While the Encyclopédie was in the throes of repeated deaths and resurrections, the Lisbon earthquake sent its tremors throughout European philosophy. At 9:40 A.M. on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, the earth shrugged its shoulders in Portugal and North Africa; in six minutes thirty churches and a thousand houses were demolished, fifteen thousand people were killed, and fifteen thousand more were fatally injured, in one of the most picturesque capitals in the world. There was nothing unprecedented in such wholesale slaughter, but there were some attendant circumstances that troubled the theologians. Why had the Great Inscrutable chosen so Catholic a city, so holy a festival, and such an hour—when nearly all pious citizens were attending Mass? And why had he spared, amid the general ruin, the house of Sebastião de Carvalho e Mello—the future Marquês de Pombal—the ruling minister who was in all Europe the most fervent enemy of the Jesuits?
A Portuguese Jesuit, Malagrida, explained that the quake, and the calamitous tidal wave that had followed it, were God’s punishment for the vice that had prospered in Lisbon;27 but were the sinners the only ones that went to pray in the churches on that awful morning? Why had so many holy priests and dedicated nuns perished in the quake and the conflagration? The Moslems would have hailed the catastrophe as Allah’s revenge upon the Portuguese Inquisition, but the quake had destroyed the great Mosque of Al-Mansur in Rabat. Some Protestant dominies in London ascribed the disaster to divine reprobation of Catholic crimes against humanity; but on November 19 of the same year an earthquake damaged fifteen hundred houses in Boston, Massachusetts, home of the Pilgrims and the Puritans. William Warburton announced that the massacre in Lisbon “displayed God’s glory in its fairest colors.”28 John Wesley preached a sermon on “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”; “sin,” he said, “is the moral cause of earthquakes, whatever their natural cause may be; … they are the effect of that curse which was brought upon the earth by the original transgression” of Adam and Eve.29
Voltaire fumed at these explanations, but he himself could find none to reconcile the event with his faith in a just God. Where now was Leibniz’ “best of all possible worlds”? Or Pope’s “Whatever is, is right”—or his pretense that “all partial evil” is “universal good”?30 In an angry reaction against his own early optimism Voltaire composed (1756) his greatest poem—“On the Lisbon Disaster, or An Examination of the Axiom “All Is Well.’” Here is our chance to sample at once his thought and his verse.
O malheureux mortels! O terre déplorable!
O de tous les mortels assemblage effroyable!
D’inutiles douleurs éternel entretien!
Philosophes trompés qui criez, “Tout est bien,”
Accourez, contemplez ces ruines affreuses,
Ces débris, ces lambeaux, ces cendres malheureuses,
Ces femmes, ces enfants l’un sur l’autre entassés.
Sous ce marbre rompus ces membres dispersés;
Cent mlle infortunés que la terre dévore.
Qui, sanglants, déchirés, et palpitants encore,
Enterrés sous leurs toits, terminent sans secours
Dans l’horreur des tourments leurs lamentables jours!
Aux cris demi-formés de leurs cendres fumantes,
Direz-vous, “C’est l’effet des éternelles lois
Qui d’un Dieu libre et bon nécessitent le choix?”
Direz-vous, en voy ant cet amas de victimes,
“Dieu est vengé, leur mort est le prix de leurs crimes?”I
But what crime, what fault had those infants committed who lay crushed and bloody on their mothers’ breasts? Had London or Paris less vice than Lisbon? Yet Lisbon is shattered, and Paris dances.
Could not an omniscient God have made a world without such meaningless suffering? “I respect my God, but I love mankind.”
The poet looks upon the world of life, and sees everywhere, in a thousand forms, a struggle for existence, in which every organism, sooner or later, is slain. This bitter summary of biology demands a literal translation:
The ferocious vulture darts upon its timid prey, and feasts with. joy upon the bleeding limbs. All seems well for him; but soon an eagle with sharply cutting beak devours the vulture in its turn. Man reaches the lordly eagle with a deadly shot; and man lies in the dust on the battlefield, bloody, pierced with blows, amid a mound of dying men; there he serves as the frightful food of voracious birds. Thus all the world in all its members groans, all born for suffering and for mutual death. And in this fatal chaos you will compose, from the misery of each part, the happiness of the whole! What happiness? Oh, weak and miserable mortal! You cry out in mournful tones that “all is well”; the universe gives you the lie, and your own heart refutes a hundred times the error of your mind. The elements, and animals, and men—all are in war. Let us confess it: evil strides the earth.
How does this scene of universal strife and ignominious, agonizing death comport with the belief in a good God? He exists, but he- is a baffling mystery. He sends his son to redeem mankind, yet the earth and man remain the same despite his sacrifice.
What can the farthest-reaching mind say of this? Nothing; the book of fate is closed to our view. Man, a stranger to himself, is unknown to man. What am I? Where am I? Whither do I go? Whence did I come? Atoms tormented on this heap of mud, which death engulfs, and with which fate plays; yet thinking atoms, atoms whose eyes, guided by thought, have measured the skies. We throw our minds across the infinite, yet cannot for one moment see and know ourselves.
This, of course, is the note that Pascal had sounded a hundred years before, in prose greater than Voltaire’s verse. Voltaire had once rejected Pascal; now he echoes his pessimism. From the same premises Pascal had concluded, Let us surrender ourselves to Christian faith and hope. Originally Voltaire ended his poem with a somber, stoic couplet:
Que faut-il, O mortels? Mortels, il faut souffrir,
Se soumettre en silence, adorer, et mourir
—“What must we do, O mortals? Mortals, we must suffer, submit in silence, adore, and die.” His friends protested that such a hopeless ending was unbearable. He changed the final line to read:
Se soumettre, adorer, espérer, et mourir
—“Submit, adore, hope, and die.” No one was satisfied; he gave in, and added twenty-nine lines, yielding himself to Providence, and trusting that “only God is right.”
Nevertheless the poem shocked not only the orthodox, but the philosophes as well; such a despondent tone seemed to take all the wind out of philosophic sails. Rousseau sent to Voltaire a long and eloquent letter explaining that all human ills are the result of human faults; the Lisbon earthquake was a just punishment of man for abandoning a natural life and living in cities; if men had kept to the simple life of scattered villages and modest homes, there would have been relatively few victims. We must put our faith in the goodness of God, said Jean Jacques, for that is the sole alternative to a suicidal pessimism; we must continue to believe, with Leibniz, that since God has created this world, everything in it, in the long run and the long view, must be right. Some printer secured a copy of this letter and published it; it was widely acclaimed as an able reply to Voltaire’s poem. Voltaire kept his peace for an unusually long time. When he dealt again with optimism it was in his most perfect production, a book that in a generation went around the world, and that is now the most living relic and symbol of Voltaire.