Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Natural Evil, from Lisbon to Minamisanriku

I am developing an entry prompted by the ongoing calamity in Japan and also by the recent upheaval in Christchurch, New Zealand. It may take a little time to gather together what I've been thinking concerning the vulnerability of place as an extension of our vulnerability as mortal beings.

In the mean time, I think it worthwhile to adapt some material I wrote on another blog for this context. Most of what follows comes from an entry I wrote on October 1, 2009, with a few further comments (in square brackets) added this morning.
From time to time, I discuss the problem of evil - or, The Problem of Evil - with my students.

This week, it was in the context of a special topics course on the Darwinian Revolution and its philosophical implications. Trying to bring them to some insight into pre-Darwinian ways of thinking, I had them read a few selections from Leibniz on the principle of plenitude - sorry, the Principle of Plenitude - and the Principle of Sufficient Reason, followed by the First Epistle of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man.

Two lines from Pope provide a deft summary of Leibniz, and help to solidify the idea of the Great Chain of Being.
. . . all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises rise in due degree. (p.242)
A brief explanation will be enough for this context. The idea in the Leibniz selections is that everything that is possible is striving toward existence, but not all possibles can come to existence in the same universe at the same time. Existence is a kind of perfection, so that world that has the most different kinds of existing things in it is the best or most perfect. When God set down the laws of the universe and set them in motion, he chose those laws that would allow the greatest possible number of possibles to come into existence.  That's the idea of Plenitude.

That there is a continuous gradation of degrees of perfection in Being, "from Infinity to thee, from thee to Nothing", as Pope puts it, is the idea of the Great Chain of Being . . . about which more another time.

So, why does any particular thing exist, as opposed to something else? It is not necessary that it be so, in the technical sense that the non-existence of any particular thing (except God, to Leibniz' way of thinking) does not violate the principle of non-contradiction - er, the Principle . . . oh, never mind.  Instead, things exist, and things happen, because there is Sufficient Reason for them to do so. In short, the kind of universe in which this particular thing exists or that particular event happens is more full, more perfect than the kind of universe in which it does not.

All of this is terribly, terribly medieval, full of the tropes and ideas of Scholastic philosophy: substances and degrees of perfection and existence as a predicate and so on. Still, the most basic idea has some staying power, and I see signs of it here and there in everyday talk about everyday things. The most basic idea is this: everything happens for a reason and, as Pope puts it, "whatever is, is right." (p. 249)

Enter the Problem of Natural Evil.

If the universe was crafted by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and benevolent God, if all is truly for the best in the best of all possible worlds, why do bad things keep happening to us?

Pope's response is, in effect, "Well, who the heck are we, that we should question the divine plan?"

Then, on November 1, 1755, a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. Based on descriptions of the damage, seismologists have retroactively estimated its strength to measure as high as 9.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquake itself combined with fires and a tsunami to kill as many as 100,000 people in the Lisbon area alone, though it's hard to be sure of the precise number.

The catastrophe had serious intellectual consequences, bringing the problem of natural evil under sharp scrutiny. Voltaire reeled off an angry rebuttal to Pope's essay, [in rhymed couplets, no less, outraged by the suggestion that we should take comfort in the thought that such a horror is part of a divine plan.
Approach in crowds, and meditate a while
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? (pp.8-9)
(Are you listening, Glenn Beck? If the earthquake is divine punishment for "our" neglect of the Ten Commandments, then God must have very, very bad aim.)

Voltaire goes on to extend the reach of his dismay:
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. (p.14)
When Rousseau received a copy of Voltaire's poem, he wrote a long reply, now known as the "Letter on Providence", in which he defends the Leibniz-Pope view on grounds that it provides comfort for the afflicted:
Do not be mistaken, Monsieur, it happens that everything is contrary to what you propose. This optimism that you find so cruel consoles me still in those woes that you paint as inconsolable. Pope's poem softens my pains and inclines me to patience; yours sharpens my afflictions, prompts me to grumble, and, depriving me of any shattered hope, reduces me to despair. In this strange opposition between what you prove and what I feel, resolve the confusion that excites me and tell me who has mistaken his own sentiment or [sic - for?] reason. (Rousseau to Voltaire, 18 August 1756)
Rousseau goes on to make an extraordinarily provocative claim about Lisbon itself, one consistent with the ideas he develops in his early Discourses concerning the origins of human corruption and inequality:
Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock, and would have been seen two days later, twenty leagues away and as happy as if nothing had happened. But we have to stay and expose ourselves to further tremors, many obstinately insisted, because what we would have to leave behind is worth more than what we could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster for wanting to take—one his clothing, another his papers, a third his money? They know so well that a person has become the least part of himself, and that he is hardly worth saving if all the rest is lost. (Ibid.)
In short, it's not the fault of God or of Nature that Lisbon was destroyed. Why did they have to go and build a city there to begin with?

Rousseau's letter was, apparently, not very well received by Voltaire, and may on its own have been the grounds for a lifelong enmity between the two men. More than this, Rousseau's letter] may have been one of the goads that prompted Voltaire to write Candide.
Pope, Alexander. Poetical Works. Ed. Herbert Davis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rousseau to Voltaire, 18 August 1756, from J.A. Leigh, ed., Correspondence compl├Ęte de Jean Jacques Rousseau, vol. 4. Geneva, 1967, pp. 37-50; translated by R. Spang.
Voltaire. The Works of Voltaire. Trans. William F. Fleming. Vol. XXXVI. London and New York: E.R. Dumont, 1901.

1 comment:

klatu said...

When massive natural disaster strikes, and both the religious and non religious, atheist, agnostic, pious and impious, good and the bad, children and adults, are all simply wiped off the face of the earth without mercy or regard and with it, a considerable chunk of civilization is destroyed, closing the mind to the implications is not easily possible.

For here is where faith and fate might as well be interchangeable. Where faith is without value, Where God, at lest the conception of God provided by religious tradition, is exposed as a useless illusion.

If there is a 'divine' plan. the first part must be that humanity recognize that the theological conception of God provided by tradition is no more than chasing after wind.