Being born a woman, especially a woman of spirit and intellect, is always a challenge. In the 1700’s in Western Europe, this accident of birth and chromosomes was certainly no picnic.
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However, it was easier in many respects than being born in some earlier centuries. In this context, the gifts and accomplishments of Emilie de Chatelet had more of a chance to flourish than if she had been born a generation or three earlier.
The law in most areas viewed a married woman as an integral part of her husband, and any property pertaining to her became his. Women had few rights to services such as education, and were barred from virtually all professions (Make Your Way As A Woman In Eighteenth Century England). Clothing was restrictive, plumbing was outdoors, and health care was minimal and largely misguided by persistent superstition and the handful of ancient so-called medical authorities approved by the church.
However, the bulk of the witchcraft frenzy had passed by, so at least an assertive woman was at a diminishing risk of being burned for her behavior or speech (Witches and Witchcraft). In some other respects, the 1700’s were an era of opening possibilities.
There was an increased appreciation for the knowledge accumulated by the classic world (ignored and often suppressed at various points by Catholic Europe, but preserved by the Islamic-controlled regions of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa). There was also a growing emphasis on individual rationality rather than a slavish acceptance of received wisdom.
The 1700’s were self-consciously involved in creating whole new areas of inquiry and study, ranging from what we would today term hard science to new forms of art, literature, and social organization. For anyone of independent thought, this was arguably the first era in a long time when it became cool, or even feasible, to be an innovator, especially a woman innovator.
Emilie de Chatelet was one such bright spark. Born in 1706 in Paris, Gabrielle-Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil was the product of the second marriage of Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil, a protocol officer in the court of the Sun King; Louis XIV. Her father had married his cousin while she was confined for pregnancy in a convent, but she died 3 days later. It is not clear whether he was the actual father, or simply being exceedingly gallant.
Gabrielle-Emilie was one of 5 children born to the second marriage. Her mother was convent-educated, which was the best education available to a woman at the time, and was described as “studious”. Certainly, her daughter Gabrielle-Emilie was an apt pupil herself. Her education included reading in several languages, both modern (among them English and Italian) and ancient (Latin and Greek (Emilie De Chatelet)).
Her later friend and lover, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire, described her youthful translations of the Aeneid as being admirably true to the spirit of Virgil. While female students in earlier decades might have been taught Latin in merely order to read their missal, her immersion in the secular ancients, and in contemporary languages seems to be a forward thinking practice. It reflects the resurgent respect for the pagan ancients typical of the age.
She also was exposed to mathematics by family friends and frequent guests such as Bernard de la Fontanelle, a mathematician and historian of science. This was a subject for which she showed great enthusiasm. To meet her intellectual demands, her family hired private tutors for her. She also had lessons in riding and gymnastics.
It was perhaps just as well that she had a life of the mind, since she is described as being a most ungainly child and adolescent. However, she apparently grew into her looks eventually, and enjoyed the atmosphere of Versailles when she was introduced there at age 16 (Chatelet).
She married the much older de Chatelet, who had a position in the military, and took advantage of his wealth and position to continue her studies with private tutors. She managed to both study and produce original work in spite of acquiring the responsibilities of motherhood.
Her husband must have been a remarkably broad-minded man for the time, since he did not object legally to her also acquiring as lover in 1733 one of the great philosophes of the age, Voltaire.
They had met when she was still a child at her parents’ home. The official penalties for such adultery would have been severe, but her husband and Voltaire had an amazingly civil relationship, including, apparently, intermittent cohabitation at Cirey, a country retreat. Voltaire was not her only lover, but the affair had the greatest longevity and was exceedingly productive.
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Her behavior was not without impact. At one point her husband was ready to end the marriage (which would have been very difficult, given the laws of the time) and she gave him the impression that she would take her own life, which effectively truncated that line of discussion.
She wrote a number of different kinds of works over her fairly brief life. The first was a translation of a satirical poem by the Englishman, Bernard de Mandeville, treating morals and economics, titled Fable of the Bees.
She edited it for appropriateness for a French audience, and she added a prologue. This satire dealt with issues at the heart of the 18th century debate over the innate goodness of man.
Rousseau was a proponent of the innate goodness side and Hobbs was on the other. Fable of the Bees also addressed in comic verse the economic conundrum of the impact of private behavior on the common good (History Of Economic Theory and Thought). This is a question which we are still arguing today.
She is responsible for Institutions de Physique, a 20 chapter work on science and metaphysics. She explicated Newton and Leibniz, and made the point that metaphysics could be discussed with the same rigor as geometry.
Her clear exposition of the ideas of Leibniz regarding the problem of evil in a world supposedly ruled by a loving and omnipotent deity may have inspired Voltaire’s lampooning of barmy optimism in Candide. Newton was a lifelong hero to her, and she translated his Principia Mathematica into French, thereby making it accessible to a much broader range of readers.
She and Voltaire worked together on the Grammaire raisonnee, which sounds remarkably prescient in maintaining that to understand the rules of logic it is necessary to understand the rules of language. This idea sounds eerily modern, and, it may be imagined, may have contributed to the standardization of language usage.
She submitted to the Academie des Sciences her essay Sur la Nature du Fue. At about the same time, she worked on Examen de la Genes. This latter was her very idiosyncratic and blithely anti-authoritarian analysis of the biblical creation narrative. It may be that her fearlessness in the face of scriptural authority contributed to our current field of historical biblical study. It certainly became a part of the secular zeitgeist out of which the ideas of the French Revolution arose.
Her work Discours sur le Bonheur was completed in 1746, and sounds like the most personal and pointed of her works. She discusses a whole range of social issues, with the aim of improving society, through the enlightened actions of her target audience, the intellectual and economic elite of the era.
She drew attention to many problems and inequities, and provided a woman’s unique perspective on thorny issues, which were under discussion by many philosophes, at a time when women’s voices were barely heard. These discussions were not theoretical. The results of philosophical discussion erupted into violent revolution several decades after her death.
Her last creative endeavor was a translation, in 1749, of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, with commentary. She died from complications of childbirth that same year. The pregnancy had been neither her husband’s nor Voltaire’s, but with Voltaire’s help, she had convinced her husband that it was his (Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont (1706-1749)).
In her brief but blazing life, she could not entirely overcome the barriers of gender in the Paris Academy of Sciences, which did not allow her to attend discussions, nor at the cafés, where she had to dress as a man in order to be allowed to enter and talk with the notable mathematicians of her day. In spite of these obstacles, she persisted, challenging and exasperating her tutors, mentors, and undoubtedly her collaborators (O’Connor, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil Marquise du Châtelet).
De Chatelet’s was only one voice, however, amidst the welter of articulate and thoughtful writers of the 1700s, who examined everything around them with gusto and definite opinion. Piranesi ‘s work is an example of the era’s characteristic re-discovery of classical art forms, literature, and values as a source of inspiration and guidance in creating artwork, and other endeavors, which characterized this era.
Rather than being regarded solely as dangerous and potentially contaminating examples of pagan worship, the surviving examples of Greek and Roman sculptural art, for example, were being looked to for clues as to how to portray reality, especially the human form (Piranesi). This impulse had arisen in the renaissance, and replaced the prior medieval emphasis on iconic, nearly abstracted representation of primarily sacred subjects.
The implications of this increased interest in realistic representation had wide-ranging implications. In order to draw, or understand, the body correctly, one needed to look at actual bodies, which required live models and, ideally, also dissection of bodies, a practice which had not even been allowed for medical purposes for the most part.
Rather than depending on absurd guesses, both art and medicine needed a rational examination of the real body. Medicine could not have advanced without a better understanding of the structure of the human body, rather than the pig, which had always been the proxy for human cadavers.
Winckelman’s writing shows us how, in this era that self-consciously called itself enlightened, all sorts of topics were newly regarded as amenable to thoughtful, organized study.
Everything from math to geology to chemistry to art criticism to the analysis of human facial expressions (Le Brun the ”academiste”) could be discussed, analyzed, systematized, and shared with the public at large for their edification. Of course, it was necessary to believe that the public could indeed be edified for this effort to have much worth.
Fortunately, a cheerful belief in the perfectibility of man was very much a characteristic of this period (Winckelman, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755) 4) and (Wilde). In this context, de Chatelet’s efforts to systematize ideas in mathematics and physics is entirely reasonable
Johann Winckelman believed that the ancient Greeks were better endowed by nature, and by what we would today term their cultural practices, with the prerequisites for beauty (diet, exercise, bedding, for example). He also discusses contour, drapery, and expression, and the effect that a study of the ancients had on the masters of the Renaissance.
This was a systematic approach to understanding what made Classic sculpture so effective which would have been unlikely in an earlier century (Winckelman, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755) 4-13). He also rationalizes the discussion of beauty as a subject to be studied and understood just as other topics could be, a task which de Chatelet undertook as well in her treatment of social issues, morals, geometry, and the infinitely small, for example.
His opinions are based on an exhaustive study of ancient art, an approach which, again, would have been most unusual in an earlier century, when Classical fragments were as likely to become building material as to be revered and examined with care (Winckelman, The History of Ancient Art 13-20).
Gotthold Lessing followed Winckelman in time, and argued with him in print about the relative merits of Greek versus Roman artifacts and values. His stand on tolerance is characteristic of the loosening of the bonds on thought that the Enlightenment permitted (Lessing 351). In this, he and de Chatelet are cousins under the skin, since she was quite ready to call into question previously unquestionable truths.
Lessing was also an apologist for the almost cinematic stillness of expression that many ancient statues exhibited. In his paean to the sculpture of Laocoon, he reasons that the artist must have portrayed Laocoon with such a stoic demeanor because to have shown him in the act of yelling would not have looked beautiful (Lessing 359).
In his discussion of the Classic virtues of which the statue reminds him, he demonstrates the prevailing admiration of the age for all things Greco-Roman. The whole scholarly tone of his discussion of the way that Greek painters were regarded and treated in their own time by their authorities is remarkably modern and free of judgement on the ancients as pagans (Lessing 356).
Without this atmosphere of acceptance of pre-Christian authors, de Chatelet would probably have not been exposed to the writers she did study. As it was, her paramour, Voltaire, got in trouble for some of his works, which should remind us that all was not permitted, even in that enlightened time .
Thus, the achievements of de Chatelet were very much the outgrowth of the era in which she lived. Although the opportunities for women were still constrained in the 1700’s, there was enough of an atmosphere of freedom of thought and willingness to accept the novel and different, that the contributions to knowledge by a woman like Emilie de Chatelet could be accepted in some measure.
Her gifts were prodigious and she might have been an outstanding individual in any age, but the Enlightenment gave her scope to work and produce and think and communicate, to some degree, with other intellectuals of her day. The happy result was a body of work that clarifies and systematizes ideas in mathematics and physics, as well as the social sciences and metaphysics and stands up sturdily against the output of her male contemporaries.
Since marrying a woman who was pregnant was definitely a cause for comment at the time, this suggests that De Breteuill was something of a free spirit. This attitude certainly was later echoed in his daughter’s liberated loves.
De Fontanelle was an exemplar of the age in his own spirit of inquiry and respect for the accomplishments of the ancients. He is quoted as saying “An educated mind is, as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages” (O’Connor, Quotations by Bernard de Fontenelle).
She also engaged in a lively correspondence with the notable people of her day.
The following quote from the preface to her translation of Fable of the Bees summarizes with startling modernity her frustrations with the oppression of her sex.”
I feel the full weight of the prejudice which so universally excludes us from the sciences; it is one of the contradictions in life that has always amazed me, seeing that the law allows us to determine the fate of great nations, but that there is no p lace where we are trained to think…
Let the reader ponder why, at no time in the course of so many centuries, a good tragedy, a good poem, a respected tale, a fine painting, a good book on physics has ever been produced by women.
Why these creatures whose understanding appears in every way similar to that of men, seem to be stopped by some irresistible force, this side of a barrier.
Let the people give a reason, but until they do, women will have reason to protest against their education…If I were king…I would redress an abuse which cuts back, as it were, one half of human kind. I would have women participate in all human rights, especially those of the mind. It would seem as if they were born only to deceive — this being the only intellectual exercise allowed them. The new education would greatly benefit the human race.
Women would be worth more and men would gain something new to emulate…I am convinced that either many women are unaware of their talents by reason of the fault in their education or that bury them on account of prejudice for want of intellectual courage.” My own experience confirms this. Chance made me aquatinted with men of letters who extended the hand of friendship to me…I then began to believe that I was a being with a mind…” (p. 61) (Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont (1706-1749))
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Laocoon was the Greek mythological figure who was unfortunate enough to experience a face to fang encounter with a giant serpent.