Éléments de la Philosophie de Neuton, mis à la portée de tout le monde.

Amsterdam: Etienne Ledet et Compagnie, 1738.

First edition, first issue, extremely rare large and thick paper copy, and in a beautiful contemporary binding, of Voltaire's only scientific work. “Owing to Descartes' great influence and Newton’s dispute with Leibnitz, the spread of his [Newton’s] thought on the continent took about fifty years. One of his greatest champions in France was Voltaire (1694-1778), whose Éléments de la Philosophie de Neuton, 1738, was widely read” (PMM). Voltaire “presented Newton as the discoverer of the true system of the world and the destroyer of the errors of Cartesianism” (Norman). “Popularisations are normally the most ephemeral of works: having served their purpose they are forgotten, while the masterpieces about which they were written continue to be admired even though they may long have ceased to be read by any but enquiring scholars. Voltaire’s Éléments, however, is a rare exception to the general rule, being the popularisation of the work of genius by a man of genius. It is of interest, therefore, not only in itself but for what it tells us of Voltaire in relation to Newton (1643-1727), as an abiding memorial to the central role that Newton played in the development of Voltaire’s philosophical thinking. Voltaire’s Éléments was one of a small number of published works which contributed significantly to the acceptance and adoption of Newtonian theory in France” (Walters & Barber, p. 3). The work is dedicated to Voltaire’s mistress, the Marquise du Châtelet, who provided the first French translation of Newton's Principia. Two issues of this first edition are known, printed for the publishers Etienne Ledet and Jacques Desbordes, of which the Ledet issue is generally accepted to be the first. ABPC/RBH list only two large paper copies in the last 80 years. One of these was the Norman copy (Christie’s, 15 June 1998, lot 843, $5520), the second (Desbordes) issue, in a later binding and described as being ‘large and thick paper’ in the Norman library catalogue, although it only measured 215 x 132 mm, compared to 227x137 mm for the present copy.

Voltaire’s first committed interest in science in general, and in Newton in particular, dates from his increasingly close relations with the English aristocrat, freethinker, and Jacobite Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751) and his circle from the end of 1722 onwards. Bolingbroke left London for voluntary exile in France in 1715, where he spent the next ten years. Bolingbroke encouraged Voltaire to become a frequent visitor to La Source, the Englishman’s estate near Orléans. Influencing him towards an admiration of the Newtonian system and encouraging him to read Locke, Voltaire’s contact with Bolingbroke and his circle ensured that when he crossed the channel in 1726, and began the intellectually most formative period of his life, he had already become oriented towards contemporary English thought, to which the Newtonian system as presented in the Principia and the Opticks had made so decisive a contribution.

In London Voltaire met the prominent Newtonian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), and seems to have regarded himself for a time as Clarke’s disciple. He also came into contact with John Conduitt (1688-1737) and his wife Catherine Barton (1679-1729), Newton’s niece, as well as the astronomer Samuel Molyneux (1689-1728), who may have introduced Voltaire to his pupil Robert Smith (1689-1768), whose Compleat System of Opticks (1738) Voltaire went to some trouble to obtain. Voltaire’s first dated reference to Newton occurs in a letter of 27 May 1727, in which he recommends his life-long friend Nicolas-Claude Thiriot (1697-1772) to translate Henry Pemberton’s A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (1728). Voltaire was impressed by Pemberton’s exposition of Newton’s thoughts, which managed to convey a faithful impression of Newton’s work in optics and gravitation without going into mathematical detail. Its style and approach were in sharp contrast to the writings of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) and other French popularisers of science of the day, with their emphasis on elegance and wit, often at the expense of scientific accuracy. The extent of Voltaire’s Newtonian education at this time is indicated by his Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglois et autres sujets, in which he discussed his views on the institutions, religion, philosophy, and people of England. In letter XIV, ‘Sur Descartes et Newton,’ while praising the overthrow of Aristotelianism by Descartes the philosopher, Voltaire makes plain his preference for Newton’s theory of attraction over the vortex theory of Descartes the physicist. Letter XV, ‘Sur le systeme d’attraction,’ proves how careful Voltaire’s study of this system had been, indeed a comparison of this letter with the relevant parts of the Éléments shows that Newtonian attraction was a topic on which Voltaire thereafter felt little or no need to deepen his understanding. The situation was very different as regards the Opticks, however, on which letter XVI, ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton,’ has very little to say. Much hard study of this aspect of Newton’s work was needed before Voltaire was in a position to compose the optical chapters of his Éléments.

Voltaire spent the first few years after returning to France in 1729 to poetry and playwriting, but in May 1733 he met the brilliant and vivacious Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (1706-49); their relationship was to have a profound influence on the development of Voltaire’s scientific ideas. Appreciating Émilie’s interest in mathematics and natural philosophy, early in 1734 Voltaire introduced her to Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759), the most knowledgeable Newtonian in Paris; Maupertuis soon began to give Émilie lessons in science and mathematics. She sought to understand the nascent science of mechanics through the philosophy of Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, and Wolff, and in the process she participated in the debate between Cartesians and Newtonians.

When Voltaire’s Lettres were published in France in 1735, the book was condemned, torn and burned. Voltaire had to leave Paris hurriedly; Émilie offered him a refuge in her husband’s Château de Cirey, located near the border with Champagne and Lorraine, which was an independent province at the time, making it an ideal sanctuary for Voltaire. A few months later, Émilie joined Voltaire at Cirey, where they lived for four years, dedicating much of their effort to studying and debating physical and metaphysical issues. She called Cirey “the land of philosophy and reason.”

In the autumn of 1735, after much urging from Émilie, young Venetian Newtonian Francesco Algarotti (1712-64) arrived at Cirey for a six-week visit. Algarotti had made his name through the successful repetition of some Newtonian optical experiments at Bologna in 1729. In 1733 he travelled to Florence and Rome, where he met Martin Folkes (1690-1754) who had been vice President of the Royal Society during Newton’s presidency, and the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (1701-44). In 1734 he accompanied Celsius to Paris where he spent some time working with the mathematical prodigy Alexis-Claude Clairaut (1713-65) and Maupertuis and where, probably through Maupertuis, he met Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet. Algarotti brought with him the manuscript of a popular work he had written on optics entitled Il Newtonianismo per le dame, ovvero Dialoghi sopra la luce, which had been inspired by Fontenelle’s treatment of Descartes’s astronomy. Algarotti admired the technique of interspersing scientific information with literary allusions and other elegant asides, and decided to use the same approach for a popularisation of Newton’s Opticks. During his visit to Cirey Algarotti read his dialogues aloud to his hosts and put the finishing touches to them. Voltaire was soon fired with enthusiasm and set about obtaining some works on optics. On 18 October he is recorded as borrowing Marco Antonio Dominis’s De radiis visus et lucis (1611), Franceso Maria Grimaldi’s Physico-mathesis de lumine (1665) and Athenasius Kircher’s Phonurgia nova (1673) from the Bibliothèque du Roi. Algarotti’s work served to remind Voltaire that in France there was no equivalent explanation of Newton’s work at this level, and it is easy to see the idea of writing his own popularisation taking shape in Voltaire’s mind.

After the departure of Algarotti from Cirey at the end of 1735, both Voltaire and Émilie turned to science with renewed energy. Voltaire first mentions his book on Newton in an undated letter that Theodore Besterman (1904-76) assigns to the middle of July 1736. ‘Il est vrai que mes occupations me détournent un peu de la poésie. J’étudie la philosophie de Newton sous les yeux d’Émilie qui est à mon gré encore plus admirable de Newton. Je compte meme faire imprimer bientôt un petit ouvrage qui metre tout le monde en état d’entendre cette philosophie, don’t le monde parle & qu’on connait encore si peu.’ Voltaire ordered a copy of Newton’s Traité d’Optique, translated by Pierre Coste, in August 1736, and there seems to have been a copy of Principia at Cirey from late 1736 or early 1737. By October 1736 a substantial amount of progress on the book had been made, and on 19 November he announced to d’Argens that his ‘philosophie de Newton’ was about to be printed. This was but one more example of Voltaire’s perennial optimism. If the optical side was largely finished by this date, the second, gravitational, part probably still remained largely unwritten.

At the beginning of December 1736 the outcry over the publication of Voltaire’s poem Le Mondain forced him to flee Cirey, taking refuge in Holland. While there he was able to set in motion the printing of the first, optical, part of the book with Etienne Ledet and Jacques Desbordes in Amsterdam while he was hard at work on the remainder. The first sheet of the Éléments was printed at the beginning of February, and the whole was to be finished in two months. But evidently this did not mean that the work itself had been completed; on 4 February Voltaire wrote to Thiriot: ‘Mes récréations sont icy de corriger mes ouvrages de belles lettres, et mon occupation sérieuse d’étudier Neuton, et de tâcher de réduire ce géant là à la mesure des mains mes confrères … J’ay entrepris une besogne bien difficile.’

By the beginning of March Voltaire was back at Cirey, where he continued with the preparation of the Éléments. Voltaire sent further material to Ledet but still the gravitational part was incomplete, finishing in the middle of chapter 23. Voltaire thought that his failure to submit his final chapters would delay the Dutch edition:  behind the scenes he was working to secure a privilège for a Paris edition, a move that, if successful, would have allowed Voltaire’s explanations to carry the imprimatur of the French intellectual establishment. It was essential – if the censors were to believe in Voltaire’s good faith – that the Dutch edition should not appear before the French one. The long delay made Ledet restless, and Voltaire tried to placate him at the end of 1737 by allowing him to publish L’Enfant prodigue in return for postponing publication of the Éléments. By then Voltaire already feared that he would not be granted the privilege, and in January 1738 the request was formally denied after the notoriously cautious and narrow-minded Chancellor d’Aguesseau personally read the text (a rare occurrence), and then vetoed the recommendation of two other censors (another rarity) who had both recommended publication. Among the reasons for the refusal, beyond the chancellor’s fussiness, were the theological views attributed to Newton in the final chapter; the great age that Voltaire assigned to the earth, in contradiction to orthodox Christian dating; and the overall anti-Cartesian tone of the work. The last in particular was seen as enflaming public debate in a climate that had already become far too contentious. But it is likely that Voltaire’s tone and general reputation were the operative criterion in his censure far more than any conviction about Newtonian or Cartesian philosophy.

Once he learned that he would not be granted permission for a French edition Voltaire seemed resigned to not publishing the work at all. Ledet, however, had on his hands a work supervised by Voltaire himself, of which over 300 pages had been set and printed, with many engraved illustrations, vignettes and culs-de-lampe. This was a large investment for a publisher; Ledet was not willing to abandon the project. Without consulting Voltaire he commissioned an anonymous mathematician to finish chapter 23 and add two more chapters to complete the description of the solar system which Voltaire had begun but not finished. Finally, in March 1738, at a point when the controversy between the Newtonians and Cartesians had reached its final critical stage, Ledet lost patience and published the Éléments in Holland on his own account.

Ever conscious of the importance of a work appearing à propos, Voltaire could hardly have chosen a better occasion for the appearance of the Éléments if he had tried, and were it not for his genuine annoyance over the errors in the parts of the manuscript that had not been printed before Voltaire left Amsterdam, and that seemed to have been compounded by the printers, one might be tempted to suppose that, given the apparent impossibility of a French edition, all the elaborate attempts he later made to dissociate himself from the publication were no more than a smoke-screen to hide his tacit permission for the publication of the work in Holland. Nevertheless, the errors in the published work became a serious source of acrimony between Voltaire and his Dutch publishers, and Voltaire issued a number of ‘éclaircissements’. He was also annoyed by his Dutch editor’s decision to add “mise à la porté de tout le monde” (put at the level of everyone) to his chosen title. These were not his words, he asserted, and echoing his many statements in his contemporary correspondence, he described his work as something much more substantial than a popularisation.

News of the publication of the Amsterdam edition reached Voltaire long before copies of the book itself, which took the best part of two months to arrive at Cirey. Once the Amsterdam edition was on sale Voltaire was anxious for a French edition to appear with the least delay, and since only a permission tacite could be obtained, his Paris publisher Laurent-François Prault simply set out to reproduce the Ledet edition, consulting Voltaire only at the proof stage. He made no attempt either to remove the chapters written by the anonymous mathematician or to make any revisions, apart from cancels, except that the ‘éclaircissements’ and a chapter on tides were added (these were also sent to Ledet, who added them to the unsold copies of his own edition). The Prault edition reached the market in August 1738; the place of publication is given as ‘Londres’ and no publisher is named.

The Amsterdam edition of the Éléments has 25 chapters, of which the first 14 are concerned with Newtonian optics. In adopting this order, Voltaire was undoubtedly influenced by Algarotti’s Newtonianismo per le dame (1737), which is primarily concerned with this aspect of Newton’s discoveries, but it amounts to an innovation in that most other Newtonian expositors, including Pemberton, had followed the order of publication of Newton’s major works in treating the material of the Opticks (1704) after that of the Principia (1687).

The work begins with a chapter on the nature of light and of its propagation which is a historical account of earlier theories, culminating in an attack on those of René Descartes (1596-1650) and Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715). The next two chapters deal respectively with reflection and refraction. Chapter 4 describes the eye and the role of refraction in vision. Chapter 5 discusses mirrors and the way the eye interprets their reflected images, a topic pursued in chapter 6 to consider the visual assessment of distance; this proved to be one of the most controversial sections of the work. Chapter 7 gives a more detailed analysis of the phenomenon of refraction, including an extended demonstration of Descartes’s errors on this subject which was omitted in later editions. Chapter 8 then introduces Newton’s major discovery of the refrangibility of solar light to give the colours of the spectrum. There now follow two chapters, 9 and 10, in which Voltaire, going beyond Newton, looks for an explanation of the phenomena just described and advances an ultimately metaphysical hypothesis – that all matter consists of indivisible and impenetrable atomic particles, separated by empty space, subject to the laws of attraction and apparently variable in individual mass. Light consists of streams of such particles, and therefore has weight; of the seven colours of the spectrum, violet, the most refrangible, will be the lightest, red, the least refrangible, the heaviest, and white light will weigh the sum of its parts. Returning to the topic of refrangibility and colour, Voltaire next provides, in chapter 11, an account of the rainbow, followed by a discussion of the reflection of colour by solid surfaces, and the phenomenon of ‘Newton’s rings’. The treatment of optics concludes with a description of speculations, by Newton and some predecessors, on the existence of a relationship between the seven colours of the spectrum and the seven notes of the musical scale.  

Voltaire now turns from the Opticks to the Principia. Chapter 15 and 16 clear the way by demolishing prevailing Cartesian cosmological theories of subtle matter occupying all space and causing the movements of heavenly bodies by its vortices. Chapter 17 then pursues the conceptual problem of empty space from a philosophical standpoint. Chapter 18 presents the discoveries of Galileo and Newton concerning gravitational attraction, a topic expounded in detail in four further chapters, 19-22, covering respectively the general laws of planetary motion, the movements of the earth and the moon and the universality of the operation of gravitational attraction on all matter. Voltaire’s clear intention was to proceed from this point to a description of the solar system in accordance with Newtonian principles; but he had sent to his Amsterdam publisher only the first part of his chapter 23, covering the sun and the inner planets, breaking off in the middle of the description of the earth. From this point on, the text was supplied by the anonymous mathematician commissioned by Ledet, who completes the description of the solar system in chapter 23, and then proceeds to add a chapter 24 which discusses the problem of zodiacal light – a non-Newtonian topic which Voltaire would not have included, he tells us – and then considers Newton’s views on the nature of comets, and on the effects of gravitational attraction upon the fixed stars. Finally, in chapter 25, he goes into some detail concerning Newton’s explanation of certain irregularities in the movements of the moon and other satellites.

The dedicatory ‘Avant-propos’ to Émilie with which Voltaire prefaced the Éléments makes a frank avowal of his debt to her superior knowledge of mathematics and her particularly sound knowledge of Newton’s Opticks. During the course of the composition of the Éléments Voltaire also went so far as to write to Frederick of Prussia, ‘J’avois esquissé les principes assez faciles de philosophie de Neuton et Madame du Chastelet avoit sa part à l’ouvrage. Minerve dictoit et j’écrivois.’ Her encouragement and advice, in spite of increasing disagreement, throughout the period of the composition of the Éléments of 1738 and the revisions from 1741 (by which time she had started work on her translation of the Principia) were clearly of inestimable value to Voltaire. It might even be argued that it would have been more appropriate, or at least more natural, if she had appeared as joint author of a work to which she evidently contributed so much.

Nevertheless, even when we discount all the undoubted assistance, advice and encouragement Voltaire received, from Émilie, Maupertuis and others, it remains true that he did acquire a fundamental understanding of Newton, and that for a person of his educational background, with no more than a smattering of mathematics and science, this represented a very considerable achievement. Some idea of the magnitude of this achievement can be gained from the physical effort it cost him: ‘J’ai une santé bien faible pur m’apliquer aux mathématiques,’ he complained to Henri Pitot (1695-1771) in August 1736, ‘je ne peux pas travailler une heure par jour sans soufrir beacoup.’ Indeed, had Voltaire been asked to name the greatest intellectual challenge of his life, and the period which had cost him most in unremitting intellectual toil, he would surely have pointed to his mastery of Newton’s system, and the composition of the Éléments during the period from the summer of 1736 to the summer of 1737.  

It is generally accepted that the issue with Ledet’s imprint precedes that with Desbordes’s. “There are several variations between the two versions: the title vignette motto of the Desbordes imprint reads “Serere ne dubites” instead of “L’Esperance”; the diagrams on pp. 61 and 63 in the Desbordes version have been re-engraved with heavy lines on the mirror; and there are several minor differences in their collations” (Norman). According to Walters & Barber’s definitive variorum edition of the Éléments, “There was in fact a partnership between the two men, as Voltaire’s correspondence makes clear, and both were booksellers, although the actual printing and binding were done at Ledet’s establishment. Ledet, an émigré Huguenot publisher, had a two-thirds interest in the firm” (p. 63, n. 8). The Éléments went through no fewer than 26 editions between 1738 and 1785.

Babson 120; Bengesco, II, 1570; Wallis 155; Norman 2165 (Desbordes issue); cf. Cohen-De Ricci 1037-38, second issue. Voltaire. Éléments de la Philosophie de Neuton. Critical edition by Robert L. Walters and W. H. Barber, 1992 (see pp. 3-97).

8vo (227x137), pp. [ii], [1-3], 4-399, [400] (p. 271 misnumbered 371), with vignettes et culs-de-lampe engraved by Jacob Folkema (1692-1767), François Morellon de La Cave (1696-1768), Bernard Picart (1673-1733) and Jacob Van der Schley (1715-1779), engraved frontispiece by Folkema after Louis-Fabricius Dubourg (1693-1775), engraved portrait of Voltaire by Folkema, numerous engraved geometric figures in the text, six engraved plates and one folding engraved table (“Table des couleurs & des tons de la musique”). The remarkable frontispiece shows a ray of light from God passing through the head of Newton, seated on a cloud, then reflected in a mirror held by Madame du Châtelet who directs the shaft of light towards a man, evidently Voltaire, seated at a desk writing and surrounded by mathematical instruments, books and a globe (the figure at the desk is sometimes said to be Newton, but the figure in the clouds is clearly recognizable from contemporary portraits of Newton by Kneller and Roubiliac, in oil and marble, respectively). Contemporary polished French calf, spine richly gilt with red lettering-piece, all edges gilt, old paper label at foot of spine.

Item #4104

Price: $9,500.00