“If there is to be meaning in the world, we need to put it there”

The Way We Live Now: The Moral Cataclysm
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 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/16/magazine/16WWLN.html?ex=1107341509&ei=1&en=bc73a7b2756ad5bd, but you have to pay for archive access to read it.)

Cur­rent Mood: 🤔thought­ful
Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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