The "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne" (English title: Poem on the Lisbon Disaster) is a poem in French composed by Voltaire as a response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. It is widely regarded as an introduction to Voltaire's 1759 acclaimed novel Candide and his view on the problem of evil. The 180-line poem was composed in December 1755 and published in 1756. It is considered one of the most savage literary attacks on optimism.
The earthquake of 1 November 1755 completely devastated the Portuguese capital Lisbon. The city was reduced to ruins, and between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed. One of the most destructive earthquakes in history, the event had a major effect on the cultural consciousness of much of Europe. Voltaire was one of many philosophers, theologians and intellectuals to be deeply affected by the disaster. Catholics attempted to explain it as God's wrath on the sins of the Portuguese, among them Protestant heretics and Jesuit casuists; while Protestants blamed the Portuguese for being Catholic.
Polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and poet Alexander Pope were both famous for developing a system of thought known as philosophical optimism in an attempt to reconcile a loving Christian God with the seeming indifference of nature in disasters such as Lisbon. The phrase what is, is right coined by Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man, and Leibniz' affirmation we live in the best of all possible worlds, provoked Voltaire's scorn. He railed against what he perceived as intricate but empty philosophizing which served only to demean humanity and ultimately lead to fatalism.
The earthquake further bolstered Voltaire's philosophical pessimism and deism. Due to the prevalence of evil, he argued, there could not possibly exist a benevolent, loving deity who intervened in human affairs to reward the virtuous and punish the guilty. He asserted instead that the disaster revealed the abject and ignorant nature of humankind. For Voltaire, people might well hope for a happier state, but to expect more was contrary to reason.
Like many of Voltaire's poems, Lisbonne consists entirely of rhyming couplets in continual progression; there are no stanzas dividing the 180 lines. Voltaire also included footnotes elucidating such terms as the universal chain and man's nature.
Unlike the lighthearted satire of Candide, the Lisbonne poem strikes a pitying, dark, and solemn tone.
In his preface, Voltaire makes several objections to philosophical optimism:
Arguing by reductio ad absurdum, Voltaire elaborates on the inherent contradiction in the dictum what is, is right. For if this were true, then human nature would not be fallen and salvation would be unnecessary.
Voltaire shows his admiration of both Bayle, who was a skeptic, and Locke, who was an empiricist. In his footnotes, Voltaire argues the self-evidence of humankind's epistemological shortcomings, since the human mind derives all knowledge from experience, which cannot give us insight into what preceded it, nor what follows it, nor what presently supports it.
In the poem itself, grieving for the misery created by the earthquake and questioning whether a just and compassionate God would seek to punish sins through such cruelty, Voltaire argued that the all-powerful God Leibniz and Pope hypothesized could have prevented the innocent suffering of the sinners, reduced the scale of destruction, or announced his purpose of purifying mankind.
He rejected the charge that selfishness and pride had made him rebel against suffering:
In the poem, Voltaire rejected belief in "Providence" as impossible to defend -- he believed that all living things seemed doomed to live in a cruel world. Voltaire concludes that human beings are weak, ignorant and condemned to suffer throughout life. There is no divine system or message as guidance, and God does not concern himself with human beings, or communicate with them.
No matter the complexity, depth, or sophistication of philosophical and theological systems, Voltaire contended that our human origins remain unknown.
These lines refer specifically to the common rebuttal made by the optimists of the time as to the problem of evil. Although the presence of evil in the world is evident, human beings cannot understand the motions of God. The suffering in the earthquake played a part in the greater good somewhere else.
Voltaire draws attention to the assertion made by Alexander Pope in his An Essay on Man that 'What is, is right'. These lines contradict Pope's (and later Leibniz') Optimism.
Voltaire held a deep belief in the goodness and sovereignty of God as exemplified in the verses above. He takes a pessimistic view to the existence of evil, and stresses man's ultimate ignorance.
Through his work, Voltaire criticized religious figures and philosophers such as the optimists Alexander Pope and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, but endorsed the views of the skeptic Pierre Bayle and empiricist John Locke. Voltaire was, in turn, criticized by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Rousseau had been mailed a copy of the poem by Voltaire, who received a letter carrying Rousseau's criticism on 18 August 1756. Rousseau criticized Voltaire for seeking to apply science to spiritual questions, and he argued that evil is necessary to the existence of the universe and that particular evils form the general good. Rousseau implied that Voltaire must either renounce the concept of Providence or conclude that it is, in the last analysis, beneficial. Rousseau was convinced that Voltaire had written Candide as a rebuttal to the argument he had made.