Global America? The Cultural Consequences of Globalization

By Ulrich Beck; Natan Sznaider et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
From the Lisbon Disaster to
Oprah Winfrey: Suffering as Identity
in the Era of Globalization
Eva Illouz

On 1 November 1755, an earthquake shook the city of Lisbon. The news of the disaster quickly reached the French philosophes and sparked one of the most famous philosophical and theological controversies of French intellectual history. As tens of thousands of people had perished in the disaster, philosophers frantically debated on the role of Providence in human affairs. Voltaire, who responded to the disaster most swiftly, wrote in his Poème sur le Désastre de Lisbonne:

Misled philosophers who shout ‘all is well’, come here, run and contemplate these horrible ruins, the wrecks, these carcasses, the pitiful ashes, the women, the children piled on each other under the broken marble, dismembered, one hundred thousand unfortunate people devoured by the earth, people covered with blood, torn apart, and yet still throbbing with life, buried under their own roof, they die without any help, in horror and agony. (Voltaire 1949, my translation)

Voltaire further drives his point and clarifies what is philosophically unacceptable in the event: ‘which crime, which mistake have these children committed, crushed on their mother's breast in their own blood? Was Lisbon, which is no more, more corrupt than London or Paris full of delights? What? Lisbon is destroyed and we dance in Paris?’

Let me make a few preliminary observations. To the best of my knowledge, Voltaire's intervention marks the first time that a philosopher directly addresses his community of fellow philosophers and the general public about a contemporary but distant disaster, and the first time that a philosopher does this by questioning the role of Providence in human affairs.1 Voltaire's bold conceptual

____________________
1
London's great fire in the previous century had not spurred the same sense of theological disquiet.

-189-

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