Review Article

The Other Newton

By I. M. Oderberg 
[Review of In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton & His Times, by Gale E. Christianson, The Free Press, Macmillan, New York, 1984; 623 pages, bibliography, notes, index.]

Sir Isaac Newton is better known for his great contributions to scientific knowledge than for his determined efforts in the fields of religion and alchemy to discover the "grand design" he felt to be at the heart of the universe. Rejecting the duality of spirit and matter arising from the thought of Descartes, Newton reached back to the views of the Pythagorean brotherhood regarding the material cosmos as modeled on mathematical lines such as geometry. He understood well their doctrines, and these included more than mathematics: the harmony of the spheres arising from the Pythagorean theory of music and sound.

For Newton, the precision he discerned in nature was not merely the outcome of laws in mathematics or physics that originated in chance conditions, but rather the indication of the work of a vast, cosmos-spanning Intelligence he called God — meaning by this something quite different from the view commonly held in his day.

In his mathematical and scientific work he opened up for consideration a majestic theorem that embraced the fall of an apple or stone, the tides of the seas, the planetary orbits and those of moons, the coming and going of comets, and the "brilliant, stately motion of the canopy of stars." His remarkable intellectual achievements need no detailed retelling here; from his early twenties — the "miraculous years" — he had already established the elements of differential calculus (1665), and integral calculus (1666), following with his invention of the reflecting telescope. His Principia Mathematica was published when he was 45, dealing among other things with universal gravitation, a subject inspired by Jacob Boehme's phrase that "attraction is the first property of Nature." The Principia laid the foundation of scientific thinking that prevailed until this century when his laws were subsumed into the more widely-embracing relativity theory of Einstein. His work Opticks (1704) dealt with the properties of light: proposing its corpuscular form — i.e., consisting of particles sent off in all directions as emanations from luminous bodies [The corpuscular theory is assumed to account for various phenomena of nature, these being explained as taking place because of the characteristics of minute particles of matter when they are in motion, at rest, or in position, etc. Newton proposed that light consists of "corpuscles," particles.].

What has not been generally known is that the collection of Newton's papers and books held in the Cambridge University Library includes an enormous amount of material dealing with theological, philosophical, and alchemical topics. His interest in alchemy is assumed to have arisen from his attempts to penetrate into the core of the chemical elements, whereas his reflections on the composition of mineral and other atoms and their transmutation one into another reveal his search for the heart of "original Matter" as a link with the all-pervading divine essence.

Beginning at the outmost layer of a body, he attempted to penetrate to the innermost, invisible, seedlike core. He believed that at this core rested the "philosopher's mercury," the first matter of all metals and the source of all activity in the universe. Elias Ashmole, a contemporary, described the "philosophic mercury" as "that Universal and All-piercing Spirit, the One operative Vertue and immortall Seede of Worldly things, that God in the beginning infused into the Chaos, which is every where Active and still flows through the world in all kindes of things by Universall extension [Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, ed. by Elias Ashmole, London, 1652, pp. 446-7; cited in In the Presence of the Creator, p. 227].

Until recently, biographers have tended to avoid reference to this aspect of Newton's endeavors, thinking that knowledge of its existence would tarnish the reputation of the great scientist. So they skirted any allusion to the treasure trove of manuscripts and books in this nonscientific field. The theology section alone has 416 items! The family of the Earls of Portsmouth who inherited the collection of Newton's scientific and other material from his stepniece, gave it to Cambridge University Library with the proviso that the nonscientific section be returned to them. The latter was auctioned in 1936 and the British economist John Maynard Keynes purchased many of the alchemical papers. A debt is owed Keynes who was "entranced" by the material he had acquired: "[Newton's] experiments were always, I suspect, a means, not of discovery, but always of verifying what he already knew" ["Newton the Man," in Newton Tercentenary Celebrations, 1947, p. 29; quoted Christianson, p. 75]. He challenged the eighteenth-century view of Newton as "the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason" [cf. Christianson, p. 205]. It was this aspect of Newton that William Blake deplored, and used as a symbol of the machine — materialism — that he saw rising in England, ready to engulf the more spiritual outlook on life held by a long line of ancient philosophers. Not having access to the private papers, Blake thought Newton's mechanical view of the world and universe left out God, the inner man, and life. He assumed that thereby Newton left out all the values that made life worth living. What would he have said had he known of the hidden side of Newton's philosophy?

Keynes, himself a gifted and creative thinker, saw Newton as "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."

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 hid 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 . . . , 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 ["Newton the Man"; cf. Christianson, p. 205].

If Keynes' remark seems startling, Dr. Christianson also refers to Newton's "belief in and strong attraction to an original wisdom 'laid about the world' by God for the benefit of an esoteric brotherhood" (p. 225).

Newton's knowledge of the Bible was equaled by very few theologians, and he was acquainted with early Christian texts. Immersing himself in the controversies of two Church leaders, Arius and Athanasius, he deplored the doctrinal inventions and intriguing of the latter against the former. He allied himself with the Arian view. Newton felt that Athanasius and his followers departed from the original tenets of Christianity. For Newton this dispute focused especially in the central doctrine of the oneness of God. He had found no real scriptural authority for Athanasius' stress upon the Trinity, and upon other dogmas embodied in the Creed bearing his name and made official by the orthodox church.

Newton interpreted the divine Unity as IT, without predicates, and as the sustaining energy and intelligence of the entire cosmos, initiating every process and phenomenon. His view of divinity pervading the universe is remarkably like the modern idea of God as the Urgrund, the "original ground" or foundation of all life forms. In this he adopted Henry More's concept of space as infinite in which, or out of which, come all finite manifestations. H. P. Blavatsky in her Secret Doctrine (1888) expresses a like concept of Space as the ever-fecund mother of universes and their inhabitants. Newton's Principia Mathematica similarly distinguishes between time as such and endless duration — "a work of science to be sure, but of science steeped in profound religious overtones" [cf. Christianson, p. 247].

Whilst a student at Cambridge, under the heading "Of Atomes," Newton commented on Henry More's The Immortality of the Soul, which ties in the "pre-existence of the soul" with other relevant topics. Dr. More was an influential contact for the younger man. A renowned Cambridge Platonist and an Anglican clergyman who had declined two bishoprics, More was regarded as the outstanding Cambridge intellect of his day. Both men had associations not only through Cambridge University but also going further back to Grantham where Newton had had his schooling.

The Newton collection in Trinity College Library, Cambridge, and the 57 lots on alchemy acquired by Keynes (out of the 121 sold at auction) and bequeathed to his own alma mater, King's College, Cambridge, leave no doubt that Newton was acquainted with the most reputable people of his day who secretly pursued alchemical interests. The term "alchemist" has been applied indiscriminately to various types of people. There were dabblers on the one hand, who searched only for the secret of making gold out of base metals such as lead; or wanted the elixir of life to achieve physical immortality. On the other hand, there were those who used the language of alchemy to veil their researches into unorthodox religious traditions that embodied character training, symbolized by turning lower human elements into the "gold" of spiritual qualities. Achievement in this area represented finding the "elixir of life." It therefore dealt with the soul rather than with minerals and other forms of matter.

Because of the strictures against unorthodoxy, there was a passing from hand to hand of manuscripts of both old and newly-minted sources. Newton acquired many of these. The persecution of religious figures, who were his close friends and shared his views, led him to preserve the utmost secrecy regarding his own private researches and speculations.

Dr. More, at first a supporter and correspondent of Descartes, caught the drift and implications of the latter's concepts and disagreed with him. The correspondence died when Descartes refused to continue the discussions. More alerted Newton to the dangers of Descartes' dualist approach to the world and the cosmos of which it is a part, and introduced him to the philosophical views of the Cambridge Platonists, Studying the writings of alchemists such as Michael Maier who enthused about the Corpus Hermeticum — Greek and Latin translations of supposedly ancient Egyptian concepts — Newton regarded the stream of such writings as an expression of the prisca sapientia, as it was called in Renaissance times, i.e., the wisdom of the ancients.

Dr. Christianson studies in detail and some depth Newton's application of

. . . the Platonic doctrine of the prisca sapientia to alchemy. The theological manuscripts [in Newton's collection] reveal that he no less ardently pursued a parallel religious wisdom or prisca theologia, from which corrupters of Scripture like Athanasius had so perilously strayed. — p. 255

As Alexander Koyre points out in his important book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1957), Henry More's conception of space not only affected philosophers, it was also "shared by Newton, and this, because of the unrivaled influence of Newton on the whole subsequent development [of scientific research], is, indeed, of overwhelming importance" (p. 159).

Dr. Christianson's large book should not be regarded as dealing solely with Newton's nonscientific work and writings, for he gives an excellent account of the science in easily understood language. In addition, the comprehensive biographical material presents us with a fascinating word-portrait of a complex man. The superb genius had contradictory traits, as most of us have. On the one hand, intellectually austere: cool to the many, he was also warm, emotionally drawn to a few friends, such as John Locke the philosopher, and the young Swiss student Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, whose interest in mathematics first commended him. Later, Newton agonized over the latter's well-being. On the other hand, he was also testy, petty, unforgiving, as he displayed in his relations with Robert Hooke, the scientist, John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, and perhaps above all, Leibniz, another towering genius like himself who had independently invented calculus. In the main, his temperament was Puritanical, taciturn and, when engaged in his various researches, uncommunicative, reclusive, brusque, shutting himself off from much human contact.

A previously published book of importance is the equally large and authoritative Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton [Cambridge University Press, 1980. The phrase Never at Rest in the title is taken from a letter written by Newton to Nathaniel Hawes: "A Vulgar Mechanick can practice what he has been taught or seen done, but if he is in error, he knows not how to find it out and correct it; . . . Whereas he that is able to reason nimbly and judiciously about figure, force, and motion, is never at rest till he gets over every rub" (Christianson, pp. 361-2).], by Richard S. Westfall, Professor of the History of Science, Indiana University. Dr. Westfall also stresses the considerable influence of Henry More on Newton, and traces the alchemical texts existing in the Newton collection. He states:

From the beginning, Newton had felt some reservations about the mechanical philosophy. Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, was among the early authors he read, and in More he found anxiety, which he recorded in the "Quaestiones," about the religious implications of the exclusion of spirit from nature. — p. 301

In his late theological paper Irenicum: or ecclesiastical polity tending to peace, Newton stated during a chronological treatment of the history of the Church as originating from Judaism, that "all nations were originally of one religion" and, further, that "the two great commandments of this primitive religion were profoundly simple: to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself" [cf. Christianson, pp. 566-7].

If Newton's hidden interests had been widely known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we in the twentieth would have inherited a blurred portrait of a heretic. Certainly, we would not have been given the general impression that is current — the archetype of the scientific, supremely rational mind interested only in physical matter because there is nothing else! Newton appears to have belonged to that rare breed of seminal thinkers who inject into the thought-atmosphere of humanity seeds that germinate in their own time when the conditions are right, to effect great changes.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)


Back Issues Menu