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.

In 1749 (after the death of Madame du Châtelet), Voltaire accepted a longstanding invitation to visit Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great). Madame Denis refused to go with him.

While at Frederick’s court in Potsdam, Voltaire wrote Micromégas, one of the earliest known works of science fiction. The plot concerns Micromégas, an alien from a planet circling Sirius (the Dogstar). On learning that humans believe the universe was made just for them, Micromégas writes them a book to explain the point of everything. When it is finally opened at the Academy of Science in Paris, however, it contains nothing but blank pages.

A few years later, Voltaire anonymously published the satire Candide (or Optimism). In Candide, Dr. Pangloss (a thinly disguised Gottfried Liebniz) teaches Candide that God – being all-knowing and all-powerful – has necessarily created a perfect world. Through a series of horrific tragedies, Candide comes to realize the utter absurdity of that notion.

Candide was immediately banned in France, where it was considered both blasphemous and seditious. But Voltaire was just warming up on the topic of injustice. In 1764, he published (again anonymously) his Dictionnaire Philosophique. In an attack on the French system of government, Voltaire wrote:

“The French, who are thought, I do not know why, to be a very humane people, are astonished that the English, who have had the inhumanity to take from us the whole of Canada, should have given up the pleasure of using torture.”

The book was considered so dangerous, that a year later, when the young Chevalier de La Barre was tried for blasphemy, a prime piece of evidence condemning him to death was his ownership of a copy. When the Chevalier de La Barre’s beheaded corpse was publicly burned, a copy of Voltaire’s book was burned along with it.

Voltaire remained barred from Paris for the rest of his life. But in February 1778, the 83-year old Voltaire had an overwhelming desire to return home. He was greeted in Paris not with an arrest warrant, but with a hero’s welcome. The next day he received 300 visitors, a fraction of those who wished to see him. Among the lucky few was Benjamin Franklin, America’s first ambassador to France. When Voltaire became a Freemason two months later, it was Franklin who escorted him to his initiation at the Masonic Lodge of the Nine Sisters in Paris.

Voltaire did not live to enjoy his new-found acceptance long, dying in his sleep on May 30, 1778. The Church refused him a Christian burial. His family quickly had him embalmed. They clothed him in his dressing gown, propped him in a carriage and took him to the Abbey of Scelliers in Champagne. There, Voltaire was secretly buried in consecrated ground.

Not until after the French Revolution was Voltaire given the burial he deserved. In 1791, he was laid to rest in the Panthéon in Paris, a former church dedicated as a shrine to the great men of France. Voltaire was interred across from the remains of fellow French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man with whom he had often quarreled.

But in the back and forth of Voltaire’s body, one mystery remains (no pun intended):

Whatever happened to Voltaire’s brain?

Voltaire’s brain and heart had been embalmed separately from his body. His heart was given to his niece, Madame Denis, and later to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it was displayed beneath the words: “His spirit is everywhere; his heart is here.”

But after a falling out between Voltaire’s heirs and the French government, Voltaire’s brain was apparently put up for auction along with some furniture. No one knows exactly what happened to the great man’s gray matter afterward. But then — as Voltaire himself once observed:

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”


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