The Lisbon Earthquake and The Mind of an Age:
Science and Religion Confront An Eighteenth Century Natural Disaster


Questions for the Debaters:




  • What was the cause of the earthquake, according to Malagrida?
  • Why is it “scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event”?
  • What should we do to prevent another such disaster?



  • How do we know that God is not pleased with us, according to Wesley?
  • Why does Wesley think that Lisbon was an especially deserving target of God’s wrath?
  • On what grounds does Wesley argue that the people who believe that the earthquake had natural causes are absolutely wrong?
  • On what grounds does Wesley argue that people who believe that the earthquake had natural causes are purveyors of hopelessness?
  • How can we prevent earthquakes, according to Wesley?


Voltaire 1

  • What did Newton discover and what made his discovery so wonderful, according to Voltaire?

  • Does Voltaire think that the fact that the world is governed by natural laws makes it a better place? _______ How do you know?

  • According to Voltaire, what role did or does God play in this “best of all possible worlds”?

  • What would Voltaire 1 have said about the Lisbon earthquake?



·         What seems to be the main idea of the first stanza?

·         And why is “whatever is, is right”?

·         Would Pope seem to agree with Voltaire 1? Explain

·         How does the second part of the Pope excerpt which begins “Know then thyself…” make us rethink the optimistic bravado of the first section?


Voltaire 2

·         What is Voltaire's view of God's role in the physical world in this poem he wrote on receiving the news of the Lisbon disaster?  

        Which philosophers cried “All is well”?

·         Exegete (provide an analytical explanation of) the passage “This is the result of eternal laws directing the acts of a free and good God”.

·         Who said “God is revenged…”?

·         Wherein lies the irony of “…they dance in Paris”?

·         Why can Voltaire accept neither a theological explanation of the event nor the faith of some Deists that a divine plan dictated that all would work out for the best?  

·         What possible implications for the later Enlightenment's views on God do you find in this work of the influential Voltaire?  

·         What is the difference between Voltaire (1) and Voltaire (2)?



·         In the first two paragraphs, what is Rousseau’s principal objection to Voltaire’s poem?

·         Use contemporary slang to paraphrase Rousseau’s paraphrase of Pope and Leibnitz.

·         Use contemporary slang to paraphrase Rousseau’s paraphrase of Voltaire (2).

·         Who does Rousseau blame for the size of the Lisbon disaster in the “I do not see…” paragraph?

·         What is the underlying main idea of Rousseau’s “There are often…” paragraph?

·         Exegete Rousseau’s ad hominem (personal) attack on the validity of Voltaire’s reasoning.

·         Why does Rousseau believe in a good God and the promise of heaven?

·         What do you think Voltaire said when he got Rousseau’s letter?



·         On what grounds does Hume question the idea of consubstantiation – that the body and blood of Jesus are actually in the communal bread and wine?

·         How does Hume use the idea of probability to undermine the claim that miracles (violations of the laws of nature) have occurred?

·         How does Hume use the idea of probability to undermine the testimony of those who claim to have seen miracles?

·         How does Hume use the idea of probability to undermine the validity of the Christian religion?

·         Could Hume find evidence of the God of Malagrida and Wesley on one hand or of the God of Newton and the early Voltaire on the other?

·         How does Hume explain the fact that many people do believe in Christianity?

·         So what does Hume think about the Lisbon earthquake?



·         What room is there for a divinity in Holbach's view, which sees the world as an "uninterrupted succession of causes and effects" in which "matter always existed"?

·         How does he explain the creation of man as a purely material phenomenon?

·         How does he discredit the theory that the universe could have been created by a spiritual force?

·         Why do you think Holbach's contemporaries, including Voltaire, criticized his position as atheistic?