Critical Essays Poème Sur Le Désastre De Lisoonne


On November 1, 1755, a terrifying earthquake occurred in Portugal and Spain. It occasioned the greatest of suffering in at least twenty towns and cities; hardest hit was Lisbon. An estimated number of 30,000 to 40,000 people were killed in the catastrophe, 15,000 of them in the city of Lisbon, where the destruction to property was appalling. Inevitably this event posed a most serious problem for the theologians and those who subscribed to the philosophy of optimism. The former, depending upon the concept of Original Sin and present-day wickedness, attributed the earthquake to God's wrath visited upon sinful people. The Protestant clergy in Northern Europe argued that the quake had occurred because most of the people of Lisbon were Roman Catholics. Among the Catholics, the anti-Jesuit and pro-Jansenists especially were vocal. And in Portugal's capital city, the clergy believed that the shock was the result of divine anger at the presence of Protestants. Alleged heretics were forcibly baptized, and an auto-da-fé was instituted with the aim of preventing more earthquakes. Voltaire was pre-eminent among the philosophes who sought another answer.

We have seen that Voltaire's pessimism had become more pronounced as the years advanced. Long before the earthquake, he had rejected general optimism. Among other things, his attitude, no doubt, had been influenced by his age and continued illness, the death of Mme. du Châtelet, the Berlin-Frankfort experience, and his rejection by Louis XV and the court that had led to his exile in Switzerland. There was also the outbreak of the Seven Years War. But for Voltaire, the great earthquake provided incontrovertible proof that the tout est bien doctrine was nonsense. All thinking people, he was convinced, would no longer look for a safe life in this world under the guidance of a benign and concerned deity who would reward the virtuous. Voltaire was more than ever sure that accident played a major part in life, that people were basically weak, helpless, ignorant of their destiny. They might well hope for a happier state, but that was the logical limit of their optimism.

Voltaire's correspondence immediately following the earthquake provides complete evidence of the extent of his concern. On November 24, 1755, he wrote to one of the Tronchin brothers in Lyon that it now would be hard to see how the laws of motion lead to such awful catastrophes in the "best of all possible worlds." Again he commented how mere chance often determined the fate of the individual. He wondered what the clergy would say, especially the officials of the Inquisition, if their palace still stood in Lisbon. Voltaire expressed the hope that the Inquisitors had been crushed like the others, for that would teach humanity a lesson in tolerance: the Inquisitors burn some fanatics, but the earth swallows the holy man and heretic alike. In a letter to M. Bertrand, dated four days later, he again discussed the earthquake and asked whether Alexander Pope would have dared to say that all is well if he had been in Lisbon on the fateful day. In other letters, Voltaire also challenged both philosophy and religion.

Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne was written during the early days of December 1755. It was a work of accretion, the final version published in 1756 one hundred and eighty lines in length.

Voltaire's poem properly may be called an indispensable introduction to Candide; in both works he came to grips with reality. Practically every question advanced in the poem appears at least implicitly in the prose tale. Both are savage attacks upon optimism. Aside from form and medium, the essential difference between the two works lies in the fact that irony, mockery, ridicule, high spirits, and broad humor have no place in the poem. Voltaire was deadly serious throughout, and the tone is one of deep pity for the lot of humanity in a world where both the innocent and the guilty are pawns of fate.

Quite as interesting as the poem itself is the preface that Voltaire provided. In the words of Ira O. Wade, "He seems here to have bundled together the ideas of Plato, Pope, Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, and Leibnitz and to have labelled the package Tout est bien." He emphatically renounced Alexander Pope and endorsed the skeptical views of Pierre Bayle. He argued that the English poet's belief in optimism set up a fatalistic system which demolished a whole category of widely accepted ideas such as that relating to free will. If indeed this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire continued, there was no such thing as Original Sin; human nature could not be corrupt and it follows that humanity has no need for a Redeemer. Recall that this is the point made at the end of Chapter 5 in Candide, wherein Pangloss engaged in a colloquy with "a familiar of the Inquisition." Voltaire also declared that if all misfortunes contribute to the general good, humanity has no need for future happiness and should not seek to find out the causes of moral and physical evil. Moreover, if such is the case, man is as unimportant in the eyes of God as are the very animals that seek to devour him. And this, of course, is the complete negation of the dignity of man. To Voltaire, man was not part of a chain, assigned a place in the hierarchical scheme of things: at least he had hope in the future. Voltaire also opposed the idea of a logical chain of events; the earthquake provided sufficient evidence for him to reject the concept of universal order which was an uninterrupted succession and a necessity. Neither Pangloss nor his pupil could subscribe to their creator's point of view. Voltaire concluded that optimism, so far from being a source of comfort, was a creed of despair.

The poem is available in an excellent translation by Tobias Smollett and others in The Works of Voltaire (Paris, 1901), from which quotations are made. It is the humanitarian Voltaire, a man deeply moved, who posed the question, can we indeed say that innocent victims were being punished for sin by a just God?

     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?

     Was less debauchery to London known,

     Where opulence luxurious holds the throne?

He rejected the charge that selfishness and pride had made him rebel against suffering:

     When the earth gapes my body to entomb,

     I justly may complain of such a doom.

Why, asked Voltaire, could not an omnipotent God achieve His purpose in another way? The earthquake could have occurred in some distant unpopulated area. And should one conclude that the victims should die consoled by the thought that the terrifying event occurred for the general good? God he respected, but he loved weak mortals.

In the poem, as in the preface, Voltaire rejected the doctrine of necessity; it provided no comfort for him. He came close to absolute despair when he wrote that all living things seem to be doomed to live in a cruel world, one of pain and slaughter. How then could one believe in providentialism? How could one say Tout est bien? Voltaire's frightening conclusion is that man knows nothing, that nature has no message for us, that God does not speak to him. Man is a weak, groping creature whose body will decay and whose fate is to experience one grief after another:

     We rise in thought to the heavenly throne,

     But our own nature still remains unknown.

Recall the pessimistic reply of the dervish to Pangloss, who expressed the desire to probe the meaning of life and man's destiny.

Voltaire sent a copy of the poem to Jean Jacques Rousseau. The answer he received is that which would be expected from the man who was confident that nature was beneficent and who endorsed providentialism. Rousseau's letter was sent on August 18, 1756. He criticized Voltaire for seeking to apply science to spiritual questions, and he argued (as all optimists did) that evil is necessary to the existence of the universe and that particular evils form the general good. Rousseau implied that Voltaire must either renounce the concept of Providence or conclude that it is, in the last analysis, beneficial. Voltaire avoided controversy with the man who was to become his leading adversary; he pleaded illness. The particular significance of all this is that Rousseau, as he tells us in the Confessions, remained convinced that Voltaire had written Candide as a rebuttal to the argument he had made.