Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne

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François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), known as Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher

The Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon Disaster) is a poem in French composed by Voltaire as a response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. It is widely regarded as an introduction to Voltaire's later acclaimed work Candide and his view on the problem of evil. The 180-line poem was composed in December 1755 and published in 1756 It is considered one of the most savage literary attacks on Optimism.[1]

Background[edit]

1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbour

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.[1][2] 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.[2] Catholics attempted to explain the disaster as God's wrath, invited by the sinfulness of the people of Portugal and the presence of Protestants and Jesuits; Protestants blamed the Portuguese for being Catholic, and were thus punished by God.

Polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and poet Alexander Pope were both famous for developing a system of thought known as philosophical optimism in an attempt to reconcile a loving Christian God with the logical problem of evil (made evident in disasters such as Lisbon). The phrase "what is, is right" coined by Alexander Pope in his An Essay on Man, and Leibniz' affirmation that "we live in the best of all possible worlds", provoked a hostile response from Voltaire. He railed against what he perceived as overly complex philosophizing which served only to demean humanity and ultimately lead to fatalism.

Voltaire's philosophical pessimism and deism, further bolstered by the earthquake, argued that philosophical optimism and the notion that "what is, is right" was empty philosophy based speculation. Due to the prevalence of perceived evil, Voltaire was convinced that there could not possibly exist a benign, all-loving, or intervening deity who aggrandized the virtuous and punished the sinful. He asserted instead that the disaster revealed the weak, helpless, and ignorant nature of humankind. For Voltaire, people might well hope for a happier state, but that was the logical limit of their optimism.[1]

Structure[edit]

The poem, like many of Voltaire's poetry, is comprised entirely of rhyming couplet and is written as a continual progression of lines; there are no stanzas. In total, there are 180 lines to the work.

Many modern translations of the poem also come with Voltaire's original footnotes explaining the references he makes. Some examples include the universal chain, and mans nature.

Theme and interpretation[edit]

Alexander Pope was a target of the poem as a result of his declaration "What is, is right"

Unlike Candide the poem does not contain elements of lightheartedness or humor but rather lends itself to a pitying, dark and solemn tone.

In his preface to the poem Voltaire makes several objections.

'If it be true,' they said, 'that whatever is, is right, it follows that human nature is not fallen.
If the order of things requires that everything should be as it is, then human nature has not been
corrupted, and consequently as no need for a Redeemer.
...
if the miseries of individuals are merely the by-product of this general and necessary order,
then we are nothing more than cogs which serve to keep the great machine in motion; we are no
more precious in the eyes of God than the animals by which we are devoured.'

By process of reductio ad absurdum Voltaire elucidates upon the inherent contradiction in the statement "what is, is right". For if this was true then human nature is not fallen and consequently renders salvation ineffectual.

He (Bayle) says that Revelation alone can untie the great knot which
philosophers have only managed to tangle further, that nothing but the hope of our
continued existence in a future state can console us under the present misfortunes;
that the goodness of Providence is the only sanctuary in which man can take
shelter during this general eclipse of his reason, and amidst the calamities to
which his weak and frail nature is exposed.

Voltaire was an admirer of both Bayle, who was a skeptic, and Locke who was an empiricist. The message Voltaire is trying to get across is very much inline with an empirical and skeptical position. In his footnotes, Voltaire argues the self-evidence of humankind's epistemological shortcomings since the human mind derives all knowledge from experience and that no experience can give us insight into what preceded our existence, nor into what follows it, nor into what supports it at present.

In the poem itself, deeply moved by the humanitarian crisis created by the earthquake and questioning whether a just and compassionate God would (or could) seek to punish sins through such terrible means, Voltaire argued that the all-powerful God Leibniz and Pope hypothesized could have prevented the innocent suffering of the sinners, reduced the scale of destruction or made his purpose in elevating the status of mankind more clear.[1]

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.[1]

We rise in thought to the heavenly throne,
But our own nature still remains unknown.

No matter the complexity, depth, or sophistication of philosophical and theological systems, Voltaire contended that our human origins remain unknown.

'Heav'n, on our sufferings cast a pitying eye.'
All's right, you answer, the eternal cause
Rules not by partial, but by general laws.

The above three lines refer specifically to the common rebuttal made by the optimists of the time as to the problem of evil. Although the presence of evil in the world is verifiable, human beings lack the capacity to understand the motions of God. Despite the earthquake, the subsequent suffering played a part in the greater good somewhere else.

Yet in this direful chaos you'd compose
A general bliss from individuals' woes?
Oh worthless bliss! in injured reason's sight,
With faltering voice you cry, 'What is, is right'?

Voltaire draws attention to the assertion made by Alexander Pope in his An Essay on Man that 'What is, is right'. These lines serve as Voltaire's incredulous attitude towards Pope's (and later Leibniz') Optimism.

Criticism[edit]

Through his work, Voltaire criticized religious figures and philosophers such as the optimists Alexander Pope and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, but endorsed the views of the skeptic Pierre Bayle and empiricist John Locke. 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.[1]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]