The Lisbon Earthquake

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Kate McMurphy
In-class Commentary, Voltaire

One of the most destructive earthquakes in history, the Lisbon Earthquake caused a death toll between 60,000 to 100,000 people. In Voltaire’s poem on the Lisbon Disaster, Voltaire argues that God is not all fair and that this is not the best of all worlds. Voltaire’s beliefs directly oppose those during the Enlightenment and he makes his point through the horrific Lisbon Earthquake. Establishing his standpoint, Voltaire writes, “Deluded philosophers who cry, ‘All is well’”(4). Believing that other philosophers at the time lacked reason and insight, Voltaire label them as “deluded”. Making his point and clearly stating his beliefs, Voltaire then proceeds to convince the audience and apply his logic for his belief using the Lisbon Earthquake throughout the poem. In the poem, Voltaire employs the use of pathos through imagery to further stir up emotion in the reader to convince them to agree that God is unforgiving and unfair. Harsh descriptions of the earthquake such as “bleeding, lacerated, and still alive”(10), “the half-formed cries of their dying voices”(13), and “the frightful sight of their smoking ashes”(14) fill the poem. By giving a disturbing and haunting image of the disaster, the audience commiserates with the victims during the Lisbon Earthquake without much knowledge of the people itself, and thus experiences compassion towards the helpless victims. The imagery and extended descriptions puts the audience in the victim’s shoes, and without thought to the sins of the people of Lisbon, the audience unconsciously shows bias and agrees with Voltaire and his philosophies. By presenting to the reader what they wish not to happen to them, Voltaire attempts to convince the reader that the world is unfair and this is not the best of all worlds. After stirring up emotion amongst the audience, Voltaire uses rhetorical questions to prompt the reader to think about and question the common and popular philosophical...
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