On the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

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“Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well,’
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race[…]

Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster (1755)

On 1 November 1755, an earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon, killing approximately 30,000 people, and causing extensive damage throughout Portugal, southern Spain and northern Africa; the seismic waves were felt as far away as Britain, Holland and Germany. A tsunami and raging fire followed, and the conflagration swept through the Portuguese capital for almost a week. Scholars estimate that 17,000 out of the 20,000 houses in Lisbon were destroyed by either the tremors or the fires, plus half of all churches, and several palaces that contained collections of precious art. Eyewitness accounts describe ‘a Spectacle of Terror and Amazement, as well as the Desolation of the Beholders, as perhaps has not been equaled since the Foundation of the World’. This catastrophe – one of the worst to have struck Europe in the eighteenth century – marks what is known as the beginning of the modern discourse on disaster. The following is a brief summary of my readings on this subject.

It is frequently claimed that the Lisbon earthquake prompted western philosophy to turn away from the idea of God as the origin of rationality. If God is just and almighty, how can we explain devastating, unpredictable events such as an earthquake? What is the source of all this evil? On one side of the debate, theist philosophers such as Leibniz argued that providential order lay behind the seemingly disorderly event. On the other side of the debate, Voltaire asserted that nothing lay behind the destruction, no meaningful order or rational explanation, only the contingencies of a violent universe; the world is therefore not the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Voltaire’s line of argument marked a turning point in philosophical discourse, and sought to overthrow the optimism that had previously informed visions of a harmonious millennial state. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, from a lecture on Leibniz, ‘After the Lisbon earthquake: how is it possible to maintain the least faith in a rationalism originating in God?’

In the poem ‘On the Lisbon Disaster’, Voltaire criticizes Leibniz’s theodicy, and asks the ‘bloodless thinker[s]’ to gaze upon the ‘appalling spectacle of woe’ that has befallen Lisbon. If God is indifferent, then these philosophers are equally unsympathetic towards the ‘quivering mass of flesh’ that strewn the streets of Lisbon, nor are they moved by the ‘scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts’. Voltaire’s use of such visceral images brings attention to the human element in the scene of disaster, the fragile flesh that lies upon the ruins. While the philosophical debate precipitated by the Lisbon earthquake cannot be said to have answered questions about God’s justice, or about good and evil, it did push the idea of disaster and human suffering to the centre of western culture. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, disaster appeared in art, literature, popular prints, and operas; this tradition is followed in our own era by depictions of mass destruction in film and other media. In other words, the Lisbon earthquake fueled ‘the spectacle of woe’. As Marie-Hélène Huet writes, ‘our culture thinks through disasters […] [which] mediate philosophical inquiry and shape our creative imagination’.

Through fictional and cinematic representations of catastrophe, we form a collective imagining of disaster, which in turn shapes how we act or think when confronted with real calamities. It is partly the understanding of human suffering that drives the rescue and reconstruction processes that follow catastrophic events; for the culture of disaster focuses as much on the catastrophe itself as on the fragility or strength of the human society when dealing with devastation. Each disaster shatters anew the system or order that we have imposed on chaos. We know this is not the best of all possible worlds, yet the wrecks and fragments still need to be reassembled into renewed wholes.

There is also the need to deal with the possibility of future disasters, which returns us to the age-old question raised by the Lisbon earthquake: Who is responsible? If God is not responsible, then who (or what) is? What is the origin of all this senseless suffering?

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