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God, Earthquakes, Lisbon and Enlightenment

(Books, History, Nonfiction) Permanent link

Surviving an earthquake is one thing, but the aftermath is a groundswell in itself. How to you interpret natural disasters? How to you cope with tragedy? On All Saints Day in 1755, when most Lisbonians were in church, a giant Earthquake rocked the city. Then a tsunami. Then a fire. Lisbon was destroyed.

A very Catholic and religious city at the hight of the Inquisition (Shrady describes it as medieval and anti-enlightenment), Lisbon couldn't help but interpret the catastrophe as God's divine wrath, a call to repentance, a punishment for Lisbon's greed. The hell-fire sermons were brought out, dusted off, and shouted from the rubble pulpits.

But of course not everyone interpreted it this way, religious or not. Immanuel Kant (my favorite philosopher), argued it wasn't a moral phenomenon but a natural one. And if you had to read Candide in high school or college, you know that Voltaire took this as the perfect opportunity to expose (with satire) the "optimistic" philosophy of Leibniz and the rose-colored glass of theologians--that with God at the helm we must live in the "best of all possible worlds." Rousseau, criticizing Voltaire, takes a more middle position.

But it was a man named Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo who was on the ground, who rehabilitated the city, and who eventually tried to "enlighten" it. This book is mostly about him. He rebuilds Lisbon, becomes a powerful leader, kicks out all the Jesuits, builds a bunch of universities that teach science (natural philosophy), obolishes slavery, and puts a lot of people to death (not for heresy, but for people who are not with the program). The author describes him as an ambiguous despot, but a despot nonetheless. And for every political push there is a counter-push. Carvalho gets removed, ridiculed, and replaced with a Queen Maria who repeals all his progress. That's European history for ya, right?!

Since this book is more about the history of Lisbon, I recommend this book more for the history aspect, less for the theology/philosophy.


The Last Day

Posted by Matt Smith at 06/12/2012 10:17:23 AM