The plain girl who thought she was kept away from all things pleasant and pretty because of a suspected hex cast on her was walking toward the setting sun sinking into the west end of the horizon, smearing the sky with scarlet halos. The sky was burning, burning with a day’s unfulfilled passion, aborted wishes, and ridiculed hopes until a moon and stars appeared from the west and calmed the fiery sky that was still ablaze with shattered dreams. The sky was her heart as though someone with magical power had been watching the poor, plain girl all along, or so she thought.
Nothing miraculous would happen to her unless a kindly immortal being made her life merry and worthy of living because the plain girl was heading to her death. So first, through the forest paths out into a field of flowers, then upon the hill overlooking the wavering ocean, she loved so much for its wild, untamable nature that resembled her own.
The moon was full and high now, and the world became alive with spirits and sprites rejoicing the serenity of the night and the silence of the day. The plain girl saw the souls of the dead at sea rise from the tidal waves and walk on the crest of waves toward the mysterious melodies coming from the west of the moon. They all looked enchanted, so she coveted the enchantment and followed the watery paths she believed would lead to meet the Fates and ask them to give her a new fate.
Ben Jonson’s alchemist Subtle in his famous Elizabethan play ‘The Alchemist’ is a knave quack intent upon doing a lucrative occult business by luring the gullible, rich or poor, learned or general. But John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s English-Welsh astrologer, was anything but. He was a highly educated man graduating from Cambridge University with a penchant for esoteric knowledge beyond the realm of the physical world, and brilliant engineering feat contributed to his epithet as the queen’s occultist to the eyes of those who regarded him as something of Rasputin in the queen’s retinue. To me, Dee was a curious figure of science and magic, fact and mystery dissolving into one another.
From the cradle to the grave, John Dee’s life appears to be starlit with mystical numbers and stars that govern his destiny to pursue the knowledge of the beyond. Born in the household of a well-to-do textile merchant on July 13th, 1527, Dee’s fate was already revealed in the combination of the lucky number 7 and the ominous 13. He was endowed with intellect and heart, which is not typical for an astute scholar with a high education degree. Also, an ingenious engineer in stage productions of plays, Dee created the modern-day equivalent of special effects employing a man-powered crane and other apparatuses used as a counterweight fly system. He was fascinated with the science behind mathematics and used it to know astrology and celestial navigation in understanding human lives. He chose the coronation date for Elizabeth when Jupiter juxtaposed alone with Venus, opposing Saturn, and conjecturing Mars. The astrological interpretation betrays the virgin queen’s reign with the beauty of the goddesses and the power of the god of gods. Methinks, Dee’s interpretation must have attributed to the queen’s famous Tilbury Address in which she described herself as possessing “the body of a weak, feeble woman but the heart and stomach of a king.” Furthermore, the famous secret code of “007” was an invention of Dee used between Dee and the queen meaning “For your eyes only” as in “00” as a symbol of eyes and “7” Dee’s favorite lucky number.
Dee had a bona fide intention to use his knowledge to benefit people of all classes. During his post as royal astrologer under Queen Mary’s reign, Dee proposed to the queen that she establish a national library accessible to all for the universal education of the minds. This revolutionary idea was unprecedented and rejected. Dee was a man of books and used his learning from reading for the welfare of England. He propelled England into the Age of Exploration. He legitimized the British expansion of territories, including America, to which, according to Dee’s certification, a Welsh prince sailed in 1170, which was three centuries before Columbus’ voyage. Patriotic stargazer elucidated further that it was Grate Britain’s destiny to gain all of the territories supposedly appropriated by King Arthur by coining the term “The British Empire.”
After the death of his beloved Queen Elizabeth, Dee dwindled in his career and fell into obscurity, not least because he lost favor with the successor King James I, the scourge of god against witchcraft and magic as deviltry. We don’t know whether he was secretly in league with the devil in his once magnificent personal library. The opinions on John Dee are still debatable, if not controversial. Some might say he was a would-be Merlin or Gandalf. Some might call him a Rasputin who tricked the virgin queen into believing superstitions with his mephistophelean pact for the souls to populate the circles of hell. I want to say Dee was akin to Atlas, one of the Titans who was also fascinated with astrology and astronomy and generous with munificent generosity in the form of divine fire to mortals, for which he was condemned to bear the weight of the celestial globe.
Maidens of the Evening Star, Daughters of Atlas Goddesses of the Evening, Children of Nyx Live far away from here beyond glorious oceans On the boundary of the Night encircled by stars with pales hues of sunshine in the land of the Hesperides;
Mirth and music spring from the land of the Hesperides Where they tend a garden of divine golden apples Guarded by the faithful dragon Ladon with mighty wings Swooping four winds, bellowing a crescendo of flames That envelope the circle of divine parameter against the mortals Till the impetuous half-man, half-god Hercules darts an arrow Dipped in the blood of Hydra piercing the heart that dies in sorrow shedding the tears for love for his goddesses, the Hesperides;
They mourn for the death of their beloved Ladon, whose blood flows From the still warm heart and meets with tears from the diamond eyes; And the gods of Olympus bring the slain dragon among the stars And give him a house of his own named Draco where he can watch always Over the garden of golden apples in his beloved land of the Hesperides.
The role of intellectuals is to see the corrupt at the heart of society and stand furious with the mass and constantly monitor the conditions of ill-effects and actively work on the improvement of living conditions. For books can never teach the use of books. Otherwise, they are no more than armchair academics complacent with their impressive scholastic achievements and high social esteem as elites of society, proudly distanced themselves from the general. But Voltaire wasn’t, nor was he a demagogic writer grandstanding with the ire of the have-nots.
Born as Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, when the discovery of the New World and religious turmoil swept Europe, Voltaire was destined to become a cavalier of new thoughts, the Enlightenment of Thoughts, which the Catholic Church regarded as a dangerous school of ideas to the mass. Yet, Voltaire wasn’t hell-bent on destroying the Catholic Church as a freemason but pilloried the corruption of the ecclesiastical members and the duplicities of their teachings and acts in practice. Religion is also a social institution made and governed by people and therefore subject to corruption and dysfunction. Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church controlled people’s ways of thinking and exerted its authority over political and cultural spheres. That was why Voltaire’s lifelong resistance against the Catholic Church arose, not from blindly malicious intention to sabotage belief of the religion.
Voltaire was very human with his volatile temper but also with passionate munificence. He was fluent in English and his years of stay in England, the country he regarded as a model country of liberty of thoughts and religions. During his visit, he met John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, to whom Voltaire was said to be very rude for reasons clandestine. Methinks that for a person as at once passionate and sensitive as Voltaire, the anecdotal vignette sounds true, but who can blame him for his temper and let it eclipse his wholesale brilliance as an unbridled thinker and writer unafraid of speaking against the social injustice against the unprivileged? Rousseau, a fellow freethinker, abandoned his child at an orphanage and berated the illiterate. Isaac Newton, whom Voltaire respected for his scientific findings and logical mind, mistreated his servants with whacks and beatings. But, on the contrary, Voltaire paid off all the tax debts of his tenants on his properties. Also, he published ‘Candide,’ which is an allegorical book about the absurdities of the teachings of the Church and a man’s search for a God in this world, in 1759 at a meager price accessible to poor readers yearning for a taste of Enlightenment.
The absence of God’s presence in the deeds of the clergy and religious people and the presence of injustice in the name of elusive God were the questions Voltaire had in mind, and yet he wasn’t blasphemous about the God they believed. On the contrary, Voltaire’s belief was ecumenical in the principle of syncretism founded on a universal belief system according to Natural Law, a conscience. He was liberal in ideas but responsible in acts by accommodating his knowledge to practice for ordinary life. Samuel Johnson’s definition of an imperiously sullen scholar who loses his days in unsocial silence and lives in the crowd of life without a companion was the opposite of Voltaire. Indeed, Voltaire had no morals, yet he was a very moral person for sure.