A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Voltaire on an earthquake and its tsunami.....

In 1756, F. M. A. de Voltaire wrote his famous work entitled Poèmes sur le Dèsastre de Lisbonne et sur La Loi Naturelle avec des Prefaces, des Notes etc. (Genève, n.d. [1756]). In the light of our current calamity in the Indian Ocean, I thought it would be of value to reprint a translation of this masterpiece taken from Selected Works of Voltaire (edited and translated by Joseph McCabe, Watts and Co., London, 1911. See for further details: 'Voltaire: Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756)', University of Essex).

The earthquake in question began around 9:30 am on November 1st, 1755, and its epicentre was in the Atlantic Ocean, some 200 km W.S.W. of the Cape St. Vincent [for a full account, see this excellent essay: 'Historical depictions of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake' (NISEE, University of California at Berkeley, on which I have based these general notes)]. The worst damage occurred in the south-west of Portugal and at Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, which, at the time, was one of the largest and most beautiful cities in Europe, with a population estimated at around 275,000. A truly devastating fire following the earthquake ravaged much of the town

But, as in the Indian Ocean, tsunami also caused massive devastation along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco. And, likewise paralleling the Indian ocean event, it is believed that the Lisbon earthquake would have measured around 9 on the Richter scale.

Immediately after the earthquake, many inhabitants of Lisbon looked for safety on the sea by boarding ships that were moored on the river Tagus. Then, about 30 minutes after the shock, an enormous wave swamped the area near to the Bugie Tower on the mouth of the river. The district between Junqueria and Alcantara in the western part of the city was heavily damaged, with further destruction occurring upstream. The Cais de Pedra at Rerreiro do Paco and part of the nearby custom house were flattened. In all, a total of three waves struck, each dragging people and debris out to sea and leaving exposed wide stretches of the river bottom. In front of the Terreiro do Paco, the maximum height of the waves was estimated at 6 metres. Boats, severely overcrowded with people fleeing the city, capsized and sank. In the town Cascais, some 30 km to the west of Lisbon, the waves wrecked boats and, when the water withdrew, large stretches of the sea bottom were left uncovered. In coastal areas such as Peniche, situated about 80 km north of Lisbon, many people were killed by the tsunami. In Setubal, 30 km south of Lisbon, the water reached the first floor of buildings.

The destruction was severest in the Algarve, in southern Portugal, where the tsunami dismantled coastal fortresses and, in the lower levels, razed houses. In some places, the waves crested at more than 30 m. Almost all the coastal towns and villages of the Algarve were heavily battered, except Faro, which was protected by sandy banks. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. Thus, for coastal regions, the destructive effects of the tsunami were far more disastrous than those of the initiating earthquake.

In southwestern Spain, the tsunami caused damage to Cadiz and Huelva, and the waves penetrated the Guadalquivir River, reaching right up to Seville. In Gibraltar, the sea rose suddenly by two metres. In Ceuta, the tsunami was strong, but in the Mediterranean Sea, it decreased rapidly. On the other hand, it caused great damage and casualties on the western coast of Morocco, from Tangier, where the waves reached the walled fortifications of the town, to Agadir, where the waters passed over the walls, killing many.

The tsunami reached, with less intensity, the coasts of France, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium and Holland. In Madeira, and in the Azores, damage was extensive. The tsunami further crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching the Antilles by the afternoon. Reports from Antigua, Martinique, and Barbados record that the sea first rose more than a metre, followed by large waves.

The death toll in Portugal alone from the November 1st, 1755, earthquake is estimated to have been 60,000.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, and once more just like the Indian Ocean earthquake and its resultant tsunami, this catastrophic event challenged both traditional faith and enlightenment beliefs in an ordered and predictable universe. In the 'Preface' to his work, Voltaire wrote with his trade-mark irony:

"The author of the poem on The Disaster of Lisbon is not an adversary of the illustrious Pope, whom he has always admired and loved: he thinks like him on practically all matters; but, pierced to the heart by the misfortunes of mankind, he wishes to attack the abuse that can be made of that ancient axiom ‘All is for the best’. He adopts in its place that sad and more ancient truth, recognised by all men, that ‘There is evil upon the earth’; he declares that the phrase ‘All is for the best’, taken in a strict sense and without hope of a future life, is merely an insult to the miseries of our existence."

Voltaire's poem generated a serious controversy with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in a lengthy Reply to M. de Voltaire, explained Voltaire's pessimism as the product of the unnatural and unhealthy life of the pampered and privileged intellectual. By contrast, ask a humble craftsman or a Swiss peasant whether evil predominated over good in human life, as Voltaire suggested, and you would get a very different answer. I doubt it around the shores of the Indian Ocean today.

Here, then, is Voltaire's original poem, in translation [far less well-known, of course, than Candide - see 'Voltaire's Life and Works' (Encyclopedia.com)]:

'UNHAPPY mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

When earth its horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"Tis pride," ye say— "the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house, of grief,
Whether ‘tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All’s well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?
Are ye so sure the great eternal cause,
That knows all things, and for itself creates,
Could not have placed us in this dreary clime
Without volcanoes seething ‘neath our feet?
Set you this limit to the power supreme?
Would you forbid it use its clemency?
Are not the means of the great artisan
Unlimited for shaping his designs?
The master I would not offend, yet wish
This gulf of fire and sulphur had outpoured
Its baleful flood amid the desert wastes.
God I respect, yet love the universe.
Not pride, alas, it is, but love of man,3
To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.
Would it console the sad inhabitants
Of these aflame and desolated shores
To say to them: "Lay down your lives in peace;
For the world’s good your homes are sacrificed;
Your ruined palaces shall others build,
For other peoples shall your walls arise;
The North grows rich on your unhappy loss;
Your ills are but a link In general law;
To God you are as those low creeping worms
That wait for you in your predestined tombs"?
What speech to hold to victims of such ruth!
Add not, such cruel outrage to their pain.
Nay, press not on my agitated heart
These iron and irrevocable laws,
This rigid chain of bodies, minds, and worlds.
Dreams of the bloodless thinker are such thoughts.
God holds the chain: is not himself enchained;
By indulgent choice is all arranged;
Implacable he’s not, but free and just.
Why suffer we, then, under one so just?
There is the knot your thinkers should undo.
Think ye to cure our ills denying them?
All peoples, trembling at the hand of God,
Have sought the source of evil in the world.
When the eternal law that all things moves
Doth hurl the rock by impact of the winds,
With lightning rends and fires the sturdy oak,
They have no feeling of the crashing blows;
But I, I live and feel, my wounded heart
Appeals for aid to him who fashioned it.
Children of that Almighty Power, we stretch
Our hands in grief towards our common sire.
The vessel, truly, is not heard to say:
"Why should I be so vile, so coarse, so frail?"
Nor speech nor thought is given unto it.
The urn that, from the potter’s forming hand,
Slips and is shattered has no living heart
That yearns for bliss and shrinks from misery.
"This misery," ye say, "Is others’ good."
Yes; from my mouldering body shall be born
A thousand worms, when death has closed my pain.
Fine consolation this in my distress!
Grim speculators on the woes of men,
Ye double, not assuage, my misery.
In you I mark the nerveless boast of pride
That hides its ill with pretext of content.
I am a puny part of the great whole.
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law,
Suffer like me, and like me also die.
The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.

Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, "All’s well,"
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a, hundred times your mind’s conceit.
All dead and living things are locked in strife.
Confess it freely -- evil stalks the land
Its secret principle unknown to us.
Can it be from the author of all good?
Are we condemned to weep by tyrant law
Of black Typhon or barbarous Ahriman?
These odious monsters, whom a trembling world
Made gods, my spirit utterly rejects.
But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!

O wondrous mingling of diversities!

A God came down to lift our stricken race:
He visited the earth, and changed it not!
One sophist says he had not power to change;
"He had," another cries, "but willed it not:
In time he will, no doubt." And, while they prate
The hidden thunders, belched from undergound,
Fling wide the ruins of a hundred towns
Across the smiling face of Portugal.
God either smites the inborn guilt of man,
Or, arbitrary lord of space and time,
Devoid alike of pity and of wrath,
Pursues the cold designs he has conceived.
Or else this formless stuff, recalcitrant,
Bears in itself inalienable faults;
Or else God tries us, and this mortal life
Is but the passage to eternal spheres.
‘Tis transitory pain we suffer here,
And death its merciful deliverance.
Yet, when this dreadful passage has been,
Who will contend he has deserved the crown?
Whatever side we take we needs must groan;
Nature is dumb, in vain appeal to it,
The human race demans a word of God.

‘Tis his alone to illustrate his work,
Console the weary, and illume the wise.
Without him man, to doubt and error doomed,
Finds not a reed that he may lean upon.
From Leibniz learn we not by what unseen
Bonds, in this best of all imagined worlds,
Endless disorder, chaos of distress,
Must mix our little pleasures thus with pain:
Nor why the guilt1ess suffer all this woe
In common with the most abhorrent guilt.
‘Tis mockery to tell me all is well.
Like learned doctors, nothing do I know.
Plato has said that men did once have wings
And bodies proof against all mortal ill;
That pain and death were strangers to their world.
How have we fallen from that high estate!
Man crawls and dies: all is but born to die:
The world’s the empire of destructiveness.
This frail construction of quick nerves and bones
Cannot sustain the shock of elements;
This temporary blend of blood and dust
Was put together only to dissolve;
This prompt and vivid sentiment of nerve
Was made for pain, the minister of death:
Thus in my ear does nature’s message run.
Plato and Epicurus I reject,
And turn more hopefully to learned Bayle.
With even poised scale Bayle bids me doubt
He, wise enough and great to need no creed,
Has slain all system -- combats even himself:
Like that blind conqueror of Philistines,
He sinks beneath the ruin he has wrought.
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ouselves we never see, or come to know.
This world, this theatre of pride and wrong,
Swarms with sick fools who talk of happiness.
With plaints and groans they follow up the quest,
To die reluctant, or be born again.
At fitful moments in our pain-racked life
The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears;
But pleasure passes like a fleeting shade,
And leaves a legacy of pain and loss.
The past for us is but a fond regret,
The present grim, unless the future’s clear.
If thought must end in darkness of the tomb,
All will be well one day — so runs our hope.
All now is well, is but an ideal dream.
The wise deceive me: God alone is right.
With lowly sighing, subject in my pain,
I do not fling myself ‘gainst Providence.
Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure’s genial rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age,
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.
A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
"To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin."
He might have added one thing further — hope.'

Now see: 'How can religious people explain something like this?' (The Guardian, December 28).


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