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In the history of humankind, there has rarely been a disaster like the New Orleans flood without a theodicy to go along with it. The word "theodicy," coined in the 18th century by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, derives from Greek roots invoking the "justice of the gods." A theodicy is an attempt to show that such justice exists, to prove that we really do live in what Leibniz insisted was the "best of all possible worlds."
So theodicies have been plentiful after earthquakes, floods and droughts. Explanations are readily offered: disasters are the wages of sin, they herald an apocalyptic age, they cleanse the earth of evil. Theodicies aim to demonstrate that devastation does not really disrupt or overturn our understanding of the moral and social order. Instead, disorder provides evidence of order. The theodicy is that order. It explains forces that seem to lie beyond human powers, evils that lie beyond human cause.
Theodicies are not casual matters, and in the weeks after Katrina, they are bound to evolve, even in secular culture, even when they may not resemble the ones that Leibniz had in mind. So they need to be better understood.
The classic theodicies in the West are biblical. The flood of Noah's time, for example, is a reflection of the divine will, cleansing the earth of humanity's evil. A more powerful theodicy later evolved out of the trials of the ancient Israelites, in which destruction and exile were treated not as random accidents of history, but as forms of retribution for violating the Mosaic law and its ethical consequences. Suffering could become proof of divine attention and not its opposite.
Scholars like Norman Cohn have shown how in medieval Europe the worst human trauma could be interpreted as proof of imminent apocalypse and redemption, inspiring millennial expectations and movements. Meanwhile, the theodicy of divine retribution still thrives today and was invoked by some fundamentalist believers after Katrina.
But between medieval Europe and contemporary America something profound changed in the way natural disasters are interpreted and the kinds of theodicies they inspire. And one of the turning points, as many scholars have argued, was the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. It destroyed perhaps a third of the city's population, with deaths in the tens of thousands. It overturned the confidence of European royalty and seemed to drive a wedge between the earthly and divine realms.
For the growing forces of the Enlightenment, it also seemed to overturn the very idea that a theodicy could account for the disaster. Voltaire, who had once seen nature as benevolent, was whipped into a rationalist fury by the experience. Leibniz, he believed, had been refuted by nature. Voltaire wrote a "Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon" in which the quake's victims are called "Tormented atoms on a heap of muck/ That death devours and that fate trips up." His character Candide watches the earthquake from a distance, seeing it as morally blind, killing the good and preserving the wicked.
In a sense, the earthquake actually ended up strengthening the hand of the Enlightenment, as if a replacement theodicy had fallen into place. Kant wrote about the quake. Scientific investigation took place. The response of Portugal's prime minister to the disaster was practical, not religious. "We will bury the dead," he said, "and take care of the living."
Recently, the philosopher Susan Neiman argued in "Evil in Modern Thought" that the Lisbon earthquake also destroyed an ancient idea that nature could itself be evil. After Lisbon, she argued, moral evil was distinguished from natural disaster. Earthquakes and floods could no longer be fitted into traditional religious theodicies.
But this did not mean, of course, that theodicies faded away. Ms. Neiman argued that for philosophers theology had been replaced by history. The fates of peoples and nations reflected other forces, and disruptions were given other forms of explanation. Hegel saw history as an evolutionary series of transformations in which destruction was as inevitable as birth. Marx believed other kinds of economic and human laws accounted for destruction and evolution. This mostly left natural disasters for the growing realm of science: if they couldn't be prevented, at least their origins could be understood.
Now though, with the prospect of thousands of dead becoming plausible with reports from New Orleans, other forms of theodicy also taking shape. Much debate is taking place about the scale of human tragedy, about procedures and planning and responsibility. And none of that should be ignored. But it is remarkable how this natural disaster has almost imperceptibly come to seem the result of human agency, as if failures in planning were almost evidence of cause, as if forces of nature were subject to human oversight. The hurricane has been humanized.
I don't want to push this too far, of course; human actions, as the Portuguese prime minister knew, are crucial. But this is still an important change in our views of the natural world. In a way, it inflates human knowledge. It confidently extends scientific and political power into the realm of nature. It doesn't really explain catastrophe, but it attempts to explain why we are forced to experience it: because of human failings.
There is a theodicy at work here, in the ways in which the reaction to natural catastrophe so readily becomes political. Nature becomes something to be managed or mismanaged; it lies within the political order, not outside it. Theodicy, if successful, does not overturn belief but confirms it. So, for some commentators, the flood and its aftermath provided confirmation of their previous doubts about the Bush adminstration.
Actually, in some respects, this theodicy has gone even beyond the political: just as a religious theodicy might have shown natural catastrophe to be the result of human misdeed, many of the early commentators about the flood did the same, creating a kind of scientific/moral theodicy in which human sin is still a dominant factor. Last week, for example, Germany's minister of the environment, J?rgen Trittin, said: "The American president has closed his eyes to the economic and human damage that natural catastrophes such as Katrina - in other words, disasters caused by a lack of climate protection measures - can visit on his country."
All of these explanations are subject to examination and debate of course, but in the heart of a secular age, they are also something else. They are theodicies. And in the face of nature's awesome and horrific powers, the prospect of political retribution is as prevalent as the promise of divine retribution once was.
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