David Ignatius: Haiti Quake has Parallels with Lisbon

Roundup: Media's Take

[David Ignatius is associate editor and columnist for the Washington Post]

...Talking about the Haitian earthquake, my friend Garrett Epps, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Baltimore, recommended a book called "Evil in Modern Thought," by the philosopher Susan Neiman. Her starting point in discussing how people respond to evil events was the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, and killed at least 15,000 people.

The Lisbon earthquake was so catastrophic that it traumatized all of Europe. The quake itself lasted 10 minutes and buried thousands in the rubble. It was followed by fires that raged across the city and then by a series of tidal waves that ravaged the port and drowned hundreds who had taken refuge on the coast. It seemed obvious to most people, in that religious time, that this devastation of a magnificent city was an act of God -- a terrible punishment for human transgressions. But why Lisbon?

"Orthodox theologians welcomed the earthquake in terms they barely troubled to disguise," writes Neiman. "For years they had battled Deism, natural religion, and anything else that tried to explain the world in natural terms alone." The theologians debated what sins might have brought down so much divine wrath. A few argued that the quake was punishment for Portuguese plunder in the New World and "the millions of poor Indians your forefathers butchered for the sake of gold."

Philosophers, too, struggled to comprehend the meaning of this disaster. Immanuel Kant wrote three essays about earthquakes for a weekly paper in Konigsberg; his main point was that earthquakes didn't happen in Prussia and thus could be explained without divine involvement. Rousseau and Voltaire argued over whether such evil events could be understood at all, says Neiman.

The hero of the Lisbon tale was the man who led the relief efforts, the marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister under King Joseph I of Portugal. Pombal had no use for the anguishing debate. He famously said: "What now? We bury the dead and feed the living." And he did just that, rapidly disposing of the corpses, seizing stocks of grain to feed the hungry and ordering the militia to halt looting and piracy. Within a year, the city was being restored....
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