My take on Newton

As a scholar of the early modern period, I cannot not have something to say about the great Isaac Newton. But I confess that I am intimidated both by his work and the thick forests of works that have been written about him, and I know I’m not up to the task of being a Newton scholar. Still, it seems I should have something to say – so here goes.

newtonWhat to say about Isaac Newton? From what I see, the popular picture of him is well represented by the remark Newton is said to have made: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” The quote suggests an innocent, humble genius who modestly puts forward a theory that rocks the world – though he regards as but a portion of an infinite, unknown ocean. This is how we like our great scientists – brilliant and self-effacing, with the souls of poets.

Of course, we don’t know that Newton ever really said this. It’s doubtful. I gather that its first appearance is in the Reverend Joseph Spence’s Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men, which was not published until 1820. The editor of Spence’s collection, Samuel Weller Singer, notes that the quote demonstrates “our great philosopher’s modest opinion of himself and his discoveries,” marking it as “only another proof of his consummate wisdom.” Oddly, Singer goes on to note that the quote parallels a passage in Milton’s Paradise Regained, where a superficial thinker is described as “Deep vers’d in books, and shallow in himself, / Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys, / And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge, / As children gathering pebbles on the shore.” These words are spoken by Jesus Christ as he mocks the foolish perusers of wearisome books who ignorantly gather up trifles without assessing them with “equal or superior judgment.” Singer, it would seem, unwittingly skewers himself here.

Spence’s source for the quote is Andrew Ramsay, who claimed that Newton said it “a little before he died.” But Ramsay himself was in France over the years 1724-30, and Newton died in 1727, so it’s not clear how Ramsay would have known this. The indications point to this quote being either something Ramsay made up or heard somewhere, or some misattribution on Spence’s part – or anything other than something Newton actually said. The quote went on to a life of its own, picked up uncritically like a pebble on a shore in later biographies such as David Brewster’s Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855; vol. II, p. 331), and even in Richard Westfall’s more recent scholarly biography, Never at Rest (1980; p. 863).

In any case, the real Newton was far more complicated than the image of a boy on the seashore would suggest. His early life was marred by misfortune, especially as his stepfather was a cruel man intent upon putting a great distance between the boy and his family. After demonstrating a singular ineptitude at farming and other useful trades, he washed up at university and sought solace in his own self-directed studies of philosophy, math, science, and religion. At all of these, of course, he was brilliant, but extremely reluctant to show his work to others, fearing ignorant rejection or ridicule. Over time, as allowed his discoveries to become public, he struck with white-hot rage at anyone daring to question his conclusions or – heaven forbid! – claim them as their own. He seems to have been most at peace when left to himself; in this, perhaps the boy on the shore quote supplies the right image.

What was he doing, when left to himself? We might characterize his efforts as falling into three departments. First, of course, there was the Department of Math, Physics, and Optics, where he made the discoveries for which he is justly famous – calculus, universal gravitation, reflector telescope, composite nature of light, and all that. The 17th century had no shortage of great scientific minds, including Boyle, Hooke, and Huygens – but they all foolishly chose to have lives that overlapped with a genius whose achievements forced them all into “also starring” roles.

Second, there was the Department of Biblical Studies. Like almost everyone in the age, Newton took the Bible extremely seriously. But, not quite like everyone, he believed himself to have discerned truths both unorthodox and revelatory. Most infamously, Newton denied the doctrine of the Trinity, maintaining that God the Father and God the Son were not of the same substance, but distinct entities. He had to keep this view well-hidden, as there were dire consequences for this heresy. Newton also made extensive studies of the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation, meticulously connecting historical events to the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, the seven vials of wrath, et cetera.

Here, for example, is a characteristic sentence from Newton’s treatise on the book of Revelations. The passage is Newton’s interpretation of chapter 12, verses 15 and 16: “And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.” Here goes:

Here since the Dragon which persecuted the Woman is the Empire that instrument of the old Serpent, the waters which he cast out of his mouth must be the people of the Empire they being the flood of enemies which the Empire spewed out against her in the persecution, & the Earth which took part with the Woman against the Dragon must (according to what we explained above) be the people of forreign nations which bordered upon the Empire. The forreign nations therefore so soon as the Dragon had spewed out waters as a flood after her were to take her part & swallow up those waters: & accordingly so soon as the 14 year’s persecution of Theodosius was finished, wherein the Church which had flourished from the Apostles time till then almost sunk under the vast numbers of Apostates which the Persecution had made to fall from her, & other enemies raised against her by the Empire; so soon I say as this persecution had thus filled up the number of the Churches enemies, the northern nations invaded the Empire & waged the wars of the four first Trumpets, & as many of them as were Christians took part with the Church insomuch as within a while to found divers kingdoms of the true religion, as the Visigothic the Ostrogothic the Vandalic the Burgundian, & for some time the Suevian, the Alan, [and] the Lombardic.

I am able to offer this passage only as the result of the monumental effort of The Newton Project to make all of Newton’s writings freely available online. So far, the project has made available over two million words of Newton on the subject of religion – and they are not yet done. Along with the works on prophecy, Newton also had manuscripts on early church history, the genealogy of ancient peoples, and chronology. This was serious work, taken on with meticulous attention by a devout and brilliant scholar – not, as it is sometimes made out to be, the silly dodderings of a scientist past his prime.

Finally, there was the Department of Alchemy. According to The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, a sister to The Newton Project, Newton wrote or transcribed about a million words on the subject of alchemy, ranging from modest observations about dyes and pigments to speculations about the philosopher’s stone. These are the works that caused such scandal when brought to the world’s attention in the 20th century. Surely the modest and brilliant boy on the seashore, the one who brought light to nature’s forces hidden in night, could not have been – a magician? an alchemist? a wacko?

The shocked reaction to the rediscovery of Newton’s alchemical works reveals the great distance between the man who lived from 1642 to 1727 and the myth that had grown up around him. Of course, in the early modern period it was not at all weird to be interested in alchemy. It was taken seriously everywhere, in varying degrees and different ways, for there was no way to distinguish it from what we would recognize as bona fide chemistry, metallurgy, or pharmacology – there wasn’t an “it” there to be distinguished, at least not yet. Newton, as well as many others in his day, set about trying to discover the hidden forces and structures of nature, using whatever theories and accounts were at hand – and many of these we would now identify as “magical thinking.” Newton showed restraint unusual for his day when, in failing to account for the force of gravity, he said “hypotheses non fingo,” considering that he was fingo-ing all over the place in his private alchemical speculations. He knew he had not yet unlocked the deeper secrets of nature – “the great ocean of truth” – and his alchemical investigations were at least in part driven by that curiosity.

So, without paying strict attention to the numbers of words or measures of impact, one might say that Newton was one-third scientist, one-third biblical scholar, and one-third alchemist. He was half-time recluse, and half-time vicious polemicist. Oh, and another thing: he was one part scholar, and one part Warden and later Master of the Mint.

Being in control of London’s currency occupied the final 30 years of Newton’s life (from about 55 to 85 years of age). It was not simply a matter of pounding out coins. There were persistent problems with counterfeiters and “clippers” (those who shaved off corners of silver coins and sold the clippings as silver), as well as more global problems of fluctuating currencies and devaluation. Newton’s job was to bring on-going stability and soundness to British currency – a task to which he dedicated himself with the same laser-like attention he brought to all his endeavors. (Scholars seem to have mixed opinions about how good he was at this.) He sent 28 counterfeiters to the gallows, and on occasion went in disguise to capture his prey. (Here, if anywhere, is good material for a movie.)

One of the ordeals Newton regularly faced as part of his job was the Trial of the Pyx. The pyx was a triply-locked box into which samples of newly-minted coins would be dropped through a one-way chute. Every few years, the pyx would be unlocked under the watchful eyes of officers of the mint and the king’s men, and the coins would be assayed in weight and purity. If the coins were of poor quality, the warden would be subject to fine or imprisonment. Newton’s coins always passed. (The Trial of the Pyx shows up improbably as a climactic scene in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It helps that some magical gold of Solomon and some prestidigitation are involved.)

As his fame as a scientist continued to grow, he was at times challenged by others with mathematical puzzles. In one case, Johann Bernoulli had set a problem for the great mathematicians of Europe.  He allowed six months for an answer, at the end of which Leibniz requested that the deadline be extended by a few months more. Soon after the extension was granted, Bernoulli sent the challenge directly to Newton, who found it in his mail, sat down, and solved it overnight. He sent in his answer anonymously, but Bernoulli wrote that “we recognize the lion by his claw.” Newton also served as president of the Royal Society from 1703 to his death – so his former life was not completely left behind, though he was now moving in powerful circles of government and politics, and taking advantages of some of the luxuries his life he could now afford (scarlet drapes, silver chamberpots, etc.).

So, in all, given such an incredibly complicated life, it is a shame that the “boy on the shore” quote has such currency. Newton was anything but a dopey lad picking up pebbles. He was more like a storm – or better, a convergence of storms, blowing forcefully in several directions at once, in some places clearing the ground of debris, in others piling up massive tangles of driftwood. He was several lifetimes in a single person – scientist, prophet, magician, and G-man. He does not fit our preformed categories – but rather, characteristically, he forces us to reshape them in a style of his own making.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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