The POèME SUR LE DéSASTRE DE LISBONNE (English title:
Poem on the
Lisbon Disaster) is a poem in French composed by
Voltaire as a
response to the
1755 Lisbon earthquake
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
* 2 Structure
* 3 Theme and interpretation
* 4 Criticism
* 5 Notes
* 6 References
* 7 External links
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
the capital of Portugal. The city was reduced to ruins, and between
10,000 and 60,000 people were killed. 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 Protestants and Jesuits; Protestants blamed the Portuguese
for being Catholic, and were thus punished by God.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
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
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.
The poem, like many of Voltaire's poetry, consists 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
Alexander Pope was a target of the poem as a result of his
declaration "What is, is right"
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 has 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
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 in line with an empirical and skeptical position. In his
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. 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.
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
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
An Essay on Man that 'What is, is right'. These lines serve as
Voltaire's incredulous attitude towards Pope's (and later Leibniz')
Optimism. But how conceive a God, the source of love Who on man
lavished blessings from above Then would the race with various plagues
confound Can mortals penetrate His views profound? Ill could not from
a perfect being spring Nor from another, since God's sovereign king;
And yet, sad truth! in this our world 'tis found What contradictions
here my soul confound!
Voltaire held a deep belief in the goodness and sovereignty of
exemplified in the verses above. He takes a pessimistic view to the
existence of evil, and stresses man's ultimate ignorance. Mysteries
like these can no man penetrate Hid from his view remains the book of
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
John Locke .
Voltaire was, in turn, criticized by the
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.
* ^ A B C D E F Candide: Book Summary and Study Guide
* ^ A B Scott, p. 208.
* Scott, Clive (1988). The Riches of Rhyme: Studies in French Verse.
Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-815853-X .
Voltaire . "The
Lisbon Earthquake" in Candide, or Optimism.
Translator Tobias Smollett. London: Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN