Posted by Roger Boylan on Thursday, January 14, 2010
On the heels of the terrible earthquake in Haiti,
in which as many as 500,000 people may have died, I think back to the 1755
Lisbon earthquake and Voltaire's reaction to it. I almost always find the Sage
of Ferney a fresh breeze in the ambient fug, and in this case, as in so many
others, he took on the obscurantists with gusto, and from his outrage came a
poem, Poème Sur le Désastre de Lisbonne, and ultimately, of course, Candide, in which the character of
Dr. Pangloss is based on the then-famous German philosopher Leibniz, who
posited the ideal nature of life as we know it in this, the best of all
possible worlds. "One would have great difficulty," observed
Voltaire, "in divining how the laws of movement operate such frightful
disasters in the best of all possible worlds.... What will the preachers
say, especially if the palace of the Inquisition [in Lisbon] has been left
standing? I flatter myself that the reverend father inquisitors will have been
crushed like the others. That should teach men not to persecute men."
Then, as now, religious fanatics were babbling
about the wages of sin: then, John Wesley, who attributed the earthquake to "that
curse that was brought upon the earth by the original transgression of Adam and
Eve"; now, Pat Robertson, who reached into the unplumbable depths of his
ignorance and dragged up the theory that the Haitians are being punished for
having made a pact with the devil to drive out the French, back in...whenever
it was...under Napoleon, or Napoleon III, or whoever it was...(The historical
event the reverend is groping for is the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 under the
great general Toussaint L'Ouverture.) Voltaire's comments then are as apt now:
"The silly fanatic repeats to me ... that it
is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the great Being, that His
reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice. Eh! how,
you mad demoniac, do you want me to judge justice and reason otherwise than by
the notions I have of them? Do you want me to walk otherwise than with my feet,
and to speak otherwise than with my mouth?"
And in Candide,
he delivered his final thrust.
"After the earthquake which destroyed
three-quarters of Lisbon, the wise men of that country could discover no more
efficacious way of preventing a total ruin than by giving the people a splendid
auto-da-fe. It was decided by the university of Coimbra that the sight
of several persons being slowly burned in great ceremony is an infallible
secret for preventing earthquakes."
I feel confident that Pat Robertson has never read Candide. It's just as well, because he'd
miss the satire.