Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment

Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment

David Bodanis

Language: English

Pages: 392

ISBN: 0307237214

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


It was 1733 when the poet and philosopher Voltaire met Emilie du Châtelet, a beguiling—and married—aristocrat who would one day popularize Newton’s arcane ideas and pave the way for Einstein’s theories. In an era when women were rarely permitted any serious schooling, this twenty-seven-year-old’s nimble conversation and unusual brilliance led Voltaire, then in his late thirties, to wonder, “Why did you only reach me so late?” They fell immediately and passionately in love.

Through the prism of their tumultuous fifteen-year relationship we see the crumbling of an ancient social order and the birth of the Enlightenment. Together the two lovers rebuilt a dilapidated and isolated rural chateau at Cirey where they conducted scientific experiments, entertained many of the leading thinkers of the burgeoning scientific revolution, and developed radical ideas about the monarchy, the nature of free will, the subordination of women, and the separation of church and state.

But their time together was filled with far more than reading and intellectual conversation. There were frantic gallopings across France, sword fights in front of besieged German fortresses, and a deadly burning of Voltaire’s books by the public executioner at the base of the grand stairwell of the Palais de Justice in Paris. The pair survived court intrigues at Versailles, narrow escapes from agents of the king, a covert mission to the idyllic lakeside retreat of Frederick the Great of Prussia, forays to the royal gambling tables (where Emilie put her mathematical acumen to lucrative use), and intense affairs that bent but did not break their bond.

Along with its riveting portrait of Voltaire as a vulnerable romantic, Passionate Minds at last does justice to the supremely unconventional life and remarkable achievements of Emilie du Châtelet—including her work on the science of fire and the nature of light. Long overlooked, her story tells us much about women’s lives at the time of the Enlightenment. Equally important, it demonstrates how this graceful, quick-witted, and attractive woman worked out the concepts that would lead directly to the “squared” part of Einstein’s revolutionary equation: E=mc2.

Based on a rich array of personal letters, as well as writings from houseguests, neighbors, scientists, and even police reports, Passionate Minds is both panoramic and intimate in feeling. It is an unforgettable love story and a vivid rendering of the birth of modern ideas.

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Bastille that Voltaire saw was a 1690 text on pseudonyms; another, earlier, inmate (around 1710) had penciled in much of a poem that bore some similarities to Voltaire's later epic on Henri IV. Wade, Voltaire and Mme du Châtelet, suggests Voltaire's partial plagiarism, though I'm more inclined to Pomeau's suggestion (D'Arouet à Voltaire, p. 112) that both authors were using standard sources, and had just converged on similar results. 35 Another theory: There have been many other explanations, as

several attempts, membership in the Académie Française. “This…is the subject of all literary men's secret hopes, it is a mistress against which they launch songs and epigrams until they have obtained its favors, and which they neglect as soon as they have entered into possession…. After forty years of work you [get to] deliver in a broken voice, on the day of your reception, a discourse which on the next day will be forgotten for ever.” Voltaire's further summary to the aspiring writer Le Fèvre;

mind, was failing him. His illness was testing her for signs of love, for the affection that comes across in tending an ill partner as a parent would, even when the partner has nothing to give back. Since each was failing the other, they got angry; they had arguments; they split up. Voltaire didn't care. He was in the depths of hypochondriac misery, writing to an old school friend that he was dead to pleasure: Emilie's sexual demands had become all wrong, for “my machine is totally exhausted.”

can take the “optimum” path (as with the Golden Gate bridge example above). Emilie was one of the very first people to use the word optimiste, and she did so in her mathematical analyses of these curves, in accord with her (and Leibniz's) belief that there's a beneficent deity behind the seemingly random events we see around us. An optimist was someone who believed that however complicated or random or odd a stretching curve might seem, if we had enough insight then we could understand the simple

a plaything to him. In his youth he'd had more serious affairs of the heart, and understood how much Emilie was missing her dreams of love now. “I don't want anyone to know what I'm feeling,” Emilie had written to a stone-cold Saint-Lambert, “so I'm quiet about it. But I cry for where my heart took me.” Stanislas also recognized—again, almost certainly without stating it—the medical position that Emilie was in. Her pregnancy still barely showed (“aside from my breasts swelling, and feeling

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