[Paleopsych] Inside Higher Ed: Dialectics of Disaster
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Dialectics of Disaster
By 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 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 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.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and
Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.
Dialectics of Disaster
The Lisbon quake also had an effect on British prison reformer John
Sally Greene, at 4:18 pm EST on November 3, 2005
"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.
Ophelia Benson, at 2:15 pm EST on November 4, 2005
Dialectics of Disaster
Make that John Howard.
Sally Greene, at 12:52 pm EST on November 5, 2005
19. mailto:scott.mclemee at insidehighered.com
27. mailto:intellectual.affairs at insidehighered.com
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