Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Love in the Time of Enlightenment

If I were playing Jeopardy a month ago and the category were The Enlightenment, I wouldn’t have done very well.

For $100: Voltaire
Answer: Who wrote Candide?
For $200: Emilie du Chatelet
Answer: (That’s the buzzer sounding – and me losing).

But now that I have read Passionate Minds by David Bodanis (he also wrote E = mc2) I would have many answers including: Who translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica from its original Latin into French? This work and her commentaries were instrumental in advancing the concept of the conservation of energy and fundamental to key eighteenth-century developments in theoretical physics.

If this sounds boring, I can assure you that it is anything but boring. To say that Voltaire and Emilie were lover and mistress vastly understates the contribution of each to the other. Throughout their relationship Emilie was married to someone else but that did not prevent Voltaire and Emilie from living together for years at a time (and from periodically having affairs with others). But they always returned to each other. No one else satisfied their intellectual and spiritual needs like the other. Bodanis paints a vivid picture of life in and around Paris and Versailles in the first half of the eighteenth century, particularly among the aristocracy. And he describes their artistic and scientific achievements in readily understandable terms.

I knew that I would like Emilie because early in this book her father is quoted as saying: “I argued with her in vain, yet she would not understand that no great lord will marry a woman who is seen reading every day.” Because her father’s low income would not provide enough funds to buy all of the books that she wanted, she taught herself to count cards at the gaming tables and won sufficient sums to support her “book” habit. Much later in life when she had accumulated a significant amount of gambling debt, she devised a form of derivatives, contracting with the tax collectors to pay them a small sum of money now for the right to receive their future streams of collections. She then used those contracts to satisfy her debts. This is 1747!

One could describe this as a history book. In addition to Voltaire and Emilie, we meet Richilieu, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Madame de Pompadour, Bernoulli, and Louis XV, among many others. But it is primarily a love story – and a good one.
Read more about this book

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