March 28

Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749)

It was on this date, March, 28, 1749, that the French astronomer and mathematician, Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace was born at Beaumont-en-Auge. After achieving prominence as a mathematician, Laplace turned his keen intellect toward astronomy. His major work, Celestial Mechanics, appeared in five volumes from 1799 to 1825 and stands as a testament to his brilliance. He achieved world fame and was greatly honored by many scientific institutions. He was elected to the French Academy in 1816.

Laplace was not so successful as a politician. Favored by Napoleon, he was appointed Minister of the Interior, but was relieved due to incompetence after only six weeks. Naturally he next served in the Senate, and rose to become its vice-president. When the French Revolution came, he allied himself with the winning side.

Among Laplace's achievements was an improvement in the mathematical description of the solar system, which suggested that the system was invariably stable and could be self-sustaining. His most famous quotation would seem to place him firmly in the camp of atheists or rationalists: When Napoleon asked him where God fit into this mathematical system, Laplace is said to have replied, "Sire, I have done without that hypothesis."

The clerical-royalist reaction after 1815 made most French rationalists feel the heat, if not the flame, of revenge for the Revolution. Laplace's friends laid low or went through the motions of repudiating their previous skepticism. But Laplace went much further, successfully currying favor with the monarchy, attending church regularly, and even voting for the deposition of Napoleon — after Napoleon had made him a count. He served the restored Bourbon court with sorry sycophancy.

His old revolutionary friends shunned him. And the quote itself is probably not genuine: it appears to be a misinterpretation of a passage from his 1796 System of the World, which in fact refers to a "vain hypothesis" of Isaac Newton's that he discards — not to God.

It is ironic, then, that Laplace stands in memory as the "Newton of France," in spite of a seriously flawed character. He died on March 5, 1827, with two clerics in attendance. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "Laplace was born and died a Catholic." More probably, Laplace professed to believe what it was necessary to believe for a comfortable life. It is useful to know that some legendary atheists are in fact no friend of Freethought.

Want to comment on this essay? Send me an e-mail!


Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
Wordcount 399