Book Review: This Gulf of Fire

This detailed & readable history of the Great Lisbon Earthquake is well worth your time.

On November 1, 1755 – All Saints Day in the Catholic Church – the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of modern Europe took place: the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded, completely destroyed the glittering capital of the Portuguese Empire and claimed victims on four continents. The tremors, along with the resulting tsunami and firestorm, turned Lisbon, previously a cosmopolitan masterpiece of a city replete with imperial grandeur, into a hulking collection of burnt-out ruins. Yet most of us interested in history (even European history) may not have heard of this cataclysmic event or had only heard of it in passing. A 2015 book by historian Mark Molesky seeks to right that wrong and give the Lisbon earthquake its proper historical due as a key event in the European Enlightenment. [Sidebar: Dr. Molesky is one of my professors at Seton Hall University and I have studied under him.]

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The History of Art: The Death of Socrates

“Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.”

Socrates in Plato’s ‘Apology’[1]

The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period; one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates[2], is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.

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