more of that in years to come, as Rousseau became increasingly convinced that other philosophers were conspiring against him.) But things get really Unabomber-ish when Rousseau disagrees that the earthquake was grounds for Voltaire's existential crisis.

For one thing, the people in Lisbon were partly responsible for their fate: "It was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories," writes Rousseau. "If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer, or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock, and would have been seen two days later, twenty leagues away and as happy as if nothing had happened."

But no, the people of Lisbon had grown too civilized for our own good. "We have to stay and expose ourselves to further tremors, many obstinately insisted, because what we would have to leave behind is worth more than what we could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster for wanting to take -- one his clothing, another his papers, a third his money?"

Furthermore, Rousseau asked, how can we really know that the earthquake added to the sum of anyone's suffering? "Of the many persons crushed under Lisbon's ruins," he wrote, "some, no doubt, escaped greater misfortunes.... Is there a sadder end than that of a dying man tortured with useless treatments, whose notary and heirs do not allow him respite, whom the doctors kill in his own bed at their leisure, and whom the barbarous priests artfully try to make relish death? For me, I see everywhere that the misfortunes nature imposes upon us are much less cruel than those that we please to add."

Meanwhile, in Germany, a struggling professor named Immanuel Kant was preparing the first of his own series of pamphlets on the earthquake. (Only much later, with his seismological years well behind him, did Kant work out his own philosophical system.) He left the question of divine providence out of it. Instead, he focused on just what had happened, and how.

Kant speculated that large pockets of subterranean gas sometimes exploded, or otherwise escaped to the surface, shaking the ground violently as they did. Wrong, as it turned out -- but not a bad guess, not at all.

But in avoiding metaphysical questions about the disaster, it seemed as if Kant, too, were taking the measure of a new world then coming into view. He could -- with a clear conscience -- leave aside all those questions about meaning plumbed by the priests' sermons, Voltaire's poem, and Rousseau's letter.

And so can we, now -- until, as happens from time to time, we just can't ignore them anymore.


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