Newtonianism in the French Enlightenment

Rob Iliffe is Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex. He has written the Very Short Introduction to Newton and directs the online Newton Project. On 28 February 2015 he gave a fascinating talk at the ‘Voltaire and the Newtonian Revolution’ conference that explored the fate and legacy of Newton’s scientific views in eighteenth-century France of which this is a brief summary.


Soon after Newton had published his initial work on the heterogeneity of white light (in 1672), he became embroiled in a series of disputes about the truth of his theory, and about the facts on which it was based. Edme Mariotte’s failure to reproduce aspects of Newton’s ‘crucial experiment’ in 1681 influenced the negative opinion of Newton’s work by many French physicists, although there was increased interest in his work at the Académie des Sciences following the publication of his Optice in 1706. There was also opposition to the physical theories and epistemological claims expressed in his Principia Mathematica, and many commentators continued to prefer the Cartesian doctrine of tourbillons to the notion of ‘attraction’ that underlay Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A delegation of French natural philosophers visited England in 1715 and were treated to a number of experiments that confirmed Newton’s theories. However, it was Newton’s death in the spring of 1727, and Bernard de Fontenelle’s influential Eloge that followed, that triggered a serious spurt of interest in his work. Two men, Voltaire and Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis wrote popular works in the early 1730s that brought the nature and revolutionary scope of Newton’s ideas to a much larger audience. Yet it was not until the results of a French scientific expedition to Lapland were announced in 1737 that the public really began to switch allegiance to the Newtonian worldview. This excursion, led by Maupertuis, left France in 1736 to measure the length of a degree, one year after another voyage had set out to perform similar cartographic measurements in Peru (now Ecuador). The results from the Finnish expedition, and indications from the ill-fated trip to Peru, showed that the earth was flattened at the poles (as Newton had argued), and was not a prolate spheroid as many Cartesians had claimed.

Newtonianism was duly adopted and made the central plank of their paean to Enlightenment by men such as Voltaire and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert. Newton’s attacks on arbitrary and fictitous ‘hypotheses’ and ‘systems’ were reconfigured to serve in the general assault on the ‘infamy’ of persecution and superstition. There were some problems with the approach, firstly because Newtonianism could be used (as the British largely did) to defend the idea of an intelligent Creator God, and secondly because Newton himself was clearly both devout and a serious student of theology. While the latter could be explained away as the result of senility or dilettantism, there was always the danger that Newton himself could be deified as the founder of Reason. This possibility was explored in the majestic designs for a Cenotaph to Newton created by Etienne-Louis Boullée in the mid-1780s, and in the early plans for a ‘Church of Newton’ described by Henri de Saint-Simon at the start of the following century.

– Rob Iliffe, Director of the Newton Project

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Voltaire and the gardens of Versailles

Voltaire had known the Palace of Versailles since his thirties, when he prepared a divertissement there to celebrate Louis XV’s marriage in 1725. Some twenty years later he was a frequent visitor as Royal Historiographer. Yet when one consults Michel Baridon’s definitive Histoire des jardins de Versailles (Arles, 2003), one finds surprisingly few references to the philosophe.

The reason is not far to seek. Voltaire’s view of the Palace, particularly during his time as Historiographer, is highly ambivalent, often verging on distaste or worse. Despite (or even because of) the emoluments he was receiving from the King, he felt himself ‘enfourné dans une bouffonnerie’,[1] where, as ‘bouffon du roi à cinquante ans’, he is involved in futile occupations ‘avec les musiciens, les comédiens, les comédiennes, les chanteurs, les danseurs’, or otherwise rushing to and fro between the capital and the Château. ‘Je cours à Paris pour une répétition, je reviens pour une décoration’.[2] Many a modern-day commuter would sympathise. Though the fêtes are sometimes even more spectacular than in Louis XIV’s time,[3] it all amounts simply to ‘des feux d’artifice dont il ne reste rien quand ils sont tirés’.[4] In the Italian language that he reserves for many of his intimate letters with Madame Denis, he expresses himself unreservedly; Versailles is ‘un paese che io abhorrisco. La corte, il mundo, i grandi, mi fanno noia’ (‘un pays que j’abhorre. La cour, le monde, les grands m’ennuient’).[5]

But, more relevant to our enquiry here, what did Voltaire feel about the gardens themselves? Did he sometimes gaze in wonderment upon, say, the Grand Canal or the two Trianons? If he did, he seems not to have left any record. Perhaps the closest we can get to an answer is what he tells his friend Cideville about how he spends his time journeying between Versailles and Paris: ‘je fais des vers en chaise de poste’.[6] No trace of ‘recueillement’ there! Versailles meant nothing but work, with the occasional theatre or spectacle as diversions. Specific mentions of these gardens are rare in his works. Comment upon the Ingénu’s walk there, ‘où il s’ennuya’,[7] is trenchant. A letter to Thiriot includes them, but only metaphorically, when he comments in relation to the tragedy Sémiramis that ‘ses jardins [the heroine’s] valaient bien ceux de Versailles’.[8]

But in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, where Voltaire seeks to encompass every aspect of the reign, he cannot afford to omit any reference to the Versailles gardens. However, details here too are scarce. The architect Jules-Hardouin Mansard ‘ne put déployer tous ses talents’ at Versailles, for ‘il fut gêné par le terrain, et par la disposition du petit château’.[9] In a generic conclusion about ‘l’art des jardins’, nothing is said about Versailles, though the designer Le Nôtre is cited ‘pour l’agréable’ as too is La Quintinie ‘pour l’utile’.[10] The antithesis appears to be set up for aesthetic rather than objective purposes. Earlier, discussing the 1680s, he links up Versailles with Marly in a broadly dismissive comment: ‘la nature forcée dans tous ces lieux de délices, et des jardins où l’art était épuisé’.[11]

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

But are there any conceivable allusions to Versailles in any discussion of gardens in general? Here too material is scanty, even in the ‘contes’. But one work stands out: Candide, exceptional in this as in so many other ways. The tale contains no fewer than five different gardens:[12] Thunder-ten Tronckh; Eldorado; Pococurante’s palace and the old Turk’s ‘vingt arpents’, leading up to Candide’s ‘petite métairie’. For our purposes, most of these can be quickly disposed of. The Westphalian château is an ‘anti-jardin’, based on spurious concepts. Pococurante’s domain is an exercise in disillusion; a garden does exist, but it contains no more than ‘des colifichets’. Tomorrow its owner plans to start work on it, but prospects do not sound auspicious, as Martin realises; its ‘lendemain’ belongs to the same perspective as Godot.

But the other three are somewhat less skeletal. The Turk’s domain is purely pragmatic, and capable of delicious luxuries. Candide’s ‘petite terre’ copies these principles with apparent success, though the ending is shot through with irony. But neither of these evokes any suggestion of Versailles. Only with Eldorado may one discern some recollections of the great Château. Much emphasis is laid upon wealth and abundance of many kinds, some of this stress on luxury recalling similar accounts in Le Mondain. More piquantly, the King is intelligent, witty and socially adept; memories of Versailles hover. But once again, physical details are remarkable by their scarcity. While we know that the size of the Palace portal is precisely 220 x 100 feet, we know nothing about its substance: ‘il est impossible d’exprimer quelle en était la matière’. Irony predominates here, as everywhere else in Candide. Physical description is no more than its handservant.

– Haydn Mason

[1] Voltaire to the d’Argentals, 18 January 1745.

[2] Voltaire to Cideville, 31 January 1745.

[3] Voltaire to Mme Denis, 2 December 1745.

[4] Voltaire à Podewils, 8 March 1745.

[5] December 1745.

[6] See note 2, above.

[7] L’Ingénu, chap.9 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, vol.63c, p.247-48).

[8] 10 August 1746.

[9] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in Œuvres historiques, ed. R. Pomeau (Paris, 1957), p.1219-20. Baridon makes no mention of this.

[10] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.1220.

[11] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.930-31.

[12] A useful article has appeared on this topic: P. Henry: ‘Sacred and profane gardens in Candide’, SVEC 176 (1979), p.133-52. The present study addresses a more limited aspect.

When the stage meets the page – past and present

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source:

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source:

In the preface to his tragedy Sémiramis (1749), Voltaire damningly characterized the typical eighteenth-century French theatre as ‘a tennis court with a tasteless set at one end, in which audience members are positioned contrary to all laws of order and reason, some standing on the stage itself with others standing in what is known as the parterre, where they are obscenely hemmed in and crushed, and sometimes surge forward over one another impetuously, as though caught up in a popular uprising’.[1] By contrast, the modern experience of theatre in London’s West End is one of slipping into expensive seats booked months in advance, flicking through a glossy programme, and sinking into reverential silence as the lights dim – always double checking that our mobile phones are switched off, lest we be the unfortunate soul to break the spell.

Where we seek to eliminate distractions in order to immerse ourselves in the story so that fiction becomes reality, our eighteenth-century ancestors were constantly immersed in the reality outside the fiction. Eighteenth-century theatres were a raucous microcosm of city life – a cacophony of catcalls, flirtations, and brawls – with actors on-stage often demolishing the fourth wall with conspiratorial asides to the audience. While Voltaire may have been keen to preserve the purity of his verse by creating a more suitable environment than this ‘tennis court’, other writers fully embraced the exuberant chaos of the eighteenth-century theatrical experience.

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source:

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source:

In Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer presents a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between stage and page at a critical point in literary history: the eighteenth century, when theatre was an established feature of the cultural landscape, and the novel still a nascent and mutable form, far removed from its modern dominance of the literary scene.

The advent of the novel, and its private consumption in the comfort of a study or drawing room, might seem a far cry from the world of the theatre as Voltaire describes it, yet many of the early English novelists – such as Widmayer’s case studies Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, William Congreve, and Henry Fielding – were also playwrights, who deployed the dramatic devices honed on stage to highlight the novel’s status as a fictional construct. The conspiratorial aside between actor and spectator was transferred to the private theatre of the reader’s imagination. While we might think of metafiction as a twentieth-century invention, the eighteenth century proves itself once again to have been at the forefront of modernity. With sophisticated playfulness, Behn, Manley, Congreve and Fielding not only created humorous effects but also questioned the capacity of their art to represent reality. Exaggeration and finely tuned irony, create a novelistic play (in all senses of the term) in which readers are invited to participate, questioning the traditional sources of textual authority as they sift through multiple layers of perception, and discover that the narrator has become an unreliable conduit for information – a player in the tale he narrates.

Challenging, and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, these early novels still defy our assumptions about the novel as a form. Despite evolutions in their nature and status, the eighteenth-century intermingling of drama and prose continues to influence contemporary English writers, as the self-conscious narrator-performer Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and the metafictional Russian doll narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) illustrate. With critical studies into notions of identity as performance, the legacy of these bold and experimental eighteenth-century writers is likely to continue – the scene is set for a long and fruitful encounter between stage and page!

– Madeleine Chalmers

Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, July 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1165-3).

See also: Roman et théâtre au XVIIIe siècle: le dialogue des genres, Catherine Ramond (SVEC 2012:04, Voltaire Foundation, April 2012, ISBN 978-0-7294-1043-4).

[1] ‘un jeu de paume, au bout duquel on a élevé quelques décorations de mauvais goût, & dans lequel les spectateurs sont placés contre tout ordre & contre toute raison, les uns debout, sur le théâtre même, les autres debout, dans ce qu’on appelle parterre, où ils sont gênés & pressés indécemment, & où ils se précipitent quelquefois en tumulte les uns sur les autres, comme dans une sédition populaire’ [translation my own], in Voltaire, ‘Sémiramis, tragédie’, ‘Dissertation sur la tragédie’, ed. R. Niklaus, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.30A (Oxford, 2003), p.157, lines 424-31.