The Lesson of the Lisbon Earthquake

Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake, by João Glama Strobërle – Public Domain

The great earthquake that suddenly destroyed Lisbon in November 1755 was perhaps the most disastrous  natural phenomenon to strike Europe since the Mt. Vesuvius explosion of the first century—at maybe 9 on the Richter scale it virtually leveled  the largest of the continent’s  great capitals, with the immediate deaths of perhaps 50,000 people and the loss of vast amounts of treasure from the vast Portuguese empire stored along the Tagus.  But it was more: it was an event that changed the way Europeans thought not only about a benevolent God but about the role of humans in the earth’s systems, and thus ushered in the Age of Enlightenment.

Challenges to that thought had begun to surface in Europe earlier in the century.  Descartes in France had come up with a Discourse in 1637 that held that individual humans were capable of determining truths, by reasoning and scientific analysis: “Cogito, ergo sum.” Newton followed not long after with his Principia Mathematica in 1687 that provided the tools by which to capture scientific reasoning and natural law, and thus the road to progress.  The Enlightenment—the triumph of a human-centered mode of thought and action that proved individual use of logical reason and scientific method led to personal liberty and social advancement, to which the church and the crown were only impediments.

To the philosophical and educated world, the Lisbon earthquake was the ultimate and uncontradictable evidence of the failure of God to look after—or, it seemed, to even care about—humankind’s fate. Portugal’s royalty proclaimed its Catholicism, built magnificent churches, observed church rituals with pomp and ardor, and ruled a land *I reflected somewhat later: When I consider how many cells remain I what my brain’s become, I take comfort from the thought, Cogito ergo some.

that for centuries had thanked the Benevolent Lord for its good fortunes and worldwide empire. And now look—all in ruins, thousands dead, millions no longer trusting in the goodness of—nor, indeed, the presence of—God the Father. From now on, all people had to look after themselves, trust to the engineers who could build earthquake-resistant buildings, seek out scientists who would give them the answers to life’s riddles.   And tithe to their cookie-jars.

So what was one to do now?  Life would go on in its predetermined but unpredictable way that one may try to ascertain by science, but could not manipulate or change much, so no point in prayer, or supplication, or good works, or living by any of the ways that previous people had devoted themselves to.  If the planet was indifferent to our lives, if there was nothing looking over us, giving us guidance, then, by damn, we’ll just look to our ownselves, go our own ways, fend for our own families, scramble for the good and pleasures that made individual life worth living.  Or as Voltaire, one  of the Enlightenment’s cheerleaders, would put it, “Cultivate your own garden.”

And so it was.  The Enlightenment cast a political, philosophic, even societal shadow across much of Europe and North America that could be said to have lasted for perhaps two centuries, until the end of the second World War and the beginning of the Atomic Age and the Anthropocene.  We now no longer believe in the all-subsuming  power of human reason and the technologies it has begat, and the multi-dimensional horrors of modern times give a lie to the ability of Enlightened thought to provide an ordered and peaceable society. And we are faced by a future as bleak and dire as any Western civilization has yet faced:  the near certainty of a world so overheated by runaway greenhouse gasses creating climate chaos, species extinction, and governmental collapse that its future is problematical at best.

In a sense this pending ecocide is our Lisbon earthquake.  It should awaken us to some New Enlightenment that revisions and reorders the place of humans in the world, calls us to a philosophical epiphany that asks of us to abandon the ways of a capitalism that rapidly uses up the resources of the world for the material betterment of maybe half of the eight billion people we have foisted on the planet.   Such a New Enlightenment would ask us to abandon the gods of Progress and Technology that we have been worshipping just as the old Enlightenment abandoned the gods of the Testaments.  That might not save us in the end, but it is a certainty that it is the only thing that could.

And so what are we to do?  Many of us for a century now or so have laid out the conditions of such a New Enlightenment, the ways we might have a new civilization devoted to saving the earth and its species. That work is done.  The next task is trying to lead the peoples of the world into that future, and so far we have been very ill-equipped and unsuccessful, either as organized nations or popular movements. I myself can only wish them well, as I have for a lifetime, but I have given up hope as a useless guideline.  I feel the best I can do,  and this I wish upon my children and grandchildren, is to cultivate my garden.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of seventeen books.  A 50th anniversary reprint of his classic SDS has been published this fall (Autonomedia).