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Mathematical Treasure: Voltaire's Élémens de la philosophie de Newton

Author(s): 
Cynthia J. Huffman (Pittsburg State University)

Famous as an Enlightenment philosopher, poet, and writer, Voltaire also studied science and mathematics, including works by Newton. His interest in these topics may have been influenced by his mistress Émilie du Châtelet, who later was known for her translation and commentary of Newton’s Principia. (For images of her translation and commentary, visit the page Mathematical Treasure: Émilie du Châtelet’s Principes Mathématiques.) Voltaire’s work, Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton : mis à la portée de tout le monde, was first published in 1738 in French in Amsterdam. An Italian version was published in 1741, and a revised French edition in 1773 (about five years before the death of Voltaire). This book contributed to the spread of Newton’s ideas on gravity, optics, and light to France, by making them more understandable and accessible. Below is an image of the title page from the 1738 edition.

Title page for Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

Notice that the title page lists Voltaire’s name as the sole author. There is speculation that if the book had been written in a different culture and age that Émilie du Châtelet would have been listed as a co-author. Preceding the title page, there is a portrait of Voltaire and a scene depicting Voltaire writing at a table. He is receiving inspiration from a beautiful goddess (Émilie) who is holding a mirror that reflects ideas down from Newton in the clouds. Images of these two frontispiece pages are below.

First frontispiece from Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

Second frontispiece from Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

Voltaire explicitly gave credit to Émilie du Châtelet in an acknowledgment and foreword. Images of the first page of each of these are below.

Acknowledgement of Châtelet in Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

Foreword for Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

The next images are from a discussion of the angles involved when a ray of light passes through a crystal and how white light is broken up into colors when it passes through a prism.

Page 91 from Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

Page 136 from Voltaire’s 1738 Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton

Émilie du Châtelet wrote a review of Voltaire’s Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton which appeared in the September 1738 issue of the Journal des Sçavans under the heading “De Cirey en Champagne”. Voltaire and Émilie spent many years together at her estate called Cirey, conducting experiments, reading, writing, and hosting other researchers. Three years later, in 1741, she published a book synthesizing the ideas of Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton. Images from this work can be found on the page Mathematical Treasure: Émilie du Châtelet’s Institutions de Physique.

The call number for the 1738 French edition of Voltaire’s Elements of the Philosophy of Newton is QC19.V64 1738.

Images in this article are courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology and used with permission. The images may be downloaded and used for the purposes of research, teaching, and private study, provided the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology is credited as the source. For other uses, check out the LHL Image Rights and Reproductions policy.

References

Arianrhod, Robyn. Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution. Oxford, 2012.

Bodanis, David. Passionate Minds: The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world. Crown Publishers, 2006.

Zinsser, Judith P. Emilie du Chatelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment. Penguin Books, 2006.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Cynthia J. Huffman (Pittsburg State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Voltaire's Élémens de la philosophie de Newton," Convergence (June 2018)

Dummy View - NOT TO BE DELETED

Mathematical Treasures: The Linda Hall Library