So God punished Washington! Could that be? I suppose there has to be a way of making sense of the senseless, i.e. natural disasters.
However, there is a problem. Just which Washington did God punish? A Republican Washington or a Democratic Washington? And to make matters worse, which God meted out this punishment? I was raised to think there was only one God, but I have since realized that people pray to different Gods.
French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote his masterful Candide ou l’Optimisme in 1759, shortly after Lisbon suffered an earthquake and a tsunami that killed between fifty to one hundred thousand persons. Candide, the main character of Voltaire’s witty picaresque tale (picaresque because of its forever-travelling and motley characters) is a naïve young man.
Candide was raised in the Castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, in Westphalia, Germany, and is probably the illegitimate son of the Baron’s sister. One day Candide is chased out of Paradise, the Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh, when he is caught kissing Mademoiselle Cunégonde, the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s beautiful daughter.
At one point in the novel, the naïve Candide just happens to be in Lisbon with his mentor, Pangloss, on the very day, November 1st, 1755, Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake and a tsunami that claimed nearly one hundred thousand lives.
Candide and Pangloss survive, but Candide cannot understand why such a disaster has befallen the citizens of Lisbon. Fortunately, his beloved mentor Pangloss, a disciple of Leibniz (1646-1716), reassures him by saying, as he always does, that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds: “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles.”
It is unlikely that Lisbon’s Great Earthquake and Tsunami alone, if at all, moved Voltaire to write Candide. Voltaire was the most prominent among the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, and philosophers usually discuss philosophy, not current events. However, the earthquake had to be on Voltaire’s mind or it is unlikely he would have led his characters to the site of the disaster at the very moment said disaster occurred: kairos, or time in its vertical and opportune dimension, rather than chronos, the unaging and horizontal dimension of time.
Although he was a lumière, Voltaire was also a deist, albeit unconvincingly, and very much aware of the human condition. Late in his relatively long life (he died at the age eight-four), Voltaire wrote that he was “slowly nearing the moment when philosophers and idiots suffer the same fate.” “J’approche tout doucement du moment où les philosophes et les imbéciles ont la même destinée.” Death was the equalizer.
But unlike Pascal, a believer who tended to fear reason, Voltaire was a “philosophe” guided by reason alone. So it was as a “philosophe,” i.e. he felt no angst, that he accepted, humorously and with considerable wit, that humans were mortals who knew they were mortals. Moreover, he undoubtedly did so while dining at the table of some great aristocrat or prince. He loved luxury.
Voltaire was nevertheless an outspoken advocate of equality, justice and tolerance and was emprisoned for his views. He is therefore considered as a precursor of the French Revolution. But not for one second, however brief, would he have understood the “terreur,” or the year 1793, when both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were summarily guillotined.
Yet, although he places Candide and Pangloss in Lisbon on the day of the Great Earthquake and Tsunami of 1755, it is unlikely Voltaire would have seen this enormous disaster as a manifestation of God’s disapproval of anything or anyone.
As for last week’s earthquake and hurricane Irene, these were natural disasters and natural disasters cannot be prevented nor do they take sides. Because meteorologists can now follow the path of hurricanes and measure their velocity, the rich could flee from Irene, which would not have been possible before satellites were built. But God could not have discriminated between Republicans and Democrats as both are temporary denizens of Washington. Besides, if there are several Gods, they are probably fighting among one another. Godliness is in trouble.
When, after trials and tribulations galore, Candide is reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, she is no longer the beautiful Cunégonde of yesteryear, but literally repulsive. Candide marries her regardless, but has learned that all is not for the best in the best of possible worlds, and that he had better stick to cultivating his garden: “il faut [we must] cultiver notre jardin.“
So my question remains. Just which Washington did last week’s earthquake and hurricane Irene punish? Furthermore, just which God (money being the mightiest) held the rod?