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By Paula Guran
September 2005
Originally published, in a slightly different form, in Writers. com Vol. 8, No. 9 as "Vision"

Words can alter the world more than any catastrophe.

Around 9:30 a.m. on the morning of All Saints Day, November 1, 1755, a massive earthquake shook Western Europe. Lisbon, Portugal lay close to the tremor's epicenter. Lisbon's magnificent cathedrals fell on those assembled within for Holy Day Mass. Lesser edifices collapsed. "The greater part of the city was in a moment laid in ruins," wrote an eyewitness. "The sun was perfectly obscured and it seemed as if the earth was about to be reduced to chaos. The screams of the living, the groans of the dying, and the profound darkness, increased the horror. In 20 minutes all had become calm. Everyone endeavored to escape...but our misfortunes had not yet reached their height."

Many of those who could make their way through the narrow debris-filled streets fled to the quay of the River Tagus and the open spaces of the sea docks. They watched as the sea retreated, exposing the ocean floor itself and then were inundated as a tsunami engulfed the harbor and surged up the Tagus. Two more giant waves followed.

In the rest of the city, fires broke out and the conflagration continued for five days.

Southern Portugal was also hard-hit as was Morocco. Shockwaves were felt as far away as Finland. It is estimated that one-third of Lisbon's population of 275,000 were killed with another 10,000 dead in Morocco. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed.

The Prime Minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, was in Lisbon when the earthquake struck. When asked what was to be done, his words were: "Bury the dead and feed the living." He undertook the execution of his words and spent the next weeks roaming the city, dispatching men to fight fires, organizing the collection and burial of the dead; posting soldiers to guard what little was left.

Due primarily to Pombal, Lisbon suffered no epidemics and reconstruction was underway within one year. The city was rebuilt under a comprehensive plan designed to lessen damage from future earthquakes. The resulting quake-resistant buildings were the world's first. They, along with broad avenues and open squares remain today as Lisbon's Pombaline Downtown.

At the time of the Lisbon earthquake, natural disasters were considered a form of divine retribution. As the Jesuit missionary Gabriel Malagrida wrote: "Learn, O Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena..."

But this concept became, for many, difficult to justify, especially since the catastrophe struck a devout country on a Holy Day bringing churches down on the worshippers within.

Among the intellectuals of the time, the prevailing philosophy was one of optimism. Scientist-philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz tried to reconcile a benevolent divinity with the existence of evil in his "Theodicy" (1710). Leibniz felt that since God was perfect, the world the deity had created was the "best of all possible worlds." Or, as English poet Alexander Pope wrote, in his "Essay on Man" (1734), "One truth is clear, whatever is, is right."

After the Lisbon disaster philosophers and moralists began to debate this view. The French writer Voltaire, in particular, rejected Leibniz and Pope's optimism and aroused controversy with his "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne" (published in censored form in 1756). The poem railed against the idea that the people of Lisbon somehow brought disaster on themselves:

Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than London and Paris in their pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!

In his introduction to the poem Voltaire, outraged that survivors were being told that the terrible event had been for "the best," wrote: "The heirs of the dead would now come into their fortunes, masons would grow rich in rebuilding the city, beasts would grow fat on corpses buried in the ruins; such is the natural effect of natural causes. So don't worry about your own particular evil; you are contributing to the general good."

But the poem was merely a warm-up for what followed -- Voltaire's brilliant satire, "Candide." He derided the idea that humanity lived in "the best of all possible worlds" as an absurdly simplistic rationalization of evil, mocked abstract philosophy as useless, and attacked the hypocrisy of religion and the corruption of wealth.

"Candide" was, of course, scandalous. (Its author was no stranger to controversy, having spent time in prison and exile for earlier work.) Its anonymous publication so clandestine we still are not sure of the original date. Banned in Paris, burned by protestants in Geneva, condemned by the Church as "full of dangerous principles concerning religion and tending to moral depravation," and denounced by Leibnizian philosophers -- all of which fuelled the book's immense popularity. Critics both praised and deplored it.

"Candide" has now been long considered a masterpiece and its author acknowledged as one of the eighteenth century's leading proponents of tolerance and freedom. Voltaire's words, inspired by disaster, changed Western thought forever.