Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Banishing Fortuna: Montmort and De Moivre

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Banishing Fortuna: Montmort and De Moivre

Article excerpt


In the first two decades of the eighteenth century there was a flowering of publications in probability theory: Pierre Rémond de Montmort's Essay d'analyse sur les jeux de hazard in 17081 followed by a second edition in 1713,2 Jacob Bernouilli's posthumous work Ars Conjectandi in 1713,3 and finally Abraham De Moivre's De Mensura Sortis in 1711,4 which he enlarged into The Doctrine of Chances in 1718. 5 There were some similarities between Montmort's and De Moivre's work. Both pursued similar problems and covered similar mathematical ground, albeit in different ways. Despite the differences, Montmort accused De Moivre of imitating his work and there were disputes over priority of discovery in the results they obtained. Both the 1708 and 1713 editions of the Essay d'analyse contain an engraving that shows allegorically Montmort defeating superstitions about chance through mathematics. It was in the second edition of 1713 that De Moivre was heavily criticized. De Moivre responded with his own engraving in The Doctrine of Chances that showed mathematics taming chance. This engraving had a second message embedded in it. Put simply, De Moivre claimed pictorially that his solutions were better than Montmort's and so he had done much more to banish the goddess of fortune than Montmort. The engravings are discussed in the context of the priority dispute as well as in the context of the contemporary literature on the rules of games.

Montmort6 was a French aristocrat; De Moivre7 was a Huguenot émigré living in England following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Montmort received a substantial inheritance from his father, François Rémond, Sieur de Breviande which allowed the son to purchase Chateau Montmort and to pursue mathematical questions at his leisure. Prior to De Moivre fleeing France, his father provided him with a solid education in both mathematics and the classics, which allowed the son to operate as a tutor to the children of the titled and the wealthy in London. He pursued mathematical questions between lessons and in the evenings.

Both Montmort's and De Moivre's works in probability used games of chance as a model. Gambling and games of chance were ubiquitous throughout both French and English societies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is, however, the upper levels of society to which these two mathematicians' publications apply, mainly the second état in France and the nobility, gentry, and wealthy merchants in England. The engravings in Montmort's two editions show scenes of what appear to be people engaged in courtly games of chance. As recounted in the dedicatory preface to De Mensura Sortis, De Moivre's work was inspired by mathematical questions on games put to the author by Francis Robartes, a younger son of the first Earl of Radnor.

Louis XIV set the tone for gambling among the French nobility. Games of chance were played at all the royal chateaux and stakes were often very high. Thomas Kavanagh8 argues that in France "high-stakes gambling was an important symbolic activity for a nobility obliged to affirm its prestige and its independence of any limiting financial considerations." At Versailles Louis played at least three times a week at his appartements du roi. His second wife, Madame de Maintenon, his brother Philippe due d'Orléans, called Monsieur, and his grandson Louis duc de Bourgogne all organized games at court as well. Often Louis paid their gambling debts.9 In Paris gambling establishments were readily available. There were ten authorized gambling houses where games of mixed chance and skill were allowed and where games of pure chance were played on the sly. There were also fairs that operated for about four months of the year where there were opportunities to gamble. Foreign embassies also operated gambling houses within their precincts.10

Games of chance in England had been outlawed during the Commonwealth period but were restored at the Restoration. …

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