The Way We Live Now: The Moral Cataclysm
By SUSAN NEIMAN
in the New York Times January 16, 2005
Disasters don’t just destroy lives; they mock them. One moment your horizon is filled with the fading glow of your last achievement, the worry whether your next will be praised or financed, the standing conflicts with your colleagues or children. The next moment you’re seared by the knowledge that five minutes or five paces one way or another made the difference between life and death.
On Dec. 26, as fishermen were picking seaweed out of nets in Sumatra, and tourists were smearing children’s shoulders with sunscreen in Thailand, Portuguese citizens were emerging from the Christmas lull to get on with planning for the 250th anniversary of the Lisbon earthquake. Europeans commemorate round numbers. Seen from outside, it’s a way of keeping history alive in public memory. Seen from inside, culture creates jobs. Nobody loses. So Lisboners were preparing the lectures and theater and art and video designed to turn the world’s attention back to the moment when the spotlight was on Lisbon.
The earthquake and tsunami that destroyed most of Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755, were probably smaller than the ones that just ravaged South Asia, but then so was the world. Between 10,000 and 60,000 people died, and the intellectual shock waves tore through Europe. For Lisbon was no backwater but a proud, wealthy, cosmopolitan port. Whoever wanted to broadcast a message throughout the Western world could have hardly picked a better spot.
What was, for its day, a global catastrophe was also, of course, low-tech. Photographers’ intrusions into the grief of stricken parents were impossible, and the woodcuts that sprang up instead now look mercifully quaint. But the shock occupied Western thinkers for years to come. This is not because they were more religious than we are. Traditional religious leaders welcomed the disaster, for it seemed to prove what they had claimed all along: God’s ways are mysterious, and nothing makes less sense than trying to decipher them. Some were puzzled that more brothels than churches were left standing, and partisans of competing sects were quick to argue that God becomes angrier at those who profane his word than at the miserable creatures who ignore it. One English pastor pointed to a sin we all recognize: ”Think, O Portugal, of the millions of poor Indians that your forefathers butchered for gold!”
But Enlightenment thinkers took broader perspectives. Though many denied the existence of a personal Creator, most believed in the wonder of Creation, which was beginning to seem intelligible. Lisbon was no worse than London or Paris. Why smash the one and spare the others? Shattered babies were inert reproaches, not only to anyone wanting to call this world the best of all possible worlds, but to anyone wanting to make sense of it at all. Lisbon rubbed people’s noses in meaninglessness, and a savvier Enlightenment emerged. No longer did nature reflect moral order. The Lisbon earthquake left a breach between humankind and its planet that has been with us ever since. Nature and reason are different in kind, and any meeting they have will be accidental. This is one idea that makes us modern.
Or so we like to think. Reactions to the recent tsunami make me wonder. Everybody who has seen it describes the wrecked expanse as a war zone. (In 1755, there were no weapons of mass destruction; only a natural catastrophe could create that much disaster in such a short time.) True, the numbers of people committed to the Enlightenment seem to get smaller by the day. They face growing competition from fundamentalist Christians who view every disaster as a harbinger of the apocalypse and from radical Islamists who find any flood that washes the beaches clean of half-nude tourists to be divine. But even modernist observers are searching for sense. Some see it as nature’s revenge for the way we have ignored her fragile balance. The tourists are not at fault for being half-naked, but for being rapacious. According to some environmentalists, cheap beachside construction, built to satisfy Europeans’ search for exotic spots in which to spend their long vacations, wrecked the coastal forests and coral reefs that might have broken the tsunami.
Our relation to moral categories is nothing if not ambivalent. We want them so badly that when natural disaster strikes, we would rather blame anyone than admit we live in a world that doesn’t reflect them. On the other hand, we’re experts in forgetting the moral responsibility we actually share. We all know the numbers: hunger and disease kill more children than any tsunami, week after week after week. Yet knowledge changes nothing if we view those deaths as a result of natural economic processes we are powerless to influence.
What emerges most clearly is the extent of our confusion. The world before Lisbon was teeming with moral categories; now we no longer know where to find them. Bush’s call for moral clarity may be a travesty of both words, but it speaks to a genuine need. People want it so badly that they are willing to project it where it’s lacking—or settle for moral simplicity instead. And we are right to beware of simplicity that offers feel-good kitsch and frank manipulation in place of moral reflection.
But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused, and we should remember Lisbon’s major lesson: if there is to be meaning in the world, we need to put it there. Contrary to cliche, no major Enlightenment thinker thought progress was inevitable. The picture of the future was often dark. Kant’s evidence of our progress was minimalist: not the French Revolution, whose outcome was uncertain, but the hopefulness observers felt when thinking of it — that was sign enough that we had made progress and might make some more. The signs coming out of the tsunami are better than that. Suddenly observers across the globe, in the face of the relief efforts, express sentiments they would very recently have been ashamed to reveal.
If it lasts a little longer, it will be the kind of thing the 18th century would call a sign of Providence.
Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum and the author of ”Evil in Modern Thought.”
(The original is at, but you have to pay for archive access to read it.)