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The differences in intellectual responses to the earthquake at Lisbon and the mass murder at Auschwitz are differences not only in the nature of the events but also in our intellectual constellations.What counts as a philosophical problem and what counts as a philosophical reaction, what is urgent and what is academic, what is a matter of memory and what is a matter of meaning - all these are open to change.
Classically, it's formulated as the question: How could a good God create a world full of innocent suffering?
Such questions have been off-limits to philosophy since Immanuel Kant argued that God, along with many other subjects of classical metaphysics, exceeded the limits of human knowledge.
We want to understand just so much about them as might help us gain control.
Only traditional - that is, premodern - theists will seek in them significance.
Learning this, modern readers may feel wistful: lucky the age to which an earthquake can do so much damage.
The 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city of Lisbon, and several thousand of its inhabitants, shook the Enlightenment all the way to East Prussia, where an unknown minor scholar named Immanuel Kant wrote three essays on the nature of earthquakes for the Knigsberg newspaper. The reaction to the earthquake was as broad as it was swift.- And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.The eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz today. It takes no more than the name of a place to mean: the collapse of the most basic trust in the world, the grounds that make civilization possible.Historical reports and eyewitness testimony appeared in unprecedented volume, but conceptual reflection has been slow in coming.It cannot be the case that philosophers failed to notice an event of this magnitude.Auschwitz, by contrast, stands for all that is meant when we use the word evil today: absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation.Initially, then, no two events will strike us as more different.The mistake seems to lie in accepting the eighteenth century's use of the word evil to refer to both acts of human cruelty and instances of human suffering.That mistake might come naturally to a group of theists, who were willing to give God the responsibility for both, but it shouldn't confuse the rest of us.Voltaire and Rousseau found another occasion to quarrel over it, academies across Europe devoted prize essay contests to it, and the six-year-old Goethe, according to several sources, was brought to doubt and consciousness for the first time.The earthquake affected the best minds in Europe, but it wasn't confined to them.