In 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon, killing tens of thousands of people. The French philosopher Voltaire, 60 at the time, "protested in the name of reason and the intellect against" the "scandalous dereliction of nature" that flattened three-quarters of the Portuguese capital. You may think Voltaire absurd for announcing in the course of several literary works his opposition to an earthquake. But as a character in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924) famously explains, Voltaire's denunciation of a natural event had a serious moral purpose: Voltaire would not accept that humankind must give in to fate. "Nature is force; and it is slavish to suffer force, and to abdicate before it..." For the acceptance of any kind of force -- natural, geographical, cultural, economic -- over the direction of society is an affront to "human dignity."
Nor was Voltaire unique in his opposition. In 1953, in a lecture that would be published the following year under the title "Historical Inevitability," the Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin condemned as immoral and cowardly the belief that vast impersonal forces -- again geography, natural resources, ethnic characteristics and the like -- determine our lives. Berlin had fascism and communism in his sights, in the way that they sought to deny human beings -- in the words of Berlin's biographer, Michael Ignatieff -- "their right to moral sovereignty."
What in our day gives especial poignancy to Voltaire's and Berlin's frontal attacks on fatalism is the blunt fact that the Nazi Holocaust is less than one lifetime removed from our own. Thus, policymakers have -- in the words of contemporary humanist intellectuals -- a responsibility before history: a responsibility not to succumb to fatalistic arguments rooted in geography and ethnic characteristics that may prevent them from taking action on behalf of populations threatened by war and genocide.
In fact, it is this sensibility that drives all the literary journals and pages of opinion of both the left and the right. For our opinion elite is forever arguing that we must do something -- save the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians from Slobodan Milosevic's Serbs, save the Iraqi Shia from the terror of Saddam Hussein, save the citizens of Benghazi from Moammar Gadhafi's advancing and vengeful troops, save the Syrian people from the brutality of Bashar al Assad, and so forth. And we must do something because we can do something: for we can and must overcome fate. Voltaire was right; he was not being absurd, in other words.
It is important at this juncture to realize that Voltaire and Berlin were, after all, philosophers. They could indulge in moral abstractions and absolutes. They could talk about man's responsibility before history without having to face voters in the next election. For voters are defined as citizens occupying a specific geographical space, and who are thus concerned with the welfare of that space more than with people living in any other geographical space. And so if you intervene militarily to save people half a world away, you had better do it in a fashion that does not impose unacceptable costs on your own nation. That, in turn, means that you must take into account geographical and historical patterns that are, as it happens, fatalistic or partially fatalistic.
Indeed, the Lisbon earthquake may have been a moral abomination but it still happened -- and nothing could have prevented it. More to the point, the United States is what it is because it is bordered by two oceans and occupies the temperate zone of North America -- and nothing will change that, and, therefore, that is what fundamentally defines the American nation. The surviving Syrian regime of sorts may be awful, but there is no coherent or unified force to cleanly dismantle it -- and that is something that is hard to change. Thus, fate is not something that can always be overcome, no matter how much our opinion elite believes otherwise. Voltaire and Berlin could ignore fatalistic constraints because they had no one except other intellectuals to answer to. Leaders at the top of vast bureaucracies have no such luxury. For it is democracy itself, with its checks and balances and opposing arguments -- including those arguments voicing deep skepticism against idealistic fervor -- that imposes the severest constraints of all against human agency.