March 29, 2015
Voltaire wrote a famous poem about the Lisbon Earthquake satirising the argument that all was for the best in this the best of all possible worlds, and that God’s justice was perfect because he was all-wise, all-powerful and all knowing:
What crime, what fault, have the infants committed
On the bloody and crushed maternal breast:
Had Lisbon, which is no more, more vice
Than London, than Paris, immersed in pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and we dance in Paris.
To this Rousseau returned a famous reply in a letter to Voltaire, who at the time was far more famous than he:
I cannot refrain, Sir, from remarking on the striking difference
between you and me on these matters. Full of glory and
disillusioned by vain triumphs, living in the seat of
abundance and sure of immortality, you philosophise serenely
on the nature of the soul, and if you suffer in body you have
Tronchin as doctor and friend; nevertheless, you find nothing but
evil on earth; while I, an obscure, poor man, tormented by an
illness without cure, meditate with pleasure in my retreat, and I find
that all is good.
What Rousseau meant, I think, is that whether we find life good or evil does not depend so much on the “objective” qualities of life, but on our fundamental temperament and perhaps on the Zeitgeist. A philosophy chooses us as much as we choose a philosophy. The Lisbon Earthquake had an enormous effect on European thought in the Eighteenth Century; but, after all, there had been catastrophes just as bad many times before in history. In other words, the Earthquake did not compel Voltaire’s reaction to it, and Voltaire’s poem would not have had such an impact if people were not already prepared for its impact. Of course, there is a limit as to how much one’s temperament or the Zeitgeist determines one’s world outlook; there are some personal experiences so overwhelming that, as a result, one’s attitude to existence changes by 180 degrees. But most of us do not ever have such experiences.
To put it all another way, as did W S Gilbert:
Let’s rejoice with loud Fal la “ Fal la la!
That Nature always does contrive “ Fal lal la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!