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Monday, November 20, 2006

David Hart and Voltaire

- Voltaire

As I wrote in an earlier post, I've been reading David Bentley Hart's theodicy book, The Doors of the Sea. I've come to a place where Hart mentions Vlotaire and his poem about the disaster of All Saints' Day, 1755, in Lisbon. That event affected not only Voltaire, but many thinkers of the Enlightenment, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, and drove a stake through the heart of the theodicy arguments of the day. Here's just a tiny bit of Voltaire's poem ...

"But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he ’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!
O wondrous mingling of diversities!
A God came down to lift our stricken race:
He visited the earth, and changed it not!
One sophist says he had not power to change;
“He had,” another cries, “but willed it not:
In time he will, no doubt.” And, while they prate,
The hidden thunders, belched from underground,
Fling wide the ruins of a hundred towns
Across the smiling face of Portugal."

And here's a bit about the earthquake that inspired it ...

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake took place on November 1, 1755, at 9:40 in the morning. It was one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in history, killing between 60,000 and 100,000 people. The quake was followed by a tsunami and fire, resulting in the near-total destruction of Lisbon. The earthquake accentuated political tensions in Portugal and profoundly disrupted the country's eighteenth-century colonial ambitions .... Geologists today estimate the Lisbon earthquake approached magnitude 9 on the Richter scale...

- engraving of the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755

The earthquake shook much more than cities and buildings. Lisbon was the capital of a devout Catholic country, with a history of investments in the church and evangelism in the colonies. Moreover, the catastrophe struck on a Catholic holiday and destroyed almost every important church. For eighteenth-century theology and philosophy, this manifestation of the anger of God was difficult to explain.

- the ruined Convento de Carmo, destroyed in 1755 by the earthquake.

The earthquake strongly influenced many thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Many contemporary philosophers mentioned or alluded to the earthquake in their writings, notably Voltaire in Candide and in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ("Poem on the Lisbon disaster"). The arbitrariness of survival motivated Voltaire's Candide and its satire of the idea that this was the "best of all possible worlds"; as Theodor Adorno wrote, "[t]he earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz" (Negative Dialectics 361). In the later twentieth century, following Adorno, the 1755 earthquake has sometimes been compared to the Holocaust as a catastrophe so tremendous as to have a transformative impact on European culture and philosophy ....

- Wikipedia

David Hart lines up the arguments against a God both good and all powerful - Voltaire's poem is an example of the best of these - and though Hart feels these arguments sometimes speak of a God he barely recognises, he does not dismiss them lightly, but writes ...

"... there are even certain respects in which arguments of this sort should command not only the attention of Christians, but some measure of their sympathy - not pity, that is to say, not a patronizing longanimity, but sympathy in the proper sense of kindred feeling. After all, at the heart of all such unbelief lies an undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to be reconciled to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should want to disparage ..."

That is one thing I like very much about Hart's book ... he doesn't try to reconcile the reader with evil - doesn't try to make suffering acceptable or understandable. I guess I'd rather find no redemptive meaning in my own suffering than think God had anything to do with it.


Blogger Susan said...

Interesting about Lisbon. These days we hardly hear much of anything about Portugal...or maybe, as my son often says, I read the wrong news sources. But at least they're not having earthquakes and tsunamis. Even I would have heard about them.

Re suffering, after his death Albert Payson Terhune told his wife that we must reincarnate until we have experienced "every kind of grief." When you think about it, that could add up to a lot of lives.

9:03 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Susan,

that idea of Payson's is one reason I don't want to believe in reincarnation. One lifetime has more than enough suffering, it seems to me - I wouldn't want to come back for more. But who knows? Which reminds me, have you see the trailers for the movie The Fountain? Hugh Jackman! There's also a book :-)

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit about the psychological underpinnings of theodicy is here.

Makes sense to me.

5:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Crystal,

I heard The Fountain got a bad reception at the Venice Film Festival, but I'd like to hear more reviews.

My personal exclamation would be: Rachel Weisz! ...but I guess to each their own. She's one of my favorite current actresses.

Lisbon is one of my favorite cities. It has a very special feel to it. I remember the ruined convent in the Barrio Alto. It's something like a monument to the earthquake.

Have you ever heard Fados? It's the beautiful, melancholic music of Lisbon. I would recommend Dulce Pontes or Missia.

9:51 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


thanks for the link. I think what he says is valid. Maybe that;s partly why gnosticism is so popular - their is a "bad" God (the demiurge) and a good one, so you have one on whom to blame all the suffering.

One of the reasons I like the books of William Barry SJ is that he addresses the conflicted relationship people have with God - he has a degree in psychology.

10:54 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


I like Rachel Weisz too - she was great in The Mummy :-) My sister saw the previews for the Fountain and said it looked not too good, but I haven't read any reviews yet.

No, I hadn't heard of Fado ... I looked it up at Wikipedia ...

The music is usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade, a word with no accurate English translation. (It is a kind of longing, and conveys a complex mixture of mainly nostalgia, but also sadness, pain, happiness and love).

... sounds worth looking into.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wrote a bit about fado on my blog, in case you're interested.

2:25 PM  

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