What the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake Can Teach Us Now

By William M. BurtonApril 8, 2020

What the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake Can Teach Us Now
In 1755, an earthquake laid the city of Lisbon to waste. Three shocks toppled most of the Portuguese capital’s buildings. Dust rose up and covered the sky. A series of tsunamis collided with the city and, according to some, drowned many of those who had sought refuge in its port. Fire ravaged the ruins. Lisbon perished and with it, between 70,000 and 100,000 people.

In the cultural aftershocks, Europe’s intellectuals attempted to make sense of this horror. Before the disaster, the philosophical doctrine of optimism had enjoyed great popularity. Optimists, the most famous of whom was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, held that since God is good, this world is the best of all possible worlds. For them, even the Lisbon earthquake had a positive meaning, since it played into God’s providential plan.

Voltaire had shared this view until the earthquake shook him from it. In his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, he makes an about-face, writing that human suffering is meaningless and that we are powerless to change it. He later brutally satirized optimism in his novel Candide. That book’s conclusion — “We must cultivate our garden” — means something like: We should focus on what is within our power; avoiding catastrophe is not.

Other intellectuals disagreed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau replied to Voltaire’s poem with a letter arguing that the earthquake’s death toll was only apparently inevitable:

[M]ost of our physical evils are still our own handiwork. Without departing from your topic of Lisbon, grant that nature had certainly not brought twenty thousand houses of six or seven floors together there, and that if the residents of this huge city had been spread out more evenly and housed less densely, the damage would have been much slighter and perhaps nothing at all.

The annihilation of Lisbon was not the will of God or of Nature, but a signal failure of human planning. So many died because of Lisbon’s density — a result of architecture, that is, a series of human choices.

But far worse than this faulty urban planning — indeed, responsible for it — were the values that European urbanites had adopted. With heavy-handed irony, Rousseau ventriloquized the Lisboans:

But we must remain here, hold fast to our hovels, expose ourselves to new tremors, because what we leave behind is worth more than what we can bring with us. How many unhappy wretches perished in this disaster because they wanted to take, this one his clothes, another his papers, a third his money? Don’t we know that the person of each human being has become the least important part of them, and that it is almost not worth the trouble to save it when the rest is lost.

The city-dwellers preferred to remain in the maw of calamity so that they could save face and money, rather than escape with what they could not rebuild or replace: their lives and humanity. They had so overvalued appearances and wealth that each human’s intrinsic value had shriveled into insignificance — even for the person in question.

Rousseau’s letter isolated two factors that had aggravated the death toll: the city’s material structure — its architecture and urban planning; and Portuguese society’s moral structure — its values. For Rousseau, these values were just as much constructions as Lisbon’s buildings. They are the end result of many collective and individual choices, perhaps driven by economic and other imperatives, but not inevitable.

Whether our society’s organization can or should mitigate natural disasters’ impact remains an open question today. Witness the last Democratic Primary debate, where Bernie Sanders claimed that the novel coronavirus pandemic “exposes the dysfunctionality of our healthcare system” and “the fragility of the economy.” The now-frontrunner Joe Biden refused this diagnosis: “People are looking for results, not a revolution. That has nothing to do with a legitimate concern about income inequality in America.”

Consider this in light of the Lisbon debate. Sanders’s position lines up with Rousseau’s. Our country’s economic and health infrastructure, and our values, are poised to magnify the death toll well beyond what it might be. We have the power to change this. Contrast this with Biden’s Voltairean view. He bows to the invisible, unchangeable market. Shared by both parties, this attitude produced a $500-billion corporate bailout in the recent stimulus package. That compromise was necessary — Americans need relief now. But the bill represents an ideological commitment to prioritize markets over people.

Sanders is not a voice crying out in the wilderness. The so-called Squad and even mainstream liberal publications have claimed that this crisis has “called the bluff” of American exceptionalism, as Anne Applebaum put it in The Atlantic last month. Our hollowed-out and detested federal government is uniquely unprepared to face this pandemic. We lack the basic infrastructure of unemployment insurance and healthcare to nimbly and effectively respond to the situation.

Not only this, but the pandemic itself has its origin in human forces for which the United States has a large share of responsibility. Experts have long recognised that industrial agriculture, and climate change are hastening the development of infectious disease. In the words of Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University: “We’re transforming the climate and we can’t pretend that these radical changes to how the Earth works and life on Earth are not going to affect our health.”

In other words, this situation is the indirect result of individual and collective choices about the organization of the planet and the distribution of its resources. Later in life, Rousseau might have referred to these as the articles of our social contract. Building off his work, the theorist Monique Wittig wrote that the metaphor of the social contract reminds “the contractors” — us — “that [we] should reexamine [our] conditions. Society was not made once and for all,” Wittig continues. “The social contract will yield to our action, to our words.” This crisis is revealing that income inequality, healthcare, and environmental regulations are indeed articles of our social contract. Only a progressive agenda focussed on rewriting them will allow us to rebound from coronavirus and prepare for the next pandemic.

Back on the Iberian Peninsula, members of the Spanish government may be heeding Rousseau’s lesson. Some have proposed to institute a universal basic income, “not just for this extraordinary situation” but as a “permanent instrument.” The coronavirus places us in front of a similar choice. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have offered a range of policies to help us rewrite our social contract. With his centrist credentials, the probable candidate Biden may be able to make a more convincing case for this agenda than true progressives. But will he be smart enough — and brave enough — to borrow from them?


William M. Burton is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

William M. Burton is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.


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