Shortly after 9:30, the Portuguese capital was struck by a massive earthquake, followed by a tsunami and widespread fires. This combination and aftershocks left much of the city and surrounding areas a heap of ruins. (Below: contemporary image of the Lisbon Earthquake)
In Lisbon, more than 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed, or severely damaged, including palaces, convents, monasteries, and churches. The Opera House, completed only a few months before, was left a shell.
The human cost was immense. The population of Lisbon in 1755 is estimated to have been around 200,000. Daly estimated the number of deaths at 60,000. Modern estimates vary considerably, between 10,000 and 100,000 for the city and other coastal towns and villages, including some in Spain and Morocco. Whatever the actual toll, the Lisbon earthquake ranks as one of the deadliest events of its kind in recorded history.
The earthquake had hardly finished its destructive work when people began to ask why it happened. A common view was an old favorite: God's judgment on wickedness of the citizens. Father Gabriel Malagrida put it bluntly: The cause of the catastrophe, he told the people of Lisbon, was "your abominable sins." He denounced the view that it was merely a natural event with natural causes. To dismiss it as such would discourage repentance and attempts to "avert the wrath of God."
In the wake of the earthquake these "attempts" included the punishment of heretics and skeptics, some by hanging or burning. (Below: A priest shows the King of Portugal the best way to prevent earthquakes: burn some heretics).
Father Gabriel was, of course, a Roman Catholic, as was nearly everybody in Portugal. But foreign Protestants also attributed the quake to God's righteous anger: in this case anger at persecution of Protestants.
Rev. John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, was certain why God had punished Lisbon: "Is there indeed a God who judges the world? … if so, it is not surprising he should begin there, … where so many brave men have been murdered ... in a most barbarous manner … 'And shall I not visit for these things, saith the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on a city such as this?' (Below: Wesley)
Wesley was referring to persons tortured and executed by the Inquisition in their efforts to eliminate "heresy." Criticism of the Inquisition's deeds also came from another, far different perspective: that of the Enlightenment philosophes. Their main spokesman on this occasion was the French writer, Voltaire.
Voltaire became fascinated, one might say obsessed, by the earthquake. It undermined his previous view, influenced by the German philosopher Leibniz, that the world is good, indeed as good as it can be. If we could understand the Divine Plan, we would see it. Leibniz attempted to provide an answer to what is called the Problem of Evil. How a good and all-powerful God could allow evil to exist in the world. Voltaire had previously accepted that view, called optimism, but he abandoned it after the earthquake.
In 1756, Voltaire published his famous "Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake." In it, he rejects the philosophic optimists' contention that the world is fundamentally good and Christian claims that God punishes people for their sins through natural disasters. Voltaire argues that it is illogical to believe God is both good and omnipotent. In view of the immense suffering in the world, God can't be both. Either he is unwilling to eliminate evil or unable to do so. Voltaire, a deist, opted for the latter: God is good, but not all-powerful. The excerpt below hits some of his main points:
Oh, miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!...
Deluded philosophers who cry, "All is Well"
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins...
One hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth...
Will you say: "This is the result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God?"
Will you say: in seeing this mass of victims
"God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?"
What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!
In 1759, Voltaire published what is his most famous work: Candide; or Optimism. In this short novel, he elaborates on the themes of the Lisbon Earthquake poem. The main character, Candide, begins as an optimist, having been taught by his Leibnizian tutor Dr. Pangloss that this is "the best of all possible worlds." (To be fair, Pangloss's views vastly oversimplify Leibniz's.)
After experiencing and witnessing a multitude of misfortunes, including wars, religious intolerance, horrible cruelty, dishonesty, slavery, and yes, the Lisbon Earthquake, Candide rejects Pangloss's view of the world in favor of a more pragmatic one: the world is far from as good as it could be but if we work together and treat one another with respect, we can make it more tolerable.
(Below: Candide meets a slave in Surinam who has lost a hand in sugar refining machinery and a leg, chopped off as punishment for running away. "This the price of your eating sugar in Europe."
In sum, the Great Lisbon Earthquake was not just a monumental tragedy. It inspired a major discussion about the nature of God and the world, and the causes of evil or suffering within that world. (Below, a German image of the Earthquake).