Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Most Significant Event of the European Enlightenment

Molesky spends time on the pre-earthquake history of Portugal and significant detail on the disasters that came with the earthquake.  I offered an overview of this previously, so will only touch on a couple of additional points now: Portugal was as Catholic as Catholic could be – even after the Reformation; Portugal also had episodes of being one of the most widespread and wealthiest empires in the world.

My focus here is on the aftershocks – not physical, but philosophic and religious. 

God, said to be omniscient and merciful, showed himself to be a very poor sort of father.  So writes Bahngrell Brown when considering the reaction of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was but six years old at the time of the quake.

Everywhere there was significant disagreement and debate on the disaster – within five years, hundreds of books, articles, etc., were published, all attempting to answer the question: who, or what, was responsible?  Was it God or was it nature?  Even the question reflected change.

The ensuing debate was arguably the most significant of the European Enlightenment.

Perhaps the fundamental question:

…how could a just and all-powerful God have sanctioned the deaths of so many innocent people?

Prior to this earthquake, optimism was blossoming everywhere in the decades of peace that followed the wars of religion – which were actually wars of state-creation.  Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz argued in 1710 that an “infinitely benevolent Deity had created the universe with the greatest possible excess of good over evil.”  This view would begin to change.

Voltaire would write of the disaster.  In Switzerland and in exile, away from Louis XV and the guards of the Bastille, he was living by this time a somewhat sedentary (at least by his former standards) life.  By this time in Europe’s evolution, dogma and superstition were well replaced by science and reason – long a central tenet of Voltaire’s work.

The news hit Voltaire like a thunderbolt.  “Nature is very cruel. …What a wretched gamble is the game of human life!”

Science and reason still left room for God, but only a god as described by Leibniz: “infinitely benevolent,” one that created a “universe with the greatest possible excess of good over evil.”  Yes, evil existed, but it was insignificant when compared to the “flawless totality of his handiwork.” 

A world that was believed to be so ordered – a perfect creation of God – now seemed capricious and cruel.  The earthquake called into question “this happy progress toward Eden.”  What would this mean about “God”?

“Would the entire universe have been worse without this hellish abyss, without swallowing up Lisbon?  Could not [God] plunge us into this wretched world without placing flaming volcanoes beneath our feet?”

Voltaire would offer a poem, one of despair.  His closing lines:

Will ye reply “You do but illustrate
The iron laws that chain the will of God?”
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh
“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death?”

Rousseau would react to Voltaire’s characterization of a world overflowing with misery and suffering: “You do not want us, Monsieur, to read your poem as denying Providence.”  Rousseau would argue that much of the world’s unhappiness is caused by man.  He even went as far to say that some who were crushed were better off dead!

Kant would work to reconcile the earthquake with Providence, seeing it a result of the same subterranean fires that give us hot springs and steam baths.  The horrors of Lisbon could have been averted had the Portuguese properly prepared for such an event.

Over time, the earthquake would force Kant to alter his thinking.  Hitherto, his works were filled with speculative reference to the Divine.  After Lisbon, he began to embrace a more empirical approach to knowledge and the universe.

Man must not blame providence; he must recognize that every single event was – in every single respect – produced by himself.

The theories behind the causes of earthquakes were equally challenged – as noted by Kant to include subterranean fires.  Others believed there were exploding deposits of subterranean sulfur or electricity connected by underground caverns. 

Yet most Spanish scholars dismissed the popular notion that earthquakes were some form of divine punishment.  Some of the more accurate theories of the time were offered by scholars within the Church.

Ultimately, the earthquake brought to the fore both how far ideas of the Enlightenment had penetrated society and how deep religious conviction about God’s role in daily life still held sway. 


God and God’s role in the world; random chance and capricious events.  What did the earthquake signify?  What did it destroy from the philosophic and Christian past?  What would replace these?

It was certainly a confused and confusing time for the intellectuals and elite of Europe, perhaps best summarized by Edmond-Jean Barbier:

Embarrassing for the professors of physics
And humiliating for the theologians.

This embarrassment and humiliation still had to be worked out.  This process would begin in the reign of terror.  Not the one that you are thinking of.


  1. Touche. Solid arguments. Keep up the good effort.

  2. Lots of judgemental people look at natural disasters and say how they deserved what they got. They forget the scripture:

    "But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
    That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: FOR HE MAKETH HIS SUN TO RISE ON THE EVIL AND ON THE GOOD, AND SENDETH RAIN ON THE JUST AND ON THE UNJUST." Matthew 5:44-45 emphasis added

    Were not the prophets and apostles subjected to difficulties, disasters, persecutions and ultimately an untimely death for most of them? I must assume that the majority of readers would concede that these men were close to God - yet, their lives were not ideal.

    I have noticed that when difficulties are taken away, people tend to become selfish and self-centered, easily offended, self-entitled - in short, exactly what we see in society today. Wouldn't it be better for us to realize that people will experience difficulties regardless of their "righteousness"?

  3. "Perhaps the fundamental question:

    …how could a just and all-powerful God have sanctioned the deaths of so many innocent people?"

    This question if really asked by the intellectuals of the day had already forgotten one of the most fundamental truths. Mankind is not innocent before God. We are sinners who need to be brought to justice.

    They had forgotten this and pinned their earthly hopes on Post-Millennialism. That doctrine is a humanist conceit. Not sure if the Enlightenment factored into the idea of it, or if it was a factor in the birthing of the Enlightenment. But it replaced Jesus Christ as the one who brings redemption to the creation with Modern, Enlightened men.

    I don't know that every natural event has a purpose behind it. I think that is part of the nature of sin, chaos and randomness. But we know from Romans 8:18-22, that Paul links human suffering to a fallen creation that groans until the Resurrection is complete.

    Also, Jesus talked about the same kind of thing in Luke 13:1-5. When bad things happen either from the hand of men or nature, each person should reflect on their own mortality before God, not speculating why the event occurred or what it means for those affected.

    Whether or not God intended the Lisbon tragedy as punishment for its inhabitants, the intellectuals of the day did not respond as Jesus directed. They had an opportunity to look at their own need of a Savior. But instead decided that God didn't exist. Sad.

    1. RMB, you can see some of this thinking in the comments by Leibniz referenced above. I cannot say when or why this kind of thinking crept into intellectual / philosophical circles.

      I do not want my next comment to be conflated with the idea of nature having a soul or whatever - nothing like this. But all around us is part of creation...all also equally fallen, perhaps, and therefore subject to suffering (literally speaking in the case of humans; figuratively, perhaps, in everything else).

  4. Yeah. Not a soul but Paul does use personification in Romans 8 for a reason, to communicate something important about creation.

  5. God created the Cosmos and set rules for how it works. Then, The Fall and the rules were altered ... in dying you will die.

    From headaches to disasters, they are all God's doing.

    For almost all God causes through the curse/judgement and are the result the altered rules He setup. Rules that one day will be altered again.

    On occasion, God intervenes directly and acts in a way that do not necessarily is a result of the laws of nature. We call those events miracles that, by definition, are few and out of the ordinary, and some of the times do involve the use of God's natural phenomena.

    Which are results to God's laws of nature and which are God's divine intervention God does not usually say. The only way to know is through revelation.

    In Jesus' telling of the murdered Galileans and Tower of Siloam events (Luke 13) and Jesus' healing of the blind man (John 9) we have examples on how some things are God's indirect and others direct actions.

    Also, look at the judgements of God on apostate Israel in the Old Testament.

  6. ATL & Jamie, you each had a comment that I accidentally deleted. Might have been for this thread or another. I apologize; hopefully you can re-post something.

  7. No big loss for mine comment. ATL's ....

  8. Reality as well-defined by A Course in Miracles is not a physical empire, dimension, or knowledge, since truth is created by God and as God is unformed, unchanging, everlasting, endless love, and boundless and unified perfection -- a non-dualistic oneness. Reality in the Course is one and the same with Heaven and perceptibly cannot be connected in any method to the universe of form that the world calls reality. Being unchanging, true reality is everlasting and fixed, and therefore any assumption of separation -- which is change -- is not possible and therefore on no occasion was. As a non-dualistic state, reality is beyond insight, since perception presumes a subject-object dichotomy which is integrally dualistic and so can’t be real. In A Course in Miracles, reality is also synonymous with knowledge, the state of being that is Heaven. Enlightenment