Memories of Émilie du Châtelet
In the year 1733, I met a like-minded young lady who invited me to spend time at her country chateau where we could cultivate our minds far from the hustle and bustle of the city.
This lady was none other than the Marquise du Châtelet. She had the most capable scientific mind of all the women in France. Her father had taught her Latin. She could recite from memory the most beautiful passages of all the ancient poets. But she was most interested in mathematics and metaphysics. Few other individuals have possessed such keen perception, elegant taste, and desire for knowledge.
She loved to socialize and play, but she decided to set that all aside to pursue her studies. She beautified her old chateau with pretty gardens. I built a small museum to house a rather nice natural history collection. We also had a good library. Many visitors came there to learn and share ideas.
I taught her English. In about three months, she understood it as well as I did. She read Newton and other English writers. She learned Italian just as quickly.
In this, delightful place, we devoted ourselves to learning. We focused all our energy on the ideas of Leibniz and Newton. Madame du Châtelet was first attracted to the ideas of Leibniz. She wrote an excellent book about them titled, Institutions de Physique. Her style is clear, precise, and elegant.
She soon applied herself to the discoveries of the great Newton as well. She translated his whole book, Principia, from Latin into French. Newton's ideas are very difficult for the average person to understand, so she later added her own helpful explanations to make them easier to follow.
"The Translator's Preface"
by Émilie du Châtelet (1735)
The prejudice that excludes us women so universally from the sciences weighs heavily on me. It has always astonished me that there are great nations whose laws permit us to control their fate, but there is not a single place where we are brought up to think. This is one of the great contradictions of our times.
The theater is the only profession requiring some study and some cultivation of wit in which women are allowed to participate. At the same time, it is a profession that has been declared an improper one.
Just think for a moment. Why is it that for so many centuries not a single good tragedy, fine poem, valued story, beautiful painting, or good book on physics has been produced by the hand of a woman? Why do these creatures-whose understanding appears to be similar in every way to that of men-seem to be held back by an insurmountable force? Let someone give me a reason for it, if they can. I leave it to the naturalists to find a physical reason for it, but until they have found one, women have a right to speak out for their education.
I confess that if I were king, I would conduct the following experiment. I would correct this abuse that has cut short a full half of the human race. I would get women to participate in all the privileges of humanity, especially those of the mind.
It's as though women were born only to flirt, so they are given nothing but that activity to exercise their minds. The new education I propose would do all of humanity a great deal of good. Women would be better off for it, and men would gain a new source of competition.
All too often, the way we currently conduct our daily affairs weakens and narrows women's minds rather than improves them. With men and women as equal partners, such interactions would serve to extend everyone's knowledge.
I'm convinced that most women are either ignorant of their talents, or they cover them up. Everything I've experienced myself confirms this opinion. I've been lucky to know men of letters who have included me in their circle. I saw with extreme astonishment that they held me in high esteem. I then began to believe that I was a thinking creature.
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Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (French: [dy ʃɑtlɛ]; 17 December 1706 – 10 September 1749) was a French mathematician, physicist, and author during the Age of Enlightenment. Her crowning achievement is considered to be her translation and commentary on Isaac Newton's work Principia Mathematica. The translation, published posthumously in 1759, is still considered the standard French translation. Wikipedia
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By 1736 Voltaire and du Châtelet were jointly working on the book, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton. The book was published in 1738 under Voltaire’s name, but in the preface he makes it clear that the book was a collaborative process with Emilie. The engraving shows Newton, sitting on High, with Emilie holding a mirror to reflect the truth of his Wisdom, so that Voltaire, the scribe, could render the wisdom into words.http://mikerendell.com/emilie-du-chatelet-a-great-female-scientist-in-the-eighteenth-century/