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A Natural History of RevolutionViolence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination, 1789-1794$
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Mary Ashburn Miller

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449420

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449420.001.0001

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Ordering a Disordered World

Ordering a Disordered World

(p.19) 1 Ordering a Disordered World
A Natural History of Revolution

Mary Ashburn Miller

Cornell University Press

In the late eighteenth century, conversations about nature and natural history entered the public sphere through natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the Messina and Calabria earthquakes of 1783. In constructing an idea of nature as purposed and ordered, many natural histories imposed a kind of providentialism on the operations of the natural world that did not necessarily require an active or intervening deity. That providentialism was often affirmed by responses to natural disasters; although natural crises problematized the idea of an ordered universe, they also fostered an optimism that asked observers to have faith in a future, if as-yet-unforeseen, good. Natural histories and responses to natural disasters accustomed a broader public to naturalized language and analogies, and made more commonplace this vision of nature as an ordering and purposed, even if sometimes destructive, entity. This chapter argues that the diffusion of natural knowledge, the establishment of the idea of a self-regulating and purposed natural world, and the theodicies emerging in the wake of natural disasters all fostered the development of a secular providentialism that would come to define the natural history of the French Revolution.

Keywords:   French Revolution, natural history, natural world, providentialism, earthquakes, Lisbon, Messina, Calabria

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