Day 1--August 22
Babylonian Laws I
Babylonian Laws II
Euthyphro and Crito
Nicomachean Eth. I
Nico. Ethics II
Nico. Ethics III
Nico. Ethics IV
Early Rousseau II
Early Rous III
Rousseau's Walks I
Rousseau's Walks II
Rousseau's Walks III
Lisbon Earthquake I
JS Mill I
Mill and Emotions II
Mill and Emotions III
Legal Realism I
Legal Realism II
Brown v. Board
Lisbon Earthquake (11/1/1755) II
Bill Long 12/2/06
Intellectual Background to the Quake II
I argued in the previous essay that in order to understand the reaction to the Quake after Nov. 1, 1755, we need to comprehend the intellectual ferment of the time. I have already described the commitment of traditional Christianity to the doctrine of the providence of God. Let's continue now with my discussion on the "reasonableness" of Christianity.
Matthew Tindal (1567-1733), known as the "Father of English Deism," was the other significant thinker that shaped the culture's understanding of Christianity in the mid-18th century. A younger contemporary and admirer of John Locke, Tindal penned several works, the most important of which was his 1730 title: Christianity as Old as the Creation. Taking his cue from Locke's emphasis on the "reasonableness" of Christianity, Tindal argued that true Christianity was not simply consistent with reason but was what he called a "republication of the religion of nature and reason." He started from what he considered to be reasonable: God must be eternal, universal, simple, perfect. Religion therefore has to consist of universal duties to God. It cannot be "particular," meaning it must not be something that depends on someone's chance hearing of the message of the Gospel. Christianity must be "reasonable service," and reason must be supreme. In Tindal's approach, religion must be validated by reason.
This line of reasoning was particularly influential in France and among the chief figures in the massive Encyclopedie project in the 1740s-1770s. Diderot, d'Alembert, Voltaire and countless others could be comfortable with a God and a religion that Tindal described. Christianity was simply the religion of nature. God, or "Nature's God," was that force that got things started but which probably didn't really affect the world after it was created. Reason became the touchstone of human innovation and progress.
(3) The Optimism of Leibniz and Pope
Adding to the complexity of the intellectual background of the 18th century was the philosophy of Leibniz, which was brought into English in large measure through Pope's famous Essay on Man. GW Leibniz (1646-1716) was one of the great polymaths of the late 16th-early 17th centuries. More famous as a mathematician than philosopher, Leibniz put his hand to the latter and, in 1710 penned Theodicy, a work which tried to deal head on with the problem of evil and religious belief. His central assertion was that God had, before creating the world, examined all kinds of other possible worlds, but decided to create this one in which we live. Since God is good, the world that he created must be good, indeed must be the best of all possible worlds. If it was not, it would impugn the wisdom and creative genius of God.
Leibniz also argued, however, that the existence of evil was not incompatible with the goodness of God. Here is how he reasoned.
"It must be confessed that there is evil in this world which God has made, and that it was possible to make a world without evil, or even not to create a world at all, for its creation has depended on the free will of God...I have wished to justify this denial [the allegation in a major premise that God, since he could have created the world without evil, must have created a substandard world] by showing that the best plan is not always that which seeks to avoid evil, since it may happen that the evil is accomplished by a greater good. For example, a general of an army will prefer a great victory with a slight wound to a condition without wound and without victory. We have proved this more fully in the large work by making it clear, by instances taken from mathematics and elsewhere, that an imperfection int he part may be required for a greater perfection in the whole..."
Thus, for Leibniz, the world in which we live is the "best of all possible worlds," even though this world admits evil in it (the "slight wound" to the general). This philosophy was known as "Optimism." We know and use the word today to express "hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something," but the original meaning of the term (coined in French in 1737 and in English in 1759) related to Leibniz's philosophy. From Bishop Warburton in 1759: "The professed design [probably of Voltaire's recently-released Candide] is to ridicule the Optimisme, not of Pope, but of Leibnitz."
Anglicizing Leibniz--Pope's Essay on Man
Pope's Essay consisted of four "Epistles," totalling more than 1000 lines of poetry. Originally designed as a much larger project on the scale of a Paradise Lost or another epic treatment, Pope scaled back his work, publishing the first three Epistles anonymously in 1733 and then the full collection in 1734. He published it anonymously, frankly, in order to get better reviews. And, it seemed to work.
For our purposes the most important Epistle is # 1. In it he desires to "Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man/ A mighty maze! but not without a plan" (ll. 5-6). And then, for the next few hundred lines, he lays out this plan of the Creator. It is a good plan, one that reflected the goodness of the Creator, even though humans are slow to recognize this. But, ultimately, what should humans do in the face of this wonderful divine plan that is unfolding in the universe? He closes Epistle 1 with these words:
"Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
Submit.--In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right," (ll. 281-294).
Let those concluding words ring in your ears. "One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right." We can see not only a supremely confident faith in this affirmation but, perhaps even more, an intellectual vulnerability if a huge disaster were to happen. And, on Nov. 1, 1755, such a disaster took place. The next essay describes it.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long