Though biography be no longer an act of worship, it is not yet a solemn and impartial judgment: we are in the intermediate stage, in which advocacy is the aim, and in which the biographer, when a thought more candid than usual [arises], avows that he is to do his best for his client.
Augustus De Morgan1
Biography is a difficult genre for historians. The evidence has been sifted and selected at every stage. The subject of the biography selects which of his or her documents are to be passed along to posterity. The first biographers sift through the subject's literary remains, deciding what is important and what can or should be ignored. And later biographers must sort through these earlier selections to understand what presuppositions informed them. In the end, assumptions, values and presumptions riddle the entire enterprise.2 There is no getting away from admiration, denunciation or judgement.
Biographies of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) illustrate the general rule in exemplary fashion. Newton's stature in the history of science is heroic. He was proclaimed a hero and a genius in his lifetime.3 His earliest biographers and his literary executor sought to preserve that image untarnished, including the notion that the hero should be as distinguished in morals and character as he was in mathematics and physics. As new sources emerged, Newton's biographers struggled to deal with a series of revelations about episodes that seemed to cast shadows on his character. That is the theme of the materials published in these two volumes of early biographies.
The story of Newton's manuscripts is the key to all that followed. Newton died intestate. At the time of his death, his papers and manuscripts went to Catherine Barton Conduitt, Newton's niece, who had married John Conduitt, one of his earliest biographers, for safekeeping. Dr Thomas Pellet FRS and a number of other individuals close to Newton examined the papers to determine which ones were suitable for publication. Other than The chronology of ancient kingdoms, which was published immediately, Pellet labelled the bulk of the manuscripts—particularly those on alchemy and those revealing Newton's heretical theology—‘Not fit to be printed’. They ultimately passed to the descendents of Catherine Conduitt, where they languished for almost 200 years. Her grandson became the Earl of Portsmouth.4 Eventually the family gave the scientific papers to the University of Cambridge, where they are now known as the Porstmouth Collection. The family sold the remaining papers—those ‘not fit for publication’, including most of Newton's theological and alchemical manuscripts—in 1936 in an auction handled by Sotheby's in London. Although the papers were widely dispersed as a result of that sale, John Maynard Keynes managed to retrieve about one-third to one-half of them, and he left them to the library of King's College Cambridge.5 Consequently, it was only after the middle of the twentieth century that scholars had access to the full range of Newton's thought.6 At the present time, Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote are directing a team of scholars who are publishing all of Newton's theological and alchemical manuscripts.7 Increasing knowledge of the manuscripts since Newton's death has challenged his biographers as their assumptions about the nature of science, genius, and heroism have collided with the intricacies of Newton's own preoccupations.
The outlines of Newton's life are well known. He was born on Christmas day, 1642, in the village of Colsterworth in Lincolnshire. Newton's father died three months before Isaac was born. Legend has it that ‘when he was born he was so little they could put him into a quart pot.’8 When Newton was three years old, his mother married Barnabus Smith, the rector in a neighbouring village. Newton went to school in the nearby town of Grantham when he was 12 years old, remaining there until he went to Cambridge in 1661. Many anecdotes about his years at Grantham describe his solitary nature and his remarkable skill at constructing mechanical devices.9
Although Newton studied the prescribed Aristotelian curriculum at Trinity College, Cambridge, his interests turned to the new natural philosophy. In a notebook preserved from his undergraduate days, Newton kept notes from his readings in the required texts. Significantly, no set of these notes is complete. In the middle of the notebook he started a new section with the title ‘Questiones quaedam Philosophicae’ (‘Certain Philosophical Questions’).10 Probably begun in 1664, this notebook reveals Newton's acquaintance with the major writings of the new philosophy, those of René Descartes, Walter Charleton, Galileo, Robert Boyle, Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, Joseph Glanvill, Henry More and others. Organized by topics, the entries in the notebook contain both reading notes and questions about the claims of the natural philosophers whose works he had read. In many cases he designed thought experiments to test their claims. The notebook covers a wide range of topics, many of which would occupy Newton for the rest of his life.11
Newton reported that during his undergraduate years at Cambridge, he bought a book on judicial astrology, desiring to know whether there was anything of value in that subject. He realized that to understand astrology, he needed to know mathematics. He quickly read Euclid's Elements, initially finding it trivial, and then turned to Descartes' Geometry. He found Descartes challenging and returned to Euclid, whose work he mastered, before once again tackling Descartes' mathematics. He concentrated on mathematics almost completely during the year and a half ending in 1666, during which time he developed the beginnings of his theory of fluxions as he addressed the problem of generating curves by means of motion.12
When the plague arrived in Cambridge in 1665, the university closed, and Newton returned to his now twice-widowed mother's farm in Lincolnshire. During the 18 months he spent there—known as his Annus mirabilis—he developed most of the major ideas in natural philosophy that he pursued for the rest of his life. It was during this period that he was supposedly inspired by a falling apple to consider problems of impact and orbital motion. He proposed that gravitational attraction is the result of a force of mutual attraction that varies inversely as the square of the distance between two bodies. He based his proof on Christiaan Huygens's (1629–95) analysis of circular motion and Johann Kepler's (1571–1630) laws of planetary motion. He attempted to test his theory by considering the motion of the moon but was stymied by inaccurate data. He took up the theory of colours, first addressed in ‘Questiones quaedam Philosophicae’.13 After returning to Cambridge in 1667, Newton was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, guaranteeing him a permanent position at the university. In 1669, Newton's mentor, Isaac Barrow (1630–77), resigned from the Lucasian Chair, to which Newton was then appointed. The statutes governing the Chair required that the Lucasian Professor lecture on some mathematical subject during the three academic terms. Newton pursued his studies in natural philosophy, mathematics, optics, theology, and alchemy and chymistry14 intensely and by all accounts led a rather solitary life:
Thinking all Hours lost, yt was not spent in his Studyes, to wch he kept so close, yt he seldom left his Chamber unless at Term Time, when he read in ye Schools, as being Lucasianus Professor, where so few went to hear Him, & fewer yt understood him, yt oftimes he did in a manner, for want of Hearers, read to ye Walls.15
He published his study of colours in the first paper he sent to the Royal Society in 1671/2. The paper, which challenged the traditional understanding of colours, provoked serious criticisms by a wide range of thinkers, including traditional Aristotelians such as Francis Linus (1595–1675) and Ignace Gaston Pardies (1636–73) on the one hand, and major advocates of the new philosophy such as Robert Hooke (1635–1703) on the other. Newton despised controversy and retreated from the public after this episode.
In August 1684 the young Edmund Halley (1656–1742) visited Newton in Cambridge. The mathematician Abraham De Moivre (1667–1754?) reported Newton's account of the visit:
In 1684 Dr Halley came to visit him at Cambridge, after they had been some time together, the Dr asked him what he thought the Curve would be described by the Planets supposing the force of attraction towards the Sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it. Sr Isaac replied immediately that it would be an Ellipsis, the Doctor struck with joy & amazement asked him how he knew it, why saith he I have calculated it, whereupon Dr Halley asked him for his calculation without any further delay, Sr Isaac looked among his papers but could not find it, but he promised him to renew it, & then to send it to him.16
Fulfilling that promise led Newton to write his magnum opus, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), a task that took him a mere 18 months.
Newton held the Lucasian Chair until he became Master of the Mint in 1696, at which time he moved to London. After Hooke's death in 1703, Newton was elected President of the Royal Society, a position he held until his death. In 1704, he published his other great book in natural philosophy, Opticks: Or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. He probably delayed publishing this book, which contains the results of research mostly done during the 1670s, until Hooke died, wishing to avoid further controversy. He was knighted in 1705.17 He died on 19 March 1727 of what was thought to be the stone.
Newton's reputation rests on his accomplishments in three areas: physics, mathematics and optics.18 In each of these areas he formulated new concepts, solved outstanding problems and pushed the discipline into previously uncharted waters. The Principia and the Opticks combined mark Newton as the culmination of a century and a half of developments in physics, astronomy and optics.
Copernican astronomy, which had removed the Earth from the centre of the cosmos and set it into motion, produced a cascade of fundamental changes in natural philosophy. Aristotelian natural philosophy depended on a geocentric and geostatic cosmology. The Earth was at the centre of the cosmos. All the planets, as well as the Sun and the Moon, moved in circular orbits, embedded in spheres, all of which had the Earth as their centre. The sphere of the Moon's orbit formed the boundary between the terrestrial and celestial regions, which contained different kinds of matter and were characterized by different kinds of motion. Matter in the terrestrial region consisted of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. All terrestrial bodies were composed of combinations of these four elements, which endowed them with their particular qualities. Terrestrial bodies underwent qualitative change, such as growth and decay. All terrestrial bodies were characterized by their natural motions, either towards the centre, for naturally heavy bodies like earth, or towards the circumference, for naturally light bodies like fire. Bodies in the celestial region consisted of another kind of matter, quintessence, which could not undergo qualitative change. All natural motions in the heavens were uniformly circular, around the centre of the cosmos, which coincided with the centre of the Earth. Thus, the Copernican challenge to geocentrism in astronomy challenged Aristotle's theory of motion, his theory of matter, and ultimately the metaphysics that underpinned all of these theories. In addition to introducing major changes into mathematical astronomy, the Copernican theory exacerbated the need for a new philosophy of nature and a new physics.
Following Copernicus, Kepler demonstrated that the orbits of the planets are elliptical. Galileo's new science, based on an inertial definition of motion, answered the traditional objections to the Earth's motion and accounted for the motions of bodies on the Earth's surface. These developments raised two fundamental questions that remained unanswered through the seventeenth century: What holds the planets in their orbits? And is there a physics that can account for both the motions of the heavenly bodies and the motions of bodies on Earth?
Newton's theory of universal gravitation provided a powerful answer to both of these questions. In the Principia he demonstrated that the planets obeying Kepler's laws are attracted to the Sun by a force inversely proportional to the square of their distance from the Sun. Using his new concept of gravitational force, he provided explanations for several hitherto unexplained phenomena: the ebb and flow of the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, the motions of comets, and the variations of lunar motions. He extrapolated from the case of the Solar System to the universe at large, arguing that every body in the universe attracts every other body by such a force. This theory gave future generations of physicists a powerful method for solving problems in physics and cosmology.
Newton's accomplishments in physics depended on his invention of the calculus, what he called his ‘method of fluxions’. He achieved his major mathematical insights during his Annus mirabilis, but did not publish them at the time. His method of fluxions had a critical role in the demonstrations of propositions in the Principia, although he disguised the new methods behind a veil of Euclidean geometry. Among other things, his theory of fluxions enabled him to derive the forces causing orbital motion and to calculate the areas called for by Kepler's second law.
The Opticks contains the results of Newton's experimental studies of light, most of which he accomplished in the 1670s. His most famous result is his reconceptualization of the nature of colours and white light. In a tradition going back to Aristotle, colours had been considered to be caused by modifications of white light. Seventeenth-century natural philosophers such as the Jesuit Francesco Maria Grimaldi, and the mechanical philosophers, Descartes, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, continued to assume that white light was fundamental, although their explanations of the production of colours were couched in terms of the new philosophy. Newton's famous experiments with prisms led him to turn this understanding of colours inside out. He demonstrated that white light is, in fact, composed of rays of spectral colours and that these rays cannot be modified by passing them through prisms. The rays of each colour possess characteristic degrees of ‘refrangibility’, the angle to which they are refracted when passed through a prism. Using a converging lens, he produced white light by causing all the coloured rays to converge into a single ray. In addition to redefining colour, Newton addressed the so-called ‘Newton's rings’ produced by thin films. He carefully measured and analyzed this phenomenon and developed a theory of vibrations in the interparticulate aether to explain it.
Later editions of the Opticks contained a series of ‘Queries’, or speculative essays, in which he attempted to explain various phenomena that had resisted explanation in terms of the orthodox mechanical philosophy that natural philosophers had adopted to replace Aristotelianism. He postulated the existence of attractive and repulsive forces acting between the small particles composing macroscopic bodies. He also addressed some theological questions that he thought could be resolved with the use of natural philosophy.
The Principia and the Opticks became models for the sciences in the generations that followed. Eighteenth-century mathematical physics and the experimental sciences modeled themselves on these books. They formed the foundation on which Newton's heroic reputation was built.
Newton became the model for what the scientist should be. However, unknown to most of his contemporaries, he also devoted himself to theology and alchemy, leaving about a million words in manuscript in each of these areas. His anti-Trinitarianism and his alchemical pursuits remained largely undocumented before the Sotheby sale in 1936. In addition to his heterodoxy, several unpleasant episodes cast shadows on his character. During the first decade of the eighteenth century, Newton kept asking John Flamsteed (1646–1719), the Astronomer Royal, for sight of his star catalogue—the results of his careful observations based on new instruments and techniques—that Newton needed to correct his own lunar theory. Flamsteed kept refusing to publish the catalogue. Newton used his power as President of the Royal Society to secure an order from the Crown to obtain Flamsteed's catalogue, which he then revised to suit his own purposes and published. The rancour between the two men was extreme.19 The second episode that tarnished his image was his priority dispute with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) about the invention of the calculus. The third was a nervous breakdown he suffered in 1691 and 1692. Finally, some of his enemies made allegations that he had allowed his patron, Lord Halifax, to have an affair with Catherine Barton, his niece who lived with him for many years, in exchange for his position at the Mint. Most of these episodes were unknown during his lifetime. Their gradual emergence into the light of day altered his image and challenged the assumptions of both biographers and historians about the nature of this scientific genius and the nature of science itself.20
Constructing Newton's image
The two large volumes comprising Early biographies of Newton provide grist for the historian's mill. The first volume contains the materials from the eighteenth century, mostly in manuscript, that formed the basis of all subsequent biographies. The second volume contains selections from several nineteenth-century biographies, along with contemporary reviews. Examination of the two volumes reveals the historical construction of Newton the hero and genius and the challenges to that image as more of his suppressed manuscripts became known. Although these volumes bring the story only into the nineteenth century, the process of re-evaluation in the face of newly revealed evidence continues to this very day.
Shortly after Newton died, William Stukeley (1687–1765), a medical man and antiquarian who had settled in Grantham in 1726, interviewed the few remaining people who had known Newton as a boy. He also inquired into Newton's religious beliefs. Despite the claims of some people, notably William Whiston (1667–1752), that Newton was an anti-Trinitarian Arian, Stukeley maintained that Newton was a loyal member of the Church of England. He stated that Newton was good-natured and witty, despite the report from Humphrey Newton, Newton's amanuensis for many years in Cambridge, that he had seen Newton laugh only once.
'twas upon occasion of asking a friend to whom he had lent Euclid to read, what progress he had made in that author & how he liked him? he answered by desiring to know what use & benefit in life that study would be to him? upon which Sr. Is. was very merry.21
Stukeley wrote several letters to John Conduitt (figures 1 and 2) , who had undertaken writing a ‘Life’ of Newton. His work was never published in full. Selections from Stukeley's Memoirs (figure 3) were published in magazines in the late eighteenth century.22 The writings of both Stukeley and Conduitt became the main sources on which later biographers drew before the Portsmouth and Keynes Collections became available to scholars.
‘If Stukeley's account of Newton's early life is an unrivalled source for understanding the origins of his practical acumen, historians have long known that the so called “Conduitt papers” are the richest resource for comprehending his personal life and his intellectual development after arriving in Cambridge.’23 Most of volume 1 of Early biographies of Newton consists of various versions of Conduitt's Memoir and correspondence relating to it, manuscript material, much of which has not previously been published. Transcriptions of the manuscripts of Stukeley's Memoirs also find a place in this volume.
In addition to these fundamental sources, the volume contains transcriptions of manuscript material that John Flamsteed (1646–1719) wrote about Newton, the ‘Éloge’ by Bernard de Fontenelle (1657–1747), and biographical accounts of Newton's life by William Whiston and the Abbé Antonio Schinella Conti (1677–1749). Seeing these works in conjunction with the manuscripts by Stukeley and Conduitt illuminates the differences between Newton's reputation in England and on mainland Europe, as well as the complaints and accusations made by some of his detractors.
Stukeley created a fairly prosaic image of Newton's genius, recording his remarkable accomplishments. Writing in 1727, he described in some detail the locale of Newton's youth. ‘Such is the place that produc'd the greatest genius of human race.’24 After reporting on Newton's boyhood and education at Cambridge, he added that ‘Mr [Humphrey] Newton of this town, was five year under Sr. Isaacs tuition there. He says Sr: Is. at that time busy'd himself much in chymistry. & that he admired his nicety & constancy in making his experiments.’25 Stukeley did not, however, discuss the significance of Newton's chymical studies.
‘Conduitt reached at every moment to classical sources to place Newton on a pedestal.’26 His account was in part stimulated by Bernard de Fontenelle (figure 4), Secretary of the French Académie des Sciences, who requested information for his ‘Éloge’ of Newton. Conduitt presented Newton as a scientific genius, the wounded party in the dispute with Leibniz, and stated that both his life and work were examples of piety, that he was a loyal member of the Church of England, and that he was ‘a firm believer of revealed religion.’27 He described Newton's early intellectual development, stating that he had ‘laid the foundation for all of his discoveries before he was 24 years old, & communicated most of them in loose tracts & letters to the Royal Society…’.28 He noted that at the university Newton
spent the greatest part of his time in his closet & when he was tired with his severer studies of Philosophy his only relief & amusement was going to some other study as History Chronology Divinity & Chymistry, all wch he examined and searched thoroughly as appears by the many papers he as left on those subjects…29
Conduitt described him as having ‘such a meekness & sweetness of temper that a melancholy story would often draw tears from him…’.30
In a book published the year after Newton's death, William Whiston, who had assumed the Lucasian Chair in Cambridge after Newton's move to London, challenged the image of Newton as a loyal Anglican. He revealed that in his unpublished writings Newton had clearly stated his anti-Trinitarian outlook, a view that Whiston shared.31
Hero worshippers and detractors
The second volume contains several nineteenth-century biographies of Newton, including those by Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774–1862), William Whewell (1794–1866) (figure 5), Augustus De Morgan (1806–1871), and The Reverend Baden Powell (1796–1860)—not the Boy Scout—as well as reviews of Daniel Brewster's (1781–1868) several biographies of Newton. If volume 1 provides the raw materials for biographies of Newton, volume 2 raises the interesting historiographical questions. ‘These texts can … be read as important sources regarding the development of a critical approach to the history of science and to scientific biography.’32
According to Higgitt, during the first half of the nineteenth century, some of the sources that raised questions about Newton's ‘private character, morals, and religious beliefs’ came to light, leading to a more critical approach to the history of science and the nature of scientific genius.33 Increasingly, awareness of unpublished sources was crucial to the enterprise. Nevertheless, the nineteenth-century biographers brought their own assumptions to bear on their accounts of Newton's life.
The first full biography of Newton was Daniel Brewster's Life of Sir Isaac Newton (1831). Brewster, a ‘political Whig and a religious Anglican … was strongly wedded to the image of Newton as the Church of England hero, whose science proved the existence of the Creator and whose personal morality meant he could be presented as a hero and high priest of science.’34 This first of Brewster's biographical works expressed Brewster's heroic view of Newton. Brewster presented Newton as a high priest of science, linking his scientific brilliance to his morality and strength of character.35 Because of family connections, Brewster gained access to the Portsmouth papers. Among the manuscripts he found ‘the most ample proof that [Newton] was an Unitarian. No person that has seen his MSS. can entertain the slightest doubt upon this subject.’ Nevertheless, in print, he continued to assert that the manuscripts ‘warrant us only to suspect his orthodoxy.’36 Brewster found that Newton's devotion to alchemy, so evident in the Portsmouth papers, which contain about 650 000 words on the subject, was completely indigestible. Brewster tried to distinguish between common alchemy, ‘a process … commencing in fraud and terminating in mysticism…’, from what he considered the rational attempt by Newton and his cohorts Robert Boyle (1627–90) and John Locke (1632–1704) to test the claims of the alchemists experimentally. In the end, however, he was unable to contain his disgust.
In so far as Newton's inquiries were limited to the transmutation and multiplication of metals, and even to the discovery of the universal tincture, we may find some apology for his researches; but we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.37
This view of Newton's alchemical studies remained unchallenged until late in the twentieth century.38
Although Brewster somewhat tempered his admiration in his article in the seventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1842) and in his two-volume Memoirs of the life, writings and discoveries of Isaac Newton (1855), it was the hero worship evident in his early work that became the target of the criticisms that characterize the materials collected in this volume.
The ensuing debates about Newton's personal life and morality were prompted by the publication of an English translation of Jean-Baptiste Biot's Life of Sir Isaac Newton (1833, first published in French in 1822). In this work, Biot published a newly discovered source, in which Christiaan Huygens had ‘repeated a report that around 1692–3, Newton had suffered what would now be termed a mental breakdown.’39 He ascribed the breakdown to mental exhaustion after the intense work of producing the Principia. As a follower of Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749–1827), Biot highly valued the field of mathematical physics as following from Newton's physics and mathematics, but had little sympathy for Newton's preoccupations with theology and alchemy. Biot therefore followed Huygens in saying that Newton had turned to these dubious endeavours only after the breakdown.40
The publication of Francis Baily's Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed (1835) revealed that Newton had behaved in a suspicious, autocratic and unjust manner. This revelation led later biographers to debate the extent to which his behaviour in relation to Flamsteed reflected on his character.
The mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan admired Newton but criticized the hero worship by Brewster and the earlier biographers. He agreed that Newton's stature as an ‘inquirer into the laws of nature’ had no equal except for Archimedes.
The scientific fame of Newton, the power which he established over his contemporaries, and his own general high character, gave birth to the desirable myth that his goodness was paralleled only by his intellect…. The hero is all hero, even to those who would be loath to pay the compliment of perfect imitation…. The dubious actions of Newton, certainly less striking than those of the heroes of antiquity, have found the various gradations of suppressors, extenuators, defenders, and admirers. But we live, not merely in sceptical days, which doubt of Troy and will have none of Romulus, but in discriminating days, which insist on the distinction between intellect and morals.41
De Morgan criticized Newton's treatment of Leibniz, he emphasized Newton's anti-Trinitarianism, and he thought that Newton had been unfair to Whiston. But he saw no necessary connection between Newton's acumen in physics and mathematics, on the one hand, and his personal character and morality, on the other. He declared that Brewster was ‘too much of a biographer, and too little of an historian…’.42 De Morgan's criticism of Brewster must, however, be tempered, for in his own book Newton: his friend and his niece (1885) he bent over backwards to clear Newton's moral reputation against a background of incriminating evidence.43
An anonymous reviewer of Brewster's Memoirs in The Times of London took up the question of biography.
As a general rule, the biographies of men of science are not interesting to ordinary readers…. The fact is that the more completely a man devotes himself to science he becomes the less a social being; the less, therefore, a man, and the more a philosophical instrument. And as we do not suppose that memoirs of Babbage's calculating machine would be very entertaining, so neither is the biography of a man whose life has passed into a algebraical formula, and whose thoughts are ever intent upon x—that terrible unknown.44
Reviewing the key events of Newton's life, the reviewer found him to be a man devoid of feeling. ‘After a careful perusal of this lengthened panegyric, we are forced to the conclusion that Sir David is a good Christian and a bad biographer; and that if Sir Isaac in his intellect was almost a god, in his heart he was scarcely a man.’45 A new myth had appeared—that of the scientist who suffers from a radical separation of head and heart. This assessment reversed the early eighteenth-century view that the man of great intellect must also be a man of high morals and good character.
Baden Powell's review of Brewster's Memoirs and several other books prefigured the attitudes of the twentieth-century historians of the Scientific Revolution (a historiographical concept not yet articulated in the nineteenth century) when he stated, ‘The history of Newton is in great measure the history of science, and of the most important epoch in all the history of science.’46 Baden Powell presented a view of Newton that is familiar to modern readers. He even acknowledged the importance that Newton attributed to his alchemical pursuits.
This, then, seems to have been the absorbing passion of his life, at least [while he was at Cambridge]…. Engaged in such an engrossing pursuit he threw aside fluxions, optics, and gravitation; and, with the glowing vision of the philosopher's stone before his eyes, was blind to all prospects of sublunary fame or distinction, and desired nothing in life but the peaceful seclusion of his laboratory and the uninterrupted enjoyment of the pursuit of the grand arcanum.47
The revelations of the Portsmouth papers were not lost on Powell. Why, then, was J. M. Keynes’s paper of 1947 so startling?
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.48
A century after Brewster's Memoirs, De Morgan's revisions and Baden Powell's revelations, the understanding of Newton had been assimilated into the history of the Scientific Revolution. Historians of this movement followed the lead of Herbert Butterfield, who had declared:
Since that revolution overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world—since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics—it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.49
Seeing Newton as the culmination of this revolution, these historians imposed modern conceptions of science and the scientist on the historical Newton. They erroneously presumed that the era of the Scientific Revolution witnessed the separation of science and religion and the development of modern disciplinary boundaries.50
It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that some historians could begin to accept Newton as an early modern thinker rather than as the originator of modern science. As a man of his time, Newton turned to the traditions available to him to deal with different sorts of questions. If he wanted to understand physics and cosmology, he turned to the mathematical traditions that grew from the work of Kepler and Galileo; if he wanted to understand the properties of matter, he turned to alchemy; if he wanted to support his Arianism, he turned to the history of the Church; if he wanted to interpret the book of Revelation, he turned to the methods of the seventeenth-century exegete Joseph Mede. It does not follow that these enterprises were unrelated to each other. In fact, for Newton, they were all part of his project to discover divine activity in the world.51 Viewing his activity this way helps to situate him in the intellectual context of his time.
One can only welcome the publication of primary sources, making them available to a wider audience. The level of scholarship, textual editing, and detailed analysis in these volumes is very high. This collection of early biographies, along with the critical apparatus in the text, will be of great interest to historians of science as well as to scholars interested in the production of biographies. The introductions to the two volumes are useful—even essential—in orienting the reader for the sometimes confusing and repetitive primary sources, particularly in volume 1, in which almost all of the material has been transcribed from unpublished manuscripts. The footnotes provide a gateway into relevant secondary literature, and the explanatory notes at the end of each volume are essential for penetrating some of the details and arcana of early modern natural philosophy and its social context.
My only criticism—other than the desire to see the further unfolding of the story after the Sotheby sale in 1936—is of the index. There are no entries in the index for the two meaty introductions to the volumes, 69 pages for volume 1, and 43 pages for volume 2. I frequently found myself frustrated by not being able to return to some fact directly. Also, there are occasional errors in the index, such as a reference to ‘Hook’ (which should be ‘Hooke’) on page 412 of volume 2. Equally frustrating is the lack of a single bibliography of all the sources referred to in these volumes.
I am grateful to Paula R. Backscheider, who read a draft of this paper and made useful suggestions for improving it.
- © 2006 The Royal Society
On the construction of Newton as genius, see Patricia Fara, Newton: the making of genius (Columbia University Press, New York, 2002).
See the Newton Project at http://www.newtonproject.ic.ac.uk/prism.php?id=1.
This summary of Newton's early life relies on Westfall, op. cit. (note 4), ch. 2.
Ibid., ch. 4.
Ibid., ch. 5.
I follow Lawrence Principe here in using the archaic spelling. ‘Chymistry’ denotes ‘the sum total of alchemical/chemical topics as understood in the seventeenth century’. See Lawrence M. Principe, The aspiring adept: Robert Boyle and his alchemical quest (Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 9.
Joseph Halle Schaffner Collection, University of Chicago Library, MS 1075–7, quoted in Westfall, op. cit. (note 4), p.403.
Ibid., p. 77.
Iliffe, op. cit. (note 23), p. xlii. For the use of classical models in writing biography, see Donald A. Stauffer, English biography before 1700 (Russell & Russell, New York, 1964), pp. 84–90.
Ibid., p. 99.
Ibid., p. 101.
Ibid., p. 104.
Ibid., p. viii.
Ibid., p. xiv.
Ibid., p. xix.
Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the life, writings, and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (2 vols; Thomas Constable and Co, Edinburgh; Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, 1855), vol. 2, pp. 374–375, as quoted by Dobbs, op. cit. (note 5), p. 11.
See Dobbs, op. cit. (note 5); Dobbs, Janus faces, op. cit. (note 6); and Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Reflections on Newton's alchemy in light of the new historiography of alchemy’, in Force and Hutton (eds), op. cit. (note 20), pp. 205–219.
Ibid., p. 215.
Ibid., p. 246.
See Andrew Cunningham, ‘Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science’, Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 19, 365–389 (1988); Andrew Cunningham, ‘How the Principia got its name: or, taking natural philosophy seriously’, Hist. Sci. 29, 377–392 (1991).