In the Religious opinions section of the Wikipedia article on Laplace, there is an excerpt from Antommarchi's "The Last Moments of Napoleon", in which it is written that

the name of God appeared endlessly in the works of Lagrange.

Is this true, and if yes, did he use it poetically? Can you provide some excerpts from Lagrange's work that contain the word "God"?

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    $\begingroup$ Another possibllity: confusion between Joseph-Louis Lagrange (mathematician and astrnomer) with Marie-Joseph Lagrange (Dominican priest, founder of Ecole Pratique d'Etudes Bibliques). $\endgroup$ Mar 5, 2020 at 14:21

2 Answers 2


This is an anecdote, probably invented to complement the other anecdote about Laplace. It is hard to say why Lagrange in particular was picked to fill the part, as he is a bad fit. Probably, it is just that he was seen with Napoleon at Mass, and the name is suitably famous. Many Lagrange's works are translated into English, e.g. his opus magnum Analytical Mechanics, so one can do a search to see if he mentions God "endlessly". In fact, he does not mention him there at all.

Instead, we find God mentioned in the translators' biographical remarks on Lagrange's religious views, which do not exactly leave an impression of excessive devoutness. To the contrary, he was so reserved in his expressions of faith that some considered him an atheist, although this is probably an exaggeration. And he definitely did not think that God can explain much in mechanics, as the anecdote suggests (with Lagrange allegedly exclaiming:"But it is a beautiful hypothesis that explains so many things"):

"It appears that he had no interest in Maupertuis’ attempt to harmonize the Principle of Least Action with the existence of a deity. In his view, it was simply a mathematical proposition... The endless discussions over this question, which appeared to lead nowhere, appeared meaningless to Lagrange. Hence, he undertook to describe the mechanical behavior of material systems without any metaphysical commentary at all... Euler had written a work — Lettres a une Princesse d’Allemagne — in which he attempted to reconcile science and religion. Lagrange held that this effort was inappropriate for a man of science.

[...] The question of what were Lagrange’s religious beliefs is difficult to answer. Authors who have investigated this aspect of Lagrange’s personality have not been able to reach a conclusion... Many of Lagrange’s colleagues were not members of the Christian church and therefore, Lagrange, as prudent as he was in the conduct of his personal affairs, kept his religious beliefs to himself. He may have viewed religious belief as he did metaphysical arguments, that is, with the attitude that they would not produce any tangible results.

Secondly, his private library contained a number of books on religion — not all on the Christian religion but bibles and works on various world religions. These books indicate an interest in religion on the part of Lagrange... On the other hand, in his letters to his family, where it is not necessary to be prudent, there are no references to religion. Even when a death in the near family seemed to require words of consolation such as the death of his mother, brother and father, there are none.

But there was never any indication from Lagrange that he was an atheist. In fact, he attended Mass regularly and during his sojourn in Paris during the Empire, there is a record of his many chance meetings with Napoleon at Mass. Lagrange’s name is found in the Dictionnaire des Athees Anciens et Modernes by Sylvain Marechal along with the names of Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Laplace, Monge, de Prony, Lalande, Peyrard, Fourcroy, etc. Marechal noted that these men held that it was impossible to prove the existence of God. He referred to them as atheists but it would have been more accurate for Marechal to point out that a declaration of agnosticism rather than atheism was really in question."


Contrary to Antommarchi's "The Last Moments of Napoleon", the text Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena quotes Napoleon (bottom of page 274):

Napolean replies: How comes it, then, that Laplace was an atheist? At the Institute neither he nor Monge, nor Bertollet, nor Lagrange believe in God.

Similarly, from Morris Kline's Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge:

Lagrange and Laplace, though of Catholic parentage, were agnostics.


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