Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lisbon Then, Port-au-Prince Now

After a massive earthquake destroyed Lisbon in 1755, killing tens of thousands, the notion that such events are “acts of God” came under intellectual siege. In Candide, Voltaire famously parodied the notion (associated with Leibniz) that all is for the best in this “best of all possible worlds.”

The young Immanuel Kant was fascinated by the Lisbon event, collected all the information he could about it, and proposed an early theory about the subterranean causes of earthquakes. Kant’s early effort quite rightly pointed the way to a search for natural, rather than supernatural, explanations of catastrophic events.

Today, the linguistic usage “act of God” lingers on as a catchall insurance term. No person of good will would assert, however, that God took aim at Port-au-Prince in the horrific earthquake that hit there on January 12.

The earthquake in Haiti means more misery for the poorest of the Western hemisphere’s poor. As with Voltaire and Lisbon, it has nothing to do with the best of all possible worlds. Yet, as the Haitian ambassador pleaded tonight on Charlie Rose, it could have a silver lining − if the international community comes together in a postmodern-day Marshall Plan to rebuild the devastated country.

Will it happen?

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