Lessons from earthquakes: there isn't always someone to blame When the earth goes from under our feet, we'd rather feel guilty than helpless

It is an enduring human wish to give some sort of moral meaning to everything
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"Lisbon which is no more, was it really more vicious Than London or than Paris, plunged in all that's delicious?

Yet Lisbon is in ruins, while in Paris they dance ..."

THIS IS part of Voltaire's "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster". He wrote it after the earthquake of 1 November 1755, which destroyed most of the city and killed - by collapse, fire or tidal wave - something like 15,000 people. With this poem, he managed to smash a hole right through 18th-century assumptions about a benevolent God and sinful mortals.

Nobody, I think, will write poems about the Kobe earthquake last week. It could be said to challenge plenty of late-20th-century assumptions, some of them about the benevolent free market and the sinfulness of state intervention. But who wants to take the challenge up? "The Kobe earthquake is dreadful, but tells us nothing we don't already know." That is the line. And that was the line in 1755 until Voltaire wrote his verses.

As the dust settled over Lisbon's ruins and the waters drained back into the Tagus, two voices were heard. One was practical. The Marquis de Pombal was a brutal but creative genius ("he has a hairy heart" said the king of Portugal, who was terrified of him). Pombal was not interested in "why" speculations about the earthquake, which he considered a normal natural disaster. His business was to mobilise the nation and to rebuild Lisbon - the marvellous 18th-century city we see today is his.

But the other voice, or chorus of voices, was pious. It proclaimed that the earthquake had been God's punishment on the city and that the Christian response should not be bricklaying but passive repentance. Pombal had one of these preachers strangled in public. It did no good. The idea that God had struck Lisbon down because he hated its people retained its gloomy grip on the European imagination, until Voltaire launched his attack.

The row that followed has never really ceased to smoulder - or to produce after-shocks. It is best summarised in TD Kendrick's short classic The Lisbon Earthquake (1956), and it is about the enduring human wish to make sense of everything - to give even a cataclysm of nature some sort of moral meaning. At one extreme, it's "don't tell me there's no connection between the bishop preaching that left-wing sermon, and lightning setting fire to York Minster". At the other, supposedly sophisticated extreme, it's "we name the guilty men at Kobe: the town planners and the emergency services!".

Voltaire, first in the poem and then, much more famously, in his novel Candide, said that the agony of the people of Lisbon was a meaningless atrocity. The idea that a loving God had anything to do with it was obscene. So was the notion - also basically religious - that all that happens is pre-ordained by an Agency which is benign, so that all that happens must be for the best. (This was aimed at the philosopher Leibniz, whose views are guyed in Candide by the immortal Professor Pangloss.) The truth wasthat God was silent, and that nature had no message for us: "... Elements, creatures, humans: all are at war; We have to admit it: Evil dwells on this earth."

But this was too much for Voltaire's much younger rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His whole view of life and politics depended on the assumption that human beings were not helpless and innocent but - on the contrary - independent beings who could take control of their destinies for better or worse. The Lisbon earthquake, or rather Voltaire's use of it, terrified him. So, being (as I see him) the prize intellectual creep of all time, Rousseau fell back on exactly the sort of pseudo-rationality that some people are now using about the Kobe earthquake.

Lisbon had indeed been a punishment, Rousseau said. Not for sin or anything boring or old-fashioned like that. But for stupidity and incompetence. In his open letter to Voltaire, Rousseau pointed out that humans, not Nature, had crammed 20,000 houses, some six or seven stories high, into one small site. Enlightened town planning, with low-rise housing over a far wider area, would have avoided most of the casualties. And many Lisbon people, he went on, had brought about their own deaths by their own greed, hanging around in the ruins to hunt for their possessions until they were killed by the next tremor.

It is not that this reasoning is false in itself. If Japanese cities were not so closely congested with jerry-built housing, if the greed of developers had not prevented the creation of more parks and open spaces, the appalling fires that broke out over Kobe and probably caused most of the deaths might have been limited, if not avoided. Fair enough. It is the use of this type of argument to evade the basic fact of disaster that is so disgusting.

Rousseau went on (how familiar this is, too!) to attack Voltaire personally. The old boy was an elitist, reflecting the smart pessimism of the chattering classes who were so bored with one another. He ought to meet real, plain folk - the sort of people Rousseau met because he was "an obscure, poor" punter like them - and see how much they enjoyed life. Rousseau missed a vocation as a Sunday Times leader writer. "I reflect pleasantly in my humble retreat, and what I conclude is that everything is fine."

Very much the same sort of intellectual confrontation took place in 1934, in India. A huge earthquake devastated the state of Bihar. It produced two opposite reactions from two great men: the Mahatma Gandhi, and the Bengali philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Gandhi was tramping through southern India at the time, preaching against the caste system. On hearing about the earthquake, he at once proclaimed that it was a punishment on the people for tolerating Untouchability, "a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins".

This was essentially the Rousseau position, which had also been the line of the Lisbon clerics hounded by the Marquis de Pombal. Nothing happens without good moral reasons, and human beings have themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Tagore, in cont r ast, took up the role of Voltaire. If God or Providence committed the Bihar earthquake, then they must have been monsters. "We can never imagine any civilised ruler of men making indiscriminate examples of casual victims, including children and memberso f the Untouchable community..."

Tagore surged on: "The law of gravitation does not in the least respond to the stupendous load of callousness that accumulates until the moral foundation of our society begins to show dangerous cracks... Our own sins and errors, however enormous, have not

enough force to drag down the structure of creation to ruins."

But Gandhi absolutely disagreed. There was a mystical union of matter and spirit, he said. This meant that sin could indeed ruin the structures of creation, but it allowed wise people to "use every physical catastrophe for their own moral uplifting".

Rousseau and Gandhi lost the intellectual battle, but they won the war. Can't you detect, even today, a hankering to suggest that the Japanese somehow brought this earthquake on themselves? People would rather feel guilty than helpless. They would ratherdish out blame than confront a blind universe. But the force that moves the tectonic plates under Japan comes from a darkness beyond the realms of right and wrong. As Americans used to ask, "Who won the San Francisco earthquake?".

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