Tag Archives: Voltaire

More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755 (part 2)

More excerpts from Wikipedia‘s substantive entry on “1755 Lisbon earthquake,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake   

Effect on society and philosophy   

The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace and intelligentsia.  The earthquake had struck on an important church holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion among the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic city and country, which had been a major patron of the Church.  Theologians and philosophers would focus and speculate on the religious cause and message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of the anger of God.   

The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia of the European Age of Enlightenment. [Cf the recent posts on Voltaire and Rousseau in response to the Lisbon event, which brings us to another, oft-cited thinker on Makurrah’s Blog.  You guessed it.] …. The concept of the sublime, though it existed before 1755, was developed in philosophy and elevated to greater importance by Immanuel Kant, in part as a result of his attempts to comprehend the enormity of the Lisbon quake and tsunami.  Kant published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake.  The young Kant, fascinated with the earthquake, collected all the information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to formulate a theory of the causes of earthquakes.  Kant’s theory, which involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases, was (though ultimately shown to be false) one of the first systematic modern attempts to explain earthquakes by positing natural, rather than supernatural, causes.  According to Walter Benjamin, Kant’s slim early book on the earthquake “probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”   

Werner Hamacher has claimed that the earthquake’s consequences extended into the vocabulary of philosophy, making the common metaphor of firm “grounding” for philosopher’s arguments shaky and uncertain:  “Under the impression exerted by the Lisbon earthquake, which touched the European mind in one [of] its more sensitive epochs, the metaphor of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence; they were no longer merely figures of speech” [Hamacher, Premises, 263].  Hamacher claims that the foundational certainty of Descartes’ philosophy began to shake following the Lisbon earthquake.   

Hamacher’s “The Quaking of Presentation” in Premises:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan is among the most authoritative and reliable sources I know on these matters.

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Rousseau on the Lisbon earthquake

“A Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or:  An Examination of that Axiom ‘All is Well'” had an uneven reception.  Most prominent among the critics of Voltaire’s effort was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in 1756 sent a letter to Voltaire that spelled out his objections.  Below is an unverified (and at times infelicitous) translation of Rousseau’s French, taken from http://geophysics-old.tau.ac.il/personal/shmulik/LisbonEq-letters.htm

All my complaints are…against your poem on the Lisbon disaster, because I expected from it evidence more worthy of the humanity which apparently inspired you to write it.  You reproach Alexander Pope and Leibnitz with belittling our misfortunes by affirming that all is well, but you so burden the list of our miseries that you further disparage our condition.  Instead of the consolations that I expected, you only vex me.  It might be said that you fear that I don’t feel my unhappiness enough, and that you are trying to soothe me by proving that all is bad.

Do not be mistaken,  Monsieur, it happens that everything is contrary to what you propose.  This optimism which you find so cruel consoles me still in the same woes that you force on me as unbearable.  Pope’s poem alleviates my difficulties and inclines me to patience; yours makes my afflictions worse, prompts me to grumble, and, leading me beyond a shattered hope, reduces me to despair…. 

“Have patience, man,” Pope and Leibnitz tell me, “your woes are a necessary effect of your nature and of the constitution of the universe.  The eternal and beneficent Being who governs the universe wished to protect you.  Of all the possible plans, he chose that combining the minimum evil and the maximum good.  If it is necessary to say the same thing more bluntly, God has done no better for mankind because (He) can do no better.”

Now what does your poem tell me?  “Suffer forever unfortunate one.  If a God created you, He is doubtlessly all powerful, and could have prevented all your woes.  Don’t ever hope that your woes will end, because you would never know why you exist, if it is not to suffer and die….”

I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man….  Moreover…the majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work.  Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories.  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.  but many obstinately remained…to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away.  How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money?…

There are often events that afflict us…that lose a lot of their horror when we examine them closely.  I learned in Zadig , and nature daily confirms my lesson, that a rapid death is not always a true misfortune, and that it can sometimes be considered a relative blessingOf the many persons crushed under Lisbon’s ruins, some without doubt escaped greater misfortunes, and…it is not certain that a single one of these unfortunates suffered more than if, in the normal course of events, he had awaited [a more normal] death to overtake him after long agonies.  Was death [in the ruins] a sadder end than that of a dying person overburdened with useless treatments, whose notary and heirs do not allow him a 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 less cruel than those which we add to them…. 

I cannot prevent myself, Monsieur, from noting…a strange contrast between you and me as regards the subject of this letter.  Satiated with glory…you live free in the midst of affluence.  Certain of your immortality, you peacefully philosophize on the nature of the soul, and, if your body or heart suffer, you have Tronchin as doctor and friend.  You however find only evil on earth.  And I, an obscure and poor man tormented with an incurable illness, meditate with pleasure in my seclusion and find that all is well.  What is the source of this apparent contradiction?  You explained it yourself:  you revel but I hope, and hope beautifies everything.

…I have suffered too much in this life not to look forward to another.  No metaphysical subtleties cause me to doubt a time of immortality for the soul and a beneficent providence.  I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp….

I am, with respect, Monsieur,

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Voltaire: “A Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”

Finding myself, for the time being, without access to my library, I reproduce here an unverified English translation of Voltaire’s “A Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or:  An Examination of that Axiom ‘All Is Well,'” which dates from 1755.  The text can be found at http://geophysics-old.tau.ac.il/personal/shmulik/LisbonEq-letters.htm

Oh, miserable mortals!  Oh wretched earth!

Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!

Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!

Deluded philosophers who cry, “All is well,”

Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,

This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;

These women and children heaped on one another,

These scattered members under broken marble;

One hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth

Who, bleeding, lacerated, and still alive,

Buried under their roofs without aid in their anguish,

End their sad days!

In answer to the half-formed cries of their dying voices,

At the frightful sight of their smoking ashes,

Will you say:  “This is result of eternal laws

Directing the acts of a free and good God!”

Will you say, in seeing this mass of victims:

“God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?”

What crime, what error did these children,

Crushed and bloody on their mothers’ breasts, commit?

Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices

Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?

Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!

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