The Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View

March 2000 (VOL. 18, NO. 1)

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Disasters are usually identified as having occurred at a particular time and place, but they also occur at a particular time in human history and within a specific social and cultural context. Consequently, it is appropriate to call the Lisbon earthquake the first modern disaster (Dynes 1999). Certainly, earlier history records many instances of geophysical events, and the differences among such events were typically explained by variations in their physical intensity. However, the Lisbon earthquake occurred at a time and a place which made it a part of the debate over modernity. Its location in Europe made it a topic in the intellectual debates of the times. These debates had greater impact on the changing cultural context than the physical intensity of the earthquake might imply. The earthquake occurred when there were many strains between tradition and new ideas about progress. It was a time when traditional ideas and institutions were being challenged, when nation states were being created, and when rivalries among states led to tensions and conflict. Further, it was a time when the bonds of traditional religious authority were being challenged by a growing enthusiasm for intellectual freedom and for reason. These major political and institutional shifts were reflected in the meanings that were assigned to the Lisbon earthquake.