The Works of Voltaire/Volume 36/Author's Preface

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Akron, Ohio: The Warner Company, pages 5–7

author's preface to the lisbon
earthquake.


If the question concerning physical evil ever deserves the attention of men, it is in those melancholy events which put us in mind of the weakness of our nature; such as plagues, which carry off a fourth of the inhabitants of the known world; the earthquake which swallowed up four hundred thousand of the Chinese in 1699, that of Lima and Callao, and, in the last place, that of Portugal and the kingdom of Fez. The maxim, "whatever is, is right," appears somewhat extraordinary to those who have been eye-witnesses of such calamities. All things are doubtless arranged and set in order by Providence, but it has long been too evident, that its superintending power has not disposed them in such a manner as to promote our temporal happiness.

When the celebrated Pope published his "Essay on Man," and expounded in immortal verse the systems of Leibnitz, Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Bolingbroke, his system was attacked by a multitude of divines of a variety of different communions. They were shocked at the novelty of the propositions, "whatever is, is right"; and that "man always enjoys that measure of happiness which is suited to his being." There are few writings that may not be condemned, if considered in one light, or approved of, if considered in another. It would be much more reasonable to attend only to the beauties and improving parts of a work, than to endeavor to put an odious construction on it; but it is one of the imperfections of our nature to put a bad interpretation on whatever has a dubious sense, and to run down whatever has been successful.

In a word, it was the opinion of many, that the axiom, "whatever is, is right," was subversive of all our received ideas. If it be true, said they, that whatever is, is right, it follows that human nature is not degenerated. If the general order requires that everything should be as it is, human nature has not been corrupted, and consequently could have had no occasion for a Redeemer. If this world, such as it is, be the best of systems possible, we have no room to hope for a happy future state. If the various evils by which man is overwhelmed, end in general good, all civilized nations have been wrong in endeavoring to trace out the origin of moral and physical evil. If a man devoured by wild beasts, causes the well-being of those beasts, and contributes to promote the orders of the universe; if the misfortunes of individuals are only the consequence of this general and necessary order, we are nothing more than wheels which serve to keep the great machine in motion; we are not more precious in the eyes of God, than the animals by whom we are devoured.

These are the inferences which were drawn from Mr. Pope's poem; and these very conclusions increased the sale and success of the work. But it should have been seen from another point of view. Readers should have considered the reverence for the Deity, the resignation to His supreme will, the useful morality, and the spirit of toleration, which breathe through this excellent poem. This the public has done, and the work being translated by men equal to the task, has completely triumphed over critics, though it turned on matters of so delicate a nature.

It is the nature of over violent censurers to give importance to the opinions which they attack. A book is railed at on account of its success, and a thousand errors are imputed to it. What is the consequence of this? Men, disgusted with these invectives, take for truths the very errors which these critics think they have discovered. Cavillers raise phantoms on purpose to combat them, and indignant readers embrace these very phantoms.

Critics have declared that Pope and Leibnitz maintain the doctrine of fatality; the partisans of Leibnitz and Pope have said on the other hand that, if Leibnitz and Pope have taught the doctrine of fatality, they were in the right, and all this invincible fatality we should believe.

Pope had advanced that "whatever is, is right," in a sense that might very well be admitted, and his followers maintain the same proposition in a sense that may very well be contested.

The author of the poem, "The Lisbon Earthquake," does not write against the illustrious Pope, whom he always loved and admired; he agrees with him in almost every particular, but compassionating the misery of man; he declares against the abuse of the new maxim, "whatever is, is right." He maintains that ancient and sad truth acknowledged by all men, that there is evil upon earth; he acknowledges that the words "whatever is, is right," if understood in a positive sense, and without any hopes of a happy future state, only insult us in our present misery.

If, when Lisbon, Moquinxa, Tetuan, and other cities were swallowed up with a great number of their inhabitants in the month of November, 1759, philosophers had cried put to the wretches, who with difficulty escaped from the ruins, "all this is productive of general good; the heirs of those who have perished will increase their fortune; masons will earn money by rebuilding the houses, beasts will feed on the carcasses buried under the ruins; it is the necessary effect of necessary causes; your particular misfortune is nothing, it contributes to universal good," such a harangue would doubtless have been as cruel as the earthquake was fatal, and all that the author of the poem upon the destruction of Lisbon has said amounts only to this.

He acknowledges with all mankind that there is evil as well as good on the earth; he owns that no philosopher has ever been able to explain the nature of moral and physical evil. He asserts that Bayle, the greatest master of the art of reasoning that ever wrote, has only taught to doubt, and that he combats himself; he owns that man's understanding is as weak as his life is miserable. He lays a concise abstract of the several different systems before his readers. He says that Revelation alone can untie the great knot which philosophers have only rendered more puzzling; and that nothing but the hope of our existence being continued in a future state can console us under our present misfortunes; that the goodness of Providence is the only asylum in which man can take refuge in the darkness of reason, and in the calamities to which his weak and frail nature is exposed.

P.S. -- Readers should always distinguish between the objections which an author proposes to himself and his answers to those objections, and should not mistake what he refutes for what he adopts.