*Port-au-Prince & Lisbon, Pat Robertson & the Enlightenment Philosophers: Haiti’s Earthquake I

On 1 November 1755, a massive earthquake struck the city of Lisbon.  It is thought to have been 9.0 on the Richter scale:  whatever the precise measurement, its magnitude may be judged by the fact that the earthquake nearly leveled Lisbon, and caused widespread damage elsewhere in Portugal, and even in Spain and Morocco.  Together with the tsunami that came in its wake, the earthquake, by modern estimates, is thought to have wiped out about a fifth or sixth of Lisbon’s population of 200,000.  According to some sources, nearly every church of any consequence in Lisbon was destroyed.  That, in a country intensely Catholic, was alone calculated to leave an ineradicable impression on its inhabitants.

Though the destruction was extraordinarily widespread, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 has entered the annals of history for reasons other than as an illustration of nature’s furious unpredictability.  The earthquake would provoke a wide-ranging discussion among many of the greatest minds of the day; indeed, even into the twentieth century, the Lisbon earthquake would be summoned to point to both the inscrutability of God’s ways and the uses of seismology.  One of the regnant ideas of those days had been best adumbrated by the philosopher Leibniz, who adhered to the view that whatever happens happens for the best, or, in slightly more elegant language, God’s ways could be justified to men if one recognized that one lived in the best of all worlds.  Among the most eminent men of the day who felt the tremors of the quake in Paris was Voltaire.  In his novel Candide (1759), the eponymous hero, who at first vividly subscribes to the view that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, in time comes to reject this optimism.  The Lisbon earthquake is enough to cure him of this theodicy, just as it sufficed to make Voltaire reject the optimism of Leibniz.

One of the other supreme figures of the age who attempted to make some sense of the earthquake was Immanuel Kant, whose interest in this would be captured by Walter Benjamin in a radio talk prepared for school-children 150 years later:  “No one was more fascinated by these remarkable events than the great German philosopher Kant . . .  At the time of the earthquake he was a young man of twenty-four, who had never left his hometown of Konigsberg – and who would never do so in the future.  But he eagerly collected all the reports of the earthquake that he could find, and the slim book that he wrote about it probably represents the beginning of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”  In the typical fashion of the day, Kant’s slim volume bore the longish title, History and Natural Description of the most Remarkable Incidents of the Earthquake that Shook a Large Part of the Earth at the End of the Year 1755.

Kant’s avid interest in the earthquake was not confined to a scientific assessment of the natural circumstances that had led to the calamity.  “Whatever is, is right”, Alexander Pope had famously declared in his Essay on Man (1733), and his affirmation of Leibniz’s theodicy had many supporters who rather agreed with Leibniz’s reasoning that though the presence of evil could not be denied, evil itself existed for the sake of a greater good.  As Rousseau and Voltaire, whose repudiation of theodicy in Candide was prefigured in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (1756), tangled over the ‘meaning’ of the earthquake, Kant would step into the debate later with a distinct philosophical articulation of the idea of the sublime.  When the imagination reaches its limits, Kant argued, pain is experienced; but this pain may be compensated for with the pleasure produced by the mind.  The “beautiful” was not to be equated with the “sublime”:  if the former belongs to the realm of “Understanding”, the latter belongs to “Reason”.  A sublime event was not to be comprehended through the understanding, indeed the enormity of the sublime – “we call that sublime which is absolutely great”, he wrote in the Critique of Judgment – passed all understanding and demonstrated the inadequacy of one’s imagination.  And, yet, the supersensible powers, through which one comprehends an event as whole, and which inform both nature and thought, bring one to a realization of the sublime.

When we consider the philosophical level of public discourse that the Lisbon earthquake could engender, the depths to which public discourse has sunk in our times becomes all the more transparent.  Pat Robertson has been known over the years for his outrageous announcements, and one should not be utterly surprised that he should, on the present occasion of the earthquake that has devastated Haiti, have displayed the same dim-wittedness and callousness for which he has nearly an unsurpassed reputation (barring, perhaps, only the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck).  As he put it in a televangelical broadcast, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”  America deplored Haiti’s independence in 1804, refusing to recognize the country until 1862, and it appears that even today there are some Americans such as Robertson who evidently believe that some people are born to serve others.  Colonialism, we know, continues to have its defenders; but Robertson’s remarks disguise many more profound anxieties, none as acute as the fact that the only genuine revolution, gone astray for reasons that I shall attempt to comprehend in subsequent blogs, in the Western hemisphere took place in Haiti rather than in what would become the US.

Insanely stupid as Robertson’s remarks are, they nonetheless point the way to a debate that cannot be resolved under the sign of secularism.  In a very different time, equally removed from the energetic debates of the Enlightenment and the mental vacuity of a Robertson, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore would have a lively public exchange over the equally devastating Bihar Earthquake of 1934.  Gandhi described the earthquake as God’s chastisement of upper-caste Hindus for their oppression of Harijans; Tagore, revered almost as much as the Mahatma, expressed shock that Gandhi would adhere to a view which was openly dismissive of scientific reasoning and likely to encourage the Indian masses in their superstitious thinking.  The intricacies of that exchange aside, Gandhi was firmly persuaded that communication with the masses could not succeed in the language of secularism – even if he was, in his own fashion, resolutely wedded to the idea that the Indian state perforce had to be secular, scrupulously fair to the adherents of all religions.  Moreover, the secular imagination cannot, Gandhi would have argued, countenance the idea that natural events may have their counterpart in the life of the soul.  Perhaps, in howsoever unpleasant a way, Robertson’s remarks suggest that we do not live only under the sign of secularism.


10 thoughts on “*Port-au-Prince & Lisbon, Pat Robertson & the Enlightenment Philosophers: Haiti’s Earthquake I

  1. I somewhat disagree with the perspective of the final statement of this blog. I do not see it as a somewhat unpleasant reminder but as a positive reminder of progress. As mentioned, the first earth quake in Lisbon captivated the great minds of the era. These people explained it in a way that was respectable to their time, and possibly due to reputation could create a large foothold of people who now share their view.

    However, the significant person you mention for the current day is anything but that. I see it as a representation of progress; the great minds of today can see this tragedy as what it really is: an unfortunate shift in the tectonic plates. Only simple-minded people look to pin it on speculative theories. Usually these people are not the only decision makers who can look for a solution.

    In addition, the increase in secularism leads to a more useful response; the fact that most people know the origin skips the first step of speculation. Instead, people get right to sympathy and can help bring relief quicker to a needing populace.

    However, I do agree that it is negative in the effect it can have on those unarmed in refutation. Once, the seeds of thought are planted in these untarnished minds the damage is seldom undone.


    • I’m not sure what exactly you are disagreeing with. My reply to a comment by Sam Tong on this blog indicates what I meant by saying that these disputes may not be resolved within the secular framework that has, in one fashion or another, been part of the intellectual inheritance of the West.


  2. The juxtaposition between the philosophical arguments born out of Libson’s earthquake and Pat Robertson’s remarks from Haiti’s earthquake is indeed jarring. However, crude language and incoherent arguments aside, I agree with your analysis that theological arguments play a larger role. That most people find comfort in using religion to explain away emotionally disturbing disasters. However, I disagree with the conclusion that we do not live under the sign of secularism. It is not unreasonable to assume that a well-educated person today would rationalize the cause of the earthquake with its corresponding scientific explanation even if the theological explanation results in more emotional comfort. The fact that religious talk better facilitates communication with the masses does not undercut the secularism people developed today.


    • I agree with this to a great extent. Although it is easier for a person to blame these earthquakes or any sort of natural disaster that strikes inevitably on an external third party (metaphorically) such as religion or even a voodoo curse. For us looking back in hindsight, its easy to blame it on science as that is also somewhat an external third party as you can’t control things such as tectonic plates. However, people choose not to go with that route because they do control the consequences that occur from science in terms of agriculture, architecture, safety measures and education. Philosophers such as Kant provide interesting analysis as he was one of the first people to consider how culture or history may or may not shape the structures of mind which influence their actions and reactions.


    • I didn’t say that “we do not live under the sign of secularism.” What I said is the following: “Insanely stupid as Robertson’s remarks are, they nonetheless point the way to a debate that cannot be resolved under the sign of secularism.” There is a significant difference because I am suggesting that the comments of the kind made by Robertson, and the discussions that have followed, suggest that “secularism” does not necessarily provide the framework for understanding why people are still, centuries after the onset of the Scientific Revolution, many people are still disposed to attach theological meanings to events such as earthquakes. This does not at all mean that the process of secularization has been critically important and that many have inherited a secular framework.


  3. Reading this post in the midst of a global pandemic, I can’t help but notice the dispute between science and faith. In Lisbon, the earthquake shook the optimism out of generations of thinkers, including Voltaire, and in Haiti, Robertson believes the devil had a hand in the destruction. In the Bihar earthquake, the issue arose again: is this science or God’s punishment? Looking back, it is easy to say in all these cases, only science is to blame — not God — for these unfortunate events. However, even today, much of society’s immediate reactions to terrible natural disasters use religion as an explanation. In the Covid-19 pandemic in America today, masks and vaccines are seen by some as unnecessary because they believe they have God on “their side,” and therefore, Covid can’t hurt them. Essentially, reading this post made me wonder how much of an impact religion still has on our society, even as we claim to have moved into the age of secularism, if our immediate reaction is to turn to God to fuel our optimism or justify our anger rather than turning to science to simply explain the situation and offer solutions.


  4. I found the argument between spirituality and secularism very intriguing. Walter Benjamin is quoted describing the impact of the earthquake, saying that it marked the beginning of the study of seismology and the understanding of scientific geography, so turning to religion and philosophy for answers seemed like the only response to the Lisbon earthquake as they did not have the scientific knowledge and technology that we have today. That being said, it is interesting to read Kant’s reasoning of “the sublime” and Gandhi’s notions that the natural world can be controlled by factors outside of science. I think during the time, it was reasonable to believe that there was an unknown extraneous source “driving” the earthquake. Even in more recent times, during the Haitian earthquake for example, people found it more effective and fitting to blame a “pact with the devil”, as unbelievable as it is, as the force behind the earthquake, rather than to turn to any scientific explanation.


  5. I found it very interesting to see that during present day with all current science that people still are under the belief that the earthquake was due to the belief that Haitians made a pact with the devil to win the war for their independence. The use of religion and mythology has consistently been used to try to explain why certain natural events occur, but the idea that Haiti only was able to win their independence from making a pact with a devil shows sheer ignorance and racism. Robertson’s remarks are incredibly shocking to me and though it can be understandable that one’s own religious beliefs make them believe a natural disaster occurred, this is not the same case. I think Robertson’s remarks undermine the power of the Haitian’s to rule themselves and show his discrimination as he is indicating that they were not fit to rule themselves and therefore had to make a pact with the devil.


  6. I think it is very ironic when people use religion to show that one person or one group of people are above others, such as the example in the essay of Pat Roberston. It is clear as day that the people who make such claims understand nothing of the religion they are using to justify their racism or any other prejudice they have toward different groups of people.
    What did intrigue me about this was that there are so many common experiences in the world, as bizarre as they might be. For example, at the beginning of the blog post where different thinkers are trying to put into words the beliefs of people and how they understand the world works into words. It is interesting how people are so connected and they live through the same experiences, but they interpret those in completely different ways depending on their upbringing, etc. Also, it is almost difficult to imagine a world that is truly secular because religion has played and still plays a very big role in society.


  7. This essay was really intriguing. I was not well versed about the Lisbon earthquake, and can’t believe it killed 200,000 people! Also, I feel like there is a consistent pattern religion plays to fill voids after tragedies. So it is unsurprising to me there is a strong spiritual role paralleling the aftermath. I agree with others in the comments that spirituality is most likely a cooping mechanism, but shouldn’t be a stand-in for scientific reasoning.


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