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  • Natural Disasters and the Debate on the Unity or Plurality of Enlightenments
  • Nathaniel Wolloch (bio)

When Alexander Pope wrote his famous Epitaph Intended for Sir Isaac Newton (ca. 1730)—“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night, / God said, Let Newton be! and all was light”—he was voicing one of the main credos of the Enlightenment, building on the legacy of the Scientific Revolution—that human beings were capable of mastering nature and harnessing it for their benefit.1 At the same time, in his Essay on Man (1733–34), Pope was also wary of human pride and presumption. The ability to control nature was limited, and in the face of providentially ordained unmanageable forces, the best approach was acquiescence, since “One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.”2 In the second half of the eighteenth century this Leibnizian optimism was to be severely challenged, particularly following the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon and Voltaire’s famous poem quickly written in reaction. This was followed by one of the most significant intellectual debates of the Enlightenment, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his “Letter on Optimism” (1756), espousing a persistent belief in the overall benignity of providentially ordained nature, and Voltaire clinging to his pessimism, eventually giving it voice in Candide (1759).3 Nevertheless, in their approach to natural disasters as manifested by the Lisbon earthquake, both seemed to share the basic Enlightenment belief that it was primarily the human reaction to natural occurrences rather than these occurrences in themselves, which influenced the fate of human beings. This was true specifically in cases when natural disasters overpowered what, by the eighteenth century, seemed an ever-increasing ability to control nature.

Humanity’s relationship with nature was therefore ambivalent—on the one hand, it was premised on ever-increasing mastery and manipulation, yet on the other hand, every once in a while, nature reminded human beings, mainly in the form of natural disasters, that their power over it was limited. For Enlightenment intellectuals this posed a challenge—were the ideals of the Enlightenment, and its belief in the power of human reason, a sufficient basis for the [End Page 325] ultimate triumph not only over nature, but more importantly, over human social failings? Most eighteenth-century savants recognized the limits of human power, yet maintained a persistent belief in furthering it to the greatest extent possible. While some were willing to accept at least a partial role for the traditional belief in providential intervention, and in the portentous aspect of recalcitrant nature, it seems that the majority insisted that a modern enlightened approach to natural disasters had to be rational and secular. This outlook was shared by both the moderates and the radicals of the Enlightenment. Discussing the Enlightenment view of natural disasters can therefore help elucidate the issue of the difference between the Moderate and the Radical Enlightenments.

One prominent example of the Moderate Enlightenment was Adam Smith, who evinced his skepticism regarding a superstitious attitude toward nature when he wrote about Livy’s tales of Roman belief in portents: “But that which is the peculiar excellency of Livy’s Stile is the Grandeur and majesty which he maintains thro’ the whole of his works. . . . Tis probably to keep up this gravity, that he pays so much attention to the ceremonies of Religion and the omens and Portents, which he never omitts. For it is not to be supposed that he had any belief in them himself in an age when the vulgar Religion was altogether disregarded except as a Politicall Institution by the wiser Sort.”4 Elsewhere, Smith famously utilized the example of a putative devastating earthquake in China as the premise for his belief in human morality—while human beings invariably would be more troubled by the knowledge that they were about to lose a finger than on hearing that millions had perished in a distant earthquake, not even the most immoral person, given the choice, would decline to sacrifice this finger to save all those people.5 The significance of human reaction was manifest precisely in those cases where human command of the natural environment reached its limit. This was not dissimilar to Voltaire’s reaction...


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pp. 325-342
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