Against great odds, Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749) taught herself mathematics and became a world authority on Newtonian mathematical physics.
I say against great odds because being a woman at the time meant she was ineligible for the same formal and informal opportunities available to others. Seduced by Logic, by Robyn Arianrhod tells her story with captivating color.
Émilie and her lover and collaborator Voltaire realized that Newton’s Principia not only changed our view of the world but also the way we do science.
“Newton,” writes Arianrhod, “had created a method for constructing and then testing theories, so the Principia provided the first truly modern blueprint for theoretical science as both a predictive, quantitative discipline—Newton eschewed qualitative, unproven, metaphysical speculations—and a secular discipline, separate from religion, although by no means inherently opposed to it.”
This, of course, has impacted the way we live and see ourselves. While Newton is relatively well known today, his theories were not easily accepted at the time. Émilie was one of the first to realize his impact and promote his thinking. In the late 1740s, she created what is, still to this day, the authoritative French translation, which includes detailed commentary, on Newton’s masterpiece. Voltaire considered du Châtelet “a genius worthy of Horace and Newton.”
Émilie du Châtelet didn’t limit herself to only commenting on Newton. The reason the book still stands today is that she added a lot of original thought.
How did Émilie du Châtelet come to learn so much in a world that overtly limited her opportunities? This is where her character shines.
While her brothers were sent to the most prestigious Jesuit secondary schools; Émilie was left to fend for herself and acquired much of her knowledge through reading. While her brothers could attend university, “such a thing was unthinkable for a girl.”
Luckily her family environment was conducive to self-education. Émilie’s parents “were rather unorthodox in the intellectual freedom they allowed in their children: both parents allowed Émilie to argue with them and express opinions, and from the time they were about ten years old, the children had permission to browse freely through the library.”
Émilie would grow and enter an arranged marriage at eighteen with thirty-year-old Florent-Claude, marquis du Chatelet and count of Lomont. Less than a year later she gave birth to their first child, Gabrielle-Pauline, which was followed seventeen months later by their son, Floren-Louis. Another child, a boy, would come six years later only to pass within two years. His death caused her to remark on her grief that the ‘sentiments of nature must exist in us without us suspecting.’
“Sometime around 1732, she experienced a true intellectual epiphany,” Arianrhod writes. As a result, Émilie would come to see herself as a ‘thinking creature.’
“At first, she only caught a glimpse of this new possibility, and she continued to allow her time to be wasted by superficial society life and its dissipation, ‘which was all I had felt myself born for.’ Fortunately, her ongoing friendship with these ‘people who think’—including another mathematically inclined woman, Marie de Thil, who would remain her lifelong friend—led Émilie to the liberating realisation that it was not too late to begin cultivating her mind seriously.”
It would be a difficult journey. “I feel,” Émilie wrote, “all the weight of the prejudice that universally excludes [women] from the sciences. It is one of the contradictions of this world that has always astonished me, that there are great countries whose destiny the law permits us to rule, and yet there is no place where we are taught to think.”
To become a person who thinks she became a person who reads.
“Presumably,” Arianrhod writes, “she studied Descartes, Newton, and the great English philosopher of liberty, John Locke, because when she met Voltaire a year after her epiphany, he was immediately captivated by her mind as well as her other charms.”
In an early love letter, Voltaire would write to her “Ah! What happiness to see you, to hear you … and what pleasures I taste in your arms! I am so fortunate to love the one I admire … you are the idol of my heart, you make all my happiness.”
“When Émilie and Voltaire because their courtship in 1733,” Arianhod writes, “she was twenty-six, and he was thirty-eight (the same as-as her husband, with whom Voltaire would eventually become good friends, thanks to Émilie’s encouragement and her efforts as a diplomatic go-between.)”
Arianrhod writes of Émilie’s struggles to learn:
Émilie’s plan to become a mathematician would require all her courage and determination. Firstly, envious acquaintances like Madame du Deffand would try to cast her as a dry and ugly ‘learned woman’ or femme savante, despite the fact that she had such appeal and charisma that the handsome duc de Richelieu, one of the most sought-after men in Paris, was rumoured to have once been her lover, while the celebrated Voltaire adored her. Of course, some of her female contemporaries admired her scholarship: Madame de Graffigny would later say, ‘Our sex ought to erect altars to her!’ But many were irritated by, or envious of, her liberated commitment to an intellectual life, because Émilie was very different from the glamorous women who ran many of Paris’s legendary literary salons. It was acceptable, even admirable, for such women to know enough of languages and philosophy to be good conversationalists with the learned men who dominated salon gatherings, but it was expected that women be modest about their knowledge. By contrast, Émilie would become famous as a scholar in her own right, thus angering the likes of Madame du Deffand, a powerful salonnière who claimed Émilie’s interest in science was all for show.
There were few truly learned women of the time, the belief being they were “either pretentious or ugly,” something that lingered “for the next three centuries.”
If you’re going to blaze the trail, you really have to blaze it.
At thirty-five, (Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis) Maupertuis was both ambitious and charming. When he agreed to tutor Émilie, he probably expected her to be a dilettante like his other female students: he had quite a following among society ladies. But her first known letter to him, written in January 1734, is both deferential and eager: ‘I spent all yesterday evening working on your lessons. I would like to make myself worthy of them. I fear, I confess to you, losing the good opinion you have of me.’ Perhaps he still doubted her commitment, because a week or two later she wrote, ‘I spent the evening with binomials and trinomials, [but] I am no longer able to study if you do not give me a task, and I have an extreme desire for one.’ Over the next few months, she sent him a stream of notes, trying to arrange lessons, asking him to come to her house for a couple of hours, or offering to meet him outside the Academy of Sciences – women were allowed inside only for the twice-yearly public lectures – or outside Gradot’s, one of the favourite cafés of the intellectual set.
It was this kind of intensity – as expressed in this multitude of requests for rendezvous – that fuelled gossip among her peers, and jealousy from Voltaire. Until the late twentieth century, most historians, too, seemed unable to imagine a woman like Émilie could be seduced only by mathematics – after all, until then, few women had actually become mathematicians. But it is true that many of Émilie’s letters to Maupertuis have a very flirtatious style – it was, after all, an era that revelled in the game of seduction. There is no evidence to prove whether or not they ever became lovers in those early months, before she and Voltaire had fully committed themselves to each other, but her letters certainly prove that all her life she would continue to hold a deep affection and respect for Maupertuis. In late April 1734, Émilie wrote to Maupertuis: ‘I hope I will render myself less unworthy of your lessons by telling you that it is not for myself that I want to become a mathematician, but because I am ashamed of making such mediocre progress under such a master as you.’ It was, indeed, an era of flattery! (Voltaire was quite adept at it – as a mere bourgeois, he often needed to flatter important people to help advance his literary career.) Although this letter suggests Émilie was simply using flattery to extract more lessons from her mathematical ‘master’, she always did have genuine doubts about her ability, which is not surprising given her lack of formal education and the assumed intellectual inferiority of her gender. She would later write, ‘If I were king … I would reform an abuse which cuts back, as it were, half of humanity. I would have women participate in all human rights, and above all those of the mind.’
In the translator’s preface to her late 1730s edition of Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, Du Châtelet highlights a few of the traits that helped her overcome so much.
You must know what you want:
(Knowledge) can never be acquired unless one has chosen a goal for one’s studies. One must conduct oneself as in everyday life; one must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.
She considered herself a member of the ordinary class, and she wrote about how regular people can come to acquire talent.
It sometimes happens that work and study force genius to declare itself, like the fruits that art produces in a soil where nature did not intend it, but these efforts of art are nearly as rare as natural genius itself. The vast majority of thinking men — the others, the geniuses, are in a class of their own — need to search within themselves for their talent. They know the difficulties of each art, and the mistakes of those who engage in each one, but they lack the courage that is not disheartened by such reflections, and the superiority that would enable them to overcome such difficulties. Mediocrity is, even among the elect, the lot of the greatest number.
Seduced by Logic is worth reading in its entirety. Du Châtelet’s story is as fascinating as informative.