Émilie du Châtelet

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Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788): Madame du Châtelet – Laumont (private collection)

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont (born December 17, 1706 in Paris ; † September 10, 1749 in Lunéville ), known as Émilie du Châtelet , was a French mathematician , physicist , philosopher and translator of the Early Enlightenment . Together with Voltaire she wrote the elements of Newton's philosophy . She also translated Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica and linked Newton's with Leibniz 's thinking. She also called for women to participate in all human rights .

Live and act

Youth and marriage

Émilie du Châtelet (as she is commonly called) was born to Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil and his second wife, Gabrielle-Anne de Froulay. At the court in Versailles, her father was in charge of preparing the ambassadors of foreign princes for their appearance before King Louis XIV and introducing them to him.

In her family's Paris home, Émilie enjoyed an intellectually open milieu and learned, for example, at an early age. B. know the then most famous lyric poet, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau , and the fiction and philosophical author Fontenelle , an important representative of the so-called early enlightenment . Thanks to her father, who noticed her talent, she received an excellent classical education. She also learned English and Italian. She was also taught the spinet and learned to sing opera arias, dance and play theater.

At the age of 16 she was introduced to the court by her father. She enjoyed the activities and luxuries that went with it, and had some minor (no doubt platonic) affairs, e.g. B. with the Marquis de Guébriant. On June 12, 1725, at the age of 18, she was married to the 30-year-old Marquis Florent Claude du Chastellet (* 1695) (the spelling "Châtelet" goes back to Voltaire). She moved to live with him in Semur-en-Auxois , where he held the office of royal governor and where she had three children with him, including the later lieutenant general and diplomat Louis Marie Florent du Châtelet . Here she also met the mathematician de Mézières, who aroused her passion for mathematics. In 1730 she returned to Paris.

At that time, marriages of noble partners did not follow the romantic model of the "love marriage"; the marriage was seen as a contractual relationship and the Marquise du Châtelet considered her part of the contract to be fulfilled after giving birth to three children to her husband. After that, she made use of the sexual and other freedoms granted to a noble woman subject to certain limits. Accordingly, she had several shorter affairs, including with Marshal de Richelieu , a great-nephew of Cardinal Richelieu , with the mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis and the mathematician Alexis-Claude Clairaut .

Intellectual partner and friend of Voltaire

Château de Cirey. Contemporary lithography

In 1733 she met Voltaire at a supper and began a relationship with him. When he had to leave Paris in 1734 in order to evade an arrest warrant, she offered him a half-ruined mansion in Cirey-sur-Blaise in Champagne as a refuge . After it became clear that the arrest warrant would not be lifted anytime soon, the “divine Émilie”, as Voltaire called her, finally traveled after him. She certainly had no idea that Cirey would become the center of life for him and her for 15 years, even if they both traveled frequently and spent weeks or months in other places.

The Châtelets were not particularly wealthy, while Voltaire was more than wealthy thanks to an inheritance, skillful speculation, but also to his writings. Soon after her arrival in Cirey, partly according to his ideas and also with his money, she had the castle rebuilt and a new wing added, which housed a kind of science laboratory and a rapidly growing library. Here the two experimented on optics and the phenomenon of vacuum . They put on Voltaire's plays in a small theater set up in the attic. Cirey became a meeting place for writers, naturalists and mathematicians.

"Emilia Newtonmania"

Isaac Newton: Principia Mathematica (Frontispiece)

At Schloss Cirey, Voltaire wrote the elements of Newton's philosophy in 1736/37 , a generally understandable non-fiction book on Newtonian physics in today's terms . Until then, this was hardly known in France, where physics was still dominated by Descartes , although the Principia had already appeared in 1687. It is true that Voltaire is the only author of the "Elements", but he himself has recognized the cooperation with Madame du Châtelet as essential.

In 1745 this began - which of itself jokingly referred to as "Emilia Newtonmania" - with the translation of the Principia , on which she worked until her death. Her main achievement consists less in the translation from Latin into French, but above all in having transferred Newton's mathematical argumentation into the notation of infinitesimal calculus developed by Leibniz , which had established itself on the continent. She also explained Newton's text in numerous commentaries. This made the epochal achievement of the Englishman understandable only for large circles on the continent.


The concept of kinetic energy was introduced by Émilie du Châtelet, based on the ideas of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz , as Vis Viva , Lebendige Kraft . Like Leibniz, she advocated the theory that the kinetic energy must be proportional to v² (speed squared). She recognized in the experiments of Willem Jacob 's Gravesande the confirmation of Leibniz' ideas. Up until then, Newton's view was that kinetic energy was proportional to speed. These two forces correspond, as it were analogously, to the sensibilité inert and the sensibilité active .


Criticism of Locke and debate about thinking matter

In her writings, Emilie du Châtelet criticized the philosophy of John Locke. She emphasized the necessity of verifying knowledge through experience: She considered Locke's idea of ​​the possibility of thinking matter to be “absurd”. Her criticism of Locke came from her Bernard de Mandeville commentary on his bee fable (1714). Du Châtelet saw the universal principles as a necessary condition for human knowledge and action and claimed that this type of law was innate. Because if this basic condition of universal and a priori principles did not exist, all of our knowledge would be relative: "Two and two could then also result in six and also four". She also defended the principle of contradiction, which served as the basis of her methodological reflections in the institutions .

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis' and Julien Offray de La Mettrie's references to Emilie du Châtelet's reflections on movement, free will, as well as thinking matter, numbers and the path to substantial metaphysics show the importance of their reflections. She successfully refuted Maupertui's claim to find the truth with the help of mathematical laws.

Considerations on the basics of physics

Émilie du Châtelet also proves to be an independent enlightened thinker in her “Institutions of Physics”, which deals with the fundamentals of physics, including metaphysics . Newton had z. B. in his “principles” cannot explain why the heavenly bodies circle around each other instead of crashing on each other according to his law of gravity , i.e. why they move at all. He had made up his mind that God had pushed one of the heavenly bodies. Émilie du Châtelet, on the other hand, demanded in the Leibniz tradition that there must be a “sufficient reason” for the planetary movements. And she already suspected that this reason lies hidden in the history of the planetary system (which emerged from a rotating dust vortex, as Immanuel Kant first postulated).

The “institutions of physics” also deal with the problem of theodicy , that is, the question of how evil came into the world.

In the Encyclopédie a number of articles have been taken over from its “Institutions of Physics” without the source being given. The book was praised across Europe, but was also subject to allegations of plagiarism .

Reason and erudition

Émilie du Châtelet was also active as a philosopher of the Enlightenment . In a Bible commentary, she criticized the creation story, among other things: "How amusing that the first three days [of the creation story] were delimited by evening and morning before the sun was created on the fourth day." Like Voltaire, she rejected revelation religions.

In her speech on happiness , she postulated that every person within his or her class could do something for his or her happiness, addressed the women of the world explicitly and took a more Epicurean position, which the philosopher Ruth Hagengruber characterized as the “calculus of passions”. According to this, man is able to calculate his passions and the happiness and unhappiness associated with them. For example, if you like to feast, like Émilie du Châtelet himself, you have to fast to avoid the risk of gout and stomach pain, but also to increase enjoyment: “ Reason must always hold the strings in hand, because whoever is sensible says, means happy, at least in my dictionary. ”Among the passions that favor happiness, she counted the pursuit of learning, which is a source of inexhaustible joy, especially for women.

“It is certain that learning is far less important to the happiness of men than it is to that of women. Men have an infinite number of options that women completely lack. They have completely different avenues to fame, and it is certain that the ambition to use one's talents for the benefit of one's country and to serve one's fellow citizens (…) is far above the goals one can set oneself through studies. But women are excluded from any kind of fame because of their position. "

She agrees with Cicero's statement that the pleasures of the senses and the heart are subordinate to study, and describes the pursuit of fame as an illusion that cannot withstand reason, but nevertheless the love of fame is a source of joy for the soul. She also considers freedom from prejudice to be a source of happiness. Good morals, depending on class, age and other factors, are a matter of agreement and are therefore truthful, but not prejudices. The greatest virtue is to contribute to the good of the community. This virtue brings individual happiness with it.

As an educated woman in a man's world

Portrait of Marianne Loir. Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Émilie du Châtelet lived according to the conventions of her time, and to that extent it would be a mistake to characterize her as a champion of feminism , but she had many complaints about the position of women in her society. Many ways to happiness are open to men, for example in the art of war or diplomacy, she writes in the “Speech of Happiness”. The women, on the other hand, are left with only studying. In her translation of Mandeville's “The Fable of the Bees” she becomes clearer in a comment: “If I were king, I would abolish an abuse that is putting back half of humanity. I would allow women to participate in all human rights , especially intellectual ones. ”With her work, she was also a role model for other women, for example the German writer Luise Gottsched :“ You who now support the glory of the fatherland / woman who gives it to him you used far more than a thousand men, / Exalted Chatelet, oh continue on / To pursue the truth. "

In the small circle of contemporary physicists and mathematicians, however, Émilie du Châtelet always met men who were willing to work with her on the most difficult questions. Her correspondents included Maupertuis, Johann I Bernoulli , Algarotti , Abbé Sade and Clairaut. The eminent German philosopher Christian Wolff praised: “It is as if I heard myself speaking from the pulpit.” Immanuel Kant wrote of the Enlightenment , “the virtue of understanding and science [set] her over and above all others of her sex a large part of the other ”. Your correspondence with the enlightened monarch Friedrich II dates from the period between 1738 and 1744.

In 1738, Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire competed independently for the prize that the French Academy of Sciences had advertised for an explanation of the nature of fire. The work could be submitted anonymously so that she could also participate as a woman. The prize went to the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler , but her dissertation on nature et la propagation du feu was printed in 1744 at the academy's expense. In 1746 she was elected to the Academy of Sciences in Bologna. In principle, women were not accepted into the Paris Academy. Despite the great formal obstacles, she was one of the few women in science who were known and in some cases also recognized in the Age of Enlightenment .

The end

Émilie du Châtelet

She spent the period from 1744 to 1748 partly in Versailles together with Voltaire, who thanks to Madame de Pompadour had regained access to the court. In the years 1748/49 she often lived with him in Castle Lunéville at the court of Stanislaus I. Leszczyński , the father-in-law of Louis XV. and Polish ex-king who had been compensated with the Duchy of Lorraine in 1735. Here she began an affair with the courtier, officer and poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert . When she became pregnant, she and Saint-Lambert and Voltaire (who had been in a relationship with a widowed niece since 1745) managed to convince her husband that the child was his.

During her pregnancy, she ended her collaboration with Clairaut on the Newton translation and continued it alone. In order to finish quickly, she cut back on her social life and worked from morning to night. On the night of September 3, 1749, she gave birth to a girl, Stanislas-Adélaïde du Châtelet. Voltaire wrote: “The little girl was born when her mother was at her desk writing Newtonian theories. The newborn was placed on a geometry book while the mother collected her papers and was put to bed. ”After a few days, attacks of suffocation and a high fever set in. On September 10, 1749, Émilie du Châtelet died of puerperal fever . According to other sources, the cause of death was pulmonary embolism. Voltaire, Saint-Lambert and their husband stood together at their deathbed, King Stanislaus wept with him. The girl died at around 18 months.

Publication history

Translation frontispiece

Her translation of the principles appeared in 1759, edited by Clairaut and provided with a foreword by Voltaire. To date, it is the only translation into French. So far, only "Die Rede vom Glück" has been published in German. The correspondence between her and Voltaire, which comprised many hundreds of letters, is largely believed to be lost. In St. Petersburg, however, there are still about 300 pages from her hand in Voltaire's estate, which have not yet been published. In the 19th century, the well-known thinker among educated contemporaries was largely ignored and viewed more as a lover of Voltaire than as an enlightened scientist who in turn influenced Voltaire.


The opera Émilie by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is about the life and death of Émilie du Châtelet. It was premiered in 2010 at the Lyon Opera with Karita Mattila in the title role. (Libretto: Amin Maalouf )


  • Institutions de Physique . Paris 1740.
  • Response to the letter de Mairan on the question of the forces vives . Bruxelles 1741.
  • Analysis of the philosophy of Leibnitz . 1740.
  • Dissertation on nature et la propagation du feu . Paris 1744.
  • Les Principes de Newton . Translation from the Lat., Ed. by Alexis Claude Clairaut, 1759.
  • Doutes sur les religions révélées . Paris 1792.
  • Opuscules philosophiques et littéraires . 1796.
  • Theodore Besterman (Ed.): Les Lettres de la Marquise du Châtelet . 2 volumes. Musée Voltaire, Geneva 1958.
  • Talk about happiness . Translated by Iris Röbling, Friedenauer Presse, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-932109-12-0 .
  • Examens de la Bible . Edités et annotés by Bertram Eugene Schwarzbach. Honoré Champion, Paris 2011. Review in the NZZ, January 7, 2012.


  • Elisabeth Badinter : Emilie Emilie. Feminine life plan in the 18th century. Munich: Piper 1984 ISBN 3-492-02865-9
  • David Bodanis: Emilie and Voltaire. A love in times of enlightenment . Rowohlt: Reinbek 2007 ISBN 3-498-00645-2
  • Frauke Böttcher: The mathematical and natural philosophical work of the Marquise du Chatelet (1706-1749). A woman's access to knowledge in the 18th century , Springer Verlag, 2013
  • Samuel Edwards: Voltaire's Divine Beloved. The life of the Émilie du Châtelet . Engelhorn: Stuttgart 1989 ISBN 3-87203-061-2
  • Ruth Hagengruber : Against Rousseau - for physics: Gabrielle Emilie du Châtelet (1706–1749). The life of a scientist in the Age of Enlightenment . In: Consensus . Vol. 3, No. 18, 2002, pp. 27-30
  • Ruth Hagengruber: A Metaphysics in Letters. E. du Chatelet to PLM de Maupertuis . In: Hartmut Hecht (Ed.): Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis . Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, Berlin 1999, pp. 189-211
  • Ruth Hagengruber: Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton. The Transformation of Metaphysics. In: Ruth Hagengruber: Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton. (= International Archives of the History of Ideas .) Springer, Berlin 2012 ISBN 978-94-007-2074-9
  • Gerlinde Kraus: Important French women: Christine de Pizan, Émilie du Châtelet, Madame de Sévigné, Germaine de Staël, Olympe de Gouges, Madame Roland, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir . Schröder, Mühlheim am Main / Norderstedt 2006 ISBN 3-9811251-0-X
  • Andrea Reichenberger: Émilie du Châtelets Institutions physiques. About the role of principles and hypotheses in physics . Springer, Berlin 2016. ISBN 978-3-658-12544-8
  • Marit Rullmann : women philosophers. From ancient times to the Enlightenment. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1998, p. 217 ff. ISBN 978-3-518-39377-2

Web links

Commons : Émilie du Châtelet  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Frauke Böttcher: The mathematical and natural philosophy learning and work of the Marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749) . A woman's access to knowledge in the 18th century. Springer Spectrum, 2012, ISBN 3-642-32486-X , p. 73 .
  2. Samuel Edwards: The Divine Beloved. Voltaire and Èmilie du Châtelet. dva, Stuttgart 1971, p. 38 ff.
  3. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Complete writings and letters. Volume 2. Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2009, p. LXXXVI
  4. Ruth Hagengruber: Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton. The Transformation of Metaphysics. In: Ruth Hagengruber: Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton. (= International Archives of the History of Ideas .) Springer, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-94-007-2074-9 , pp. 8-13.
  5. Ruth Hagengruber (ed.): Classical philosophical texts by women . Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, Munich 1998, pp. 32–34 and 120–131.
  6. Émilie du Châtelet: About happiness. In: Ruth Hagengruber: Classical philosophical texts by women . Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, Munich 1998, p. 129 f.
  7. Immanuel Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff., AA I, p. 133