‘To what purpose should people become fond of the Mathematics and Natural Philosophy? … People can readily call Useless what they do not understand. It is a sort of Revenge.’
Fontenelle, Of the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, 1699.
Bernard le Bovier, M. de Fontenelle, Histoire du renouvellement de l’académie royale des sciences en M.DC.XCIX. et les éloges historiques de tous les académiciens morts depuis ce renouvellement (Amsterdam, 1709), frontispiece and title page.
Bernard le Bovier, M. de Fontenelle (1657-1757) was born in Rouen in France on the 11 February 1657. He lived to be 99 years old, dying one month before his hundredth birthday on 9 January 1757. He grew up in Rouen and went to the Jesuit College there, later becoming friends with Pierre Varignon (1654-1722) and the Marquis de L’Hôpital (1661-1704); two famous mathematicians who would have a huge influence on Fontenelle’s development in mathematics.
Fontenelle was not, perhaps, best known for any contributions to mathematics but he was pre-eminent in shaping our views of the scholarly community of early modern France. Elected a member of both the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Académie des Sciences, Fontenelle was given the task of writing a history of the latter. Having been elected as perpetual secretary of the Académie des Sciences in 1697, Fontenelle was particularly well-placed to write the work and the Histoire du renouvellement de l’académie with its accompanying éloges proved to be a great success. As Douglas McKie (1957) says ‘it is for his Éloges that he is more usually remembered today. Simple, exact, unaffected, and as varied in their scientific content as the sixty-nine astronomers, chemists, physicists, anatomists, and others whom they commemorated’. Marsak (1959) draws our attention to the significance of the Éloges for our understanding of Fontenelle’s concept of science:
‘The real meaning of science for Fontenelle, therefore, lay not in material improvement, nor even in the scientist’s growing knowledge of the process of nature, although these achievements gave added value to his activity, but in the gradual emancipation of the mind from ignorance and error that a newly formed methodology made possible. Those susceptible to the latter process, Fontenelle sensed, were creating a new way of life for themselves that was indeed revolutionary in its implications. Nowhere is the meaning of science made more clear, and its value so appreciated, as in that series of “lives of the scientists” that we know as the Éloges.’
Bernard le Bovier, M. de Fontenelle, Histoire du renouvellement de l’académie royale des sciences en M.DC.XCIX. et les éloges historiques de tous les académiciens morts depuis ce renouvellement (Amsterdam, 1709), table of contents.
We see here the names of some of the scientists of the Académie des Sciences who were honoured by Fontenelle, some of whom are examined in this web exhibition: Guillaume François Antoine, Marquis de L’Hôpital whose Analyse des infiniment petits: pour l’intelligence des lignes courbes was bought by Worth in the Paris edition of 1696. Worth also collected works by other French scientists named here: he owned three texts by Jean Baptiste du Hamel (1624-1706). Fontenelle’s biographer in the Nouvelle Biographie suggests that it was this work which would prove the most long-lasting of Fontenelle’s many texts, not only because of the simplicity of its style but also due to its encyclopaedic approach. Today, Fontenelle is perhaps most famous for his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, speculating on the possibility of life beyond our own planet, a text that Worth bought in an Amsterdam edition of 1694. The work was influenced by Descartes and Galileo and, according to O’Connor and Robertson (2009) became ‘arguably the first classic of popular science.’
‘Fontenelle’, entry in Nouvelle Biographie Générale.
McKie, Douglas, ‘Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, F.R.S. 1657-1757’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 12 (2) (1957), 193- 200.
Marsak, Leonard M., ‘Bernard De Fontenelle: In Defense of Science’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 20 (1) (1959), 111-122.
J J O’Connor and E F Robertson, ‘Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’, MacTutor History of Mathematics, (University of St Andrews, Scotland, February 2009).
Text: Paul Simms and Elizabethanne Boran.