On Nov. 1, 1755, a great earthquake struck offshore of Lisbon. In that city alone, some 60,000 perished, first from the tremors, then from the massive tsunami that arrived half an hour later. Fires consumed much of what remained of the city. The tidal waves spread death along the coasts of Iberia and North Africa.
Voltaire's "Poëme sur le désastre de Lisbonne" of the following year was an exquisitely savage--though sober--assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time. For those who would argue that "all is good" and "all is necessary," that the universe is an elaborately calibrated harmony of pain and pleasure, or that this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire's scorn was boundless: By what calculus of universal good can one reckon the value of "infants crushed upon their mothers' breasts," the dying "sad inhabitants of desolate shores," the whole "fatal chaos of individual miseries"?
Perhaps the most disturbing argument against submission to "the will of God" in human suffering--especially the suffering of children--was placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; but the evils Ivan enumerates are all acts of human cruelty, for which one can at least assign a clear culpability. Natural calamities usually seem a greater challenge to the certitudes of believers in a just and beneficent God than the sorrows induced by human iniquity.
Considered dispassionately, though, man is part of the natural order, and his propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. The same ancient question is apposite to the horrors of history and nature alike: Whence comes evil? And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God's hand and he is not enchained.Mr. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is the author of "The Beauty of the Infinite" (Eerdmans).
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