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Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:00

The best of all possible worlds?

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An earthquake of magnitude 9, a tsunami of 15 metres, conflagration for days. 85 percent of a blossoming metropolis is devastated, 235,000 people killed. A mental shake-up makes the foundations of age-old world views crumble, and when the initial distress dies away the world finds itself undergoing a process of deep rethinking hitherto unseen. 

This is not Fukushima, this is not the "end of the nuclear era" (Der Spiegel). This is Lisbon on the 1st of November 1755, some will later call it the "end of the optimistic enlightenment era" (Ulrich Löffler). But what the historic disaster causes is both a setback and boost of enlightenment thinking. Some of its shock-waves have shaped modern intellectual Europe – and this is mostly for its good. How could that happen?

There have been natural disasters for as long as anyone can remember. But never before had there been so many people in a position to remember. Not only was the tsunami felt all along coasts from South England to North Africa, the shock-waves made Dutch barracks crash to the ground, German lakes slosh around bewilderingly, and Finnish chroniclers stop short. But for the first time in history there were mass media on hand to tell the rest of Europe, in only a few weeks, what had happened. Real and alleged eyewitness accounts from the breaking news of Lisbon quickly circulated throughout most European countries. So did copperplate engravings – produced in a Parisian graphic workshop, where no one had seen the earthquake, on a large and lucrative scale. On the 29th of November, Hamburg reported to Vienna its regrets for the lost trade relations with the devastated transatlantic port of Lisbon and as a consequence ships with relief supplies were sent by Hamburg and England. (Christiane Eifert)

This is the context in which Lisbon, differently to earlier natural catastrophes, could become what it was later seen to be: one of the crucial points within the process of European enlightenment. As people tried to find answers to the terrifying reports and pictures they had been confronted with, the following decades saw a battery of prominent intellectuals and scholars across Europe exploit the catastrophe to raise questions, push ahead with opinions, cement systems or revolutionise them:

  • Are we really living in "the best of all possible worlds"  – as German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) had claimed only decades ago in an confident attempt to keep religion and rationalism together? And if God is both kind and omnipotent, and yet did not stop such a horror from happening, could it be that he doesn't exist?

  • Is it right to discern divine grace, scourge and judgement in such disasters – as a majority of contemporaries still do after the earthquake – and not chance, risk and responsibility instead? Or could there be areas in which religion can claim no sovereignty of interpretation any more? Could there be natural reasons for natural phenomena?

  • Was the disaster the ultimate quashing of a presumptuous civilisation labouring under the illusion that it was overpowering those natural phenomena? Or could a human science and civilisation help to prevent them from causing harm again?

Whether it was the earthquake itself which triggered these discourses, or whether it only fuelled them as a welcome proof which they could all make use of, is a justifiable question (Gerhard Lauer). However, the thoughts and discourses which are at least placed under the heading of the Lisbon catastrophe have proven to be of greater reach for modern Europe. Throughout the next weeks, Culturopolia sets out to explore them.

Last modified on Sunday, 01 May 2011 19:00
Christian Diemer

Christian Diemer, 28, is from Rottweil in South Germany. Having studied musicology, arts management, and composition in Weimar, he is now writing from Berlin and obscure spots in East Europe, where he is currently working on his PhD thesis about traditional music in Ukraine. 

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