Responses to the The Lisbon Earthquake (1755)

Directions for the Debate:

1.  Choose from the exam list a philosopher or thinker or character from the past to be the advisor of your character. (Job? St. Augustine? Plato? Democritus? Chaucer? Machiavelli?)

2. Be prepared to speak about the Lisbon earthquake but also to answer extemporaneous questions about good and evil.


Debate Questions:

1. What caused the earthquake which crushed the worshippers at mass, and then the tsunami which flooded the streets drowning the shocked and stunned, and finally the fire which burned to death those trapped in the rubble?
2. Can it be argued that such a disaster is just a misunderstood aspect of a divine plan that has been unfolding through time and will ultimately result in universal harmony? (What about the violent deaths of those innocent children?)
3. Did God's hand, instead, intervene in history and cause this event in response to human actions?
4. Can humans be blamed in any way for this catastrophe?
5. Can we do anything to avoid such a catastrophe in the future?
6. How can you attribute the deaths of innocent children to the actions of a just, benevolent and omnipotent God?


1. Gabriel Malagrida, "An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake," 1756  


A Jesuit and supporter of the Spanish Inquisition


What was the cause of the earthquake, according to Malagrida?

“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena.”


Why is it “scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event”?

"It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin.”


What should we do to prevent another such disaster?

"It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance."

2. John Wesley, 'Some Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon,' 1755


The dynamic evangelist who led the Great Awakening in England during the first half of the 18th century: the founder of Methodism, he preached an emotional and personal kind of religion that contrasted with the practices of both Catholics and traditional Protestant groups.


How do we know that God is not pleased with us, according to Wesley?

 "How many hundred thousand men have been swept away by war, in Europe only, within half a century! (6) How many thousands, within little more than this, hath the earth opened her mouth and swallowed up!  Numbers sunk at Port-Royal, and rose no more!  Many thousands went quick into the pit at Lima!  The whole city of Catanea, in Sicily, and every inhabitant of it, perished together.(7) Nothing but heaps of ashes and cinders show where it stood.  Not so much as one Lot escaped out of Sodom!"


Why does Wesley think that Lisbon was an especially deserving target of God’s wrath?
"And what shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal?  That some thousand houses, and many thousand persons, are no more! That a fair city is now in ruinous heaps!  Is there indeed a God that judges the world?  And is he now making inquisition for blood?  If so, it is not surprising, he should begin there, where so much blood has been poured on the ground like water! Where so many brave men have been murdered, in the most base and cowardly as well as barbarous manner, almost every day, as well as every night, while none regarded or laid it to heart."


On what grounds does Wesley argue that the people who believe that the earthquake had natural causes are absolutely wrong?
"First.  If by affirming, “All this is purely natural,” you mean, it is not providential or that God has nothing to do with it, this is not true, that is, supposing the Bible to be prove nothing at all, unless you can prove that God never works in or by natural causes.  But this you cannot prove; nay, none can doubt of his so working..."

First, it is untrue: Second, it is uncomfortable.


On what grounds does Wesley argue that people who believe that the earthquake had natural causes are purveyors of hopelessness?
"For if things really be as you affirm; if all these afflictive incidents entirely depend on the fortuitous concourse and agency of blind, material causes; what hope, what help, what resource is left for the poor sufferers by them? ....”


How can we prevent earthquakes, according to Wesley?
“If anything can help, it must be prayer.  But what wilt thou pray to?  Not to the God of heaven; you suppose him to have nothing to do with earthquakes.... But how shall we secure the favour of this great God?  How, but by worshipping him in spirit and in truth; by uniformly imitating Him we worship, in all his imitable perfections? without which the most accurate systems of opinions, all external modes of religion, are idle cobwebs of the brain, dull farce and empty show.”

"Love God then, and you are a true worshipper."

3. Voltaire on Newtonian Physics, (1733)


Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1778) (whose pen name was Voltaire) was a social activist and pamphleteer who ran into trouble in France for challenging Church doctrine and government practices. He lived in England in exile where he became fascinated with the application of Newton's physics to society.


What did Newton discover and what made his discovery so wonderful, according to Voltaire?

"there is in all Bodies a central Force which acts to the utmost Limits of the Universe, according to the invariable Laws of Mechanicks."

Gravity: "an inverse Ratio of the Squares of the Distances"

"That Man claims our Respect, who commands over the Minds of the rest of the World by the Force of Truth, not those who enslave their Fellow Creatures; He who is acquainted with the Universe, not They who deface it...."


Does Voltaire think that the fact that the world is governed by natural laws makes it a better place? _______ How do you know?


Yes, because of the inordinate glee with which he tells his story.


According to Voltaire, what role did or does God play in this “best of all possible worlds”?


"The Cause of this Cause is among the Arcana (15) of the Almighty."


What would Voltaire1 have said about the Lisbon earthquake?


Well, he must have thought it was good because it emanated from the original act of God's creation.


See Susan Nieman on Leibniz's Theodicy


4.    From Alexander Pope, : "An Essay on Man," 1734


English poet, friend of Voltaire, a member of England's Roman Catholic minority  


What seems to be the main idea of the first stanza?


All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd thro' all, and yet in all the same;

Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal  frame;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives thro' all life, extends thro' all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart:
As full, as perfect, in vile Man that mourns,
As the rapt Seraph  that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.


The soul of God is present in every detail of the universe and, therefore, it must be good.


And why is “whatever is, is right”?


All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.


Whatever we consider to be evil, whatever seems cruel and unjust in our world will be revealed as part of a divine plan whose complexities are truly beyond our current comprehension but must be rational and for a greater good.


Would Pope seem to agree with Voltaire 1? Explain


Yes. They both insist that rational= divine= good.


However, Pope suggests that trying to understand the reason why God would allow innocent children to die in natural disasters is beyond the scope of human thought.


Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.


See Susan Nieman on Pope's Essay on Man (1732)

7. From Voltaire, "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or An Examination of that Axiom ‘All Is Well’” 1755  


In his "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or An Examination of that Axiom “All Is Well,” published twenty years after Letters, we have the work of an older Voltaire, whose words reflect a growing doubt about the ideas of the early Enlightenment on the relationship of the physical world to God. 



What is Voltaire's view of God's role in the physical world in this poem he wrote on receiving the news of the Lisbon disaster?


“What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?”



“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!” 


If God did nothing to prevent the deaths of innocent women and children in a natural disaster beyond human control, then he must be either malevolent or impotent.

  If God punished these innocents for the sins of others, then he is unjust.

Which philosophers cried “All is well”?

He himself and Leibniz did.


Exegete (provide an analytical explanation of) the passage:

“Will you say that this is result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God?”

Can this event be justified as part of an eternal plan expanding towards the future harmony of mankind? If you can, then you and your God are heartless.


Who said “God is revenged…”?


Wherein lies the irony of “…they dance in Paris”?

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?

How can someone argue that one city is more righteous than another? Further, how can the philosophes, who were centered in Paris, gleefully dance if their Aristotelian God allows the massacre of innocents?

Why can Voltaire accept neither a theological explanation of the event nor the faith of some Deists that a divine plan dictated that all would work out for the best?

What crime, what error did these children,/ Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?  


What possible implications for the later Enlightenment's views on God do you find in this work of the influential Voltaire?  

We are moving away from a conception of God that is related to the physical functioning of the universe.


What is the difference between Voltaire (1) and Voltaire (2)?

An inability to accept the death of innocent people as part of a divine plan. Therefore, the physical universe cannot be regarded as having a moral bias or basis. Morality must exist elsewhere.

(Uh-oh, Plato just rolled over in his grave.)

8. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Letter to Voltaire Regarding the Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake", August 18, 1756

Unknown at that time, Rousseau would become a powerful critic of the philosophes and help initiate the Romantic movement in letters. Instead of glorifying reason and elitist intellectualism, Rousseau argued that our instincts and feelings were innately good.  His political theories would influence the radical phase of the French Revolution. 


In the first two paragraphs, what is Rousseau’s principal objection to Voltaire’s poem?


“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.”

Rousseau accuses Voltaire of indulging in despair. God is either malevolent, impotent or does not exist.

Use contemporary slang to paraphrase Rousseau’s paraphrase of Pope and Leibnitz.

“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.”

Let it be, baby!


Use contemporary slang to paraphrase Rousseau’s paraphrase of Voltaire (2).

“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. . . .”

Die, pointless peon!


Who does Rousseau blame for the size of the Lisbon disaster in the “I do not see…” paragraph?

“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? ...”

The architects and planners of the city of Lisbon itself who have not planned for such a contingency are responsible. They construct buildings that will fall in an earthquake, encourage overcrowding, and have no organized method of evacuation or fire fighting.


What is the underlying main idea of Rousseau’s “There are often…” paragraph?

“… rapid death is not always a true misfortune, and that it can sometimes be considered a relative blessing.  Of 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[T]he misfortunes nature imposes upon us are less cruel than those which we add to them.... "

A quick death in such a disaster is no more cruel than natural death years later as the result of disease or old age. 'Natural death' can also be more physically and psychologically painful because doctors' 'remedies' often make the suffering of the dying worse and priests find 'moral purpose' in pain (it purges us of sin). 

Exegete Rousseau’s ad hominem (personal) attack on the validity of Voltaire’s reasoning.

“Satiated with glory ... you live free in the midst of affluence. (26) Certain of your immortality, you peacefully philosophize on the nature of the soul, and, if your body or heart suffer, you have Tronchin (27) as doctor and friend.  You however find only evil on earth.”

Your despair is made ridiculous by your own wealth, access to health care, and long life while my own poor health does not prevent me from hope of eventual blessings in heaven.


Why does Rousseau believe in a good God and the promise of heaven?

"I have suffered too much in this life not to look forward to another…. I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp.... "


What do you think Voltaire said when he got Rousseau’s letter?

He has a point about ways that we can prepare for these terrible contingencies, but his argument about a 'quick death' being more merciful and just than a long life and a slow, painful death do not offset my horror at the violent deaths of innocent children.

See Susan Nieman on Rousseau's Second Discourse (1754)

9.   David Hume, “The Essay on Miracles,” 1748  


On what grounds does Hume question the idea of consubstantiation – that the body and blood of Jesus are actually in the communal bread and wine?


“It is acknowledged on all hands… that the authority, either of the Scripture or of tradition, is founded merely on the testimony of the Apostles, who were eyewitnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission.  Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion, is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can anyone rest such confidence in their testimony as in the immediate object of his senses.  But a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger; and therefore, were the doctrine of the real presence ever so clearly revealed in Scripture, it were directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning to give our assent to it.”

The argument is based on the testimony of the apostles who were eyewitnesses to Christ's miracles. So we must trust testimony of those who told their stories to others (the writers of the gospels), from whom we have the story ourselves. But how can this testimony, once removed from the actual original events, overcome our own rational analysis of primary sensory observations of the purported 'miraculous' conversion of bread and wine into body and blood? 


How does Hume use the idea of probability to undermine the claim that miracles (violations of the laws of nature) have occurred?

“One who in our climate should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly and conformably to experience; but it is certain that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken.  However, we may observe that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience, because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty, by that contrariety of events which we may learn from a diligent observation.  All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes.”

We cannot predict what the weather will be like tomorrow with any absolute conviction. All we can do is trust to our own experience in like circumstances in the past. It is statistically probable that the weather will be warmer in June than in January, but it is not absolutely certain.


How does Hume use the idea of probability to undermine the testimony of those who claim to have seen miracles?

“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence…. he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgment, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability.”

Now, with absolutely no scientific evidence of the occurrence of any miraculous event, we cannot rely on reason at all to support it.    


How does Hume use the idea of probability to undermine the validity of the Christian religion?

 “though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reason according to the principle here explained, this subtraction with regard to all popular religions amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion....” 

How can such a belief form the foundation of a credible system of thought?


Could Hume find evidence of the God of Malagrida and Wesley on one hand or of the God of Newton and the early Voltaire on the other?

His dedication to strict logic would enhance his belief in the probability of a rational force that directs the universe, but there is no way that such an entity can be proven to exist.


How does Hume explain the fact that many people do believe in Christianity?

"whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience."


So what does Hume think about the Lisbon earthquake?

A physical act of nature that could possibly have been predicted, but it cannot be logically asserted as the result of a sequence of cause and effect. We can only discuss the probability of such an event based on statistics.

See Susan Nieman on Hume's Skepticism.

10.  From Paul-Henry Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, The System of Nature (1770)


What room is there for a divinity in d’Holbach's view, which sees the world as an "uninterrupted succession of causes and effects" in which "matter always existed"? 

"Nature, equal in her distributions, entirely destitute of goodness or malice, follows only necessary and immutable laws, when she either produces beings or destroys them..."

Since d'Holbach denies the existence of a creator, there is no place for a rational being in the constant development of phenomena.


How does he explain the creation of man as a purely material phenomenon?

"matter acts by its own peculiar energy, and needs not any exterior impulse to set it in motion."

"If flour be wetted with water, and the mixture closed up, it will be found, after some little lapse of time, by the aid of a microscope, to have produced organized beings that enjoy life, of which the water and the flour were believed incapable: it is thus that inanimate matter can pass into life, or animate matter, which is in itself only an assemblage of motion.  Reasoning from analogy, the production of a man, independent of the ordinary means, would not be more marvellous than that of an insect with flour and water.... "


How does he discredit the theory that the universe could have been created by a spiritual force?

That theory is based on the idea that "matter could have begun to exist":  

"a hypothesis that, until this moment, has never been demonstrated by anything like solid proof.  To produce from nothing, or the Creation, is a term that cannot give us the most slender idea of the formation of the universe; it presents no sense, upon which the mind can fasten itself. "


Why do you think Holbach's contemporaries, including Voltaire, criticized his position as atheistic?

There is no place for God in the material development of the universe.