The pursuit of love and happiness was an 18th-century ideal.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the French philosopher and author was one of its chief exponents and is one of the heroes of my character Sinclair. Sinclair takes his copy of Candide, Voltaire’s satirical novel to India with him but he loses it when the ship goes down. Once he’s established himself in Tooley Street he’s quick to buy himself another copy.
Candide was an 18th century best seller. The story is about a young man who is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron. He grows up in the baron’s castle under the tutelage of the scholar Dr. Pangloss, who teaches him that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide falls in love with the baron’s young daughter, Cunégonde which does not please the baron at all and so the young man and his teacher are thrown out of the castle and their adventure begins.
The work describes the abrupt end of their idyllic lifestyle and Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment with the world as he witnesses and experiences its hardships.
The book ends with Candide, not rejecting Dr. Pangloss’s optimism outright but advocating that “we must cultivate our garden”, rather than rely on optimism alone to make it flourish. Thus, Candide rejects the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds” for the act of making the world we desire by cultivating it like a garden.
Voltaire was a man of passion and emotion as well as ideas. At the age of nineteen Voltaire was sent as an attache to the French Ambassador to the Netherlands. It was there that he fell in love with Olympe Dunover, the poor daughter of lower-class women. Their relationship was not approved of by either the ambassador of Olympe’s mother and Voltaire was soon imprisoned to keep them apart.
Writing from his prison cell in The Hague in 1713 he poured out his love for Olympe.
“I am a prisoner here in the name of the King; they can take my life, but not the love that I feel for you. Yes, my adorable mistress, to-night I shall see you, and if I had to put my head on the block to do it.
“For heaven’s sake, do not speak to me in such disastrous terms as you write; you must live and be cautious; beware of madame your mother as of your worst enemy. What do I say? Beware of everybody; trust no one; keep yourself in readiness, as soon as the moon is visible; I shall leave the hotel incognito, take a carriage or a chaise, we shall drive like the wind to Scheveningen; I shall take paper and ink with me; we shall write our letters.”
“If you love me, reassure yourself; and call all your strength and presence of mind to your aid; do not let your mother notice anything, try to have your pictures, and be assured that the menace of the greatest tortures will not prevent me to serve you. No, nothing has the power to part me from you; our love is based upon virtue and will last as long as our lives. Adieu, there is nothing that I will not brave for your sake; you deserve much more than that. Adieu, my dear heart!”
His time in prison was brief. Being young and fit and the prison not so secure, he jumped out a window and got away.
Twenty years later, in 1733, Voltaire would meet the love of his life, Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet. She was the wife of an aristocrat. He, by then was by then a successful writer. Having just returned from a period of enforced exile from France for his political views Voltaire was introduced to Émilie by friends.
The attraction was immediate, physical and cerebral. He wrote of her; “That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short, she makes me happy.”
Soon the pair were living together in the Marquis du Châtelet’s chateau. The arrangement suited them all. Voltaire who was a rich man paid for the much-needed renovations to the chateau, Émilie’s husband the Marquis hunted all day and at night he lent Voltaire his willing wife.
Their love bore intellectual fruits; Émilie translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica and wrote her philosophical magnum opus, Institutions de Physique (Paris, 1740, first edition), or Foundations of Physics. Her own work circulated widely generated heated debates and was republished and translated into several other languages. During her time with Voltaire, she participated in the famous vis viva debate, concerning the best way to measure the force of a body and the best means of thinking about conservation principles. Posthumously, her ideas were heavily represented in the most famous text of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.
In 1737, Châtelet published a paper entitled Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu, based upon her research into the science of fire, that predicted what is today known as infrared radiation and the nature of light.
In another publication, she debated the nature of happiness. During the Age of Enlightenment, personal happiness was one of the great philosophical themes. Many philosophers and writers studied it. There were many discourses on the subject but they were by men. Chatelet offers a new perspective on the philosophical question of happiness, a woman’s perspective. Her views on happiness were published posthumously long after she had ended her relationship with Voltaire.
Chatelet begins her work on happiness by recognising the difficulty of finding or achieving happiness due to the obstacles of circumstance such as age and other hindrances. She explains that fortune has placed individuals in specific states and that one of the most important elements in achieving happiness is not to try to change those circumstances. Chatelet’s way to happiness is to be satisfied with the condition we find ourselves in.
Happiness for Chatelet lies in satisfying personal tastes and passions and from “… having got rid of prejudices, being virtuous, getting well,….” In other words, she says it’s up to the individual to know and do what makes them happy.
I suppose that was alright for her she was a Marquise with a chateau, a husband, and rich lovers.
Her pet hate was religion which she saw as the ultimate prejudice. Prejudice she believed made people vicious and we cannot be both vicious and happy. Happiness, she believed came from virtue, inner satisfaction and the health of the soul. Finally, she concluded that happiness relied on illusion or the arts and that it was important to retain the illusions that produced pleasant feelings, such as laughter during a comedy.
Whilst I cannot argue with her view that pursuing interests, being free from prejudice and enjoying the arts all help us to achieve a state of happiness I cannot help being aghast at this very clever woman’s nativity. Perhaps she was so happy for most of her life, so happy with her studies and her lovers that she didn’t notice the people around her. Perhaps she didn’t notice the poor people who did her cooking and cleaning and grew everything she ate. Perhaps she lived life through such rose-tinted spectacles that she was blind to the routine injustice the state handed down to ordinary people and anyone who got in its way. Was Chatelet like so like so many aristocrats who met with Madame Guillotine a generation later – totally unaware of how they had created their own grisly fate? Did they not see that they had failed to ‘cultivate the garden’?
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her books are available worldwide on Amazon.