A devastating earthquake hits Lisbon, Portugal, killing as many as 50,000 people, on this day in 1755. The city was virtually rebuilt from scratch following the widespread destruction.
Lisbon was Portugal’s capital and largest city during the prosperous 18th century, when diamonds and gold from the Portuguese colony in Brazil made many in the country wealthy. About 10 percent of Portugal’s 3 million people lived in Lisbon and, as one of the biggest ports on the Atlantic Ocean, the city played a critical role in world trade. In 1755, Lisbon was also a major center of Catholicism and was home to Catholic religious authorities.
On All Saints Day, three tremors over the course of 10 minutes suddenly struck Lisbon. The worst of the quakes is thought to have had a magnitude of 8.0, though this is just an estimate as no recording equipment existed at the time. The shaking was felt as far away as Morocco.
The devastating effects of the earthquake were felt throughout the city. Close to the coast, a 20-foot tsunami rushed ashore and killed thousands. Many people were observing All Saints Day in churches at the time and died when the buildings collapsed. Fires broke out all over the city and winds spread the flames quickly.
Religious authorities proclaimed that the earthquake was caused by the wrath of God, brought on the city because of its sins.
Voltaire responded to that claim with his Poem:
- 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.
- 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
In today's world it is at least within our grasp to get a hold of more information on what is happening around the world.
But even with the information age we do not even begin to touch the total elemental drama that goes on. Each day there is a new tragedy or horrific event that underlines the ever present danger and fragility for a primate species living on a rock in space going around a nuclear fire ball we call the Sun. Viral infections, flesh eating bacteria, children with cancer, tsunamis and earthquakes that kill thousands upon thousands, genocide, suicide, and accidents that take us out in ridiculous fashion from choking on food or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Death may tarry for you but it will not wait forever.
People who point to this are sometimes maligned as debbie downers or overly pessimistic thinkers but the most pessimistic thinker cannot even grasp or come close to absorbing the day to day drama that goes on Planet Earth.
Give me the most pessimistic Schopenhauer and the most stoic Epictetus and have them face the total elemental drama each day on earth and like Medusa it would turn them to stone and the shock would break them into a thousand pieces. And that is just a journey through today's drama on Earth. Human beings are not made to absorb it all and must partialize the world to operate in it.
Imagine trying to cover the history of human civilization and then try to absorb the natural history of hundreds of millions of years of that type of activity on this Planet! This is beyond human brain capability especially in our day to day lives.
People do not even have the imagination for their own reality much less the immense variety of life and history of life. You can see this list and go over some of the natural disasters and the numbers of victims in your head but it is hard to really grasp it for each individual caught in the way of nature's force. As the infamous saying goes, "One life is a tragedy, one million a statistic." The sad truth is that we can touch the numbers but can never grasp it. Sade exclaimed "What is all the worlds suffering to just one of my desires." We condemn Sade but sadly his solipsism is more common than we would like to admit. One could add to the solipsistic Sade "What is all the worlds suffering to just one of our ideologies?"
We protect our sacred ideologies by ignoring the reality in front of our nose. We make light of the real victims of cruel fate and their suffering to protect our imaginary gods. The Earth could swallow a million children today and the dogmatic will still state "All is well." To paraphrase Becker we stand over a grotesque amount of corpses and suffering and declare life good.
Stephen Colbert in one of his ironic comic bits wagged his finger at Death for not respecting the sanctity of life.
As Camus stated that which exalts life adds to its absurdity. You can deny death by exclaiming you are immortal but I can take you to the local hospital or nursing home and you will see in some cases that the brain, personality, or soul if you will is no longer in tact and is no longer there...why would it survive the complete death of the body if it cannot even survive it while the heart and blood still pumps?
I think for humans to even begin reach our full potential on empathy and compassion we need to start with the axiom " all is fragile" instead of "all is well."