On the first of November 1755, on the holiday of All Saints’ Day, one of the world’s most deadly earthquakes had its epicentre in the Atlantic Ocean 200 kilometres south-west of Cabo de São Vicente, at the extreme south-west of Portugal. Modern seismologists estimate its magnitude to have been 8.5–9. Shockwaves were felt throughout Europe and North Africa. A 3-metre-high tsunami is said to have reached Cornwall in south-west England.
The quake, widely known as the Lisbon Earthquake, opened up 5-metre-wide cracks in the centre of the Portuguese capital city and gave rise to a tsunami that engulfed the city’s harbour. Areas of the city that were not shattered or drowned were destroyed by the many fires that broke out, probably caused by the church candles lit for All Saints’ Day. Eighty-five per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people died.
Because the earthquake happened on an important church holiday and destroyed so many churches, divine judgement was read into the broken stones and broken bones. At the very least, this was surely evidence that a benevolent deity did not look after the world and its people. Philosophers across Europe were powerfully affected by the earthquake; for some, it shook the foundations of their beliefs. In Germany, in particular, Leibniz’s optimistic, sentimental world view held sway, the idea that human beings – creatures of reason, loved by a beneficent god – lived in a world that was the best it could possibly be. Voltaire’s ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’ and his novel Candide are satires on this world view. (Candide regularly features in lists of the best and most influential books ever written. It’s also very short and very funny and if you haven’t read it yet you can surely find time to squeeze it in. I’m going to include a small extract at the end of this blog post.)
In the Algarve, many of the coastal towns and villages were affected by the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. Only Faro largely escaped, protected by the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. To commemorate the date, the town council of Tavira organised two talks around the subject this month: the first was on the geology of the area. When you see on a geological map the fault line that hugs the Algarve coast, you are caused yet again to question the sanity of anyone who wants to drill for oil or frack for gas in this area. Just how much rationality are they capable of ignoring? So of course Husband raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, and the otherwise excellent lecturer did her best to evade it. It’s a rotten job being a geologist; you have to sell your soul to the fossil fuel brigade who are almost certainly paying your salary, directly or indirectly. The second talk was about the extent of the damage as revealed by extant parish records. We learnt that in our local village – quite some kilometres inland – a single death occurred: at the door of the parish church as a stone was dislodged and came tumbling down. At the end of this talk it was the turn of another audience member to raise a provocative question about the area being earthquake-prone. At least it raised a laugh.
Fortunes can change in an instant and human rationality cannot be relied upon. We’ve just seen this in another earthquake: the political one that happened in the US this month.
As the old Greek said: ‘Wise men argue causes; fools decide them.’
Describing tempest, shipwreck, and earthquake, and what happened to Dr Pangloss,
Candide, and James, the Anabaptist
… Candide was in time to see his benefactor reappear above the surface for one moment before being swallowed up for ever. He wanted to throw himself into the sea after the Anabaptist, but the great philosopher, Pangloss, stopped him by proving that Lisbon harbour was made on purpose for this Anabaptist to drown there. Whilst he was proving this from first principles, the ship split in two and all perished except Pangloss, Candide, and the brutal sailor who had been the means of drowning the honest Anabaptist. The villain swam successfully to shore; and Pangloss and Candide, clinging to a plank, were washed up after him.
When they had recovered a little of their strength, they set off towards Lisbon, hoping they had just enough money in their pockets to avoid starvation after escaping the storm.
Scarcely had they reached the town, and were still mourning their benefactor’s death, when they felt the earth tremble beneath them. The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled on to their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.
The sailor chucked:
‘There will be something worth picking up here,’ he remarked with an oath.
‘What can be the “sufficient reason” for this phenomenon?’ said Pangloss.
‘The Day of Judgment has come,’ cried Candide.
The sailor rushed straight into the midst of the debris and risked his life searching for money. Having found some, he ran off with it to get drunk; and after sleeping off the effects of the wine, he bought the favours of the first girl of easy virtue he met amongst the ruined houses with the dead and dying all around. Pangloss pulled him by the sleeve and said:
‘This will never do, my friend; you are not obeying the universal rule of Reason; you have misjudged the occasion.’
‘Bloody hell,’ replied the other. ‘I am a sailor … I’m not the man for your Universal Reason!’