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Voltaire and the Lisbon Earthquake

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Archives / 1956 / October



Voltaire and the Lisbon Earthquake

Daniel Walther

DANIEL WALTHER, Professor of Church History


Among the numerous earthquakes that have shaken this earth, none has had such significance and publicity as the catastrophe of Lisbon. For the student of Bible prophecy it has a particular meaning, but Bible students were not the only ones to be impressed by it.

On November 1, 1755, the greater part of the city of Lisbon, Portugal, was destroyed. Besides the earthquake, a tidal wave followed and wrecked the shipping in the river Tagus on which Lisbon is built. In addition to that, fire broke out and completed the work of destruc­tion. Sixty thousand were said to have lost their lives, and the property damage, although it cannot be estimated accurately, was of course enormous.

The immediate repercussions of that Lisbon tragedy were registered in religious as well as antireligious circles. That was particularly true in France, where the Encyclopedists tried to vulgarize the achievements of the human mind, and where Reason had its most eloquent spokes­men. France was, at the time of the occurrence of the earthquake, the focal point of rational­ism. Everything was examined by the philoso­phers: the origin of the world, the creation of man, the church, education, et cetera. Among the most influential writers, none were more read and followed than Voltaire and Rousseau, who both saw in the Lisbon catastrophe a signif­icance that brilliantly, although tragically, proved and illustrated their systems.

Voltaire was always clear, but never well co­ordinated. He is considered an infidel, a man without a Christian's faith, rejecting divine rev­elation; holding that the Holy Scriptures are not God's Word, nor is the church the visible body of those "called out." Christ was, to Vol­taire, neither the Redeemer nor God Incarnate. On the other hand, Voltaire was not an atheist; he was a deist, as it was intellectually fashion­able to be in the eighteenth century. While al­most all philosophers were deists, there were shades of difference in their individual beliefs.

Voltaire believed that God is the Source of all life and substance. He was convinced of the ex­istence of God for two reasons: First, he thought that the world could not be explained without God, that is, without a "First Cause." However, Voltaire thought that God the Creator cannot be reached by man, nor can God be conceived by our knowledge. But by our very reasoning we are forced to admit God's existence, and only ignorance could attempt to define Him. Second, without God there is no foundation of morality, and thus God is the basis of human society. It was Voltaire who coined the cynical phrase, "If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him."'

It is evident that Voltaire's views were not only mistaken but superficial. He could not discern spiritually because his concept of the world was that of a rationalistic investigator. It is especially in the field of prophetic Bible in­terpretation that Voltaire's judgments are often erroneous and sometimes childish, particularly his pert remarks on Isaac Newton's Observa­tions Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. Yet he cannot be con­sidered an atheist. One of his most outspoken statements against atheism is in his letter to the Marquis of Villevieille: "My dear Marquis, there is nothing good in Atheism. . . . This sys­tem is evil both in the physical realm as well as in that of morality... ." 2

Rousseau's Optimism

Rousseau was also a deist, but with a few nuances varying from Voltaire's deism. Rous­seau's was sentimental, while Voltaire's was ra­tionalistic. Rousseau believed that God could be reached by the heart rather than by reason­ing. Religion, to Rousseau, was an individual matter and a powerful means to moral devel­opment. While Voltaire was arrogantly hostile to the church (not only to the Roman Catholic Church), Rousseau remained somewhat respect­ful toward the church as an institution.

The main difference, however, between the ideas of the two men concerning their con­cept of the world was that Voltaire was basically pessimistic, while Rousseau was optimistic. The debate between their attitudes was by no means confined to those two "philosophers"; it had reached spectacular proportions in the eight­eenth century in the entire thinking world. The leading philosopher who developed the opti­mistic concepts was Pope, in Essay on Man, wherein he developed the axiom "All is well." Lord Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke had similar ideas, but none expressed them so forcefully as the German philosopher Leibnitz. He discussed his concepts on a "pre-established harmony" in the Theodice. Ours is the best possible world, and that, to Leibnitz, was not a sentimental idea but one that could be demonstrated by reason and faith. Evil and suffering exist, to be sure, but Leibnitz was satisfied that this world is even better with evil in it; in fact, the world would not be as good without evil.

Voltaire in his passionate desire for clearness and common sense reacted sharply and impa­tiently to such a concept. To him the ideas of Leibnitz and the other optimists sounded like medieval scholastic jargon, but since Pope and Leibnitz had a large reading public in France, Voltaire took his sharp pen to react against these ideas. It was the Lisbon earthquake that brought the debate to a head at that time. Voltaire, however, gave his ultimate answer to the opti­mists in Candide (1759).

Voltaire's Reaction to the Earthquake

The disaster of Lisbon led Voltaire to exam­ine the problem of evil and suffering in relation­ship to an overruling Providence. This question had concerned him before 1755. His letters in­dicate that many times he pondered on it in relationship to previous earthquakes, such as the one in 1699 in China, which he said cost the lives of 400,000 persons, and also the earth­quakes of Lima and Callao. This problem, which of course is age old, was that while there is an overruling Providence, it seemed to him that God's rulership was not for man's best good. He expressed this idea in two lines of the poem on the Lisbon earthquake:

All will be well one day, that is our hope. All is well today, that is the illusion.

This poem has 244 lines, and of course is in French, and so cannot be given here in full. At the very outset, Voltaire refers to Pope's ex­pression, "All is well," to point out the errors of the optimistic philosophers.

While he describes in a drastic way the ca­tastrophe as it appears to him, with the thou­sands of corpses of women and children, he asks the question whether that could have been the will of God. Or could it have been vengeance? And then, Why Lisbon? Is Lisbon worse than other cities? Is there more sin and evil in Lisbon than in Paris or London? "Lisbon is destroyed, while they dance in Paris." Who will find the cause of this evil? God, who is love and kind­ness, the Author of all things—can He be con­sidered also the author of this catastrophe?

To this, Rousseau thought he had the answer. His ideas concerning the world and man were more systematic than Voltaire's. Rousseau be­lieved in the innate goodness of man: man is good by nature but is corrupted in contact with other men; the only solution is to "return to nature." To some degree Rousseau shared the optimistic views of Leibnitz and Pope, and con­sidered Voltaire's poem on the Lisbon earth­quake not only a personal attack on him, but a basic lack of understanding and a distortion of God's preponderant action. Rousseau's letter to Voltaire in answer to his poem is very lengthy. Voltaire did not answer Rousseau's arguments directly. His final answer came in Candide.

Rousseau's argumentation in defense of the immanent action of God was that the earth­quake is not to be primarily imputed to God, but to man. Moreover, if the world had listened to him—to Rousseau—if men had abandoned city life and returned to nature rather than congregating in Lisbon, the result would have been different. "Admit," wrote Rousseau, "that it was not nature's way to crowd together 20,000 houses with 6 or 7 stories each, and if all the inhabitants of this large city had been dispersed more equally, the damage would have been much less, maybe nil." Thus Rousseau took the defense of Leibnitz and Pope, stating that evil is the simple and natural result of the nec­essary limitation of every created thing. Rous­seau argued that Providence could not be ac­cused for, or rationally condemned on the basis of, a small portion of evil actually known to us. The entire picture, as a whole, has to be kept in mind and not one lone accident, ter­rible as it may be but exaggerated beyond all reasonable proportion. The best of Rousseau's answer may be found in his writing to Voltaire:

I do not see that one can find the source of moral evil elsewhere than in man himself, because man is morally free.... As for our physical ills, ... they are inevitable in a system where man is involved.4

The debate between the two celebrated writ­ers that came to a head at the time of the Lis­bon earthquake may be only of a philosophical nature, but it indicates vividly to what extent that catastrophe affected the thinking of mankind. Had these men believed the Word of God and read it with keen understanding and spir­itual insight, they would have understood the words of the Divine Master: "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken."


1 Epiti e cry a Fauteur du livre des Trois Imposteurs, 1769, cited by M. Braunschvig, Notre Litarature Etudiie dans les Textes (Paris, 1926), Vol. II, p. 73.

2 A Monsieur le marquis de Villevieille. Fernay, Aug. 26, 1768, cited ibid., p. 75.

3 FRANcOIS MARIE VOLTAIRE, "Le Poeme sur le Desastre de Lisbonne en 1755, au Examen de cet Axiome: Tout est bien (1756)"; the text, in French, of the entire poeme is found in George R. Havens, Selections From Voltaire (New York: Century Pub. Co., 1925), pp. 246-258.

4 J. J. ROUSSEAU, "Lettre a M. de Voltaire, It 18 aout, 1756," Oeuvres et Correspondance inedites de J. J. Rousseau, par Schreckeisen-Moultou, 1861, cited ibid., pp. 120-122.

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