January 2005   
From the Enlightenment to the French Revolution

Engraving of 1755 Lisbon earthquake

Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake, the Tagus River in the foreground.
(Engraving from National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering/Kozak Collection)

The effects of natural disasters are refracted through human societies, with differing results. Often they act as a stress test of a social formation, revealing inner weaknesses and fault lines, and in the case of a decaying society, thereby hastening its demise. In other cases, when such traumatic events occur at turning points in history they can act as a catalyst for profound ideological changes, thus contributing to future social upheavals. This was the case of the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1 November 1755, in which it was said 100,000 people died, more than a third of the entire population of the Portuguese capital.

Since the earthquake took place on All Saints’ Day and destroyed most of the city’s major churches, reactionary priests blamed the destruction on Lisbon’s supposed sins. Inquisitors literally roamed the streets looking for heretics to hang. But the grip of the dead hand of the medieval church on society was weakening and eventually broke. Coming at a time when bourgeois forces were growing strong enough to burst the straitjacket of feudalism, the Lisbon disaster played a key role in the Enlightenment, intellectual forerunner for the French Revolution of 1789-1804.

Best-known was the reaction of the French philosophe Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Voltaire responded to the Lisbon cataclysm, coming shortly after another deadly earthquake in Lima, Peru (1746), in a series of letters, a lengthy poem and the novella Candide, questioning blind faith in god and the fatalism that the then-dominant philosophy of “Optimism” engendered. In the preface to his “Poem on the Disaster in Lisbon” (1756) Voltaire wrote mockingly: “‘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 (1759), Voltaire reported how, “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,1  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’s mentor, the optimist philosopher Pangloss, opines that it is all for the good, “all this is for the very best end, for if there is a volcano at Lisbon it could be in no other spot.” But when Pangloss is hanged for heresy, the earth shakes again. Candide laments: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract and an early critic of private property, objected in a letter to Voltaire (August 1756) to the latter’s pessimism and rooted the effects of the disaster not in nature or in human nature but in social conditions:

“Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there 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, and would have been seen two days later, twenty leagues away and as happy as if nothing had happened. But we have to stay and expose ourselves to further tremors, many obstinately insisted, because what we would have to leave behind is worth more than what we could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster for wanting to take – one his clothing, another his papers, a third his money? They know so well that a person has become the least part of himself, and that he is hardly worth saving if all the rest is lost.

“You would have liked – and who would not have liked – the earthquake to have happened in the middle of some desert, rather than in Lisbon. Can we doubt that they also happen in deserts? But no one talks about those, because they have no ill effects for city gentlemen (the only men about whom anyone cares anything).”

Immanuel Kant, also in 1756, wrote a series of three essays on the causes of earthquakes, in which he inveighed against those who consider these events “destined judgments which the desolated cities meet with on account of their evil deeds,” and “God’s vengeance on these unfortunate persons, upon whom his justice pours out all its punishments of wrath.” Kant suggested instead that men should construct buildings that accommodate themselves to natural phenomena. In addition to the treatises of philosophers, the destruction of Lisbon led to numerous scientific investigations into the causes of earthquakes.

In Portugal, the Marquês de Pombal (Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello), the autocratic chief minister who ruled the country for three decades, turned to practical matters, declaring the task of the hour to be: “Bury the dead and feed the living.” He proceeded to rebuild central Lisbon, and used the events to break the power of religious zealots, in particular the Jesuits, whom he exiled from Portugal in 1759. This had the beneficial effect of freeing the schools from Church control, and Portugal became the first country in Europe to build a secular education system. Pombal also instituted protectionist policies to make up for Portugal’s industrial backwardness. However, in 1777, King Joseph Emanuel dismissed his chief minister, restored the power of the nobility and the church and reversed Pombal’s industrial policies.

As modernizing autocrats found their way blocked by the absolutist monarchies and decaying aristocracies of Europe, the intellectual ferment that became known as the Enlightenment began to flow outside official channels. Today, right-wing reactionaries in France beginning with François Furet want to blame the French Revolution on the Enlightenment – a bunch of free thinkers run amok, in their view – and undo the effects of both.2  This is, of course, an idealist, anti-materialist view of history. The French Revolution was fundamentally the result of developing class contradictions in France and elsewhere in West Europe. The philosophes were no radicals: Voltaire wanted at most an enlightened monarch. But by questioning the established order of church and king, the Enlightenment (itself the product of a growing bourgeoisie) was among the factors that only a few decades later facilitated a revolutionary upheaval. n

1 An auto-da-fé (Portuguese for act of faith) was a rite of the Catholic Inquisition in which the sentence was carried out, usually by burning at the stake.

2 After the French Revolution had run its course and the Bourbons were restored in 1814, the tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau in the Pantheon were broken into and their remains removed in sacks and dumped in a pit outside Paris where they were consumed by quicklime.

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