In the year 1710 - 300 years ago - the first edition of the "Theodicy that is, Trial of the Goodness of God, Freedom of Man and of the Origin of Evil" by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) appeared in French in Amsterdam. Further editions followed, in German and several other languages. The extensive text, which wanted to deal comprehensively with a major topic in baroque style, became one of the most widely read, but also one of the most controversial books of the 18th century.
What is it about?
Theodicy is about "justifying God"; So the search for an answer to the very old question "How can God allow something like this?"
At the time, Leibniz came to the conclusion that we live in the best of all possible worlds; because "... if one of all possible worlds weren't the best, God wouldn't have created any." (4, p. 110).
Not all were and are satisfied with this line of argument. Especially when thousands, millions of apparently innocent people are cruelly killed by natural disasters or crimes committed by humans, many doubt - then as now - about God's righteousness. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries it was and is the genocide of the Armenians, the mass murders and the gulag of the Bolsheviks, the concentration camps of the National Socialists, the expulsions from the eastern regions, the atrocities of the Maoist revolution, the genocides in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Sudan or the Congo, the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as well as much more that cast doubt on the Creator and his justice.
The Lisbon earthquake
On the morning of November 1st, All Saints Day in 1755, Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, was hit by an earthquake that destroyed 85 % of all buildings. Including royal palaces, libraries and most of the churches. A tidal wave up to 15 meters high crashed into the mouth of the Tejo, bursting house doors and falling walls. With 30,000 - 90,000 fatalities (out of 275,000 inhabitants), this quake is one of the worst natural disasters in recent European history. In addition to Lisbon, the Algarve (in the south of the country) was also affected, and in Luxembourg, Scotland or Switzerland the tremors were strong enough to cause destruction. A sea wave tore ships from their anchorages in England, the Netherlands and even as far as Sweden.
The quake forced the Portuguese government to act quickly. The Enlightenment-influenced Prime Minister, later Marquês de Pombal (1699–1782), is said to have said:
"And now? Bury the dead and feed the living ”.
He immediately organized the rescue and clean-up work. He had no time to philosophize about the spiritual and religious meaning.
To do this, he had data collected about the course of the earthquake, so that it is now regarded as the forerunner of modern seismology.
The young philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was also fascinated by the quake, collected all the information available to him and looked for the natural causes.
Lisbon was rebuilt generously and well planned.
How could God let that happen?
The Lisbon earthquake was a media event across Europe. Reports and illustrated newsletters appeared in many languages. Today, at a time when catastrophe news from all over the world flickered on the screens almost continuously, we can hardly understand how deeply shaken many people were back then[i].
Central Europeans showed great solidarity with Lisbon; because almost all of the major European trading centers were connected to the Portuguese capital. The approximately 200,000 deaths that this earthquake claimed in North Africa, on the other hand, received little attention in Europe.
Then this tremendous earthquake, felt by many hundreds of kilometers away, triggered a spiritual aftershock that shook the optimism of many Enlightenment thinkers. After all, a strictly Catholic country that had campaigned for the spread of Christianity all over the world was hit hard! How did this fit in with the traditional declarations of the clergy who saw the earthquake as a “punishment from God” (5, p. 69)?[ii]
The dramatic natural event puzzled philosophers and writers. For decades, works on the subject have appeared, of which we can only mention a few examples.
Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote a poem about “The Lisbon disaster", And his novel"Candide"Is a biting satire about Leibniz 'idea of the" best of all worlds ".
Kleist (1777-1811) wrote the story, influenced by Lisbon, “The Chili Earthquake " from 1805, and Goethe (1749-1832) describes in his memoirs "From my life, poetry and truth " how he experienced the disaster as a six-year-old:
“By an extraordinary world event, however, the boy's peace of mind was deeply shaken for the first time. On November 1st, 1755, the earthquake in Lisbon struck and spread a tremendous horror over the world, which was already inhabited in peace and tranquility. A great, magnificent residence, at the same time a trading and port city, is unexpectedly struck by the most terrible misfortune. The earth trembles and sways, the sea roars, the ships collapse, the houses collapse, churches and towers overhang them, the royal palace is partly swallowed up by the sea, the cracked earth seems to spew flames: for smoke is being heard everywhere and fire in the ruins ... "
Many doubted the "best of all worlds ", by his conviction that one can understand the usefulness of nature with human reason and thus recognize the good, reasonable God. In the eyes of some critics - especially Voltaire - that was now over.
Even after 1945, under the influence of the horrors of the Second World War, similarly skeptical thoughts were expressed again. Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) saw an analogy between the Lisbon earthquake and the Holocaust. In 1966 he wrote in the magazine “Negative Dialektik” that the Lisbon earthquake was enough to cure Voltaire of Leibniz's theodicy (6).
Perhaps no one expressed the emotional shocks caused by the earthquake more beautifully than Goethe:
“... The boy, who had to perceive all this repeatedly, was not a little affected. God, the Creator and Preserver of heaven and earth, whom the declaration of the first Article of Faith so wisely and graciously presented to him, had by no means proved himself to be fatherly in abandoning the righteous and the unrighteous to destruction. In vain did the young mind try to counteract these impressions, which was all the less possible as the wise men and scribes themselves could not unite about the way in which one should look at such a phenomenon ”.
How does evil come into the world?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, i.e. in the Age of Enlightenment, there were strong anticlerical tendencies; not least because the churches did not want to accept irrefutable facts. For skeptics, the Lisbon earthquake only provided further proof of the dubiousness of religious teachings.
The very old questions about the Origin of evil, the ancient philosophers such as Epicurus (341-271 BC) were still open:
“If God wants to fix it and cannot fix it, he is incapable, which God does not;
if he can and does not want to, he is malevolent, which is far from God;
if he neither wants nor can, he is both malevolent and incapable and therefore not God;
but if he wants and can do what belongs to God alone, where does the evil come from?
Or why doesn't he fix it? " (2)
Every religion has its explanations of the existence of evil. Countless sermons, discussions, comments on the Bible, the Koran or other religious scriptures look for answers that then remain unsatisfactory.
Today we can find a more convincing approach to what is incomprehensible and inexplicable to us humans; an answer to the question of human fate, God's righteousness and the origin of evil?
Personally, I have learned that a lot becomes more understandable if you don't just talk about one Earth life of a human spirit goes out, but broadens the horizon, counts on the free will of each individual and does not expect individual justice. Then one can hope for a comprehensive, overriding, divine justice that also includes apparent coincidences. If one reads the two chapters “Responsibility” and “Fate” in the Grail Message “In the Light of Truth” in the second volume, then the understanding of the bigger picture widens. The doubts about God and his righteousness, which hardly anyone can evade, will disappear and give way to the conviction that much that still seems incomprehensible to us today will find its place in a large, comprehensive worldview of the future.
(1) Breidert Wolfgang, The Shaking of the Perfect World, Darmstadt, 1994.
(2) Epicurus, God and the misery of the world, Leipzig, 1887, p. 123.
(3) Lauer Gerhard / Unger Torsten, The Lisbon Earthquake and the Disaster Discourse in the 18th Century, German Society for Research in the 18th Century, ISBN-10: 3-8353-0267-1 / ISBN-13: 978-3 -8353-0267-9.
(4) Leibniz Gottfried Wilhelm, Theodizee, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1996. (5) Schmidt Andreas, Clouds crack, mountains tremble and the whole earth cries, Waxmann, Münster, 1999.
[i] Today, with a much larger world population, an average of 80,000 people per year are killed by natural disasters.
[ii] For the Portuguese Jesuits, the earthquake was a punishment for government-imposed reforms that the Church did not like.