Amazing Places

You Can Visit Voltaire's Real Heart in a French Statue

There aren't a lot of people who have inscribed so many immortal quotes on the world as Voltaire. "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." "Common sense is not so common." "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." If only modern thinkers could tap into the brilliance of that heart. Well, maybe they can when they visit the organ in person during their next trip to Paris.

My Heart Will Go On and On

He was born François-Marie Arouet, but he was known to the world by his pen name: Voltaire. Armed with a cutting wit, an unstoppable pen, and a sense of morality greater than his sense of self-preservation, he naturally made a lot of enemies in his life. Voltaire wrote — a lot. He wrote plays, poems, essays, novels, and even scientific works. He also wrote a lot about who should and who shouldn't have political rights, and that tended to get him in trouble with the people in power, like the King of France.

He was hated by the powerful and beloved by the poor, the downtrodden, and the philosophical. But in 1778, after nearly 50 years in exile from his hometown of Paris, a changing political climate allowed him to finally return. At last, he received the honors that he so richly deserved, by the great and the small alike. And in the greatest of ironies, the day after his celebrated arrival, he died.

But because Voltaire had finally been accepted by the royals and the monied elite, he was granted the incredible honor of having both his brain and his heart embalmed for posterity. It might seem strange, but it wasn't entirely unheard of, either — the tradition was quite popular during the 12th and 13th centuries when people found that sending a fallen soldier's heart back to his loved ones was a more practical solution than sending his entire body.

What's really interesting is what happened next. His heart ended up in the hands of the Marquis de Villette, who placed it in a metal box in a room bearing the phrase "His spirit is everywhere, his heart is here" (not one for subtlety, that Marquis). Unfortunately for the nobility, revolution soon became the hottest trend in Paris, and eventually the heart was transferred from the Marquis' personal possessions to the hands of the national government. Napoleon III had a chamber built to house it and had it permanently installed in the base of a statue of the philosopher at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it can still be visited today.

The Case of the Missing Mind

It wasn't just the philosopher's heart that was kept for posterity. Voltaire's brain was removed and embalmed as well. So what happened to it? Well ... nobody knows. The only thing that can be said for sure is that tempers run high when prized organs and governmental overreach are involved. Apparently, sometime in the 19th century, a dispute between Voltaire's descendants and the French government resulted in the brain being sold out of spite in a furniture auction, dropping it from the official record and leaving its current whereabouts unknown. Who knows — it could be in your attic.

For a glimpse of what Voltaire did to get this kind of treatment, you've got to check out his immortal satire "Candide." The audiobook is free with a trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 27, 2017

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