Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Bretuil du Châtelet-Lomont (1706-1749) was born into an aristocratic family (her father served in the court of the king) and as such, she received an excellent childhood education. By age 12, she had already fluently reading, speaking and writing in French, English, Italian, Spanish and German and could translate from both Greek and Latin. Nevertheless, as most women of the time, she was excluded from receiving any form of upper-level education. The Sorbonne and the “cafes” were primary sources of upper-level education but women were not permitted in such places. But Émilie was determined. She once entered a café with a friend, Maupertuis, and proceeded to join in the conversation the males at the table until she was firmly instructed to leave by café management. The following day she returned, dressed in “drag” and was permitted to remain at the table (even though it was clear she was a woman).
At the age of 19, Émilie married a military leader, the Marquis Floret-Claude du Châtelet-Lomont. The biography speaks little of her marriage to her husband except that she bore him three children (one who died in infancy) and had numerous affairs with various tutors and influential male members of society – each who played an influential role in her education and shaping her influence in philosophy. Likely the most influential lover in Émilie’s life was Voltaire. She and Voltaire moved into one of her husband’s abandoned estates and remodeled it into a high-class, top-notch library and laboratory in which the two studied Newton, Locke, Leibnitz, and many others. Émilie is known as an experimental physicist, replicating many of Newton’s experiments as well as conducting her own. She also dabbled in areas of ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, metaphysics, wrote a number of books and essays, including her translation of Newton’s Principia and a notable essay on the nature of fire. She also collaborated extensively with Voltaire on many of their works to the extent that it is unclear which ideas belong to which author in many of their joint works.
Émilie gained wide recognition first as an experimental physicist and philosophers of science in her contribution to Voltaire’s work, Éléments de la Philosophie du Neuton, earning her the name “Lady Newton,” but also gained a great reputation as a metaphysician in her essays on optics, color, and fire, but more so from her Institutions de Physique and her translation and commentary on Principes Mathématiques de la Philosophie Naturelle (the first French translation and commentary on Newton’s Principia). Émilie initially considered herself a pure Newtonian, convinced that Newton’s works were an accurate depiction of what was actually happening in the universe. While she was convinced the Newton gave and accurate depiction of how the universe worked, she felt he failed to explain why it worked as such – Descartes held a better theory of metaphysics. She felt that Newton’s physics described an omnipotent, but not omniscient God and it claimed that action was predetermined. Predetermined action would indicate that there could be no free human action and no free will. If there is no free will, there is no virtue and vice and, according to her familiarity with Mandeville’s account of virtue and vice, she believed that without vice there is no need for political society and also no need for the spiritual reformations taking place that accounted for personal salvation, etc.
Émilie felt that without providing the metaphysical underpinnings for Newton’s physics, French society would never accept Newton and all he had to contribute. She was shortly after introduced to the works of Leibniz and she began to see how Leibniz metaphysics could support Newton. Her Institutions de Physique explains and defends the relationship between Newtonian physics and Leibnizian metaphysics. She combined Leibnizian ontology with Newtonian atomism, using Leibniz monadology to understand true substances. She discussed the principle of sufficient reason to explain why possible events actually occur and to reestablish the predictability of science (such that it is not merely a whim in the mind of God that can change when God changes his mind, etc.). She also used Leibniz Law of Noncontradiction to explain how humans can still have free will and his principle of sufficient reason to explain why there are beings with free will. As such, she was seemingly able to defend Newtonianism while simultaneously preserving notions of the nature and will of God, as well as the nature and will of humans and their interaction with God. She preserved human initiative and free will as opposed to accepting humans as just cogs in the wheel of a perfectly designed machine (as Newton held).
While the Institutions was one of her greatest works, many pure Newtonians rejected the combination of Newtonian and Leibnizian ideas (Voltaire himself didn’t see a need for a metaphysical defense). Nevertheless, Émelie’s greatest work, her life’s work, was her translation of Newton’s Principia. She desired to make Newton’s views accessible to the French people. As such, she not only translated his work, but made some modifications of her own as well as added commentary. But her translation held true to Newton’s original work and she clearly indicated when she was inserting her own thoughts or corrections. For nearly two centuries, Émilie’s translation served as the primary French translation of this work and served as a central piece to the Enlightenment. While working on the translation, Émilie became pregnant by a younger lover. Fearing that she would die in childbirth, worked 20 hours a day to complete the work. She finished, but shortly after her child was born, both died.
In conclusion, while society still held up barriers to women receiving equal education with men of their same rank, Émilie’s determination allowed her to have exclusive access to private societies and the great thinkers of her day. Her aristocratic background gave her some influence, as well as her many affairs, but she was able to hire tutors from the Sorbonne to learn mathematics and physics, and was privy to an exquisite library and laboratory. She became well-known, even outside of France (Kant recognized her work and commented on an essay she had written). In addition, she was an influential thinker in various areas of science including the scientific method, metaphysics, and explored questions of theology, existence and more.
From this biography of Émilie, it is amazing how much she was able to learn and accomplish. She seemed nearly brilliant in her ability to learn so quickly the ideas of others, different languages and different subjects, and then to publish so many books and essays. I also found it amazing how she was so influential in science, an area that we consider to be primarily relegated to men. Of course, this was the age of the Enlightenment and science was the primary field of interest. Nevertheless, I thought it was really fascinating that she was able to gain recognition and respect for her work, despite the fact that women were still predominantly excluded from society. And this was not the type of “awe” given to women of the medieval period who were seen as prodigies, she gained legitimate respect and was sought after for conversation and ideas on the works she published and studied.
Additionally, although Émilie was a bit promiscuous, I wonder how much of that was her own desire, and how much was influenced by her understanding that sex was a means to attain a better education and access to scientific, philosophic society. A commentary from another woman suggested that she intentionally dressed in gaudy attire to make her face appealing and gain attention – which could mean she simply desired to have many lovers, or she was trying to gain favor from those she thought could offer educational benefit (so either way). Regardless, it was interesting to me that she was never criticized or rebuked for her sexuality, but maintained a seemingly respected reputation – which I think can shed light on the changing (diminishing) role of Christianity and religious values, as well as speak to her confidence and determination to do as she desired to do and accomplish her goals.
Chapter 8 "Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Bretuil du Châtelet-Lomont" in A History of Women Philosophers: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900, by Mary Ellen Waithe