Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On the Earthquake

In this moment of tragedy, hearts and thoughts turn immediately to the people of Haiti and their plight.

The historian may be forgiven if his thoughts turn next to a similar tragedy of an earlier age: the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1 November 1755, which killed some 30,000 to 40,000 people. The incident provoked an outpouring of sentiment and reflection, most famously, that of Voltaire. An excerpt from the opening of his poem:
Oh wretched man, earth-fated to be cursed,
Abyss of plagues, and miseries the worst!
Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man's the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain.
Approach in crowds, and meditate awhile
You shattered walls, and view each ruined pile,
Women and children heaped up mountain high,
Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;
Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,
Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,
Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,
And end their wretched lives in torments dire.
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers' bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?

"The Lisbon Earthquake. An Inquiry Into the Maxim, 'Whatever Is, is Right.'"

The Portable Voltaire, ed. Ben Ray Redman (Harmondsworth and NY: Viking Penguin, 1977)

Voltaire, like many of his contemporaries, was concerned with the problem of theodicy. Or—to use our contemporary idiom—if there is a just and all-powerful God, why do bad things happen to good people? He could not accept a theology according to which every good or bad occurrence had its place in a system of divine reward and punishment. (In fairness, Voltaire oversimplified both traditional theology and the Leibnizian philosophy of the "best of all possible worlds," which he mercilessly lampooned in Candide, four years later.)

Fortunately, although Voltaire's query still commands our philosophical attention, we are, thanks to modern science, beyond the view that he castigated. The human tragedy is timeless.

It is sad but telling that most of us know Haiti only as a land of immense poverty rather than as the birthplace of Black liberty in the era of the French Revolution, the second democratic republic in the western Hemisphere.

* * *
As chance would have it (just chance, no divine purpose), Smith College recently announced a special guest lecture on the Haitian Revolution:

Leslie M. Alexander, Associate Professor of History, Ohio State University
"The Black Republic: The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Black Political Consciousness, 1817-1861"

Dr. Alexander is a specialist in African American and American history. Her first monograph, entitled African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, explores Black culture, identity, and political activism during the early national and antebellum eras. Her current research project, tentatively titled "The Cradle of Hope: African American Internationalism in the Nineteenth Century,” is an exploration of early African American foreign policy.

Monday, February 8, 2010
4:30 p.m.
Smith College
Neilson Library Browsing RoomAlign Center

Fortunately, but sadly, it will now attract a much larger audience than it would have, had it been scheduled for a month earlier.

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