Leesfragment: Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790

27 november 2015 , door Jonathan Israel
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Het derde en laatste deel van Jonathan Israels reeks over de Verlichting, Democratic Enlighenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 is verschenen. 19 september zal Israel erover spreken bij Felix Meritis, dit weekend kunt u al een deel uit het eerste hoofdstuk lezen. Na de inleiding (die u bij Oxford University Press zelf al kan lezen, in een pdf-bestand) gaat Israel in zijn eerste deel, 'The Radical Challenge' in op een test case voor de Verlichting: wat te denken over natuurrampen?

N.B. Democratic Enlightenment is bij Athenaeum te koop voor een zeer lage introductieprijs: van € 44,50 voor € 35,-.

That the Enlightenment shaped modernity is uncontested. Yet remarkably few historians or philosophers have attempted to trace the process of ideas from the political and social turmoil of the late eighteenth century to the present day. This is precisely what Jonathan Israel now does.

In Democratic Enlightenment, Israel demonstrates that the Enlightenment was an essentially revolutionary process, driven by philosophical debate. The American Revolution and its concerns certainly acted as a major factor in the intellectual ferment that shaped the wider upheaval that followed, but the radical philosophes were no less critical than enthusiastic about the American model. From 1789, the General Revolution's impetus came from a small group of philosophe-revolutionnaires, men such as Mirabeau, Sieyes, Condorcet, Volney, Roederer, and Brissot. Not aligned to any of the social groups represented in the French National assembly, they nonetheless forged "la philosophie moderne"—in effect Radical Enlightenment ideas—into a world-transforming ideology that had a lasting impact in Latin America, Canada and eastern Europe as well as France, Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries. In addition, Israel argues that while all French revolutionary journals powerfully affirmed that la philosophie moderne was the main cause of the French Revolution, the main stream of historical thought has failed to grasp what this implies. Israel sets the record straight, demonstrating the true nature of the engine that drove the Revolution, and the intimate links between the radical wing of the Enlightenment and the anti-Robespierriste "Revolution of reason."

Nature and Providence
Earthquakes and the Human Condition

1. The Great Enlightenment Earthquake Controversy (1750–1757)

The great Enlightenment controversy about earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and related disasters in the 1750s, and later, was a prolonged, divisive, and lively affair of great importance that is extremely revealing about the structure and character of Enlightenment debate. Commencing well before the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and continuing long after, assessing the great Lisbon earthquake became, so to speak, its hub. A controversy that attracted much public attention over many years, the debate helps us grasp more fully the depth of the fundamental split in Enlightenment thought and general consequences of this rift.
Catastrophic natural disasters raise difficult questions. The ‘fearful earthquake’ that destroyed Jamaica’s capital, Port Royal, on 7 June 1692, a bright, ‘very clear’ day that earlier ‘afforded no suspicion of the least evil’, not only demolished the town within minutes but after it was ‘shaken to pieces’ buried it in the sea, drowning thousands, obliterating the cemetery, and ‘dashing to pieces the tombs’, sweeping the ‘carcasses of those who had been buried out of their graves’. Sickness afterwards carried ‘off some thousands more’. The devastation of Guatemala City, and collapse of virtually all the city’s churches, on 29 September 1717, resulted in the old town being abandoned and the capital refounded at a new location. The great Lima earthquake of 28 October 1746, the thirteenth there since 1582, convulsed the middle coastal zone of Peru, a region particularly prone to disasters, d’Holbach notes, in his Encyclopédie article on earthquakes, leaving everything in ruins including most houses and all Lima’s seventy-four churches and fourteen convents besides the famous harbour fortress subsequently replaced by the great Real Felipe fortress commanding Callao today. The university and the holy Inquisition’s three buildings, including its magnificent chapel, all collapsed, and if this was unaccountable in the eyes of the devout how could God also destroy the cathedral, his temple?
Both the viceregal palace and regional high court were demolished, though due to the prevalence of low, lightly constructed housing, Lima’s initial death toll, at only around 1,300 persons reportedly, was surprisingly light. Some were already construing their deliverance as a great ‘miracle’ owed to the beneficent ‘protection of the Blessed Virgin’ when, a few hours later, a huge tidal wave swept in from the sea, completing the destruction of Callao and, according to José Eusebio Llano Zapata (1721–80), Peru’s foremost naturalist at the time, drowning a further 9,000 inhabitants mostly outside the city proper. In all, calculated Llano Zapata, the quake and its aftermath cost around 13,000 lives.
None of this, of course, prevented the status of several saints as protectors against earthquakes and their effects rising impressively. Callao’s destruction and that of Lima, the aftershocks of which lingered for two years, also set the scene in another sense, fixing the terms in which the wider question of how to purge society of the devastating sins that were held to have caused the calamity was debated. There were reportedly a few sceptics in Peru who regarded the whole business in a philosophical light. But what the Lima aftermath chiefly showed was that the slightest unwillingness to defer to how the common people and clergy understood matters, in public, meant crushing retribution, since most believed that dissenters, deists, and freethinkers endangered everybody’s safety. This theme infuses Diderot’s short heroic tale of Don Pablo, a literary re-enactment of the real Don Pablo de Olavide, a Lima administrative official and the foremost Peruvian enlightener. Diderot’s ‘Olavide’, likewise a native of Lima whose mother, father, and a sister all died in the catastrophe, judged it right to use the money left unclaimed by the dead and bereaved for defraying reconstruction costs, and built a theatre where the citizenry could dissipate the melancholy impression of the catastrophe they survived. The clergy, though, disapproved and, as Diderot put it, blighted Olavide’s career by reporting him to Madrid as a public malefactor.
An official account of the Peruvian disaster published on the viceroy’s orders, at Lima, was reissued, later in 1746, in Mexico City and then at Madrid and Lisbon, and subsequently reissued in French and in English, the latter at London, in 1748, and then Philadelphia. Such publications reflected not just the transatlantic public’s fascination with these awesome occurrences but also the mounting disputes over their significance. Protestants saw the calamity as the hand of divine vengeance exacting retribution for the profligacy and idolatry of the Catholic Church. Peru’s inhabitants, loyal Catholics terrified by the catastrophe, acknowledged that such a terrible occurrence must be divine retribution. From the outset, they responded with fervent religious processions and displays of faith. Preachers redoubled their efforts to bring the people to repentance and submission to God’s will. The people’s awe was further heightened, five years later, by news, relayed to Madrid and throughout Spain’s empire by the viceroy in Peru, that all the towns in Chile—Santiago, Valparaiso, and La Concepción—had been decimated by violent earth tremors on the night of 24 May 1751, followed by a massive tsunami. All the churches, monasteries, and other buildings of La Concepción collapsed, with scarcely a house left standing. This city too was refounded at a site several miles away in a more protected position, in January 1752.
Never before in mankind’s history had there been anything like so wide a transatlantic awareness and response to a string of such terrible catastrophes, and this helped prepare the public psychologically, theologically, and philosophically for the still vaster catastrophe, in November 1755, of the Lisbon earthquake. Many eyewitnesses of the latter, when caught in the first tremors, instantly recalled reading of ‘the miserable fate of Callao in the Spanish West Indies’. In Peru, news of the great Lisbon earthquake evoked terrible memories and also, despite the doubters, recharged the people’s deep emotional response and religious trust. In a pastoral letter to his archdiocese of 20 September 1756, Lima’s archbishop, Don Antonio de Barroeta, pronounced the Lisbon catastrophe, which wrought spectacular damage along the entire Portuguese coast and in the Bay of Cadiz, to be wholly due to ‘divine justice’ and punishment for men’s sins, albeit retribution administered with ‘gran misericordia’ [great merciful loving kindness]. Earthquakes occurred more frequently in Upper and Lower Peru than in Spain or Portugal, he admitted, but this was because Peru’s sins outweighed those of Iberia. Peru would suffer less were it less prone to concupiscence and immodesty (especially in women’s dress).
The archbishop’s main aim in issuing his edict was to ‘confound those who, esteemed by philosophers, attribute earthquakes to subterranean volcanic eruptions and fires’, bitterly rebuking all who alleged purely natural causes for such disasters. By the 1740s, the Spanish American Church had begun to feel seriously troubled by Enlightenment ideas, although the Church could still count on undeviating support from the great mass of loyal Catholics who were expressly commanded not to heed ‘the philosophers’. The chief culprit was Llano Zapata, Lima’s leading bibliophile, a naturalist prone to scorn popular credulity and regarded by some as of an impious disposition. The illegitimate son of a priest, he was in any case an enlightener and, in particular, a defender of Buffon’s theory of earthquakes as due to subterranean conflagrations. But only a handful were susceptible to Llano Zapata’s views, most Peruvians being far more impressed by the visions of a renowned local abbess, Mother Theresa de Jesus, who since the 1730s had regularly prophesied that Lima’s lewdness would provoke divine devastation on a terrifying scale.
‘The true subterranean fire’, decreed the archbishop, ‘is the lasciviousness burning in men’s hearts; the true volcano is concupiscence.’ Only by building an edifice of true Catholic virtue could further such terrible calamities be prevented. Denunciation of ‘the philosophers’ for rebelling against God and Church by denying that earthquakes were necessarily intended by divine providence may have been one of the discouragements along with lack of books, scientific discussion, and publishing opportunities that induced Llano Zapata, in 1750, to leave his native Peru and start out on an arduous migration via Chile, Buenos Aires, and Brazil to Cadiz where he arrived just after the earthquake there. In Spain, he hoped, he would at last be able to publish his hugely detailed account of the flora, fauna, and minerals of Ibero- America, as well as benefit from the recently founded royal observatory, college of surgery, and other royal institutions recently established in Cadiz to promote Enlightenment science. A man of moderation, Llano Zapata sought to reconcile upto- date science with faith, promoting Enlightenment and knowledge of the New World on both sides of the Atlantic. But his hopes were dashed and his magnum opus remained unpublished not only during his lifetime but, in its full version, until the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, he did not forget Peru; but his attempt, beginning in 1758, to institute a public library in Lima to counter the ignorance and indolence of the city’s Spanish youth by which many ‘very fine minds are being lost’ also came to nothing.
Not long after Lima’s archbishop issued his decree, John Wesley (1703–91), organizational genius of the Methodist movement in Britain and America, published his Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon (1756), composed in the autumn of 1755 at the urging of several followers. He too viewed the Lisbon catastrophe as a sign of divine displeasure, albeit in his opinion, unlike the archbishop’s, God was angry with Portugal for its intolerance towards Protestants and hosting the Inquisition. Like the archbishop, though, Wesley saw no particular reason to single out earthquakes: all catastrophes without exception, including the wars of the age, were evident signs of divine anger. To Wesley, admonitory signs abounded everywhere. For example, a series of minor tremors had been felt in February 1750, throughout Britain and Ireland: the earth ‘shook and reeled to and fro like a drunken man’—clear warnings to the godless to repent. ‘Why should we not now, before London is as Lisbon, Lima, or Catania [where an earthquake buried tens of thousands in 1693], acknowledge the hand of the Almighty arising to maintain his own cause?’ ‘Many thousands’, he reminded readers, ‘went quick into the pit, at Callao and Lima.’ The 1750 seismological reverberations indicated that divine anger was focusing on English no less than Peruvian and Portuguese depravity so that London and other cities could scarcely expect that further ‘marks of God’s displeasure’ would be long in coming. Earthquakes for Wesley were explicable only as divine punishment of some and admonition summoning the rest to submit and humble themselves before it was too late.
An immensely popular preacher and theologian, Wesley, though sometimes claimed to be ‘a man of the Enlightenment’, was actually a leading precursor of Counter-Enlightenment in the transatlantic, English-speaking world. A fervent believer in miraculous healings as well as providence, visions, witchcraft, and ghosts, the philosophes he considered enemies of God. If he admired Locke’s thought, especially his religiosity and Englishness, he roundly repudiated every other great Enlightenment thinker, reviling Voltaire, considering Montesquieu ‘dry, dull, unaffecting and unentertaining: at least to all but Frenchmen’, and dismissing Buffon’s natural history as ‘atheism barefaced’, ranking the great naturalist well below Hume who at least, or so he supposed (by no means unreasonably), acknowledged the being of a God. Yet in Britain too there were ‘philosophers’ out to subvert accepted thinking. Exactly the opposite view to his had earlier been expressed by the Scots republican Thomas Gordon in his A Letter of Consolation and Counsel to the Good People of England Occasioned by the Late Earthquake (1750).
Many had been terrified by the tremors and preachers had built on this fear in their sermons; Gordon, a publicist inspired in particular by Bayle and Collins, strove to calm such apprehensions. No one was being punished by the Almighty or was destined to be cast into the pit. Far from being indications of divine wrath or pending doom, the tremors were the outcome of purely natural causes. Do not earthquakes sweep the guilty and innocent alike, he insisted, echoing Spinoza, to destruction? They cannot be divine vengeance because they are indiscriminate and preceded by no clear admonitions. ‘Divine warnings against particular places and particular sins cannot be dumb and unintelligible; cannot be sent by God to men, yet not be understood by men, like a law made not to be understood, therefore impossible to be observed, yet fraught with penalties, and worthy not only of a tyrant, but of the worst, the most cruel tyrant. Would it not be blasphemy to father such a diabolical ordinance upon the merciful God?’
By 1750, the three irreconcilable positions of Counter-Enlightenment, moderate mainstream, and Radical Enlightenment with respect to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, epidemics, and tsunamis were already clearly staked out. For the first, they were always directed by divine providence for a purpose—to admonish and chastise; for the second, they were sometimes purely natural and sometimes divinely directed; for the third, they were always due to natural causes alone. Between these three irreconcilable positions no compromise was possible, philosophically, theologically, or scientifically. There was no spectrum of intermediate positions; and of the three, the moderate mainstream certainly had to work hardest to sound coherent. But if ‘l’affreuse catastrophe de la capitale du Portugal’, of November 1755, did not change the terms of the transatlantic debate, it greatly amplified it, transforming the post-1755 earthquake controversy into a transatlantic scientific theologico-philosophical furore of an intensity that eclipsed anything of the sort seen before. Not only did it prompt more printed discourses than any other calamity of the age but, as Jaucourt states in the Encyclopédie, it inspired on all sides diverse ‘reasonings’ among the scientifically inclined.
It was at 9.30 on All Saints’ Day morning, 1 November 1755, with Lisbon’s streets thronged with people and ‘all the altars in the churches lighted up with many wax candles’ and ‘just at the time that they were fullest of people’, that disaster struck. The initial shock brought down most of the city’s fifty monasteries and convents as well as other large buildings ecclesiastical and secular. The Spanish ambassador was crushed to death amid the ruins of his embassy. ‘The populace, it seems’, recorded an English eyewitness, ‘were all full of the notion that it was the Judgement-Day; and willing therefore to be employed in good works, loaded themselves with crucifixes and saints; men and women, without distinction, during the intervals between the shocks, were either singing litanies, or with a fervour of zeal stood harassing the dying with religious ceremonies; and whenever the earth trembled, all on their knees ejaculated, ‘Misericordia!’ in the most doleful accents imaginable.’ Apprehensive that being a Protestant might spell danger, this bystander dreaded ‘the approach of every person’.
The violent tremors also started fires that inflicted more damage than the quake itself, consuming the newly finished opera house along with many luxurious noble palaces barely damaged by the shocks. Most people, having fled into the streets, ‘lifted up their suppliant hands to heaven, invoking the blessed Virgin’, all expressing ‘revulsion at the sins of their past life’, confessing to the priests, begging ‘pardon of the incensed Deity, and ran from place to place trembling with fear, and making the air resound with their mournful cries’. The young Oratorian priest Pereira de Figueiredo, in his Commentario sobre o terremoto e incendio de Lisboa (1756), an account later published in London also in an English version, intermixed with reporting the grim facts fulsome praise of the authorities’ efficiency and the aristocracy’s magnanimity in helping restore the shattered city and reports of several heartening miracles, especially wondrous escapes of sacred relics.
The conflagration lasted a week, consuming the merchants’ warehouses and whole libraries as well as most of the city’s ecclesiastical and aristocratic art treasures and the royal palace. ‘All the heart of the city, the richest part of it,’ recorded an English eyewitness, ‘was burnt.’ Worse than the tremors and the flames was the horrendous tsunami with seismic tidal waves twenty feet high racing in from the sea, an hour afterwards, engulfing the city from the south-west, sweeping many of the already injured to their deaths against walls or in the sea. Many survivors fled inland seeking shelter in more elevated terrain. As far west as the Azores the seas were violently agitated. Paralysed with shock, many were greatly consoled, though, that all the royal family including the princes of the blood and leading nobles were unharmed. What better proof that divine providence was at work? Next followed chronic food and water shortage and epidemics, causing a breakdown of normality and degree of demoralization barely conceivable. Some accounts later placed the total number of dead as high as 70,000, though Jaucourt, in his Encyclopédie article, avers the conservative figure, accepted today, of between 15,000 and 20,000.
Days later, the first harrowing accounts appeared in Europe’s press, graphically depicting catastrophe and spiritual anguish alike. The Berlinische Nachrichten carried the story already on 11 November. Once newspaper reports spread, the catastrophe became the talk of the cafés in all the capitals. Not the least commented on feature of the disaster was that some 40 million cruzados of merchandise, belonging to English merchants, had gone up in flames in Lisbon’s warehouses, a circumstance that deepened London’s sense of involvement and spurred dispatch of a relief fleet carrying money, grain, clothes, shoes, blankets, and 6,000 barrels of salt meat that reached Lisbon early in January 1756.
Besides Portugal, the disaster caused heavy damage in Andalusia and, as both Voltaire and d’Holbach noted, Morocco. At Seville, some 6 per cent of all buildings were destroyed and most larger buildings damaged. In the Bay of Cadiz, recorded the authorities’ investigating team, the ensuing tsunami crushed or drowned about 1,200 persons (including a grandson of the great tragedian Racine). In the city of Cadiz, the raging sea breached the formidable fortifications and began flooding the streets, the spot where a great ‘miracle’ occurred when a priest holding an image of the Virgin and crucifix barred the water’s path and reversed the flood being commemorated to this day. Beyond Cadiz, the coastline was lashed by the tsunami which, in Morocco, wrecked buildings at Tangiers, Larache, and Salé. Meknes, Fez, and Tetuan too suffered the deaths of thousands. But here again there were unmistakable signs of divine providence at work, the Franciscan friars at Meknes being greatly consoled to see that while many mosques and synagogues collapsed all Christian buildings survived intact. Equally, while nearly all Catholics, thankfully, were saved by ‘divine providence’, ‘infinite’ numbers of Muslims were crushed. ‘Divine justice’ was especially evident, enthused one friar writing from Meknes, in the heavy losses inflicted on the ‘infamous’ Jews.
The tremors were also felt, albeit much less strongly, in Catalonia, and parts of southern France. The canals of Holland and lakes of Switzerland, as well as Loch Lomond, in Scotland, quivered dramatically, with the seas around western Spain, Morocco, and Ireland being whipped up all almost simultaneously, and around Jamaica some nine hours later. In Portugal, the psychological scars long lingered. Visiting Lisbon in the mid 1760s, the Milanese radical philosophe Gorani devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the Lisbon catastrophe; Alfieri, the pre-eminent Italian poet of the age, in 1770 described how his initial joy over the city’s impressive setting ‘quickly turned into melancholy and sorrow’ on glimpsing from closer by heaps of rubble still disfiguring many streets, ‘particularly in the lower part of the city’.
Much was hard to explain. ‘The greatest shock to pious souls on this occasion’, observed Pereira de Figueiredo, ‘was the matter of the sacred images, some of which were completely torn to pieces, others buried in the ruins and others consumed by the flames,’ including some of the holiest in the city. Yet, for most, the Lisbon disaster conclusively proved both divine retribution for sins and miraculous intercession and hugely stimulated interest in wonder workings and miraculous rescue as well as cult rivalries in Portugal, Peru, and Spain alike between competing saints as protectors. As rescuers of earthquake victims, and spiritual pillars of endangered buildings, San Egmidio gained ground as, among female saints, did Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, locally reputed in Seville to have propped up the famous Giralda tower on this, as on previous occasions. The Jesuits sponsored a saint of their order, Francisco Borja, as the ‘perfect advocate’ of those beseeching help, while the Oratorians proclaimed the unique capacities of San Felipe Neri. Non-Catholics were equally convinced of the directing hand of providence. ‘A remarkable providence seems to have distinguished the Protestants,’ enthused an English eyewitness, in November 1755, for among numerous foreign Protestants ‘settled in Lisbon, only about 12 or 14 are missing, some of whom were saved in a miraculous manner, beyond all hope or expectation of escaping’.
Doubtless, all this was only to be expected. For earthquakes, like storms and epidemics, as Spinoza explains, in the first part of his Ethics, have always been thought to happen ‘because the gods (whom men judge to be of the same nature as themselves) are angry due to wrongs done to them by men, or sins committed in their worship. And though their daily experience contradicted this, and infinitely many examples showed that fortunate and unfortunate things happen indiscriminately to the pious and impious alike, men do not on that account abandon their longstanding prejudice. It is easier for them to put this among the other unknown things whose purpose they are ignorant of, and so remain in the state of ignorance in which they were born, rather than cancel that whole construction and think up a new one.’38 Nature for Spinoza, as afterwards for Diderot, d’Holbach, and their many other disciples, is something blind that lacks conscious purpose. In a cosmos governed by a blind nature, human morality is transformed into something very different from what it is when based on theology. From commands divinely imposed under the threat of vengeance, morality in their hands became a set of rules, entailing the surrender of part of each individual’s natural freedom in exchange for greater discipline, collaboration, and solidarity, and hence capacity to survive, for both the individual and the group.
How could science and philosophy intervene without violating the terms in which the clergy and people understood matters? Among the first Iberian writers to modify conventional notions was a Catalan scholar, Juan Luis Roche (1718–94), at Puerto de Santa Maria in the Bay of Cadiz. A naturalist interested in earthquakes as natural phenomena, Roche published an open letter to the learned academies of which there were now several in Spain. By stressing the role of divine providence in protecting the port of Santa Maria and adducing natural factors to explain only the physical mechanics of earthquakes, carefully distinguishing this from the issue of why, when, and where they strike, he more or less plausibly reconciled science with the popular and theological standpoint. For him too divine providence directed the basic course of the catastrophe. The 350-foot-high Giralda, the most famous medieval Moorish monument surviving in Seville, adjoining the cathedral, remained intact, he agreed, when the city’s other towers collapsed, precisely due to Santa Rufina and divine intercession.
Two main scientific explanations were available at the time for those admitting exclusively natural causes together with those deeming the intention supernatural but the process natural. Roche promoted one of these, expounding the reasoning of Spain’s most venerable Enlightenment savant, the Benedictine of Oviedo, Benito Jerónimo Feijóo (1676–1764). Based on letters from Feijóo of December 1755, Roche publicized the latter’s opinions under the title Nuevo systema sobre la causa physica de los terremotos (Puerto de Santa Maria, 1756), attributing earthquakes to electricity. The first to introduce electricity into the Iberian debate, Feijóo had broadly adopted the hypothesis of the Italians Andrea Bina and Father Giambattista Beccaria (1716–81), a Turin-based naturalist internationally renowned for ingenuity in devising electrical contraptions and experiments, not to be confused with the still more celebrated Beccaria of Milan. According to Beccaria’s and Feijóo’s theory of earthquakes, it was ‘electric matter’, as Priestley put it, ‘which occasioned them’.
This materia eléctrica, held Feijóo, ‘lodged deep in the bowels of the earth’ seeking outlets to the surface through networks of underground caverns where it was prone to explode pockets of combustible gases connected by subterranean but geographically far removed passages, a concept linked, especially by Beccaria, to theories of volcanic eruptions and to Franklin’s and his hypothesis that lightning emanates from electrically charged atmospheric states in clouds. Only electricity, contended Feijó o, could explain the simultaneous occurrence of earthquake tremors at far distant points, in 1755 at Cadiz and Oviedo, for example, towns 500 miles apart. The rival theory, that of spontaneous gaseous conflagrations igniting explosions under the earth’s surface, seemed incapable of explaining this simultaneity of tremors at widely disparate points.
If for some ‘all these things are purely natural and accidental, the result of natural causes’, in Wesley’s disapproving words,44 scarcely anyone dared publicly proclaim this position. Even the midway stance, balancing science and theology, encountered massive opposition in Iberia. In two detailed letters from Spain, of April and July 1756, sent to the Journal encyclopédique of Liège—a journal banned in Spain—one commentator, praising Spain’s Bourbon monarchy for energetically promoting the Enlightenment, emphasized the difficulties men of science still confronted. Spain had made impressive progress in recent decades, granted this correspondent. The royal library inMadrid was now open to the public daily. After founding a public school of anatomy and a botanical garden, the crown had added a museum of natural history and other facilities for science. Innumerable admirers of Locke and Newton daily plied churchmen with assurances that science and philosophy properly conceived constitute a separate sphere in no way conflicting with faith and revelation but in harmony with them. But Spain still lagged behind other lands in the pace of her Enlightenment, and the country’s many out-and-out defenders of church authority still replied that such thinking ‘conduit au matérialisme’, threatening their adherents with the arm of the Inquisition. Several scientific treatises discussing the earthquake had already appeared. But their authors, reported the Journal encyclopédique—Francisco Moreana, Fernando Amenda, and the Salamanca professor Tomas Moreno—had all been as apprehensive as Anaxagoras, offering their views only tentatively, as a hypothesis, to avoid persecution continually emphasizing the providential aspects of the catastrophe. Yet, despite expressly asserting that earthquakes are divine providence in action, all three had been denounced as ‘impies’.Men of science in Spain, though growing in number, were more intimidated than elsewhere and, hence, more guarded in their explanations, most of their countrymen refusing to see anything in earthquakes but the hand of God operating ‘d’une manière miraculeuse’ and ultimately one consoling to men.
Private resentment at and opposition to the sway of ordinary men’s thinking, consequently, was welling up within the Iberian Peninsula just as elsewhere. Indeed, much of the interest of the European-wide controversy during the years 1755–9 derived precisely from this growing theologico-philosophical split between the ‘philosophers’ and the people. Here was an issue in which the common people were greatly concerned, that could be decided, according to the enlightened, only by way of science and ‘philosophy’; but everywhere most disagreed. A leading participant in the Spanish debate was Don Joseph Cevallos (1726–76), a future rector of Seville university and member of the Madrid Real Academia de la Historia, a naturalist who collaborated with Roche in publishing the Nuevo systema. An admirer of Feijóo eager to explain the mechanics of earthquakes in natural terms, Cevallos too sought to combine science with divine intervention albeit remaining sceptical about Feijóo’s electricity theory. In February 1757, Cevallos published a ninety-six-page treatise professing great respect for the purely theological interpretation proclaimed by the bishop of Guadix and other church leaders, but insisting, with a discreet mix of deference and firmness, theology could by no means dispense with the assistance of science when evaluating earthquakes. For in part earthquakes were natural events as was proved by the indications of underwater upheaval far from the coast, the tidal wave’s striking Lisbon an hour after the tremors, and widely dispersed tectonic repercussions registered huge distances away, besides prolonged aftershocks spreading in a regular pattern in all directions, demonstrating an interlinked chain of natural movements in space and time. Such phenomena plainly conform more to a mechanistic chain of physical cause and effect than a providential sequence.
Cevallos advanced his scientific hypothesis cogently while continuously combining naturalistic, philosophical explanation with prevailing religious notions, scrupulously avoiding any appearance of challenging the received framework of theological and popular sentiment. A mid-way position between that of the materialistas and non-providential Deistas falsely contending that earthquakes are never supernatural events, on the one hand, and the dogma that they are always supernatural events, on the other, and sharply differentiated from both, is certainly tenable, contended Cevallos. It was precisely by denouncing in the most categorical terms the Spinozistic thesis that no earthquake or other natural disaster can be supernaturally intended by any deity as retribution for men’s sins that this enlightener won the narrow space enabling him to state the moderate Enlightenment’s viewpoint. Cevallos, like Feijóo, continually reminded readers that philosophia experimental was expressly sanctioned in Spain by the Church, universities, and the Inquisition. The most exacting religious orthodoxy conceivable had no objection to the doctrines of Locke and Newton.
The theological evidence, all relevant passages in Scripture and the Church Fathers, likewise prove, held Cevallos, that an earthquake ‘is not always produced as una especial providencia [as a special providence] to express God’s anger nor always caused by sins’.51 If some earthquakes are supernatural in character and intended by God to punish men, others, including that of 1755, were not supernatural events, though admittedly this creates a practical problem for clergy needing to know how to interpret particular earthquakes for their congregations.52 How were scholars to differentiate natural from supernatural earthquakes? The distinguishing mark of the purely natural quake, he proposed, is absence of theologically charged preliminaries such as prophetic predictions by known holy men or saints. When determining whether a quake is natural or preternatural, philosophers and theologians must ascertain whether prior predictions of divine retribution for specific actions occurred or a people or ruler had been warned against some particular profanation. It was also necessary to ascertain whether purely natural circumstances might have caused the quake and for this theologians must consult fisicos, experts in natural history.

© Jonathan Israel 2011

MINDBOOKSATH : athenaeum