Du Châtelet, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise

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Du Châtelet, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise (1706-49). French Philosopher, Physicist, and Mathematician.

Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the marquise Du Châtelet, was the only woman "philosophe," in the first decades of the French Enlightenment. Her published and unpublished writings range from a treatise on happiness to biblical exegesis to the still standard French translation of Isaac Newton's Principia. Contemporaries, like Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’ and Kant, Immanuel, honored her for introducing Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz's metaphysics to France, and for her views on the nature of momentum (forces vives).

Born to a prominent courtier's family, in 1725 she married well, into an ancient lineage of Lorraine. Throughout her life, she took pride in her successes on behalf of her family and her companion of fifteen years, *François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, including: her daughter's marriage to a Duke, her son's military appointments, court positions for her husband, and protection and royal favor for Voltaire.

Self-educated, Du Châtelet studied first under the direction of her father, and then the informal tutelage of learned contemporaries. By the mid-1740's she was one of the few individuals in Europe who understood and could use the new mathematics of calculus.

Between 1734 and 1740, Du Châtelet and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de created an informal "Academy," at Cirey, her dower estate in Champagne, where they entertained members of the "Republic of Letters," and embarked upon a wide-range of reading and writing projects. During this period, Du Châtelet completed two philosophical works that circulated clandestinely in manuscript: a free translation of portions of Mandeville, Bernard's Fable of the Bees (from the "Remarks," and the "Enquiry into the Origins of Moral Virtue") and her Examination of Genesis and Examination of the Books of the New Testament. She chose to publish the two scientific projects from these years: an essay on the "nature and propagation of fire," written for the Royal Academy of Sciences competition of 1738; and the Institutions of Physics, a coherent description of the cosmos integrating Descartes' method of reasoning, Leibniz's metaphysics, and Newton's mechanics (1740). Du Châtelet subsequently published other scientific writings, an answer to an attack on her explanation of momentum (1741), and her two-volume translation of and commentary on Newton's Principia (completed in 1749, but published posthumously in 1759).

Du Châtelet's significance bridges many aspects of the intellectual history of eighteenth-century Europe. Despite her sex, she gained a learned reputation in the fields that we would now describe as philosophy, physics, and mathematics. For example, Diderot, Denis's Encyclopédie, in the entry on "Newtonianism," identified her as one of seven authorities who had made "Newtonian philosophy easier to understand." Du Châtelet represents all that was possible for a privileged woman in an age of cultural transition, when old presumptions regarding intellectual authority were being challenged and new ones had not yet been institutionalized.

Further Reading:

Esther Ehrman, Mme. du Châtelet, 1986.

Judith Zinsser