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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
JEAN LE ROND D’ALEMBERT, one of the most noted of the “Encyclopedists,” a mathematician of the first order, and an eminent man of letters, was born at Paris in 1717. The unacknowledged son of the Chevalier Destouches and of Mme. de Tencin, he had been exposed on the steps of the chapel St. Jean-le-Rond, near Notre-Dame. He was named after the place where he was found; the surname of d’Alembert being added by himself in later years. He was given into the care of the wife of a glazier, who brought him up tenderly and whom he never ceased to venerate as his true mother. His anonymous father, however, partly supported him by an annual income of twelve hundred francs. He was educated at the college Mazarin, and surprised his Jansenist teachers by his brilliance and precocity. They believed him to be a second Pascal; and, doubtless to complete the analogy, drew his attention away from his theological studies to geometry. But they calculated without their host; for the young student suddenly found out his genius, and mathematics and the exact sciences henceforth became his absorbing interests. He studied successively law and medicine, but finding no satisfaction in either of these professions, with the true instincts of the scholar he chose poverty with liberty to pursue the studies he loved. He astonished the scientific world by his first published works, ‘Memoir on the Integral Calculus’ (1739) and ‘On the Refraction of Solid Bodies’ (1741); and while not yet twenty-four years old, the brilliant young mathematician was made a member of the French Academy of Sciences. In 1754 he entered the Académie Française, and eighteen years later became its perpetual secretary.  1
  D’Alembert wrote many and important works on physics and mathematics. One of these, ‘Memoir on the General Cause of Winds,’ carried away a prize from the Academy of Sciences of Berlin, in 1746, and its dedication to Frederick II. of Prussia won him the friendship of that monarch. But his claims to a place in French literature, leaving aside his eulogies on members of the French Academy deceased between 1700 and 1772, are based chiefly on his writings in connection with the ‘Encyclopédie.’ Associated with Diderot in this vast enterprise, he was at first, because of his eminent position in the scientific world, its director and official head. He contributed a large number of scientific and philosophic articles, and took entire charge of the revising of the mathematical division. His most noteworthy contribution, however, is the ‘Preliminary Discourse,’ prefixed as a general introduction and explanation of the work. In this he traced with wonderful clearness and logical precision the successive steps of the human mind in its search after knowledge, and basing his conclusion on the historical evolution of the race, he sketched in broad outlines the development of the sciences and arts. In 1758 he withdrew from the active direction of the ‘Encyclopédie,’ that he might free himself from the annoyance of governmental interference, to which the work was constantly subjected because of the skeptical tendencies it evinced. But he continued to contribute mathematical articles, with a few on other topics. One of these, on ‘Geneva,’ involved him in his celebrated dispute with Rousseau and other radicals in regard to Calvinism and the suppression of theatrical performances in the stronghold of Swiss orthodoxy.  2
  His fame was spreading over Europe. Frederick the Great of Prussia repeatedly offered him the presidency of the Academy of Sciences of Berlin. But he refused, as he also declined the magnificent offer of Catherine of Russia to become tutor to her son, at a yearly salary of a hundred thousand francs. Pope Benedict XIV. honored him by recommending him to the membership of the Institute of Bologne; and the high esteem in which he was held in England is shown by the legacy of £200 left him by David Hume.  3
  All these honors and distinctions did not affect the simplicity of his life, for during thirty years he continued to reside in the poor and incommodious quarters of his foster-mother, whom he partly supported out of his small income. Ill health at last drove him to seek better accommodations. He had formed a romantic attachment for Mademoiselle de l’Espinasse, and lived with her in the same house for years unscandaled. Her death in 1776 plunged him into profound grief. He died nine years later, on the 9th of October, 1783.  4
  His manner was plain and at times almost rude; he had great independence of character, but also much simplicity and benevolence. With the other French deists, d’Alembert has been attacked for his religious opinions, but with injustice. He was prudent in the public expression of them, as the time necessitated; but he makes the freest statement of them in his correspondence with Voltaire. His literary and philosophic works were edited by Bassange (Paris, 1891). Condorcet, in his ‘Eulogy,’ gives the best account of his life and writings.  5

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