VOLTAIRE & THE DIVINE EMILIE
Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet were not scientific collaborators in the conventional sense. They never struggled like Marie and Pierre Curie working in some drafty shack of a laboratory. Quite the opposite, Emilie set up a physics lab in the main hall of her husband's chateau in Cirey. And Voltaire, being a successful playwright, was happy to pay for the renovations and all of their later scientific publications.
At Cirey, Voltaire became Emilie's assistant in her physics experiments. But she invited him to stay with something else in mind. Cirey is located half way to the Alsac-Lorraine border. One could easily escape to the Netherlands or Prussia to avoid arrest if one needed to. Voltaire was concerned with possible imprisonment after the publication of his dangerous Philosophical Letters. Acting as his guardian angel (as she often did), Emilie offered her husband's run-down chateau. Together, they lived at Cirey, on and off, for the next 16 years.
Map to Cirey
NEWTON MANIAVoltaire told all his friends in high society that he and Emilie were writing a book together on Newton. Voltaire considered Isaac Newton the greatest scientific genius of all time. However, no one really believed that a woman could be knowledgeable in science, especially the mathematically complex theories contained in Newton's Principia. In point of fact, modern historians have established that she actually wrote the two mathematical chapters in Voltaire's Elements of Newton.
"I'm bound to say she's domineering
And if one wants to get a hearing
It's metaphysics that one has to prove
When the real subject of one's thoughts is love."
It was Emilie who had better science training than Voltaire. Her parents gave her the same education that an aristocratic boy would receive. This included fencing and gymnastics. She was quite tall, towering several inches over Voltaire, and her parents thought gymnastics would make her less clumsy. As a young adult, she read voraciously (a habit thought un-lady-like), and she was tutored by the leading mathematicians of the day: Maupertuis and Alexis Clairaut. She was reputed to be mathematically gifted, calculating 9-place numbers in her head.
"The grand calculations in algebra
by which your mind is absorbed
will no doubt make you famous.
I would dare to devote myself to them,
but alas A + D - B is not = to I love you."
Voltaire was quite jealous of Clairaut eventhough it was Maupertuis with whom she had had an affair. At the end of her first affair, she threatened to commit suicide. Clearly, Emilie needed a lot of attention and she knew how to get it. When Voltaire visited the court of Crown Prince Frederick (later King of Prussia) in Berlin, Emilie was left conspicuously behind. She worried Voltaire might never return; and she wrote to him, threatening (again) she would die without him. The Prince was homosexual surrounded by a host of gay courtiers. Perhaps Emilie feared Voltaire might be seduced by court life in more ways than one.
Voltaire first met Emilie when she was around 12 years old and he was 25. Needless to say, the sparks did not fly. Her parents ran a salon in their home and, on most evenings, there were 20 guests from Parisian high society. The young Voltaire was a frequent visitor to these affairs. Emilie's father was the Chief of Protocol in the court of King Louis XIV. He wasn't very wealthy, but Voltaire describes Emilie's childhood where 17 servants waited on her to scratch if she had an itch. Emilie was used to the best things in life, and according to Voltaire, "she wants everything she sees and her eyesight is very keen."
"Forgive the diamonds that frame a portrait of little value.
I did not put so much art in giving you my heart:
it needs no ornament."
After Emilie's arranged marriage to Florent Claude Chastellet, a General from an aristocratic family of military men going back to Charlemagne, her life followed the predictable pattern for society women. She fulfilled her social obligations giving birth dutifully to three children, two of which survived. Then, she and her husband both take lovers and travel in their own separate spheres, he being away quite often on military manuvers.
"An adorable couple of goddesses
led by the god of love,
the happy time of Paradise
never saw anything like this."
About ten years into the marriage, Voltaire enters the picture again. Their paths cross at the opera one evening, and their personalities resonate. They both liked to play it close to the edge, defying the social and political conventions of their day; Voltaire with his revolutionary ideas that caused him to go into exile periodically and Emilie with her outrageous gold lame dresses, up-staging even the queen. It was Emilie who started a fashion craze by rouging her nipples because her neckline was too revealing. As lovers, they continued to attend the opera together, violating yet another social convention in 18th century Parisian society.
ADVENTURES IN CHEMISTRYFor two such daring personalities, it's not surprising that their physics investigations should take an adventurous turn into uncharted waters. In 1736, the French Academy of Sciences announced a prize for an original essay explaining the nature of fire. Chemical theory was still in its infancy; neither Newton or Descartes had a satisfactory explanation for chemical reactions. Fire was believed to be a material substance (a throw-back to Aristotle) and, therefore, the central question.
Voltaire enthusiastically entered the contest in the spring of 1737, and Emily followed suit later in the summer. They were up against a deadline of September when the essays had to be submitted, and they were grappling with very complex and contradictory phenomena without any general theory besides alchemy to fall back on. In the beginning of their relationship, they performed physics experiments in optics and mechanics. These were two areas of science that were relatively well-understood thanks to Newton. Both Emilie and Voltaire basically agreed on the Newtonian explanation for these phenomena. The fire question, however, would not only test their different concepts of matter, but also their love for eachother.
Voltaire threw himself into the work: ordering equipment, consulting with chemists, reading Robert Boyle, and even setting isolated forest fires on calm and windy days. Emilie accompanied him to a forge where they measured precisely the weight of cold and molten materials. He also broke glass thermometers by dropping them into molten metals. He found no experimental evidence that fire has weight. As a dedicated Newtonian, he tried to explain chemical reactions with the concept of attraction, but he came to the conclusion that the substance fire had its own unique characteristics. He ignored the findings of other scientists that perhaps something was absorbed from the atmosphere during combustion.
Emilie at Cirey
Emilie watched patiently as Voltaire performed his experiments, but she slowly developed her own theory of fire which contradicted his in some major ways. She decided not to perform any experiments. Instead she consulted the literature assembled by Voltaire in their giant library. She also thought fire was a substance, but it was "subtle" in the Cartesian sense. Fire was contained in matter; but (sort of like ether) it could not be weighed, and it was futile to try. She turned her attention to Leibniz (a rival of Newton) and his metaphysical approach to chemistry and matter. Voltaire was infuriated.
Neither Voltaire or Emilie won the prize, but he convinced the Academy to publish both their essays. Emilie had defected to Leibnezian side, and he wanted the scientific community to know that he had a very different viewpoint. Then, Emilie invited a student of Leibniz, Samuel Konig, to come to Cirey and tutor her in Leibniz' philosophy. She put her own book, Institutions of Physics, that she had been secretly writing on hold. She started re-writing it and dropped Newton from her vocabulary. Appalled, Voltaire fights back the only way he knows how: he writes a play.
A CANDIDE COMEBACK
The play Candide was Voltaire's clever way of demolishing Leibniz' philosophy. The naive hero, Candide, keeps repeating a line from Leibniz: "This the best of all possible worlds." Yet, he is surrounded by victims representing every kind of tradegy that could befall a person in 18th century society. By the end of the play, Candide retreats from the world and from the philosophy of Leibniz to tend his garden.
Eventually, Emilie has a falling out with Samuel Konig. Konig travels to Paris, and while visiting the scientific salons and coffee bars, he tells everyone that Emilie's book is nothing more than his lessons, slightly re-written. She is furious at this slander, and she pleads with the President of the Academy to do something. The Academy was very slow in handling the matter. Emilie believed that people should "judge me for my own merits or my lack of them but do not look upon me as an appendage to this great general or that renowned scholar. This star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone, for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do."
THE LAST WORDSeveral years later, Voltaire began an a affair with his niece, Marie Louise Denis. Emilie analyzed her situation in a passage from her book Reflexions sur le bonheur. She took a lover of her own, Saint-Lambert, and discovered that at 43, she was pregnant. Her husband was told that it is his child. After giving birth at Luneville, she contracted an infection, sepsis, and died quite suddently three days later. Voltaire is devastated. Leaving her deathbed, he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs, and cursed Saint-Lambert who was just arriving. Saint-Lambert destroyed all the letters of Emilie and Voltaire.
Voltaire and Clairaut put aside whatever animosity existed between them, and they collected Emilie's notes for a commentary which was to accompany her translation of Newton's Principia. In the end, she came back to fold, and translated Newton's great work into French. Clairaut put a few finishing touches on her commentary, and Voltaire published the book posthumously. Emilie was buried in the church of St. Jacques in an unmarked tomb.
Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment by David Bodanis
The Devine Mistress by Samuel Edwards
"Chemistry at Cirey" by Robert L. Walters
in Studies of Voltaire, pages1807-1827
"Madame du Chatelet's Metaphysics and Mechanics"
by Carolyn Iltis, Stud. Hist.Phil.Sci., Vol. 8, page 29
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