The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 3 of 3: whatever happened to Voltaire’s brain?

hommage to voltaire

“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”

– Voltaire, from a letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville

In 1733, the 39-year old Voltaire began a relationship with the Madame du Châtelet, a married mother of three. The pair would spend the next 15 years studying the natural sciences and becoming the leading French proponents of the work of English mathematician Isaac Newton.

But on a visit to Paris in 1744, Voltaire embarked on a new affair. His new lover was his sister’s daughter, Marie Louise Mignot (a/k/a Madame Denis). For obvious reasons, Voltaire and Madame Denis never married, though they lived together as husband and wife and stayed together until Voltaire’s death over 40 years later.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 2 of 3

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The frontispiece to Voltaire’s book on the philosophy of Isaac Newton, featuring Émilie du Châtelet reflecting Newton’s heavenly insights to Voltaire.


“How I love the English boldness! How I love those who say what they think!”

When we left Voltaire in 1726, he had chosen voluntary exile to England over an indefinite sentence in the Bastille.

Voltaire arrived in England with almost no money and even less English. Yet in less than five months, he could not only converse in English, he could write it fluently. More impressively, he had developed friendships with some of the leading English literary figures of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay (writer of The Beggars Opera) and Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels had just been published.

But the men with the biggest influences on Voltaire’s thinking were philosopher John Locke, scientist Isaac Newton, and William Shakespeare, whose plays Voltaire found both vulgar and compelling. Writing to a friend in Paris, Voltaire exclaimed:

 “If you had seen a whole play of Shakespeare’s, as I have, you would think that our love scenes were pretty feeble.”

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The Absolutely, Positively True Adventures of Voltaire, Part I

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“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” — Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet — aka Voltaire — was one of the leading figures of the French enlightenment. He advocated tolerance, equality, and separation of church and state, in a time when these were still radical ideas. In his best-known work — the satirical novel, Candide, ou l’Optimisme ( “Candide, or optimism”) – Voltaire challenged the assertion by German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz  that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

What is less known about Voltaire is that in his youth he was considered a royal pain in the ass. As a result, he was beaten on numerous occasions. He was exiled from France several times, and imprisoned for almost a year in the Bastille.

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The Dogon: African tribe or space aliens from Sirius B?

dogon dance

It turns out the Scientologists aren’t the only ones who claim we come from space. The Dogon – an indigenous tribe of Mali – claim that the germ of all things originated in a super-dense “egg of the world”—what we now know as the star “Sirius B.” Sirius B is the twin to Sirius, the so-called “Dogstar,” the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major.

But the real kicker is that the Dogon made their claim in the 1940s. And a diagram for the Sirius system is shown in Dogon artifacts over 400 years-old. Sirius B wasn’t even discovered by astronomers until 1970. So how did the Dogon know it was there?

To answer that question, we need to take a look at Dogon creation myths. But first a warning – these may not be appropriate for all readers.

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General Butt Naked: the man who ate children

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Joshua Milton Blahyi is a Christian preacher in Liberia.  But he was once better known as General Butt Naked, one of the most brutal warlords in Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Every night for 14 years Blahyi talked with the devil. Every night the devil told him to do things… bad things… including sacrificing and eating children.

Blahyi’s creation as General Butt Naked started before he was even born. He was conceived on the orders of Krahn tribe elders and born on September 30, 1971.  From the time he was a child, Blahyi was told his destiny was to be a priest and a warrior.  When he was seven, his father handed him to the tribal elders, who schooled him in the rituals of the priesthood. His initiation as a priest was as senseless as it was brutal.

Against the beating of a drum, a man in a carved black mask led Blahyi to an altar. The elders brought him a little girl.  Her clothes were removed and her body smeared with clay.  The elders ordered Blahyi to kill her. Over the next three days, Blahyi ritualistically ate the little girl’s heart and other parts of her body.  He was officially declared a priest.  He was 11 years-old.

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Jeanne de Clisson — the Lioness of Brittany

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Noblewoman… mother… prostitute… widow… pirate.   In the 14th century, Jeanne de Clisson – the “Lioness of Brittany” — was all these, and more.

Actually, no one really seems sure about the prostitute part.  What is true beyond doubt is that the Lioness of Brittany was as vicious as any male pirate.  The reasons for her rage, however, are perhaps a bit more compelling.

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What you may not know about the U.S. Secret Service

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U.S. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy after stopping an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Most people know that the Secret Service protects the President of the United States and other politicians.

But the original purpose of the Secret Service was the suppression of counterfeit currency.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, an estimated one-third of U.S. currency in circulation was counterfeit.  So on July 5, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln – in his last official act – signed the Secret Service into law as a branch of the United States Department of the Treasury.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years after its founding, however, that the Secret Service began protecting President Grover Cleveland.  And even then it was only on an informal, part-time basis whenever the president traveled. Not until 1902, following the assassination of President William McKinley, did the agency assume the responsibility of protecting the president around the clock.

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The gall of it all

Hunkpapa warrior Chief Gall, c. 1880s

Hunkpapa warrior Chief Gall, c. 1880s

We often use the word “gall” in phrases such as “I can’t believe she has the gall to…” or “that really galls me.”  But what exactly does “gall” mean?

In its first sense, gall is a synonym for “bile.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, these days “gall” applies only to animals.  Either way, gall (or bile) is a bitter-tasting, yellowish substance that aids in the digestion of fat. Because of its taste, gall can also be used to refer to anything that is bitter or severe.

The word gall comes from Old English gealla (meaning bile), a cognate of Greek kholē.  It may also come from Old English geolo (yellow), a possible reference to bile’s color. The two roots may, in fact, be related.

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The “Cleveland Massacre”: how John D. Rockefeller created a monopoly and Ida Tarbell helped bust it

Ida in fur coat around 1925

 

John D. Rockeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company, was one of the most powerful men of the Gilded Age.* Yet he was no match for journalist Ida Tarbell, the “muckraker“** who discovered and revealed Standard Oil’s unethical business practices.

The last 30 years of the 19th century in the United States (the “Gilded Age”) saw a huge growth of industry and wealth. But that growth was fueled by economic and political corruption.  No one represented both the highs and the lows of the Gilded Age better than Rockefeller and Standard Oil.  And not even Rockefeller could predict that his worse nemesis would turn out to be not his competitors, but a woman — and one born in a log home .

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Gertrude Bell: the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq”

From left to right, beneath the face of the Sphinx: Winston Churchhill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence, Cairo, Egypt, 1921.

T.E. Lawrence — best known as Lawrence of Arabia — gets all the press.  But Gertrude Bell — who worked with Lawrence in Cairo – was, like Lawrence, an archaeologist, intelligence agent and author.  Like Lawrence, her sex life – or lack thereof – has been the subject of much debate.  And like Lawrence, Bell – who has been called the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq — for better or worse helped define and shape the modern Middle East.

Bell was born in England on July 14, 1868 to a wealthy family.  After earning a degree in history from Oxford University, she began to travel.  She established a reputation as a skilled mountain climber, and is credited with 10 first ascents in the Bernese Alps. These include the Gertrudspitze, which was named for her.

Bell’s greatest fame as a climber, however, came from a failed attempt.  It was to have been a first ascent of the northeast face of 14,000-ft. Finsteraarhorn.  But an unexpected blizzard trapped Bell and two companions on the mountain.  Through freezing temperatures and lightning storms, they survived roped together for 53 hours.

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