At daybreak on November 1, 1755—All Saints’ Day—Lisbon was Europe’s fourth largest city and one of its most important commercial centers. By the afternoon, three natural disasters had reduced the city to rubble and ash. The first wave of devastation came in the form of an 8.5-magnitude earthquake, the largest to have ever hit a major European city. In the second wave, a great fire, caused by all the overturned candles, which had been lit in observance of the religious festival, devoured thousands of homes and other buildings. Finally, the smoldering city was inundated by a trio of tidal waves more than sixty feet high that the earthquake had pushed up from the ocean floor. All told, forty thousand of Lisbon’s residents were killed and more than 80 percent of its buildings were damaged or destroyed. By sunset, Portugal was paupered, and one of the most important centers of the international economy was a rock quarry. In today’s dollars, the total loss would amount to the damages inflicted by a hundred Hurricane Katrinas.
Modern Europe had never before experienced a natural disaster on the scale of Lisbon, so its effects went beyond the death toll and the immediate economic impacts: the Great Lisbon Disaster also had deep conceptual effects. “The eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz today,” wrote the philosopher Susan Neiman. For decades, people throughout Europe and the New World walked around with the “Lisbon Question” on their lips: If horrors like Lisbon can happen, what kind of world are we living in? And how should we live in it? Lisbon drastically altered how nineteenth-century people thought about their relationship to nature, and about how to brace themselves against nature’s enormity and caprice. It also revolutionized how they thought about their ethical obligations to suffering people in distant lands. We are the heirs of this conceptual revolution, which the political scientist Michael Barnett has named the “Humanitarian Big Bang.”
For decades, people throughout Europe and the New World walked around with the “Lisbon Question” on their lips: If horrors like Lisbon can happen, what kind of world are we living in? And how should we live in it?
Lisbon drastically altered how nineteenth-century people thought about their relationship to nature, and about how to brace themselves against nature’s enormity and caprice. It also revolutionized how they thought about their ethical obligations to suffering people in distant lands.
A prototype for international assistance
We remember the horrors of Lisbon much better than we remember the outpouring of concern from Portugal’s neighbors, but pour out their concern they did. As soon as Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen María Bárbara (the brother-in-law and sister of Portugal’s King José I) learned of the disaster, they dispatched orders to send supplies, along with the equivalent of about £37,000 in cash ($10.2 million in today’s dollars). Three weeks after the disaster, when the news reached France (at the time, news traveled by horseback at less than four miles per hour), King Louis XV offered £16,600 ($4.6 million in today’s dollars) in aid (though Portugal’s king politely declined it, probably from fear of provoking his English allies).
Speaking of England, as soon as King George II received the news, he directed Britain’s prime minister to come up with a plan for sending relief as well. Only days later, a British man-of-war set sail for Lisbon with £50,000 in gold and silver and nearly £50,000 in food, tools, and clothes, along with three warships to protect Lisbon from pirates. Another £100,000 would follow ten days after that. In total, Britain’s contribution was worth $55 million in today’s dollars. News of Lisbon’s decimation reached Hamburg, Portugal’s second most important trading partner after Britain, exactly four weeks after the catastrophe. Within two weeks, a supply ship left Hamburg laden with relief supplies. Three more were sent soon thereafter. Collectively, Hamburg’s four ships delivered £160,000 ($44 million in today’s dollars) in money, food, and goods.
The supportive responses from Spain, France, Britain, and Hamburg were a great surprise to the Portuguese. On one hand, certainly, it’s easy to see the varieties of self-interest—love of family, concern for one’s citizens and assets in foreign lands, and eagerness to purchase friendship and favor—that may have motivated Portugal’s neighbors to get involved. “Humanitarian concerns existed,” the historian Mark Molesky acknowledged in This Gulf of Fire,
“but they were intermingled with political and economic interests. The city of Hamburg, for example, was motivated to send aid to alleviate the suffering of both the Portuguese and its own merchants, as well as to secure its position as Lisbon’s second most important trading partner. Spain was moved by the close familial ties between the two royal couples and, perhaps, to gain some political leverage over the Portuguese. France’s offer of aid most likely reflected both the personal influence of Madame de Pompadour and a clever, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to encourage Portugal to remain neutral (i.e., not help Britain) during the imminent conflict.”
Even so, the international response was unprecedented. In the zero-sum view of international relations that reigned at that time, most states would have seen Portugal’s loss as their gain. Not that most sovereigns would have wanted to humiliate themselves by accepting foreign assistance anyway. “For reasons of national pride and a jealous sense of sovereignty,” wrote historian Nicholas Shrady in The Last Day,
“the notion of foreign relief would previously have been unthinkable. By 1755, however, military and political alliances, mutual commercial interests, and improvements in travel and communications had made the states of Europe interdependent, and the Lisbon earthquake struck a chord of collective, if not universal, compassion.”
In the zero-sum view of international relations that reigned at that time, most states would have seen Portugal’s loss as their gain.
The international response to the Great Lisbon Disaster was a case study in what could happen when nations took an interest in other nations’ welfare, inspiring some political theorists to propose that nations might have ethical responsibilities to each other. This notion was a major theme in Emmerich de Vattel’s 1758 masterpiece, The Law of Nations, published only a few years after the disaster. Vattel argued that natural law confers the same rights on states, and imposes the same obligations on states, as it confers and imposes on individuals. Just as natural law affords equal dignity to all individual human beings, makes individual people so interdependent that they must live in societies in order to flourish, and obligates individual people to concern themselves with other individuals’ welfare, it also affords equal dignity to all states, makes states interdependent in order to flourish, and obligates states to concern themselves with other states’ welfare. Vattel called these obligations the Offices of Humanity: “One state owes to another state whatever it owes to itself, so far as that other stands in real need of its assistance, and the former can grant it without neglecting the duties it owes to itself.” In illustrating how to execute those offices, Vattel wrote admiringly of Spain’s and England’s assistance after the Lisbon disaster.
According to Vattel, the Offices of Humanity extended far beyond disaster relief, however: natural law also obligated nations to assist each other in developing their political, economic, and human capabilities:
A state is more or less perfect, as it is more or less adapted to attain the end of civil society, which consists in procuring for its members everything of which they stand in need, for the necessities, the conveniences and enjoyments of life, and for their happiness in general—in providing for the peaceful enjoyment of property, and the safe and easy administration of justice—and, finally, in defending itself against all foreign violence. Every nation therefore should occasionally, and according to its power, contribute, not only to put another nation in possession of these advantages, but likewise to render it capable of procuring them itself. Accordingly, a learned nation, if applied to for masters and teachers in the sciences, by another nation desirous of shaking off its native barbarism, ought not to refuse such a request. A nation whose happiness it is to live under wise laws, should, on occasion, make it a point of duty to communicate them.
Theistic interpretations give way to naturalistic ones
Lisbon also marks a turning point in how we explain natural disasters. Before Lisbon, large natural disasters were customarily viewed as God’s rebukes for humanity’s hubris and sin. Following the Great Fire of London, for instance, which in 1666 laid waste to most of the old city of London, preachers of every denomination exhorted Londoners to repent for the many varieties of iniquity that had provoked God into torching the city. After Lisbon, however, people increasingly came to see natural disasters as the outcomes of long chains of interaction between matter and energy—that is, as purely physical events that were uninterested in human morality and indifferent to human welfare. The transition from supernatural explanations to naturalistic ones was not easy to make because it required people to turn their backs on strong intuitions and firmly held religious convictions.
Before Lisbon, large natural disasters were customarily viewed as God’s rebukes for humanity’s hubris and sin. After Lisbon, however, people increasingly came to see natural disasters as the outcomes of long chains of interaction between matter and energy, uninterested in human morality and indifferent to human welfare.
For most people throughout most of history, supernatural explanations for earthquakes were the only ones that made any sense. Even today, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters can lead to outbreaks of religious fervor as people try to find some meaning in them and figure out how they ought to respond. Psychologists have discovered two features of human cognition that explain why we so readily turn to religious explanations.
First, there is our tendency to explain natural phenomena in terms of preferences, goals, and desires—that is, in terms of the same causal forces we use to explain the behavior of humans and other animals. Under the right laboratory conditions, children, college students, and even scientists with PhDs can be made to reveal their preferences for goal-based explanations for natural occurrences. For example, when we don’t have enough time for reflection, we’re more likely to endorse the idea that hurricanes circulate sea water in order to gather heat energy for themselves, or that the Earth has an ozone layer in order to protect the Earth from the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays. Because of our affinity for goal-based explanations, the psychologist Deborah Kelemen has proposed that we are intuitive teleologists (from the Greek word telos, which means “end, goal, or purpose”). If you ask why Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, a fire, and a tsunami, an intuitive teleologist concludes that something or someone must have wanted it destroyed.
Second, there is our penchant for just-world thinking, which involves the intuitive belief that some sort of karma-like force brings us happiness and misery in proportion to the good things and the bad things we have done. When bad things happen to others, our just-world ruminations lead us to wonder what they might have done to deserve them. When we conclude that they are in fact not responsible for their plights, we feel that an injustice has been done, and we try to help them. Conversely, when we hold them responsible for their plights—perhaps because we think they took unnecessary risks, failed to take reasonable precautions, or offended God—we feel callous or angry toward them, and we are content to let them suffer.
In light of our tendencies toward intuitive teleology and just-world thinking, it is unsurprising that Europe’s religious leaders interpreted the Lisbon disaster as God’s punishment for human wickedness. It didn’t help, of course, that the earthquake struck on All Saint’s Day, one of the most important holidays in the church calendar: surely that was no coincidence. Religious writers in non-Catholic Europe blamed the disaster on the Catholics’ inquisitions against suspected heretics.20 Comically, some Catholics concluded that God had used the disaster to chastise Lisbon’s religious leaders for being too lenient with heretics. Where the Protestants and Catholics concurred was in their conviction that God used Lisbon to chastise Europe’s intellectuals for their brash confidence that science and reason could explain the natural world. The outspoken Jesuit priest Gabriel Malagrida used his pulpit week after week to try to bring Lisbon back to its senses, which is to say, back to a supernatural explanation: “It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event,” he preached in an exuberant display of question-begging, “for if that be true, there is no need to repent and try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin.”
To prevent that irreparable ruin, many leaders directed their people to make amends. King George II, intuitive teleologist that he was, led Britain in a national day of prayer and fasting. Pope Benedict XIV called the priests, monks, and laypeople of Rome to three days of supplication. At least one parish priest in Portugal called for nine days of religious ceremonies in hopes of staying God’s hand. Because most people had a religious understanding of the disaster, a religious response was the one that seemed most fitting.
Not everyone was content to embrace the traditional theistic responses, however. Portuguese Prime Minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, encouraged scientific reflection and the application of reason—cognitive activities that would not only not breed passivity and resignation, but would also help Lisboetas rebuild their city and prevent future misfortunes. In a research project that some scholars have called the birth of seismology, Pombal asked every parish priest to complete a questionnaire about the disaster. No mere damage assessment, Pombal’s questionnaire was a serious effort to gather scientifically meaningful data about the earthquake’s precursors, its origin, its force, its direction of propagation, its duration, its relationship to the tidal waves that succeeded it, and its enduring effects on the natural landscape. No religious preamble, no questions about local rates of wickedness. “Not only had God been left out of the picture,” wrote Nicholas Shrady, “but an enlightened state had stepped to the fore.”
The post-Lisbon retreat of supernatural explanations also put wind in the sails of scientists who wanted to understand earthquakes in naturalistic terms. In the post-Lisbon years, the official journals of Europe’s major scientific societies published scores of scientific papers on the causes of earthquakes. Even a young Immanuel Kant joined the burgeoning field of seismology, writing three scientific papers about earthquakes in 1756. Although many of the natural philosophers who were studying earthquakes continued to pay lip service to God’s involvement, many of them also adopted a Pombaline indifference to theistic speculations. What causes earthquakes? Kant and many of his contemporaries made it clear that only one kind of explanation really mattered to them: “We have the causes under our feet.”
The retreat of supernatural explanations had one other important downstream consequence: optimism—about humanity’s place in the world, about humanity’s capacity for understanding the world, and about humanity’s capacity for improving humanity’s lot in the world.
The retreat of supernatural explanations had one other important downstream consequence: optimism—about humanity’s place in the world, about humanity’s capacity for understanding the world, and about humanity’s capacity for improving humanity’s lot in the world. Post-Lisbon optimism was different from the earlier optimism of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who had reasoned that our world must be the best of all possible worlds because it was created by a perfect and loving God. It also differed from the earlier optimism of the deist poet Alexander Pope, who had written in An Essay on Man that “whatever is, is right.” Instead, post-Lisbon optimism was utterly incurious about whether world events were good or just or part of God’s grand design. Instead, the new optimism was grounded in the conviction that science, reason, and large-scale international efforts could be combined to reduce human misery, including misery in distant lands.
Excerpted from The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code by Michael McCullough. Published by Basic Books July 2020. Copyright © 2020 Michael McCullough. All rights reserved.