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In 1755, during the height of the Enlightenment, a major earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal, a major European port. The tremors killed thousands, ravaged a cosmopolitan city, and disrupted commerce throughout Europe.

Its most influential ramifications, however, were ideological: the belief that “all is for the best” in the context of world events seemed unreasonably optimistic as so many men, women, and children lay dead at the hands of an unforeseen disaster. God—if He existed-appeared vengeful or irrational at best, not purely benevolent. Thinkers of every ilk tried to answer the questions, but dispute abounded: Did the people of Lisbon deserve to die? Was the quake, perhaps, an act of mercy saving them from a life of misery and long serving? Did chance or reason rule the world? As men of religion, science, and philosophy struggled to make sense of the disaster by questioning tradition and observation, intellectual crisis reigned.

Many Christian thinkers (notably Gabriel Malagrida and John Wesley) attributed the earthquake to the sinfulness of Lisbon citizens. Corrupted by a decadent, commercial lifestyle, they argued, Lisbon was doomed to suffer Gomorrah’s fate as God punished a deserving city.

Cynics refuted the theologians’ claims of a vengeful god with the charge that, since the world only follows rational, natural laws, the earthquake had to be the product of natural phenomena. God did not intervene in the affairs of humans, Deists like Voltaire argued, and so there could be no great scheme where “all is for the best.”

A third point of view argued that the earthquake was ultimately unexplainable, but that it was, in some greater way, for the best. Whether it was the result of natural laws or divine intervention-both more or less incomprehensible—the earthquake represented something beyond the realm of human understanding. Alexander Pope explained this line of thinking in "An Essay on Man:"

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.

Kagan, Donald et al. The Western Heritage. Prentice-Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ. 1998.

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