Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Emilie Du Châtelet, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World

By Byrnes, Joseph F. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Emilie Du Châtelet, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World


Byrnes, Joseph F., Phi Kappa Phi Forum


David Bodanis. Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Emilie du C hate let, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.373 pages. $24.95 hardcover.

If we had the space, I would run the subtitle by you again: all of that stuff is in this book, because David Bodanis finds that the story of du Chatelet and Voltaire is "the most vivid way I know to illustrate the subtle, often barely seen cultural shifts of the early Enlightenment" (p. 9). The pitch is for readers who are looking for literary high romance and who wish to know something about the Enlightenment besides. This was an era, a movement, an attitude toward the use of reason comprising several generations of intellectuals, the first generation reading one another and subsequent generations reading both their predecessors and one another. For these writers, reason was the highest human function and if followed would eventually ensure the fulfillment and happiness of humankind. It represented salvation from the blindness of instinct and the darkness of superstition.

For some commentators today, the "early" Enlightenment means the seventeenth century. You begin with Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Locke, and Spinoza, privileging Spinoza. In the later Enlightenment, across the eighteenth century, the philosophes dominated the conversation: Montesquieu (a more traditional believer), Rousseau, Voltaire, and the editor-authors of the Encyclopedie- Diderot and d'Holbach (an atheist). Some of them were in communication with the Scotsman David Hume, champion of both reason and skepticism, and with the Italian Cesare Beccaria, whose Crime and Punishment was the noted treatise on just punishment and against the death penalty. Saying that he had been awakened intellectually by Hume, Immanuel Kant lived a quiet and productive life way over in a far corner of east Prussia.

We can speak also of a "radical" and a "moderate" Enlightenment, the labels clarifying an author's notions of God and the source of morality. The radicals moved off from the panentheism (everything in God; not everything is God) of Spinoza, toward atheism or a minimal deism, whereas the moderates found revealed religion to be in the main reasonable (and so, true) and believed that reason could prove the existence of a first cause; humans had complete freedom, of course, to conceptualize and relate to this first cause as either an abstract or personal force. A French philosophe could end up on either team.

So then, can the the love affair between the brilliant, bourgeois, older man of letters - Francois-Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire - and the young, beautiful mathematician, the Marquise du Chatelet, nee Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, be any help in making sense of this? …

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Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Emilie Du Châtelet, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World
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