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Biographies of Voltaire & Émilie du Châtelet

How do actors prepare for a role? It's called dramaturgy, and we want to share some of it with our audiences! For Legacy of Light the dramaturgy includes bios of key figures Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire, a glossary of scientific terms used in the play, as well as musical selections that show up in the production. Read on to find out more!

   

Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire (1694-1778), was a prominent playwright, author, and philosopher in 18th century France. In 1726, Voltaire insulted the powerful young nobleman, Chevalier de Rohan, and was given two options: imprisonment or exile. He chose exile and from 1726 to 1729 lived in England. While in England, Voltaire was attracted to the philosophy of John Locke and the ideas of mathematician and scientist Sir Isaac Newton. He studied England's Constitutional Monarchy and its religious tolerance. Voltaire was particularly interested in the philosophical rationalism of the time and in the study of the natural sciences. After returning to Paris he wrote a book praising English customs and institutions. It was interpreted as criticism of the French government, and in 1734 Voltaire was forced to leave Paris again.

At the invitation of a highly-intelligent woman friend, Marquise du Châtelet, Voltaire moved into her Chateau de Cirey near Luneville in eastern France. They studied the natural sciences together for several years. In 1746, Voltaire was voted into the L’Académie Française. In 1749, after the death of Marquise du Châtelet and at the invitation of the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, he moved to Potsdam (near Berlin in Germany). In 1753, Voltaire left Potsdam to return to France.

In 1759, Voltaire purchased an estate called Ferney near the French-Swiss border, where he lived until just before his death. Ferney soon became the intellectual capital of Europe. Voltaire worked continuously throughout the years, producing a constant flow of books, plays and other publications. He wrote hundreds of letters to his circle of friends. He was always a voice of reason. Voltaire was often an outspoken critic of religious intolerance and persecution.

Voltaire returned to a hero’s welcome in Paris at age 83. The excitement of the trip was too much for him and he died in Paris. Because of his criticism of the church, Voltaire was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris.

Émilie du Châtelet
Although recognized for many years by the mathematical and scientific communities as an impressive intellect, Émilie du Châtelet’s contributions have been obscured with time. She scoffed at societal conventions, rebelling against the prejudices which barred her from intellectual debate because she was a woman. Her translation of Newton’s Principia, published ten years after her death, remains the only French translation of the text.

Born on December 17, 1706 and christened Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the future Marquise du Châtelet grew up under privileged circumstances. Her father, the Baron de Breteuil, was Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to Louis XIV, and thus she spent the early years of her life in the presence and company of many notable celebrities and thinkers of the day. At the age of sixteen, her father introduced her to the Court of Versailles and by age nineteen she had chosen a husband: Marquis Florent-Claude Chastellet (Voltaire standardized the spelling of her last name to “Châtelet” in his writings). As was common for her station in life, the spouses understood each would have extramarital affairs; Émilie had affairs before and throughout her marriage, usually with men whom she found intellectually stimulating, such as her mathematics tutor and member of the Academy of Sciences Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.

Émilie had three children with Châtelet: a daughter in 1726, a son in 1727, and finally a second son in 1733 who died in 1734. Her husband, a military man, spent much of his time on garrison duty away from home, so Émilie was free to enjoy the society of Paris, as well as to explore and expand her mind.

Émilie met Voltaire upon his return to France after his self-imposed exile. From 1734 until her death in 1749, the pair spent their time investigating energy, moral philosophy, metaphysics, history, critical deism, and physics. They theorized and worked proofs on Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, both of whom were considered anathema by the French government for not following the same line of thought as Descartes. In 1748 Émilie fell in love with Marquis de Saint-Lambert and became pregnant. Fearing that at the age of forty-two childbirth would kill her, Émilie redoubled her exertions in completing Newton’s Principia. She completed the translation shortly before giving birth to a daughter on September 9, 1749 and died the next day from an infection contracted during childbirth.