Principes Mathématiques de la Philosophie Naturelle, par feue Madame la Marquise du Chastellet.

Paris: Desaint & Saillant; Lambert, 1759.

First edition in French of Newton’s Principia, “the greatest work in the history of science” (PMM), translated by Madame du Châtelet, intimate of Voltaire, with the assistance of Alexis-Claude Clairaut; this is an exceptional copy in original wrappers. Begun in 1745 but published posthumously, this is her most important work. It was the first translation into a language other than English and is “still the only French translation ever made … The first volume contains, in addition to Books I and II [of Principia], a ‘preface historique’ and a poem by Voltaire. The second volume contains Book III and, separately paginated, ‘Exposition abrégée du système du monde, et explication des principaux phénomenes astronomiques tirée des Principes de M. Newton’ (pp. 1-116) … There was also ‘Solution analytique des principaux problèmes qui concernent le système du monde’ (pp. 117-286)” (Gjertsen, Newton Handbook, p. 480). Voltaire’s ‘preface historique’ is partly an extravagant Éloge of his late mistress but also a survey of Newton’s philosophical position and the problems of translation. “Known throughout intellectual Europe as Émilie, the name popularized by Voltaire, Mme. du Châtelet—beyond the influence that she had for some fifteen years on the orientation of Voltaire’s work and on his public activity—contributed to the vitality of French scientific life and to the parallel diffusion of Newtonianism and Leibnizian epistemology. Her affairs entertained the fashionable world of her period, yet her last moments revealed the sincerity of her scientific vocation. Although she limited her efforts to commentary and synthesis, her work contributed to the great progress made by Newtonian science in the middle of the eighteenth century” (DSB). “For a long time, Emilie du Châtelet’s French translation and her commentary on Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica provided the only access to Newton’s principles of natural philosophy in French and, together with her commentary on Leibniz’s philosophy in the Institutions de physique, it thus greatly influenced scientific discourse in the eighteenth century and can be said to have furthered both transnational and European scientific collaboration” (Winter, p. 174). A few copies of this work were issued with a date of 1756. “Although the first issue does have the date 1756 on its title page, it is very rare and may well have been, according to Cohen, ‘a preliminary edition, not made available for general sale to the public.’ He managed to trace only twelve” (Gjertsen). This copy is complete with Cotes’s preface, which is sometimes lacking.

The Principia, first published in 1687, elucidated the universal physical laws of gravitation and motion which lie behind phenomena described by Newton’s great predecessors Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. Newton established the mathematical basis for the motion of bodies in unresisting media (the law of inertia); the motion of fluids and the effect of friction on bodies moving through fluids; and, most importantly, set forth the law of universal gravitation and its unifying role in the cosmos. “For the first time a single mathematical law could explain the motion of objects on earth as well as the phenomena of the heavens … It was this grand conception that produced a general revolution in human thought, equalled perhaps only by that following Darwin’s Origin of Species” (PMM). In 1713 a second edition was published, edited by Roger Cotes. Numerous changes were made to the text, and Cotes also provided an important preface in which he undertook to explain and defend Newton’s account of gravity. The definitive third edition, the last to be corrected by Newton himself, was edited by Henry Pemberton and was published in 1726. A few changes were made but, compared to 1713, there were, in Cohen’s phrase, no ‘bold and exciting innovations.’ An English translation, by Andrew Motte, was published in 1729, and the so-called ‘Jesuits’ edition, edited by F. Jacquier and T. Le Seur, appeared in three volumes (in Latin) in 1739-1742. No further editions were published until Mme. du Châtelet’s French translation.

On 22 June 1725 Gabrielle-Émilie married Florent-Claude, marquis du Châtelet and count of Lomont, who, after spending several years with her when he was governor of the city of Semur-en-Auxois, pursued a military career and visited her only briefly. After returning to Paris in 1730, Émilie du Châtelet led a glittering existence and had several affairs before becoming intimate, in 1733, with Voltaire, who had just completed his Lettres philosophiques. Several of these lettres dealt with Newton’s philosophy and were given for review to Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, the author of the first French work devoted to the Newtonian world system, the Discours sur la figure des astres (1732). Mme. du Châtelet in her turn developed a very cordial friendship with Maupertuis and with another ardent Newtonian, Alexis-Claude Clairaut. The mathematics lessons that she received from Maupertuis at the beginning of 1734 awakened her scientific inclinations.

In June 1734 Voltaire, threatened with arrest, withdrew to one of Mme. du Châtelet’s properties, the chäteau at Cirey in Champagne, the restoration of which he undertook. The marquise spent a few months there at the end of 1734 and then made several prolonged stays. Devoting their time variously to their literary endeavors, metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific discussions, and a very refined worldly existence, she and Voltaire made the château at Cirey one of the most brilliant centres of French literary and philosophical life.

The stay at Cirey, at the end of 1735, of Francesco Algarotti, who was preparing a popularization of Newtonian optics, II newtonianismo per le dame, which appeared in 1737, incited Voltaire and Mme. du Châtelet to undertake a work propagandizing Newtonian science, and she began a systematic study of Newton’s work, writing an Essai sur l’optique, of which a fragment is preserved, and participating in the elaboration of the Éléments de la philosophie de Newton, published by Voltaire in 1738. It is to this book that she devoted her “Lettre sur les élémens de la philosophie de Newton”, published in the Journal des sçavants in 1738, a report on and defense of that part of the work which discusses Newtonian attraction. Over the next several years, however, she took up Leibnizian epistemology, under the influence of Johann I Bernoulli and Maupertuis, and it was not until 1745 that she returned to Newtonianism, deciding to dedicate all of her scientific activity to perfecting a French translation of Newton’s Principia. It was to be enriched by a commentary on the work inspired by the one accompanying the Latin edition of T. Le Sueur and F. Jacquier and by theoretical supplements drawn essentially from the most recent works of Clairaut. As early as 1746 she obtained Clairaut’s collaboration as adviser, as reviser of her translation and her commentaries, and as author of theoretical supplements to her work. In the spring of 1747 the definitive plan was settled upon, the translation completed, and the printing begun. But Clairaut then found himself involved in a major discussion on the modifications to the law of universal gravitation which were apparently needed in order to explain an anomaly observed in the movement of the moon’s apogee, and it was not until February 1749 that she came to Paris to finish her book in collaboration with Clairaut. The revelation of an unexpected and late pregnancy increased her desire to complete the project before the confinement that she dreaded. At the end of June, fleeing indiscreet stares, she left for Lunéville, where she died of childbed fever. Before her death she entrusted the manuscript of her annotated translation of the Principia to the librarian of the Bibliothèque du Roi in Paris.

The work consists of two parts. The first is a translation of the text of the Principia in the 1726 edition. Mme. du Châtelet added clarifications and amplifications where she thought it necessary. The second part is a commentary on Newton’s system of the world. This is in turn divided into two parts. The first of these begins with Du Système du Monde, which sets out the basic physical principles, followed by an Exposition abregée duSystème du Monde, which aims to give an account of the principal astronomical phenomena, on Newtonian principles, in as straightforward and non-technical manner as possible. The second, more technical part, Solution analytique des principaux Problèmes qui concernent le Système du Monde, analyses some of the most important problems relating to the system of the world: the nature of the orbits of the planets under various hypotheses about the nature of the force of attraction; the attraction of bodies of various shapes; the theory of the shape of the earth and the tides; and an account of the refraction of light based on the principles of attraction. Much of this is drawn from the works of Clairaut, and from Daniel Bernoulli’s prize essay on the tides (‘Traité sur le flux et reflux de la mer,’ Piéces qui ont remporté les prix de l’Académie royale des sciences (Paris), 1740). There was no discussion of fluid mechanics.

“In her commentary on the Principia, Du Châtelet shifts her focus from Newton’s theories of natural philosophy to his astronomical theories. Du Châtelet in fact excludes Newton’s natural philosophy in favour of an in-depth discussion of his astronomy. In her ‘Exposition abrégéé du Système du monde’, Newton’s theories on absolute time and space, his notion of God and God’s influence on cosmic structure and his concept of the ‘causae finales’ are neither mentioned nor explicitly commented on. Newton’s concepts of mass and inertia, which form the foundation of all of his definitions of matter, are also only mentioned briefly … Du Châtelet’s commentary on the Principia surprisingly only deals with Newton’s physical laws and their respective mathematical calculations, to which she now adds a number of her own calculations. This shift in focus is aptly supported by her subtitle ‘Explication des principaux phénomènes astronomiques. Tirée des principes de m. Newton’, which shifts the emphasis from Newton’s extensive paradigm of nature to descriptions and calculations of physical laws. What this shows is that Du Châtelet understands her commentary on Newton to be a discourse in its own right; her work seeks to uphold an objective view of Newton’s work, while at the same time introducing her own definitions and terms. Consequently, Du Châtelet also dedicates the beginning of her work to her own definition of gravitation: ‘Au reste, je déclare ici, comme M. Newton a fait lui-mème, qu’en me servant du mot d’attraction, je n’entend que la force qui fait tendre les corps vers un centre, sans prétendre assigner la cause de cette tendance’ … On her account, Newton’s theories are limited to the physical and astronomical world and are not understood as definite findings, as the cosmic law per se, as was the case with some of the English commentators. In presenting Newton’s ideas that way, Du Châtelet understands his theories as a considerable step towards scientific progress while at the same time reminding her readers to keep an open mind regarding their subsequent modifications and corrections” (Winter, pp. 181-184).

The genesis of Mme. du Châtelet’s translation and commentary has still not been fully elucidated. From her correspondence, we know that the first version of the translation was completed on 21 March 1746. On 15 February 1749 she wrote to Jacquier, “I hope everything will be finished by May.” The manuscript of the translation, together with a fragment of the second part of the commentary, was given to the librarian of the Bibliothèque du Roi the day before she died on 10 September 1749. A preliminary edition was published in 1756, possibly designed for presentation only, with the regular edition appearing three years later. Two outstanding questions remain: (i) why was there a delay of more than a decade from the completion of the translation, apparently in late 1745, to the first publication in 1756; (ii) why was there a further delay of three years until the publication of the regular edition of 1759. We do not today have the manuscript from which the translation was printed (this is not the manuscript deposited in the Bibliothèque du Roi), nor do we have any complete manuscript of the commentary (a partial manuscript, containing only the Exposition abregée, was offered by Christie’s Paris, 29 October 2012, lot 16, but this seems not to have been subjected to scholarly study).

“The textual differences between the printed work and Mme. du Chastellet's manuscript are both stylistic and technical, and they show how much revision was needed in order to ready her translation for publication. We do not know how much of this revision was done by Mme. du Chastellet herself, and how much was done by Clairaut; nor are we able to say whether the bulk of Clairaut’s work on this text may have been done before the death of the Marquise. Possibly the delay in publication may have been caused by the slowness with which that final revision was completed. That the translation was revised by Clairaut is put out of any doubt by a declaration of the publisher in the ‘Avertissement de l’éditeur’: ‘A l’égard de la confiance que le Public doit avoir dans cette traduction, il suffit de dire qu'elle a été faite par feue Madame la Marquise du Chastellet, & qu’elle a été révue par M. Clairaut’. In the Preface Historique at the beginning of vol. I of the translation, written by Voltaire, nothing is said of any revision of the translation. With respect to the commentary however, Voltaire did state definitely that the great mathematician Clairaut had taken a hand. Voltaire admitted that many of the ideas in the commentary were Clairaut’s, that – although Mme. Du Chastellet had made the calculations by herself – Clairaut went over each chapter as she finished it and corrected it: ‘M. Clairaut faisoit encoire revoir par un tiers les calculs.’ Finally, according to Voltaire, at the time of the death of the Marquise, ‘Elle n’avoit pas encore … termine le Commentaire.’ Possibly the delay in publication was due to the need of time for Clairaut to complete the commentary and ready it for publication, rather than to work on the translation” (Cohen, pp. 264-6).

Bernard Cohen, ‘The French Translation of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1756, 1759, 1966),’ Archives internationales d’Histoire des Sciences, Vol. 21 (1968), pp. 262-290. M. Toulmond, “Le Commentaire des Principes de la Philosophie naturelle’ in Émilie du Châtelet, éclairages & documents nouveaux, Publications du Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle 21, 2008. Winter, ‘From translation to philosophical discourse – Emilie du Châtelet’s commentaries on Newton and Leibniz,’ pp. 173-206 in Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton (Hagengruber, ed.), 2012.



Two vols., 4to, Volume I: pp. [iv], xxxix, [1, errata], [4] (Voltaire’s poem), 243, [1, blank] (Book I), [1], 246-437, [1] (Book II), with 9 folding engraved plates; Volume II: pp. [iv], 180 (Book III), 297, [2, Privilege] (Du Châtelet’s commentary), with 5 folding engraved plates. Original interim wrappers, uncut.

Item #4937

Price: $8,000.00