"After Fukushima nobody can simply carry on as usual" and claim that our nuclear plants are safe, said German chancellor Angela Merkel on 14th of March 2011, to explain the adventurous shift of her nuclear policy as a consequence of the Japan earthquake. 

This sentence also matches in a way the assessment of a catastrophe 256 years older. "After Lisbon nobody can simply carry on as before and claim that we live in the 'best of all possible worlds' " – that was, in other words, what many European intellectuals felt after the Portuguese capital had been devastated by a fatal earthquake and tsunami on 1st of November 1755.

The "best of all possible worlds" theory had been formulated by Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz in his Essai de Théodicée (1710). It was paradigmatic for the unbroken optimism the early enlightenment had embraced. Yet 39 years after Leibniz's death it was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon that undermined a central idea of his philosophy. 

But Merkel's adversaries would now object: whoever said nuclear technology was safe (before Fukushima) must have been either ignorant or a lobbyist! Just as Leibniz' posthumous opponents sneered in 1755: whoever said that we lived in the best of all possible words (before Lisbon) must have been either an idiot or a cynic! 

Published in Culturopolia
Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:00

The best of all possible worlds?

An earthquake of magnitude 9, a tsunami of 15 metres, conflagration for days. 85 percent of a blossoming metropolis is devastated, 235,000 people killed. A mental shake-up makes the foundations of age-old world views crumble, and when the initial distress dies away the world finds itself undergoing a process of deep rethinking hitherto unseen. 

This is not Fukushima, this is not the "end of the nuclear era" (Der Spiegel). This is Lisbon on the 1st of November 1755, some will later call it the "end of the optimistic enlightenment era" (Ulrich Löffler). But what the historic disaster causes is both a setback and boost of enlightenment thinking. Some of its shock-waves have shaped modern intellectual Europe – and this is mostly for its good. How could that happen?

Published in Culturopolia
IN -1773 DAYS