A Turning Point in History

Posted on Thursday, February 21, 2013 by WorldAffairs

drawing of Lisbon earthquake






Few people know anything about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, even though it marked a turning point for Western philosophy, religion and science.  The quake, estimated to have been between 8.0 and 9.0 on the Richter scale, devastated the city of Lisbon, destroying 85% of its buildings outright.  To escape the debris falling in aftershocks, many of the survivors congregated at the docks only to be swept away by a series of tsunamis.  The final insult, a fire, then consumed the remainder of the city.

The earthquake struck on November 1, All Saints' Day, at 9:30am, a time when the churches were filled with worshippers.  The belief that there was a loving God who took care of people and that everything that happened was for the best, known as the Philosophy of Optimism, was shaken more fiercely than the city.  The earthquake marked the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of the Modern Era

Church leaders attempted to convince the populace that the earthquake was God's punishment for their wickedness, but this was a hard sell since all the churches and the headquarters of the Inquisition were destroyed while the red light district was spared.

The belief that earthquakes were simply acts of God was discarded by men of science.  For the first time data on the earthquake was collected and their physical cause was debated.

In 1759, in response to the quake, European wars that were raging, and other disasters, Voltaire wrote Candide, part of which is set in earthquake-devastated Lisbon.  In Candide, Voltaire satirically rejects the Doctrine of Optimism; that is, that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." While widely read, Candide was banned by the church as blasphemous.