In the wake of two devastating earthquakes, we are again witnessing echoes of longstanding debates over “theodicy,” or the effort to justify the existence of a just and loving God in the face of the existence of suffering and even evil (Theos=God; Dike=Justice). These debates are hardly new – current debates remarkably echo arguments that took place some 350 years ago following the devastating Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
One reaction against “theodicy” – the effort to “justify God’s ways to man” – in the face of such horrific devastation was (and remains) two-fold. First, there is a rejection of the idea that there is any “meaning” to such an event – and rather, the conclusion that the earth and nature is capricious and undiscriminating in its bestowal of life and death. Second, in the face of belief in this very “meaninglessness” of the world, there are demands and efforts for active human intervention to impose meaning, and particularly, to pursue ever-greater arrangements of justice. The modern scientific project was the result – arising in significant part in response to the Lisbon earthquake – allowing humanity increasingly to control the arbitrariness of nature’s actions upon humanity.
Responses to the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have hauntingly echoed the reactions of the world’s leading philosophers some 350 years ago following the Lisbon earthquake. While this fact has been noted by some prominent commentators, what has gone largely unrecognized is that there is one important difference today: we live in the wake of several centuries of mixed record of scientific achievement.
The confidence of many in the late-18th century over the ability of science to master the arbitrary actions of nature is today complicated by our own experience with the deleterious consequences of that very mastery. Even as we respond with the hopes that modern seismology will give us the tools to avoid such catastrophes, and that modern social science will permit sufficient worldwide wealth so that the poverty of Haitains will not be a major contributing factor to the devastation, there is a simultaneous recognition that this project of mastery has given rise to a different kind of devastation – one largely created by humans in the form of environmental degradation.
The problem is, we rarely connect these two observations.
While theodicy has existed as a form of human inquiry at least since Cain killed Abel in response to God’s otherwise inexplicable preference for his brother’s sacrifice, the “science” of theodicy is often traced back to the philosopher Leibniz. It was Leibniz who offered the first articulation of philosophical optimism, expressed pithily in the phrase that “we live in the best of all possible worlds,” which summarizes Leibniz’s somewhat heterodox view that God chose from among a near infinite number of possible universes, and chose ours as the best one worthy of creation. While not perfect, overall, it was pretty good.
The Lisbon earthquake shattered this view. In the reactions it provoked, one sees especially the origins of many of today’s stances in regards to science, religion, and nature.
For some, the earthquake was evidence of God’s wrath – the theodicy in which we can interpret with certainty the will of God in the events of the world. The reactionary author Joseph DeMaistre (responding to Candide) argued that the earthquake was in fact a great good, because its residents surely deserved to be punished (and, he argued further, the innocent deserved to be delivered from the iniquity of that place). This was the opposite of Leibniz – all is good, because all is bad. We can see echoes to Maistre’s conservative critique in the reaction of Pat Robertson to the Haiti earthquake – the destruction was divine recompense for an evil committed by the Haitians (just as the attacks of 9/11 were deserved because of the iniquity of modern America).
Then there was the response of Voltaire, long suspicious of clericalism and superstition, who saw in the Lisbon quake evidence of a capricious and even cruel world. In his famous novel Candide (Candide, ou l’Optimisme), Leibniz’s phrase becomes ultimately an idiotic mantra contradicted by the reality that the earth is not the best of all possible worlds. That novel describes the eventual disillusionment of Candide from the philosophic optimism of his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, a disillusionment that is completed by his confrontation with the devastating earthquake of Lisbon. Voltaire’s recommendation (through the words of his character, Candide), was to “cultivate your own garden” – that is, to take care as best one could what was under your own control, recognizing that there was no final justice or meaning in the universe. One heard echoes to this view recently in the analysis of James Wood (who also revisited the reactions to the Lisbon Quake in his essay. Wood concluded his article by condemning the Maistre/Robertson view (as would Voltaire) while ending with a plaintive, existentialist plaint: “For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.”
Yet, it is this view – the disillusionment with interpretations that God’s will could be known one way or the other (understanding either suffering as the result of retribution or the consequence of “the best of all possible worlds”) that opened the door to the flowering of the Enlightenment, and particularly the belief that with the rejection of outdated theological categories, a new kind of understanding and even capacity to confront and overcome evil and suffering might be possible.
Notably, Immanuel Kant (Enlightenment’s prophet) also sought to comprehend the devastation of the Lisbon quake, writing three texts on the event. His response was to develop a geologic theory of why the earthquake took place, surmising that the earth’s instability arose due to the shifting of large underground caverns filled with hot gases. According to the 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin, Kant’s analysis – while long-since discarded – “probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany. And certainly, the beginnings of seismology.” Shortly after the Haiti earthquake, there were simultaneous lamentations over the still-imperfect science of seismology – at least insofar as its predictive powers were concerned – alongside articles that praised the ongoing and discernible advances in the science. According to Simon Winchester, while the science of earthquake prediction is far from perfect, “The branch of seismology that deals with prediction is undoubtedly in a slightly better place than it was half a decade ago.” And that fact, he writes, should provide “a faint glimmer of hope.”
In the wake of such devastation, nature was increasingly understood as an arbitrary and often cruel force, one devoid of meaning. Either there was no God, or God was either “absent” (as Wood suggests) or cruel, but in either event, humanity was largely on its own to improve its own condition. Drawing on thinkers like Francis Bacon and other architects of modern science, Enlightenment thinkers pushed forward a new kind of science – one that would seek the mastery at least of the effects of nature (if not the causes of various devastations), whether in the forms of medicine, weather prediction, flood control, agricultural science, chemical engineering, and so on. A revolution in human life in part can trace its roots to that earthquake in 1755.
What is striking about the contemporary echoes to these arguments is a changed contemporary context. We are witnessing not only echoes, but widespread embrace, of another reaction to the Lisbon earthquake – that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau – in a letter to Voltaire – argued that the earthquake revealed not the existence of divine retribution nor the need for Enlightenment solutions, but the evils of “progress.” Long suspicious of the arguments of Enlightenment colleagues, he argued that it was the concentration of humanity in to compressed living space – versions of tenements and high-rises – that led to the devastation of what otherwise would have been merely a curiosity and perhaps inconvenience to healthier, more primitive societies. He argued that humans should not live in unnatural ways, in contradiction to nature.
Rousseau’s arguments have made a significant comeback: we live today with the existence of both an embrace of scientific aims of progress and a deeply pervasive adoration of nature, along with a deep suspicion of the advances of science and technology.
There is no better evidence of this latter view than the remarkable popularity of the movie “Avatar.”
“Avatar” portrays the simple humanoids that Rousseau praised in his letter to Voltaire. What is striking about that movie is that nature is portrayed as almost entirely benevolent. Yes, at the beginning of the movie, Jake Sully (newly metamorphosed into his Avatar) is attacked by some savage animals. However, evidently the Na’vi live in perfect harmony with the natural world, and even those creatures that once attacked Sully become allies of the Na’vi in the culminating battle scene. There is a complete harmony between humanoids and nature, reflected in their ability to “connect” fully with the natural world, their intuitive capacity to discern the deeper connections between all natural beings. The perpetrator of evil in the world is not now “nature” – but humans, and especially those humans who employ science and technology in the effort to master nature (particularly the extraction of a natural resource that we are to understand to be the Pandoran version of petroleum). Thus, it is the very activity that has allowed extensive human conquest of the natural world (and thus, the capacity to govern or eliminate its arbitrary motions) – science – that now threatens the perceived harmony of nature.
For moderns, nature and science are simultaneously – and exclusively – the respective source of evil and good. Indeed, I am willing to wager that people who enjoyed the defeat of rapacious humans in “Avatar” also regularly condemn the capriciousness of the earth. I would further point out that this is a contradiction particularly keen on the American political Left, which simultaneously insists upon the merits and necessity of scientific advancement, and embraces a Rousseauian environmentalism that condemns science and technology out the other side of their mouths. Moderns on the whole, and the Left in particular, compartmentalize the two evaluations.
Our age calls for a better theodicy and a better understanding of nature – one that (to start in the realm of nature) recognizes that nature is both a source of goodness and pain, of life and death. These two cannot be un-extricated. It needs, too, a more supple Augustinian recognition of our own ignorance – whether in claiming to understand God’s will (a la Robertson) or claiming to discern His total absence (a la Wood). We need to embrace not these various claims to knowledge, but rather (to cite an essential essay by Wendell Berry), the “way of ignorance.” The “way of ignorance,” he writes, is “the way of faith” and the path to the acceptance of “the wisdom of humility.” In part, it prevents us from seeing the world through the lens of pride – the pride of knowing with certainty that nature is either evil or good, or that science is either good or evil. It can help us to stop living the contradiction of modernity, and begin to make judgments, rather than rest in the faith of our contradictory certainties.