After the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
Who Is to Blame for Disasters?
by Katherine Marshall
Blaming God’s righteous judgment when people suffer disaster goes back at least to Noah. God causes the flood, the story-teller notes, because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Gen. 6:11). The notion that human suffering is the result of God’s judgment endures to this day. Millennia since Noah the same explanations resurface when televangelists attribute disasters to God’s upset with the ‘immoral’ lives of those who are suffering.
“Theodicy” is a term coined by the 17th century philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz. It means the attempt to understand how God, as the living perfection of goodness and justice, could create a world as imperfect and troubled as ours. An interfaith theological discussion of theodicy would be fascinating, though TIO doesn’t offer that kind of platform. Nonetheless, as Katherine Marshall reminds us, it is appropriate to remember the ghastly outcomes when people blame natural disasters on divine retribution brought on by evil living.
** ** **
In 1755, on All Saints’ Day, an enormous earthquake followed by fires and a tsunami devastated Lisbon, virtually destroying the city and the region around it. The earthquake may have had a magnitude of 8.5–9.0, although it is impossible to know for certain. The death toll is estimated to have been as high as 100,000 people – about one-third of Lisbon’s population, ranking it as one of history’s deadliest earthquakes.
As with many disasters (the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and Central American hurricanes among them), the events prompted a profound ideological upheaval. The Lisbon earthquake was a precursor to the French Revolution, accelerating the intellectual and political changes that shook confidence in both religious and political authority. The earthquake took place on a religious holiday and destroyed the city’s major churches. Priests blamed the destruction on Lisbon’s sins and inquisitors roamed the streets seeking heretics to hang.
But in reality the grip of the medieval church was weakening. Bourgeois forces (merchants, tradesmen, and the like) were growing stronger. The French Revolution, beginning a mere 34 years later, was evidence of just how far the traditional constraints and rules of the game of traditional society had changed. The earthquake led to political turmoil in Portugal and inspired major developments in theodicy and in the philosophy of the sublime.
Voltaire was deeply affected by the earthquake. His poem on the earthquake and the novella Candide questioned blind faith in God and the fatalism that the dominant philosophy promoted. Voltaire’s poem observed ironically: “All is well, the heirs of the dead will increase their fortunes, masons will make money rebuilding the buildings, beasts feed off the bodies buried in the debris: this is the necessary effect of the necessary causes; your particular misfortune is nothing, you will contribute to the general welfare: such talk would have been as cruel as the earthquake was dreadful.”
In Candide Voltaire comments that “After the earthquake, which had destroyed three-fourths of the city of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to preserve the kingdom from utter ruin than to entertain the people with an auto-da-fé, it having been decided by the University of Coimbra that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible preventive of earthquakes.” Candide laments: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?”
Excerpted from Katherine Marshall’s Global Institutions of Religion: Ancient Movers, Modern Shakers (Routledge, 2013).
Header Photo: Library of Congress