Lisbon and philosophical tremors

March 3, 2024

Lisbon had a role in the battle of ideas triggered by a cataclysmic event

Lisbon and  philosophical tremors


his article is a part of a series of travel writing that will explore contributions of various cities and societies towards philosophy. In a sense, it takes sights of different cities and countries as its starting point, then travels towards the mind to get insights into the history of ideas. This article has reflections on the city of Lisbon and its role in the battle of ideas triggered by a cataclysmic event in Portugal’s early modern period.

A visit to Lisbon during winter provides respite from the cold weather of Northern and Central Europe. There are sunny days, verdant greenery, street music, public spaces and open-air eateries. Lisbon is situated in the Western Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and the Tagus River. The winding lanes and pastel-coloured buildings and hills enhance its beauty and appeal. Though geographically it is situated on the margins of the south-western tip of Europe, it was a bustling commercial centre during the Sixteenth Century when it received riches from Portuguese colonies in Africa, the Far East, South America and India. However, there is another dimension to Lisbon that has been overlooked in the touristic gaze and trope. It triggered a philosophical debate about the causes of natural disasters, religion, morality and urbanisation.

Lisbon and  philosophical tremors

On November 1, 1755, the city of Lisbon was hit by a deadly earthquake in the morning, followed by a massive tsunami and fire. This resulted in the death of 70,000 to 100,000 people. The earthquake and consequent disasters destroyed eighty-five per cent of the buildings of the bustling imperial city of Portugal. In the Sixteenth-Century Portugal, religion informed the worldview of the people, predominantly Catholic. It was also a time of altercation for the control of power between the religious group of Jesuits order, aristocratic cliques and politicians, especially the all-powerful first minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, alias the Marques de Pombal.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake elicited different responses from religious authorities, politicians and philosophers. Prominent figures of the Jesuits order called the earthquake a punishment by God for the sins of the people of Lisbon. Gabriel Malagrida published a pamphlet explaining the “True Cause of the Earthquake Suffered by the Court of Lisbon.” His diagnosis and suggested cures have an uncanny affinity with the attitudes of the clergy in contemporary Pakistan. Instead of reconstruction and rehabilitation, Malagrida proposed ceremonies of penitence and processions. This attitude was at odds with the enlightened views of Pombal, who looked at the earthquake simply as a disaster, not as a moral phenomenon. That is why he ordered to “bury the dead and feed the living.”

Lisbon and  philosophical tremors

On an intellectual level, the Great Lisbon Earthquake jolted many thinkers and compelled them to reflect on natural disasters from a philosophical angle. Prominent philosophical figures in the debate regarding the causes of the Lisbon disaster were Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Like most of the philosophers of the time, Voltaire believed in deism and theodicy propounded by the scientist Isaac Newton and philosopher Leibniz, respectively. Deism considers God to be the prime mover who has created a perfect world and does not interfere in it. Leibnitz’s theodicy claims that this world is “the best of the possible worlds,” chosen by a benevolent deity.

The aporia in our society is due to our tendency to escape from reality and taking refuge in insomnia, apathy and subterfuges. Thus, we remain in constant torpor and no natural convulsions and philosophical tremors can awaken us.

The tremors generated by the earthquake shook the solid foundation of Voltaire’s philosophy of optimism and view of the benevolent world. After witnessing the death and destruction, he wrote his famous Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, expressing his philosophical ideas in poetry. The subtitle of the poem, An Examination of the Axiom: All is Well, is instructive as it shows that Voltaire attempted to destroy the optimistic axiom of deism. In the poem, he calls upon the ‘deceived’ philosophers to behold the fate of Lisbon. Voltaire was of the view that no theological principles of eternal and necessary laws of theodicy nor of moral retribution could justify the destruction of innocent children, men and women. In pain, he asks:

“What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

The Lisbon disaster is the point where we can see a shift of tectonic plates of thought in Voltaire. He moves from an enchanted view of deism towards a disenchanted view of the Enlightenment. However, Voltaire’s was a philosophical approach that criticised the approaches that attribute disaster to sins and posit a benevolent view of the world. Responding to his poem, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a letter to Voltaire. Unlike his typical romantic approach, Rousseau seems to be not much concerned with the theological and philosophical arguments and counter-arguments of the debate. Rather, he takes a very practical approach. Despite being in a new territory of thought to explore, his analysis of the Lisbon disaster is informed by his view that deems all inequalities, irregularities in the system and harmful practices created by the civilisation. In his poem, Voltaire wishes that an earthquake occur in the desert:

Lisbon and  philosophical tremors

“The master I would not offend, yet wish
This gulf of fire and sulphur had outpoured
Its baleful flood amid the desert wastes.

Rousseau tells Voltaire that earthquakes take place everywhere, including deserts, but they do not wreak havoc there because there were no human structures and dwellings. Rousseau held the existing civilisation, its social structures and the cities humans had erected responsible for the death and destruction. He is of the view that most of the physical ills of humans are their own work. Thus, he appears to be blaming the social patterns and behaviours rather than a supernatural being or sins.

Explicating his views about the connection between social systems and physical infrastructures, and disaster he writes, “Nature did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories there (in Lisbon). If the inhabitants of this great city had been more equally spread out and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less, and perhaps of no account.” He mocks at the values of the bourgeoisie and people of Lisbon who instead of fleeing from the earthquake at the first disturbance, exposed themselves to new quakes, “because what is left behind is worth more than what can be brought along.” Rousseau questions this attitude; “how many unfortunate people have perished in this disaster because of one wanting to take his clothes, another his papers, another his money?” His approach to the Lisbon earthquake brought up the issues of the relationship between constructed dwellings and natural disasters for the first time in intellectual history. Unlike his romantic view of life in nature, his ideas provided practical cues for rethinking and rebuilding a built environment. At a personal level, his approach informed an anthropological study of recreation of risks in Northern Pakistan carried out by this scribe a decade ago.

The Lisbon disaster also attracted the attention of another intellectual giant of the Enlightenment period – Immanuel Kant. In the wake of the Lisbon earthquake, Kant wrote a journal exploring the causes of the earthquake. Thereafter, he produced two other journals as sequel, though all of them were published posthumously. In his exploration of the causes of geological convulsions, Kant focuses on geological causes, not the metaphysical or moral universe. He attributes earthquakes to subterranean activity of forces such as gases and the collapsing of caverns beneath the earth. Although Kant’s theories were refuted by scientific discoveries later, he paved the way for the emergence of the discipline of seismology.

A hallmark of a conscientious and conscious society is that it starts soul-searching whenever it faces a tragedy. The ideas generated by a natural catastrophe in the Sixteenth-Century Europe show awakened minds reflecting on the events occurring in their time and space. Learning lessons from the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1551, the architects of Lisbon laid new foundations for the city based on new ideas about urbanisation, society and built environment emerging from the new philosophical debates raging in Europe not on the regurgitated ideas, received knowledge and tried and tested formulas.

Compared to the Sixteenth-Century Portugal, it seems that we still live in the dark ages. The darkness in our minds can be seen from our attitudes towards the great earthquake in Azad Kashmir and Northern Pakistan in 2005 and the super floods in 2010. On both occasions, the clergy blamed these tragedies on the vices and sins of the society. They had little empathy for the thousands of children who perished under the roofs of their schools. Despite their faith in the strong causal link between sins and their nemesis in the shape of disasters, they could not explain the reason for the destruction of hundreds of mosques in the cataclysm. There are strong parallels between the earthquakes of Lisbon in 1551 and Azad Kashmir in 2005. In Lisbon, the tragedy struck the city on the Catholic holiday of All Saints Day. It resulted in the destruction of all the major churches. It is reported that the brothel houses survived the cataclysm. Despite being in the lap of providence, the Jesuits leader Gabriel Malagrida, who declared that the earthquake was wrath of God against sins, could not save himself from the political scheming. He was executed in 1758 on the charges of a failed attempt at regicide.

Tragically, instead of learning from the cataclysmic events in history, most people in Pakistan are prone to repeat their mistakes. Remember the words of Karl Marx, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Though we do not have the mind to come up with new ideas that can explain our condition and existence in the physical and intellectual world, we have flair for proving the philosophical prognosis right. This was proven in 2016 when, after the tragic crash of an Islamabad-bound ATR 42 aircraft of PIA from Chitral, which killed 47 people. On the heels of that accident, the ATR fleet was grounded for tests by aviation authorities. After a few weeks, when the aircraft was declared airworthy, the maiden flight was blessed with the slaughtering of a black goat to ward off evil. The story is a perfect illustration of a mind-set that deforms our lives.

The current aporia in our society is due to our tendency to escape from reality and seek refuge in insomnia, apathy and subterfuge. Thus, we remain in constant torpor and no natural convulsions or philosophical tremors can awaken us. If we keep refusing to learn from our tragedies and mistakes through introspection and reflection, we will remain the buffoons we are.

The writer is a social scientist interested in the history of ideas. Email:

Lisbon and philosophical tremors