Voltaire’s Passionate and Intellectual Mistress, Emilie, Marquise du Chatelet (1706-1749), on Life and Happiness

An essay at AlterNet.com includes within it a great introduction to a feminist mistress of Voltaire’s, Emilie, Marquise du Chatelet, as well as some choice pieces of wisdom:

Exactly what does it take to make a woman happy?

One of the first to record her answer to that conundrum was the Marquise du Chatelet, whom history has recollected as the jilted mistress of Voltaire. That is short shrift: The brilliant marquise was a mother, a shopaholic, a passionate lover — and most significantly, a revolutionary scientist and mathematician who suspended wooden spheres from the rafters of her country estate to test Newton’s theories, and who scribbled her insights until the candles burned to nothingness, plunging her hands into ice water to jolt herself awake. Her intellectual feverishness prompted the philosopher Immanuel Kant to sneer that such a woman “might as well have a beard,” and Voltaire himself, having received solo title-page credit for a book he privately admitted she practically dictated to him, declared that the marquise was a great man whose only shortcoming was having been born female.

Thus duly boxed in by the gender conventions of 18th century France — and by an unplanned pregnancy at age 43 that she presciently regarded as a death sentence — the Marquise du Chatelet brought a unique perspective to a treatise she titled “Discourse on Happiness.”

To be truly happy, she ruefully concluded, “one must be susceptible to illusions, for it is to illusions that we owe the majority of our pleasures. Unhappy is the one who has lost them.”

And below are some images of Emilie.

The first is from a book (dated 1742):

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The second is a portrait of her, with compass and books (in addition to her own skills at science, she also translated Newton into French):

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The third depicts Emilie as Voltaire’s heavenly muse:

Voltaire Philosophy of Newton frontispiece.jpg

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Voltaire’s Passionate and Intellectual Mistress, Emilie, Marquise du Chatelet (1706-1749), on Life and Happiness

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