François de la Chaise, S.J., 1624 – 1709: Requiscat in Pace

For a certain kind of tourist, one major draw to Paris is  Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Well, we all have our slightly ghoulish sides, I suppose, and graveyards are generally peaceful places, even those with lizard kings and other assorted hell-raisers.

The cemetery itself was a creation of the First French Republic, Bonaparte declaring that even the non-Catholics of the world had the right to be buried somewhere.   Not that France at the time was overflowing with non-Catholics.   1804 being one of those Age of Reason years, the authorities felt no need to consecrate the place, and so good Catholics (and presumably even bad Catholics hedging their bets) stayed away in droves.

Faced with this clear and utter flop, the Public Relations folk stepped in. How to make the neighborhood desirable?  You bring the artists in, of course.  Officials dug up  Molière (a comic playwright – fitting, no?) and re-potted him on the hillside.  Still nothing. Okay, let’s go the romantic route, make a memorial for Abelard and Hèloise.

It appears to have done the trick – we are talking France, after all, and who better to combine religion and l’amour than those two?  The place hasn’t looked back since. You want in? Take a number. Continue reading

Johann Konrad Dippel, 1673 – 1734: Walk of Life

A theologian, medical doctor, and alchemist.  He it was who came up with Berliner Blau, aka Preussisch Blau, aka Prussian Blue.

Dibbel was the son of a vicar, and one of those articulate and passionate golden boys too smart for his own good and made the worse by a touch of innate contrariness. for its own sake.  His M.A. thesis in theology was titled  De Nihilo.

However goth seeming in theory,  in practice he was quite fervent as far as his theology went.  Lutheran theology, that is.  Nothing more rancorous than a dispute between revolutionaries.  In the case of Dippel, it boiled down to – Orthodoxy Good, Pietism Bad.  On later reflection and perhaps nudged by the cold fact that Orthodoxy did not look good on job applications, he would reverse the order.   Just as well, really.  Under Orthodoxy, he had killed a man in a duel, a misadventure that forced him on the road (something he would have to get used to). Continue reading

Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1611-1660: A Man of Parts

Urquhart is best known as the first translator into English of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, a work completed by Peter Anthony Motteux.

It is perhaps something of his nature to be attracted to his work.

The family is old, and was well stocked with real estate, which Thomas’ father spent a good deal of effort in squandering.  It came to such a cross that Thomas and his brother in frustration locked the old fellow up à la Mrs. Rochester, albeit only for a few days.  Afterwards father sued, but got nowhere with it, and family amity was eventually restored.   But nothing improved the finances of the estate, concerning which creditors hounded once the old man died. Continue reading

Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, 1756-1829: Privilege Done Right

Look him up and the subject will immediately turn to dogs.  Dogs and boots and dinner parties.

“At his table, which was celebrated, Sir Henry invited companions of more than one kind. Bijou and Biche, the two favourite dogs, were often there seated on chairs, with imposing napkins around their necks, and to them each plate was solemnly offered. One day, however, their behaviour not conforming to the ideas of their master, they were punished in the most terrible manner! A tailor was immediately summoned.

” ‘ These blackguards have deceived me,’ said their eccentric master. ‘ I have treated them like gentlemen, they have behaved like rascals. Take their measure! they shall wear for eight days the yellow coats and knee breeches of my valets, and stay in the anteroom, and be deprived of the honour of seeing me for a week.’ ”

Nevermind these two, there were plenty of other dogs as well, for each of whom expensive boots were hand made, along with clothing.  All the dogs would sit at table, a servant for each one of them, and let the feasting begin.  They, and the household cats, were also given free use of the earl’s numerous carriages, much to the amazement of their Parisian neighbours.  Ils sont fous, ces anglais!

The writers of potted biographies tend to leave it there, which is very wrong of them.  Truth is, the fellow had a good deal more on offer,  much of it remarkable. Continue reading

Gerolamo Cardano 1501-1576: A Throw of the Dice

Every so often you read about a bunch of clever MIT students or such like who go to Vegas and by superior brainpower make a killing at the tables before the spotters notice and kick them out.  In the old days, a broken leg might have been in the cards, so to speak, but in general the experiment ends with the players getting banned from the casino and selling the story to Hollywood.

Didn’t use to be be like that.  Consider the case of Cardano.  As a twenty five year old college student taking a break in a friendly game of cards in Venice, he found that his luck turned unreasonably bad.  He also found that the a game was being played with marked cards.  A direct sort of fellow, Cardano pulled a knife, stuck it in the other guy, then fled into the night.

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Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953); No Relation to the Falls

I stumbled on this map of the philosophers recently.  It’s basically a who’s who six degrees of separation of philosophers based on lines of influence.   Never much a one for philosophy myself, I nevertheless recognized the guys in 20 point type and even a few of the smaller fry.

I did just wonder, however, about the outliers, the people furthest away from Plato.  That poor fellow at the very bottom, for example, all alone, no one much to talk to. Who it could possibly be?  No doubt a name I didn’t know.

In fact it was a name I knew.  Hans Reichenbach.

It’s only a slightly convoluted story.  My father’s family had spent the 1931/2 year on sabbatical in Berlin where my mathematician grandfather soaked up the wisdom and good fellowship of the University’s mathematical and physics superstars  (Einstein,  von Neumann, et al.).  Continue reading

Juan Pablo Bonet, 1573-1633: The Miracle Worker

Rasputin did for the Romanovs simply because, despite being a dreadful man, he was good at dealing with the prince’s hemophilia.  The Empire fell, a century of tragedy followed.  No real good came of it.

A happier end is the story of Juan Pablo Bonet.

Bonet was a linguist and secretary attached to the Spanish army, with which he saw action in Africa, Saboya and the Milanesado.  Almost as an aside, he became a member of the household of his commander, Juan Fernandez de Velasco, 5th Duke of Frias.  It was there that he became aware of the second son Luis (born 1610)  and the trouble his tutors were having with the boy’s deafness. Continue reading

John Florio, 1553-1625: A Harmless Drudge

Contrary to our flash image of Italy as a Catholic country, Protestantism did in fact make some inroads into the peninsula in the 16th century.   Giordano Bruno is among the best known to have had what Americans call “issues” with the Catholic church, issues strong enough to convert such him and others to Protestantism.  Among his colleagues was  Michaelangelo Florio, a Franciscan friar of Jewish extraction and father of our subject John.  Michaelangelo made a few  ill advised sermons on the subject, and soon wound up in jail (he was fortunate that he was not, like Bruno, burned alive).  First chance he got, he was off to Protestant friendly countries, ending in England where he shepherded other exiled Italian Protestants.

His day job was to tutor of Lady Jane Grey, that unfortunate queen for nine days, in foreign languages (it is to her that he dedicated his Regole de la Lingua Thoscan).   He mourned her death greatly and presumably also mourned the elevation of the deeply Catholic Queen Mary, who had a hard enough time with English Protestants, never mind Italian tutors of royal usurpers like-  well, like Lady Jane Grey.   So it was off to Switzerland (Italian Protestant connection again)* Continue reading

John Aubrey, 1627-1697: “Sot That I Am!”

When John Aubrey was eight years old, he met the forty-seven year old philosopher Thomas Hobbes on a country road, beginning a friendship that would last the rest of the old man’s life.

He had a knack for friendship, Aubrey.  An only child of  respectable Wiltshire gentry, he was given to wandering the countryside and chatting up the locals, not least of all the geriatrics whose memories went back as far as King Edward VI.   He was educated somewhat haphazardly at home (a stray copy of Bacon, another of geometry) and later more traditionally at Malmesbury  Grammar School before matriculating at Trinity Oxford just in time (1642) for the English Civil War to cut short his studies.*   He was off then to study law at Middle Temple – another line of inquiry he dropped. Continue reading