Narrative Summary of D’Alembert


This text is a biographical account of Jean le Rond d’Alembert, a prominent figure of the Enlightenment era. The text recounts his early life, focusing on his unusual upbringing and his education. We learn about his scientific achievements, particularly in the field of mathematics, where he made significant contributions to mechanics and the development of calculus. The text also examines his involvement in the Encyclopédie, his role as secretary of the French Academy, and his relationships with other prominent figures of the time, including Voltaire and Frederick the Great.

Main Parts:

  • D’Alembert’s Childhood: This section details d’Alembert’s abandonment as an infant, his upbringing by his adoptive mother, and his education at the Collège des Quatre-Nations.
  • D’Alembert and the Academy of Sciences: This section describes d’Alembert’s early scientific contributions, his election to the Academy of Sciences, and his major works, including his treatise on dynamics.
  • D’Alembert and the Encyclopédie: This section focuses on d’Alembert’s involvement in the Encyclopédie, his contributions, and the controversies surrounding the work.
  • D’Alembert and the French Academy: This section describes d’Alembert’s election to the French Academy, his role as secretary, and his contributions to its activities.
  • D’Alembert and the Suppression of the Jesuits: This section examines d’Alembert’s perspective on the suppression of the Jesuits and his views on religious intolerance.
  • D’Alembert and Frederick the Great: This section details d’Alembert’s relationship with Frederick the Great, including his refusal of the presidency of the Prussian Academy and his visits to Frederick’s court.
  • D’Alembert and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse: This section explores d’Alembert’s complicated relationship with Julie de Lespinasse, his close friend and confidante.

View on Life:

  • The Importance of Reason and Freedom: d’Alembert was a staunch advocate for reason and freedom of thought. He believed that these principles were essential for the progress of society and the betterment of humanity. He saw the church and other forms of authority as obstacles to intellectual and social progress.
  • The Limitations of Knowledge: Despite his commitment to reason, d’Alembert was acutely aware of the limitations of human knowledge. He believed that many aspects of the universe remained unknowable and that certain questions, such as the nature of the soul, were ultimately unanswerable.
  • The Search for Truth: d’Alembert believed that the pursuit of truth was a lifelong endeavor, and he valued honest inquiry and open debate. He was critical of those who sought to suppress opposing viewpoints or cling to outdated beliefs.

Scenarios and Situations:

  • Abandonment and Adoption: The text describes the emotional and social ramifications of d’Alembert’s abandonment at birth. It then details his adoption and his relationship with his adoptive mother.
  • Scientific Achievement and Recognition: The text illustrates d’Alembert’s rise to prominence in the scientific community, showcasing his innovative work and his struggles for recognition within the Academy of Sciences.
  • The Encyclopédie Controversy: This section recounts the conflicts and tensions surrounding the publication of the Encyclopédie, its opposition by the church and government, and the consequences for its contributors.
  • Personal Relationships and Betrayal: The text highlights the complexities of d’Alembert’s relationships with significant figures, including his ambivalent feelings towards his mother and his painful experiences with Mlle de Lespinasse.


  • Overcoming Abandonment: d’Alembert faced the challenges of growing up abandoned and navigating the social stigma attached to his birth.
  • Gaining Recognition: d’Alembert struggled to gain recognition for his work in the scientific community and faced opposition from established figures.
  • Defending Intellectual Freedom: d’Alembert faced censorship and persecution for his ideas and his involvement in the Encyclopédie.
  • Dealing with Loss and Betrayal: d’Alembert grappled with the loss of his adoptive mother and the emotional pain of being betrayed by his lover.


  • D’Alembert’s Internal Conflict: D’Alembert struggled with reconciling his desire for intellectual freedom and his need for social acceptance. He often found himself caught between his commitment to his principles and his fear of persecution.
  • D’Alembert and the Church: D’Alembert’s skepticism and opposition to religious dogma put him at odds with the church, leading to censorship and attacks on his work.
  • D’Alembert and Mlle de Lespinasse: The complexities of their relationship, marked by passionate love and betrayal, created a deep emotional conflict for both individuals.


The text follows a chronological narrative structure, outlining the key milestones in d’Alembert’s life:

  • His childhood and education
  • His scientific achievements and recognition
  • His involvement in the Encyclopédie and the ensuing controversy
  • His election to the French Academy and his role as secretary
  • His relationship with Voltaire and Frederick the Great
  • His complex relationship with Mlle de Lespinasse
  • His final years, marked by loss and illness.

Point of View:

The text is written from a third-person perspective, providing a comprehensive overview of d’Alembert’s life and work. The author offers insights into d’Alembert’s character and motivations, relying on a combination of biographical accounts, letters, and contemporary observations.

How It’s Written:

The text is written in a formal and descriptive style, characterized by detailed accounts and insightful analysis. The author uses vivid language to paint a picture of d’Alembert’s personality and his intellectual milieu. For example, in describing d’Alembert’s personality, the author writes: “D’Alembert, very serious at heart, pretended not to be. Voltaire sometimes reproached him for language too distant from his thought.” This example illustrates the author’s use of descriptive language and his willingness to offer nuanced interpretations of d’Alembert’s character.


The tone of the text is generally respectful and admiring, though it does not shy away from highlighting d’Alembert’s flaws and complexities. The author’s tone is often insightful and analytical, conveying a deep understanding of d’Alembert’s character and his contributions to the Enlightenment.

Life Choices:

  • Pursuit of Knowledge: D’Alembert dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual inquiry, prioritizing scientific and philosophical exploration over personal gain or social advancement.
  • Refusal of Power and Prestige: D’Alembert consistently refused offers of power and prestige, choosing to maintain his independence and pursue his own intellectual interests.
  • Commitment to Truth and Freedom: D’Alembert remained committed to intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truth throughout his life, even when it meant facing persecution and social censure.
  • Devotion to Friendship: D’Alembert was deeply devoted to his friends, offering them unwavering support and companionship.


  • The Importance of Independent Thought: D’Alembert’s life exemplifies the importance of independent thought and the courage to challenge societal norms and traditional beliefs. He teaches us to question authority and to seek truth through reason and critical inquiry.
  • The Pursuit of Knowledge: D’Alembert’s dedication to his intellectual pursuits shows the power of the pursuit of knowledge and its ability to enrich our understanding of the world.
  • The Impermanence of Love and the Power of Friendship: D’Alembert’s relationship with Mlle de Lespinasse reveals the complexities of love and the enduring power of friendship. He teaches us to value and cherish those who offer us genuine support and companionship.


  • Jean le Rond d’Alembert: A brilliant mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, d’Alembert was a key figure of the Enlightenment. He was renowned for his intellectual curiosity, his commitment to reason and freedom, and his profound impact on science and philosophy. Despite his intellectual achievements, he struggled with personal loss, betrayal, and the search for genuine connection.
  • Voltaire: A prominent writer, philosopher, and satirist, Voltaire was a close friend and intellectual companion of d’Alembert. They shared a common skepticism towards traditional beliefs and a dedication to the pursuit of truth.
  • Frederick the Great: The King of Prussia was a great admirer of d’Alembert’s intellect and a strong supporter of the Enlightenment. He offered d’Alembert positions of power and prestige, which d’Alembert consistently refused. Their friendship was characterized by mutual respect and intellectual camaraderie.
  • Julie de Lespinasse: A woman of great wit and intelligence, Mlle de Lespinasse was a close friend and confidante of d’Alembert. Their relationship was marked by passionate love, betrayal, and ultimately, profound loss.


  • The Enlightenment: The text explores the core values of the Enlightenment, particularly the importance of reason, freedom, and intellectual progress.
  • The Power and Limitations of Reason: The text highlights the benefits of reasoned inquiry while acknowledging its limitations and the persistence of mysteries and uncertainties.
  • The Nature of Truth and Belief: D’Alembert’s skepticism and his challenges to traditional beliefs raise questions about the nature of truth and the importance of critical thinking.
  • The Importance of Human Connection: The text underscores the significance of human relationships, highlighting the importance of friendship, love, and the search for meaningful connection in a world marked by loss and betrayal.


  • The Importance of Independent Thought: D’Alembert’s life and work emphasize the value of critical thinking and the freedom to question established beliefs and authority.
  • The Power of Reason and Inquiry: He believed that reason was the most reliable guide to understanding the world and solving complex problems.
  • The Importance of Humanitarianism: He was deeply concerned with the well-being of humanity, advocating for social justice and the alleviation of suffering.

Intentions of the Characters:

  • D’Alembert: D’Alembert’s primary intention was to pursue knowledge, defend intellectual freedom, and contribute to the advancement of society. He sought a life of independent thought and honest inquiry, though his emotional struggles revealed his longing for genuine connection and lasting love.
  • Voltaire: Voltaire aimed to promote reason, challenge religious dogma, and fight for social justice. He also sought to protect his friends and fellow thinkers from persecution.
  • Frederick the Great: Frederick the Great sought to foster intellectual progress, promote his kingdom’s status as a center of enlightenment, and cultivate a circle of brilliant minds at his court.
  • Julie de Lespinasse: Mlle de Lespinasse sought love, passion, and fulfillment. She yearned for intellectual stimulation and a life of social prominence, but her emotional struggles revealed her deeper need for genuine affection and lasting connection.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • Rogatons: A term used by d’Alembert to refer to his mathematical works, suggesting a sense of playful detachment from his serious accomplishments.
  • Plate and Odieuse Canaille: D’Alembert frequently used these terms to describe those he considered hypocritical or intellectually shallow, highlighting his sharp wit and his disdain for pretense.
  • Badinages: A word used by Frederick the Great to refer to his playful banter, suggesting his affectionate yet sometimes dismissive nature towards d’Alembert.


  • The Story of Cartouche: D’Alembert uses the story of Cartouche, a notorious criminal, to illustrate his skepticism towards religious dogma.
  • The Story of the Diacre Pâris: The anecdote about the diacre Pâris and his devout but troublesome house guest exemplifies the absurdity of religious controversies.
  • The Story of the Agneau: This anecdote highlights the inclusion of seemingly trivial information, such as culinary details, in the Encyclopédie, which caused controversy among its critics.
  • The Story of Mme Geoffrin and the Young Man: This anecdote demonstrates Mme Geoffrin’s insightful understanding of d’Alembert’s emotional vulnerabilities and her willingness to guide him towards happiness.


  • The Nature of Human Knowledge: D’Alembert explored the limits of human understanding and the importance of recognizing the mysteries that surround us.
  • The Importance of Intellectual Freedom: He advocated for the freedom of thought and the right to challenge traditional beliefs and authority.
  • The Social and Political Ramifications of Religious Intolerance: He argued against religious intolerance and the dangers it posed to individual liberty and societal harmony.
  • The Role of Reason in Society: He believed that reason was the foundation of a just and enlightened society.

Facts and Findings:

  • D’Alembert’s Contribution to Dynamics: He developed a groundbreaking principle that allowed the application of static equilibrium principles to the study of dynamic systems.
  • The Encyclopédie’s Impact on Society: The Encyclopédie, despite its controversies, played a significant role in disseminating knowledge and fostering the spirit of the Enlightenment.
  • The Suppression of the Jesuits: The suppression of the Jesuits was a major political and social event of the 18th century, reflecting the growing tension between religious authority and secular power.


  • The number of lettres de cachet issued in response to the Unigenitus Bull: The text mentions that over 40,000 lettres de cachet were issued in response to the controversy surrounding the Unigenitus Bull, indicating the intensity of the religious conflicts of the time.
  • The cost of d’Alembert’s trip to Italy: D’Alembert requested 2,000 écus from Frederick the Great to finance his trip, suggesting the cost of traveling in the 18th century.

Points of View:

The text is written from a predominantly objective point of view, but it does reflect the author’s own perspective on d’Alembert’s life and work. The author is clearly sympathetic to d’Alembert’s intellectual and philosophical views, and he presents d’Alembert as a figure of great intelligence, integrity, and humanitarianism.


The text offers a historical perspective on d’Alembert’s life and work, placing him within the context of the Enlightenment and its intellectual and social currents. The author emphasizes d’Alembert’s contributions to science and philosophy, while also exploring the complexities of his personal life and the challenges he faced in navigating a society fraught with religious and political tensions.

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