Emilie du Châtelet:
Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science, Ethics

Kate Lindemann's 

Women Philosophers


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Emilie du Châtelet had a short but intense life. She took matters into her own hands and ignored many social conventions of her day. Most of her publications are under the name of Madame la Marquis du Chastellet.

Her complete name was Gabrielle Emilie LeTonnelier de Breteuil du Châtelet Lomont. We know her as Emilie du Châtelet because of Voltaire. You see, the French language was not yet standardized, so there were many variations possible, with phonetic spellings most common. The circumflex over the "a" in du  Châtelet is shorthand indicating that an "s" would follow the "a." So, Voltaire's spelling was entirely proper, and is the accepted spelling of her name today.


1706 Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil du Chatelet was born to Alexandra Elizabeth de Froulay and Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil.

She was named Gabrielle-Emilie. (Much later in her life, Voltaire and others dropped the Gabrielle and called her Emilie. Voltaire is also responsible for calling her du Chatelet. Her husband's name was the Marquis du Chastellet. Most of her publications were made under that name. Such was the power of Voltaire that after his time, most referred to her as du Chatelet, the name he used.

Her mother , Alexandra Elizabeth, was Louis de Breteuil's second wife. Alexandra Elizabeth had been brought up in a convent. She was both serious and studious. Her father was a minor nobleman at the Court of Louis XIV in Versailles. He was fashionable but not very popular. His first wife had been a cousin, Marie Anne le Fèvre de Caumartin, who he had gotten pregnant and who he married a few days before she died. So his marriage to Alexandra Elizabeth was a 'second marriage' even though his first marriage was a formality of short duration.

1715 After the death of Louis XIV, her father retired to Paris. The family, which now had five children, lived in a large home overlooking the garden at Tullieres. There was much entertaining and so Emilie du Chatelet met many of the leading people of the day. The mathematician Bernard de Fontelle was a frequent guest. Voltaire also visited since he was a friend of de Breteuil.

Growing up, Gabrielle Emilie was tall, energetic and appeared to be rather clumsy. He education was through tutors as well as her own studies. She learned Latin at the insistence of her father but then went on to learn English, German, Italian and some Spanish. She read and translated many of the classics from each language.

M de Mézières, a family friend, encouraged her study of mathematics. She enjoyed the subject. Mathematics and philosophy became her favorite subjects. She also studied fencing, riding and gymnastics.

1722 In this year she was introduced to Court and she was much taken the glamorous lifestyle of court life.

1725 She married the Marquis Florent-Claude Chastellet, a military man who was governor of Semur-en-Auxois in Burgundy. Emilie du Châtelet moved to Semur-en-Auxois but often traveled and visited Paris since her husband spent most of his time away on garrison duty.

1726 - She had her first child, Francoise Gabriel Pauline, who was born on June 30th.

1727 - A second child, a son who they named Louis Marie Florent was born on November 20.

- Her father, Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, dies.

1730 Emilie du Châtelet and the Duc de Richelieu, a grand nephew of the famous Cardinal Richelieu, become lovers.

1733 Emilie du Châtelet gave birth to a second boy in April of 1733 but he died in September of that same year. It was in this year that she broke the "MEN ONLY' custom of the Cafes where intellectuals met and talked. When she was asked to leave by the management, she had a suit of men's clothing made and reappeared in that. Her friend Maupertuis encouraged her by allowing her to sit as his table and she took part in discussions with other intellectuals. (See: Axiothea of Philiesia and Lasthenia of Mantinea for the stories of other women who wore men's clothes in order to pursue a philosophical and intellectual life.)

Like other women of her day, Emilie du Châtelet was excluded from the University education that was open to male students but her husband supported her pursuit of knowledge. He helped her overcome the sexist barrier to a university education by employing the major professors in mathematics and physics. they came to the Palace each week to tutor Emilie.

1774 The Duc de Richelieu was married and both du Châtelet and Voltaire, who was a friend of the Duc, attended the wedding. Soon after Voltaire had to go into hiding after a warrant was issued for his arrest because of his anti-French writing. He went to live in Cirey at a house owned by the Marquis Florent-Claude Chastellet.

Emilie du Châtelet joined him there. While residing there she added to the gardens and Voltaire made a number of improvements to the house. It appears that the Marquis did not object to the living arrangement at all. Instead, he was often joined them there and the three of them inhabited the house together. Voltaire continued his writing and Emilie du Châtelet worked on mathematics. She collaborated with Voltaire on his Elements of Newtonian Philosophy and she engaged in wide ranging philosophical and scientific correspondence.

Voltaire remained at the estate until her death even though Emilie, in the meantime, had taken a younger lover.

1749 Both Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil du Chatelet and her fourth child die shortly after the child was born in September of 1749.


Besides the multitude of letters, notes and unpublished experiments, Gabrielle Emilie LeTonnelier de Breteuil du Chatelet Lomont / Emilie du Chatelet published the following:

Oedipus Rex - a translation from the Greek into French.

1735 - Fable des Abeilles her adaptation/translation of Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, in which she argues for women's access to higher education.

1738 - The Elements of the Philosophy of Newton - 1938 edition. Voltaire is listed as the author of this work but in the Preface he states that they worked together on the volume. This work made Newton understandable for those who did not have a background in higher mathematics.

1740 - Institutions de Physique. An explanation of Leibniz' metaphysics as found in the Mondologie

1759 - a translation from the original Latin into French of Principia by Isaac Newton. This translation of the Principia remains the authoritative French translation of Newton's work.

Sources and further information can be found at: Emilie du Chatelet - Chateau de Cirey - Voltaire

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