The Human Factor, From Voltaire To Earthquake Volunteers In Turkey
The earthquake in Turkey and Syria teach us about humility in the face of what we can't control — but we also surprise ourselves in responding to crisis.
PARIS — A few months after the Lisbon earthquake of November 1755, which destroyed almost all of the Portuguese capital, Voltaire published a long poem meditating on the metaphysical consequences of the disaster.
"Lisbon is ruined, and they dance in Paris," he writes. Today, Turkey is devastated, and there are protests in Paris. An event of this magnitude, whose seismic wave was felt around the world, deserves more than just the grim daily count of victims — now above 45,000.
Yes, the fate of the Anatolia region, the cradle of our Indo-European languages is also ours.
Voltaire describes a wretched scene similar to what flashes across our social media feeds today: "These women, these children, piled on top of each other under these broken slabs of marble, a hundred thousand unfortunate souls devoured by the earth, who, bloody, torn, and still palpitating, buried under their roofs, end their pitiful days in the horror of torments without help."
Nearly three centuries later, concrete has replaced the marble, but humanity seems just as helpless in the face of tectonic forces. We navigate Earth like we're on a makeshift raft, always under the threat of a tidal wave.
The problem with optimists
Voltaire addresses this sense of powerlessness to the optimists and believers in divine necessity, to all those who justify the ordering of the world by the wisdom of a creating God. "You cry out that all is well, in a mournful voice: the universe contradicts you, and your own heart, a hundred times over, refutes the error."
The myth of perpetual progress has replaced that of the omniscience of the Absolute.
Against the pitfalls of post-rationalization, Voltaire advises us to give free rein to our legitimate distress. We should not be ashamed to find human existence sometimes painful, unfair, absurd.
Nowadays, the myth of perpetual progress has replaced that of the omniscience of the Absolute. In the role of optimists, techno-bliss has replaced theo-bliss. They tell us that everything will be fine, that they are about to save the world. They claim to eliminate death or tame nature, as in the Babelian project of Neom, that glass city 500 meters high and 170 kilometers long in the Saudi desert.
To correct their own excesses, they imagine even worse fantasies of geo-engineering with unpredictable consequences. Until an earthquake, a comet, or the mass extinction of living species reminds them of what we are: "A feeble compound of nerves and bones" who should learn to live with the cosmos rather than seek to master it.
Human nature rising
The current catastrophe offers us a second, more political lesson. In the early days, the state disappeared. So what happened? Did the survivors kill each other, as in American disaster movies? Quite the opposite. We read countless testimonies of heroic efforts and extraordinary devotion. Neighbors digging by hand, rescuers working until exhaustion, cities plunged into silence to hear the calls of survivors.
In a recent op-ed in the Financial Times, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak explains that, faced with the failure of the authorities, civil society organized itself, notably through NGOs like Akut or Ahbap. Rescue teams are pouring in from all over the world.
Shafak points out that these phenomena of spontaneous cooperation should not surprise readers of Rebecca Solnit's book, A Paradise Built in Hell. The anthropologist reviews large-scale natural disasters, such as the earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico, the explosion in Halifax, or the floods in New Orleans. She shows how, in the midst of chaos, close-knit communities form that transcend the individualism of modern societies. Human beings then rediscover their social animal nature, beyond hierarchies and institutions.
The Anatolia earthquake commands a double respect for nature: the nature around us, stronger than our concrete constructions, and the human nature within us that contains far more love than our nation-state constructions. As Voltaire recommended after Lisbon, it is time to listen to "the voice of nature."
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