The Works of Voltaire/Volume 36/The Lisbon Earthquake

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For other English-language translations of this work, see Poem on the Lisbon Disaster.

3260309The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version with NotesThe Lisbon EarthquakeWilliam F. FlemingVoltaire

the lisbon earthquake.[1]

an inquiry into the maxim, "whatever is, is right."

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
Yon 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?
Was less debauchery to London known,
Where opulence luxurious holds her throne?
Earth Lisbon swallows; the light sons of France
Protract the feast, or lead the sprightly dance.
Spectators who undaunted courage show,
While you behold your dying brethren's woe;
With stoical tranquillity of mind
You seek the causes of these ills to find;
But when like us Fate's rigors you have felt,
Become humane, like us you'll learn to melt.
When the earth gapes my body to entomb,
I justly may complain of such a doom.
Hemmed round on every side by cruel fate,
The snares of death, the wicked's furious hate,
Preyed on by pain and by corroding grief
Suffer me from complaint to find relief.
'Tis pride, you cry, seditious pride that still
Asserts mankind should be exempt from ill.
The awful truth on Tagus' banks explore,
Rummage the ruins on that bloody shore,
Wretches interred alive in direful grave
Ask if pride cries, "Good Heaven thy creatures save."
If 'tis presumption that makes mortals cry,
"Heaven on our sufferings cast a pitying eye."
All's right, you answer, the eternal cause
Rules not by partial, but by general laws.

Say what advantage can result to all,
From wretched Lisbon's lamentable fall?
Are you then sure, the power which could create
The universe and fix the laws of fate,
Could not have found for man a proper place,
But earthquakes must destroy the human race?
Will you thus limit the eternal mind?
Should not our God to mercy be inclined?
Cannot then God direct all nature's course?
Can power almighty be without resource?
Humbly the great Creator I entreat,
This gulf with sulphur and with fire replete,
Might on the deserts spend its raging flame,
God my respect, my love weak mortals claim;
When man groans under such a load of woe,
He is not proud, he only feels the blow.
Would words like these to peace of mind restore
The natives sad of that disastrous shore?
Grieve not, that others' bliss may overflow,
Your sumptuous palaces are laid thus low;
Your toppled towers shall other hands rebuild;
With multitudes your walls one day be filled;
Your ruin on the North shall wealth bestow,
For general good from partial ills must flow;
You seem as abject to the sovereign power,
As worms which shall your carcasses devour.
No comfort could such shocking words impart,
But deeper wound the sad, afflicted heart.
When I lament my present wretched state,
Allege not the unchanging laws of fate;
Urge not the links of the eternal chain,
'Tis false philosophy and wisdom vain.

The God who holds the chain can't be enchained;[2]
By His blest will are all events ordained:

He's just, nor easily to wrath gives way,
Why suffer we beneath so mild a sway:[3]
This is the fatal knot you should untie,
Our evils do you cure when you deny?

Men ever strove into the source to pry,
Of evil, whose existence you deny.
If he whose hand the elements can wield,
To the winds' force makes rocky mountains yield;
If thunder lays oaks level with the plain,
From the bolts' strokes they never suffer pain.
But I can feel, my heart oppressed demands
Aid of that God who formed me with His hands.
Sons of the God supreme to suffer all
Fated alike; we on our Father call.
No vessel of the potter asks, we know,
Why it was made so brittle, vile, and low?
Vessels of speech as well as thought are void;
The urn this moment formed and that destroyed,
The potter never could with sense inspire,
Devoid of thought it nothing can desire.
The moralist still obstinate replies,
Others' enjoyments from your woes arise,
To numerous insects shall my corpse give birth,
When once it mixes with its mother earth:
Small comfort 'tis that when Death's ruthless power
Closes my life, worms shall my flesh devour.
Remembrances of misery refrain
From consolation, you increase my pain:
Complaint, I see, you have with care repressed,
And proudly hid your sorrows in your breast.
But a small part I no importance claim
In this vast universe, this general frame;
All other beings in this world below
Condemned like me to lead a life of woe,
Subject to laws as rigorous as I,
Like me in anguish live and like me die.

The vulture urged by an insatiate maw,
Its trembling prey tears with relentless claw:
This it finds right, endowed with greater powers
The bird of Jove the vulture's self devours.
Man lifts his tube, he aims the fatal ball
And makes to earth the towering eagle fall;
Man in the field with wounds all covered o'er,
Midst heaps of dead lies weltering in his gore,
While birds of prey the mangled limbs devour,
Of Nature's Lord who boasts his mighty power.
Thus the world's members equal ills sustain,
And perish by each other born to pain:
Yet in this direful chaos you'd compose
A general bliss from individuals' woes?
Oh worthless bliss! in injured reason's sight,
With faltering voice you cry, "What is, is right"?
The universe confutes your boasting vain,
Your heart retracts the error you maintain.
Men, beasts, and elements know no repose
From dire contention; earth's the seat of woes:
We strive in vain its secret source to find.
Is ill the gift of our Creator kind?
Do then fell Typhon's cursed laws ordain
Our ill, or Arimanius doom to pain?
Shocked at such dire chimeras, I reject
Monsters which fear could into gods erect.
But how conceive a God, the source of love,
Who on man lavished blessings from above,
Then would the race with various plagues confound,
Can mortals penetrate His views profound?
Ill could not from a perfect being spring,
Nor from another, since God's sovereign king;

And yet, sad truth! in this our world 'tis found,
What contradictions here my soul confound!
A God once dwelt on earth amongst mankind,
Yet vices still lay waste the human mind;
He could not do it, this proud sophist cries,
He could, but he declined it, that replies;
He surely will, ere these disputes have end,
Lisbon's foundations hidden thunders rend,
And thirty cities' shattered remnants fly,
With ruin and combustion through the sky,
From dismal Tagus' ensanguined shore,
To where of Cadiz' sea the billows roar.
Or man's a sinful creature from his birth,
And God to woe condemns the sons of earth;
Or else the God who being rules and space,
Untouched with pity for the human race,
Indifferent, both from love and anger free,
Still acts consistent to His first decree:
Or matter has defects which still oppose
God's will, and thence all human evil flows;
Or else this transient world by mortals trod,
Is but a passage that conducts to God.
Our transient sufferings here shall soon be o'er,
And death will land us on a happier shore.
But when we rise from this accursed abyss,
Who by his merit can lay claim to bliss?
Dangers and difficulties man surround,
Doubts and perplexities his mind confound.
To nature we apply for truth in vain,
God should His will to human kind explain.
He only can illume the human soul,
Instruct the wise man, and the weak console.

Without Him man of error still the sport,
Thinks from each broken reed to find support.
Leibnitz can't tell me from what secret cause
In a world governed by the wisest laws,
Lasting disorders, woes that never end
With our vain pleasures real sufferings blend;
Why ill the virtuous with the vicious shares?
Why neither good nor bad misfortunes spares?
I can't conceive that "what is, ought to be,"
In this each doctor knows as much as me.
We're told by Plato, that man, in times of yore,
Wings gorgeous to his glorious body wore,
That all attacks he could unhurt sustain,
By death ne'er conquered, ne'er approached by pain.
Alas, how changed from such a brilliant state!
He crawls 'twixt heaven and earth, then yields to fate.
Look round this sublunary world, you'll find
That nature to destruction is consigned.
Our system weak which nerves and bone compose,
Cannot the shock of elements oppose;
This mass of fluids mixed with tempered clay,
To dissolution quickly must give way.
Their quick sensations can't unhurt sustain
The attacks of death and of tormenting pain,
This is the nature of the human frame,
Plato and Epicurus I disclaim.
Nature was more to Bayle than either known:
What do I learn from Bayle, to doubt alone?
Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows,
Then his own tenets labors to oppose.
Like the blind slave to Delilah's commands,
Crushed by the pile demolished by his hands.

Mysteries like these can no man penetrate,
Hid from his view remains the book of fate.
Man his own nature never yet could sound,
He knows not whence he is, nor whither bound.[4]
Atoms tormented on this earthly ball,
The sport of fate, by death soon swallowed all,
But thinking atoms, who with piercing eyes
Have measured the whole circuit of the skies;
We rise in thought up to the heavenly throne,
But our own nature still remains unknown.
This world which error and o'erweening pride,
Rulers accursed between them still divide,
Where wretches overwhelmed with lasting woe,
Talk of a happiness they never know,
Is with complaining filled, all are forlorn
In seeking bliss ; none would again be born.
If in a life midst sorrows past and fears,
With pleasure's hand we wipe away our tears,

Pleasure his light wings spreads, and quickly flies,
Losses on losses, griefs on griefs arise.
The mind from sad remembrance of the past,
Is with black melancholy overcast;
Sad is the present if no future state,
No blissful retribution mortals wait,
If fate's decrees the thinking being doom
To lose existence in the silent tomb.
All may be well; that hope can man sustain,
All now is well; 'tis an illusion vain.
The sages held me forth delusive light,
Divine instructions only can be right.
Humbly I sigh, submissive suffer pain,
Nor more the ways of Providence arraign.
In youthful prime I sung in strains more gay,
Soft pleasure's laws which lead mankind astray.
But times change manners; taught by age and care
Whilst I mistaken mortals' weakness share,
The light of truth I seek in this dark state,
And without murmuring submit to fate.
A caliph once when his last hour drew nigh,
Prayed in such terms as these to the most high:
"Being supreme, whose greatness knows no bound,
I bring thee all that can't in Thee be found;
Defects and sorrows, ignorance and woe."
Hope he omitted, man's sole bliss below.


  1. The great earthquake occurred on November 1, 1755. The ruin was instantaneous. Between 30,000 and 40,000 lives were lost in the shock and in the fire.
  2. The universal chain is not, as some have thought, a regular gradation which connects all beings. There is, in all probability, an immense distance between man and beast, as well as between man and substances of a superior nature; there is likewise an infinity between God and all created beings whatever. There are none of these insensible gradations in the globes which move round our sun in their several periods, whether we consider their mass, their distances, or their satellites.

    If we may believe Pope, man is not capable of discovering the reason why the satellites of Jove are less than Jove himself; he is herein mistaken, such an error as this may well be overlooked in so fine a genius. Every smatterer in mathematics could have told Lord Bolingbroke and Mr. Pope, that if the satellites of Jove had equalled him in magnitude, they could not have moved round him; but no mathematician is able to discover the regular gradation in the bodies of the solar system.

    It is not true, that the world could not exist if a single atom was taken from it: This was justly observed by Mr. Crousaz, a learned geometrician, in a tract which he wrote against Pope. He seems to have been right in this point, though he was fully refuted by Mr. Warburton and Mr. Silhouette.

    The concatenation of events was admitted and defended with the utmost ingenuity by the celebrated philosopher Leibnitz; it is worth explaining. All bodies and all events depend upon other bodies and other events. That cannot be denied; but all bodies are not essential to the support of the universe, and the preservation of its order; neither are all events necessary in the general series of events. A drop of water, a grain of sand more or less, can cause no revolution in the general system. Nature is not confined to any determinate quantity, or any determinate form. No planet moves in a curve completely regular; there is nothing in Nature of a figure exactly mathematical; no fixed quantity is required for any operation: Nature is never very strict or rigid in her method of proceeding. It is, therefore, absurd to advance, that the removal of an atom from the earth might be the cause of its destruction.

    This holds, in like manner, with regard to events. The cause of every event is contained in some precedent event; this no philosopher has ever called in question. If Caesar's mother had never gone through the Caesarian operation, Caesar had never subverted the commonwealth; he could
    never have adopted Octavius, and Octavius could never have chosen Tiberius for his successor in the empire. The marriage of Maximilian with the heiress of Burgundy and the Low Countries, gave rise to a war which lasted two hundred years. But Caesar's spitting on the right or left side, or the Duchess of Burgundy's dressing her head in this manner or in that, could have altered nothing in the general plan of Providence.

    It follows, therefore, that there are some events which have consequences and others which have none. Their chain resembles a genealogical tree, some branches of which disappear at the first generation, whilst the race is continued by others. There are many events which pass away without ever generating others. Thus in every machine there are some effects indispensably necessary towards producing motion, and others which are productive of nothing at all. The wheels of a coach make it go; but whether they raise more or less dust, the journey is finished alike. Such is the general order of the world, that the links of the chain would not be in the least discomposed by a small increase or diminution of the quantity of matter, or by an inconsiderable deviation from regularity.

    The chain is not in an absolute plenum; it has been demonstrated that the celestial bodies perform their revolutions in an unresisting medium. Every space is not filled. It follows then, that there is not a progression of bodies from an atom to the most remote fixed star. There may of consequence be immense intervals between beings imbued with sensation, as well as between those that are not. We cannot then be certain, that man must be placed in one of these links joined to another by an uninterrupted connection. That all things are linked together means only that all things are regularly disposed of in their proper order. God is the cause and the regulator of that order. Homer's Jupiter was the slave of destiny; but, according to more rational philosophy, God is the master of destiny. (See Clarke's Treatise "Upon the Existence of God.")
  3. Sub Deo justo nemo miser nisi mereatur.—St. Augustine. The meaning of this ipse dixit of the Saint is, no one is miserable under the government of a just God, without deserving to be so.
  4. It is self-evident, that man cannot acquire this knowledge without assistance. The human mind derives all its knowledge from experience; no experience can give us an insight into what preceded our existence, into what is to follow it, nor into what supports it at present. In what manner have we received life? What is the spring upon which it depends? How is our brain capable of ideas and memory? In what manner do our limbs obey every motion of the will. Of all this we are entirely ignorant. Is our globe the only one that is inhabited? Was it created after other globes, or at the same instant? Does every particular species of plants proceed from a first plant? Is every species of animals produced by two first animals? The most profound philosophers are no more able to solve these questions than the most ignorant of men. All these questions may be reduced to the vulgar proverb: Was the hen before the egg, or the egg before the hen? The proverb is rather low, but it confounds the utmost penetration of human wisdom, which is utterly at a loss with regard to the first principles of things without supernatural assistance.