[Paleopsych] Inside Higher Ed: Dialectics of Disaster

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Nov 30 23:24:19 UTC 2005

Dialectics of Disaster

    By [19]Scott McLemee

    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

    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

    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

    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 [23]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

    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

    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

    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

    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 [24]version in English that appeared in
    1912, translated by [25]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.

    Scott McLemee writes [26]Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and
    Thursdays. [27]Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


Dialectics of Disaster

    The Lisbon quake also had an effect on British prison reformer John

    [28]Sally Greene, at 4:18 pm EST on November 3, 2005

Sage Rousseau

    "Furthermore, Rousseau asked, how can we really know that the
    earthquake added to the sum of anyone's suffering?"

    We can't, of course. Well spotted, J-J. It could be that every single
    person who died in the earthquake was due to fall into the fire and be
    burned to death later that day. Who knows.

    [29]Ophelia Benson, at 2:15 pm EST on November 4, 2005

Dialectics of Disaster

    Make that John Howard.

    [30]Sally Greene, at 12:52 pm EST on November 5, 2005


   19. mailto:scott.mclemee at insidehighered.com
   20. http://insidehighered.com/views/intellectual_affairs
   21. http://insidehighered.com/emailthispage/22923
   23. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/JENWA2.html
   25. http://www.philosophersnet.com/magazine/article.php?id=963
   26. http://insidehighered.com/views/intellectual_affairs
   27. mailto:intellectual.affairs at insidehighered.com
   28. http://greenespace.blogspot.com/
   29. http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/
   30. http://greenespace.blogspot.com/

More information about the paleopsych mailing list