Michael Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author or editor of many books, including Boyle: Between God and Science (2009; winner of the 2011 Samuel Pepys Award and Roy G. Neville Prize).
Michael’s choice is Richard S. Westfall’s ‘Short-writing and the State of Newton’s Conscience, 1662’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society, 18 (1963), 10-16. (1903–71)
I have felt slightly spoiled for choice in selecting my favourite paper, since Notes & Records has throughout its history been a rich repository of articles on the early years of the Royal Society and its 17th-century background. In fact, some major pieces of re-interpretation have appeared here, including P.M. Rattansi’s and J.E. McGuire’s ‘Newton and the Pipes of Pan’, published in 1966, which pioneered a sympathetic approach to aspects of Newton’s thought which historians of science once found rather embarrassing – though, as an account of the classical scholia that Newton prepared to accompany the Principia, that piece has since been rather superseded by Paolo Cassini’s definitive study published in History of Science in 1984.
One of the most valuable aspects of many such articles has been their dependence on or publication of hitherto neglected manuscript sources. Indeed, the exploitation of such sources could be seen as one of the key trends in the study of 17th-century science in the post-war period, as exemplified by the work of scholars like A. Rupert and Marie Boas Hall and their editions of Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton (1962) and The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg (1965-86).
I have chosen a classic instance of an article which divulged a key manuscript text, in this case written by Richard S. Westfall, who had earlier made a similar contribution in relation to Robert Boyle in a pair of papers published in Annals of Science in 1956. In the current case, the crucial document that was made available had not only previously existed solely in manuscript but was also disguised in shorthand: this is the list that Newton compiled of his sins before and after Whitsunday 1662. As Westfall noted in his commentary, many of the misdemeanours that Newton recorded were ostensibly trivial, but they give a powerful sense both of his stressful relationship with God and also of the sharp temper that was to characterise many of his later transactions.
This document has been central to all subsequent interpretations of Newton, including both Frank E. Manuel’s overtly Freudian Portrait of Isaac Newton (1968) and also more general studies like Westfall’s own Never at Rest (1980). Indeed, subsequent biographical accounts of Newton have invariably given a prominent place to this highly revealing text. Westfall’s original publication of it -- illustrated by a photograph of the relevant page of the Fitzwilliam manuscript from which it is derived -- is worth rereading in its own right, acting as a tribute both to its author and to Sir Harold Hartley and Notes & Records as its publisher.
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