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Earthquakes, the end of the world, and perspectives on the Last Judgment (1686–1756)

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This paper – inspired by the prompt in Bernard de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) that ‘suns’ may and do become extinguished, and ‘worlds’ come to an end as a result of ordinary processes of transformation in the universe – investigates an aspect of the imbrication of the ‘new science’ and religious thought in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. Firstly, it explores reports, accounts, interpretations of earthquakes (deliberately not the much discussed contributions of Enlightenment classics, but sources from learned journals, independent essays, treatises, sermons etc.) between those of Jamaica (1692) and Lisbon (1755) to assess the extent to which such calamities invited reflection on their natural causes in combination with a consideration of the possibility that they may prefigure an ‘end of the world’. Such reflections were not unusual. Secondly, the paper also attempts to establish whether the possibility of such an end of ‘this world’ also evoked, in this period, thinking that pointed towards Enlightenment as ‘the pursuit of happiness in this world, regardless of what may or may not come in the next one’. In this regard the result is rather negative: in so far as authors were concerned with larger meanings as to the kind of lives human beings are supposed to lead, preoccupation with ‘the other world’ remained highly resilient.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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