Last of the Magicians

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

In 1936 Sotherby’s auctioned a large collection of manuscripts of Isaac Newton. These manuscripts consisted of papers that had been donated to Cambridge but were discarded as “non-scientific”. The papers principally focused on Newton’s writings on alchemy, theology and biblical chronology. The auction had little interest and most of the papers were dispersed to dealers. Much of the collection was eventually bought and put back together by John Maynard Keynes who began a study of their contents, what they told us of Newton’s less well known researches and the man himself.

Newton’s undeniable genius and achievements had placed him in a revered position even in his own time. Contemporaries described him in glowing terms. Alexander Pope described Newton as a divine gift,

Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light.

Edmund Halley described him as nearly divine,

…no closer to the gods can any mortal rise

With the success of his theory and the growth of science, his reputation continued to rise. Throughout the 18th and 19th century Newton was lionized by many as the first truly modern, rational man. For Voltaire the modern age began with the publication of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, writing:

Before Kepler all men were blind. Kepler had one eye. Newton had two.

The adoration, especially nationalist adoration went further. A late 19th century biographer described Newton’s life as:

one continued course of labour, patience, charity, generosity, temperance, piety, goodness and all other virtues, without a mixture of any vice whatever.

Recently he beat Jesus (but not Muhammad) in a poll of history’s most influential people

There had always been difficulties with this image. It was known that Newton held unusual religious views including Arianism which with its denial of the trinity, was considered heretical even in protestant England. Similarly it was known that he researched alchemy, theology and biblical chronology. For a long time this side of his character was largely dismissed or ignored, Voltaire writing that it was done

to amuse himself after the fatigue of severer studies.

In reality, as Keynes was to discover in pouring over his manuscripts, alchemy, theology and biblical chronology were never considered secondary pursuits to Newton. Keynes presented his work as part of the tercentenary celebration of Newton’s birth in an article “Newton the Man”. His view of Newton was almost diametrically opposed to the established rationalist, scientific image. Keynes wrote:

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.

Analysis of Newton’s library shows that of 1772 books, 170 of them were on occult topics (mostly alchemy) and 360 were on science. The evidence suggests that his own writings on occult topics exceeded that of his scientific writings particularly when much of his alchemical writings were lost in a fire.

Newton was also obsessed with deciphering religious texts, poring over prophecy attempting to tease out hidden meanings and attempting to show his belief that Hebrews were the oldest civilization, that the foundation of the first temple predated the fall of Troy. In his view it was the Hebrews who had disseminated knowledge to the Greeks and Egyptians which had over the ages gradually been lost, obscured and corrupted. He saw his work, both scientific and occult as recovering lost knowledge of the ancients. He spent a great deal of effort calculating the layout of the Temple of Solomon from biblical descriptions convinced that this would give him information on the structure of the heavens and believed strongly that the Laws of gravity were know to such ancients as Pythagoras and Plato. Indeed the music of the spheres he believed was a concealed representation of the inverse square law of gravity.

Never the less he was a keen experimenter, inventing and building devices such as the reflecting telescope, and carrying out numerous experiments even to the risk of harming himself. He wrote of one such experiment:

I took a bodkin [a type of dagger] and put it between my eye and the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could, & pressing my eye with the end of it (so as to make the curvature in my eye) there appeared several white, dark and coloured circles. . .”

Keynes wrote:

Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements (and that is what gives the false suggestion of his being an experimental natural philosopher), but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty-just as he himself wrapped the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.

Does it matter that our prototype of a man of science was so interested in pursuits that would now be scoffed at as pseudo-science or worse? Subjects that even in his own time were looked down upon by other men of science. Or is it all just revisionism for the sake of it?

In one important way it does matter and it is key to understanding why Newton made the breakthrough with the Law of Gravity. The dominant mechanistic philosophy of contemporary scientists held that action at a distance, of the type described by the law of Gravity was impossible. All matter was atoms and all interactions between them were as a result of contact interactions. To understand the movements of the planets you had to have a theory about what material interactions would cause them to move in this manner. In attempting to banish superstition and the occult they had limited the potential answers.

Newton with his belief in “occult” forces had no trouble in making the leap and postulating a law which specified that two objects would instantaneously effect each other over any distance whatsoever. The lack of a specific mechanism for gravity troubled others and caused many to be initially sceptical. Newton did not see this as important, writing.

…I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I feign no hypothesis; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses whether metaphysical of physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy….And to us it is enough that gravity does really exist and act according to the laws which we have explained, and which abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies and our sea.

In the end Keynes’ view is probably overdone. While it did reveal a whole new side to Newton, modern research shows alchemy at this time was virtually indistinguishable from chemistry. Boyle, who made a number of pioneering discoveries in chemistry, dismissed the alchemists explanations but did not deny that at times they may have succeeded in achieving successful results. To what extent Newton held the same view is not clear.

ps. If you got here and want a good fiction read with a lot of detail about the kooky “Keynsian” view of Newton, try Neal Stephenson’s baroque cycle.

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One Response to Last of the Magicians

  1. Reblogged this on Sir Isaac Newton and commented:
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