Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne
The Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon Disaster) was a poem in French composed by Voltaire, regarding the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. It is widely regarded as an introduction to Voltaire's later acclaimed work Candide. The 180-line poem was composed in December 1755 and published in 1756.
The earthquake on 1 November 1755 had completely devastated Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. The city was reduced to ruins, and between 10,000 to 60,000 people were killed. Being one of the most destructive earthquakes in history, the event had a major effect on the cultural consciousness of much of Europe. Voltaire was one of many philosophers, theologians and intellectuals to be deeply affected by the disaster. Catholics attempted to explain the disaster as God's wrath, invited by the sinfulness of the people of Portugal and the presence of some Protestants and Jesuits; Protestants blamed the Portuguese for being Catholic, thus being punished by God. Voltaire's philosophical pessimism was affirmed by the great earthquake which provided incontrovertible proof that optimistic attitudes and the notion of "for the greater good" were false. Voltaire was convinced that there existed no benign and concerned deity that would guide the virtuous and punish the sinful. Voltaire asserted that accident played a major part in life, that people were basically weak, helpless, ignorant of their destiny. They might well hope for a happier state, but that was the logical limit of their optimism.
Theme and interpretation
Voltaire is deeply moved by the humanitarian crisis created by the earthquake, and questions if a just and compassionate God would seek to punish sins through such terrible means. Voltaire argues that the all-powerful God could have prevented the innocent suffering with the sinners, reduced the scale of destruction or made his purpose for greater good clearer for mankind.
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers' bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
Was less debauchery to London known,
Where opulence luxurious holds the throne?
He rejected the charge that selfishness and pride had made him rebel against suffering:
When the earth gapes my body to entomb,
I justly may complain of such a doom.
In the poem, Voltaire rejected belief in "Providence" as impossible to defend — he believed that all living things seemed doomed to live in a cruel world. Voltaire concludes that human beings are weak, ignorant and condemned to suffer grief throughout life. There is no divine system or message as guidance, and God does not concern or communicate himself with human beings.
We rise in thought to the heavenly throne,
But our own nature still remains unknown.
Recall the pessimistic reply of the dervish to Pangloss, who expressed the desire to probe the meaning of life and man's destiny.
Through his work, Voltaire criticized religious figures and philosophers such as Alexander Pope, and endorsed the views of the skeptic Pierre Bayle. Voltaire was, in turn, criticized by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Rousseau had been mailed a copy of the poem by Voltaire, who received a letter carrying Rousseau's criticism on 18 August 1756. Rousseau criticized Voltaire for seeking to apply science to spiritual questions, and he argued that evil is necessary to the existence of the universe and that particular evils form the general good. Rousseau implied that Voltaire must either renounce the concept of Providence or conclude that it is, in the last analysis, beneficial. Rousseau was convinced that Voltaire had written Candide as a rebuttal to the argument he had made.
- Candide: Book Summary and Study Guide
- Scott, p. 208.
- Scott, Clive (1988). The Riches of Rhyme: Studies in French Verse. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-815853-X.
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