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Shrinking Newton

A Portrait of Isaac Newton

by Frank E. Manuel
Harvard, 478 pp., $11.95

Soon after the publication of Newton’s Principia the Marquis de l’Hopital is said to have asked if Newton lived, ate, and slept like other men, since that work seemed to him to be the achievement of a pure intelligence. This image of Newton as an almost disembodied rationality, unclouded by human passions and weaknesses, was becoming secure by the early decades of the eighteenth century, while Newton himself, carried by sedan chair to preside over meetings of the Royal Society, outlived adversaries like Hooke, Leibniz, and Flamsteed to whom he had showed an all-too-human side of his nature. It was an image of Newton that was perfectly adapted to the values of Enlightenment rationalism. During the Romantic reaction against those values, Goethe spent years on a rival theory which he believed would restore to colors the ontological reality of which Newton had robbed them. Blake painted a Newton absorbed in the contemplation of dead mathematical abstractions while the beauty of nature glowed in irridescent splendor around him.

Hurt national pride gave a stimulus to British attempts to provide a more rounded biographical portrait of Newton. In 1821 the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot contributed a notice to the Biographie universelle in which he discussed a mental breakdown in 1693 from which, he implied, Newton never really quite recovered. Nineteenth-century positivists drew from this the comforting conclusion that Newton’s prodigious theological labors dated from after the collapse: his mind enfeebled, Newton had turned from the truths of science to theological trivialities. In 1855 David Brewster published his Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, a work to which all subsequent biographies have been hugely in debt. He had no difficulty in showing that the breakdown was very short-lived, and did not interrupt nor impair Newton’s scientific work in that year or during the rest of Newton’s long life. Religious themes had occupied Newton throughout his life.

But any attempt to go beyond anecdotal hagiography compelled the biographer to consider episodes which were damaging to the conventional image of Newton. Biot and Lefort established that Newton had master-minded the supposedly impartial committee of the Royal Society which vindicated his priority over Leibniz in the invention of the infinitesimal calculus. The publication in 1835 of Bailly’s life of Flamsteed, Newton’s contemporary and the first Astronomer-Royal, came as another bombshell. Flamsteed’s carefully preserved and annotated exchanges with Newton showed Newton as a sneering bully who took revenge on Flamsteed for his waspish counter-attacks by depriving him of control over the printing of the results of years of soul-destroying astronomical labors.

Another episode which deeply troubled Victorian biographers was Newton’s apparently having permitted a liaison between his favorite niece, Catherine Barton, and Montague (later the Earl of Halifax) under his own roof while he was Master of the Mint, a position which he owed to Montague. Voltaire had already remarked on it in the eighteenth century. He wrote that when he went to England, he naïvely supposed that Newton had owed his mastership of the Mint to his scientific eminence. Not at all. Newton had a charming niece who pleased the Chancellor of the Exchequer: “The infinitesimal calculus and gravitation would have been of no assistance to him without a pretty niece.” However appealing to Voltaire’s irony, that suggestion was false. But Victorian attempts to trace a secret marriage were unavailing, and Newton’s connivance was seen in his witnessing a codicil to the will by which Montague left a substantial fortune to Catherine.

Could the image of Newton ever be the same again, once the powerful ambiguities in his character had been brought into the open? The mathematician Augustus De Morgan, writing in 1855, welcomed the rude invasion of “the temples in which science worships its founders.” No longer would “a certain middle class of people” be able to say:

And, so you think that Newton told a lie,
Where do you hope to go when you die?

De Morgan had a sense of the psychological complexities of Newton’s genius. If we could really understand why a diamond was flawed, he wrote, we would also see why it was a diamond and not a bit of rotten wood; but he despaired of comprehending the tangles of Newton’s “moral intellect.” L. T. More, in his biographical reassessment of Newton in 1934, aimed at superseding Brewster by presenting Newton, warts and all, but drew little on the psychological theories of the day in explaining the cold, jealous, and paranoid side of Newton.

Professor Manuel’s biography is the first to make extensive use of contemporary psychoanalytical theories to probe the forces that shaped Newton’s personality. Newton’s infancy and childhood are discussed in the first section of the book in greater detail than ever before. The second section describes Newton’s life at Cambridge, from his undergraduate days at Trinity College to his assumption of the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics. Newton’s career as Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society in London forms the subject of the third section. The discussion of Newton’s later career draws at various points on the insights into Newton’s unconscious motivations suggested in the first section. Professor Manuel has supplemented the details in Brewster’s and especially More’s biographical accounts with much more from the formidable “Newton industry” of recent decades. His own research has added many more touches, and is especially evident in the chapters on Newton’s young Swiss collaborator, Fatio de Duillier, and on Newton as Master of the Mint, as an autocratic President of the Royal Society, and as a commentator on the mysteries hidden in sacred prophecy.

Newton’s “melancholy temper” is traced in this book to the infant trauma of a separation from his mother at a psychologically crucial period of his life. His father had died three months before his birth, and Newton himself was born prematurely and not expected to live. When Newton was three, his mother married a rich rector in the neighborhood and went to live with him. Newton remained behind at Woolsthorpe Manor and was brought up by his maternal grandmother. “After the total possession…she [the mother] was removed and he was abandoned.” When in later years Newton believed that he was to be robbed of something that was his, the first deprivation triggered off a blind fury.

His mother remained the sole female figure in his life. It was in her garden, while in retreat from the plague of 1666, that Newton marked the fall of the apple, and all the great ideas which were to transform physical science came to him in a rush. Much later, Newton accused Robert Hooke of pilfering discoveries from his “Garden”: “with Hannah,” Manuel writes, “Newton had lived in Eden for a while, a brief blessed while.” He suggests that the recovery of his mother, on the death of the step-father, just before puberty, may have crippled Newton’s capacity for sexual love.

Professor Manuel points out that in an examination of conscience which Newton undertook when an undergraduate, he confessed to the sin of “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.” From such thoughts came a strong sense of guilt, a pervasive anxiety and fear before the unknown. Manuel sees Newton as turning to two refuges from these tormenting emotions. One was the Bible, interpreted in a literal and de-mythologized sense; the other was the certainty and rigor of mathematical proof: “The discovery of his mathematical genius was his salvation; that the world obeyed mathematical law was his security.”

In Manuel’s view, Newton’s feelings toward his dead and absent father provide clues not only toward explaining his personality, but even his theological and scientific views. Newton reserved his praise for Biblical prophets and ancient natural philosophers, never for contemporaries, for among these latter, Manuel writes, “he and he alone had access to the significant truths about God his Father’s world.” Each age had only one prophet; therefore parallel scientific discoveries were ruled out. And there was no aspect of Creation that was hidden from Newton, whether in physics, optics, astronomy, chemistry, the history of antiquity, the nature of God, or the true meaning of Scripture. Hence, too, his secret Unitarianism: “he was the only son of God and could not endure the rivalry of Christ.” Even the notion of “attraction” in Newton’s gravitational theory, which some great contemporaries rejected as a throw-back to animism, may have an analogous explanation. The longing for the dead father may have given “attraction” a central place in Newton’s thought—although Professor Manuel confesses here that “somehow the proximity of Newton inspires us to feign the wildest hypotheses.”

Manuel traces the mental crisis in “the black year 1693” to Newton’s cumulative sense of having violated taboos on which his psychical balance had depended. His strong anti-Trinitarian views may have seemed to border on heresy; his Puritan conscience was offended by his active place-seeking at the court; he may have become aware of something sinful in his affection for Fatio. These guilty feelings were then projected onto his friends. In the strange letter he wrote to Locke at the time, he apologized for having believed that Locke was a “Hobbist” atheist and better dead, that he had tried to embroil him “with women and by other means,” and that he would hardly wish to visit such a failed place-seeker as himself.

The masterly sweep of Manuel’s narrative and the skill with which he has incorporated an enormous mass of material into his portrait without blurring its outlines are to be admired. So is his daring in attempting to unravel some of the baffling complexities of Newton’s personality with the aid of psychological theories which usually demand the patient’s presence on the couch. But how far is the extant biographical material adequate to sustain such an enterprise? The relevant manuscripts are fully summarized by Manuel in the introductory chapter. He has placed heavy reliance on two items in particular. One is that portion of the early manuscripts in which words and sentences follow each other in a manifestly random sequence (for example, in handwriting exercises), and these are ingeniously examined for their possibilities as a free association. The other item is an examination of conscience undertaken by Newton in 1662 and recorded in shorthand. No material bearing on the childhood years he spent with his grandmother has come to light.

The unconscious drives thought to have been revealed by the examination of these materials are invoked chiefly in explaining Newton’s relations to others: his disputes with equally tetchy contemporaries like Hooke and Flamsteed, or with the serene and olympian Leibniz; his closeness to a small band of disciples, from whom Fatio departed in 1707 to join the millenarian prophets from the Cévennes; his estrangement from William Whiston, who had succeeded him in the Lucasian Chair, after Newton remained silent when Whiston was ejected from Cambridge for the public expression of Unitarian views which Newton secretly shared with him; his attitude to Montague and his niece; and his career at the Mint. Newton’s genius, Manuel says, lies beyond psychological analysis. But he believes such analysis helps us to understand Newton’s basic intellectual orientation—his determination to unlock the secrets of nature through science, and his fanatical absorption in scientific work until he was about fifty years old. It may also, in Manuel’s view, direct attention to a number of “congruities” between Newton’s childhood traumas and his intellectual outlook.

Manuel’s attempts to link Newton’s ideas with unconscious motives is one of the most controversial aspects of the book. Some of these ideas define Newton’s general style and approach: Manuel sees him as opting for a “closed” rather than an “open” scientific system because the former offered maximum psychological security. Others concern his choice of a particular field of study: his interest in optical problems, for example, is traced to a neurotic craving to see, combined with a fear of what may be seen. Manuel has apparently chosen certain ideas for analysis because they seemed puzzling to Newton’s contemporaries (“attraction” in his gravitational theory, for example), or were considered heterodox (like Unitarianism). The doubts of the more conventional historians will be about the balance which has been struck between the traditional mode of explanation, which would relate these ideas to Newton’s total system of thought and to his intellectual milieu, and the “psycho-historical” interpretation. The psycho-historian has perforce to select crucial ideas which seem to him to demand a psychological explanation. But the extent to which an idea seems odd and the scope of a psychological explanation depend in subtle ways on our knowledge of the significance of an idea for the individual thinker and for his contemporaries.

What could seem odder, and more in need of an almost purely psychological explanation, than Newton’s having spent years of work and scribbled millions of words on vindicating the “credibility” of the Old Testament by employing tendentious exegetical techniques designed to prove that the events foretold in the prophetical books had been realized to the minutest detail in Eastern and European history? Yet the great value of Professor Manuel’s own previous book on Newton, Isaac Newton, Historian (1963), consisted in its proof that such preoccupations were not peculiar to Newton but absorbed many contemporary Protestant scholars and that within such a context Newton’s studies represent a perfectly “rational” exercise. It is interesting to note that the excellent chapter on Newton’s chronological and Biblical studies in Professor Manuel’s new work does not rely on psychological analysis but concentrates mainly on now-forgotten controversies between Protestant and Catholic protagonists about the status of the Bible as a historical document.

Specialist knowledge of the intellectual context obviously has a crucial bearing on the point at which psychological considerations are introduced and on the weight which is placed on them. For example, Manuel connects Newtonian “attraction” with the longing for his dead father; but in order to make sense of Newton’s idea of attraction it is necessary to have a much fuller discussion of Newton’s philosophy of nature than Manuel supplies.

Newtonian attraction seemed like a betrayal of the Scientific Revolution to those contemporaries who read into it the implication that material bodies could act on each other at a distance without direct contact or physical intermediaries. But Newton’s was not the billiard-ball universe of the mid-seventeenth century mechanical philosophers. He left room for many different sorts of “incorporeal” or non-mechanical forces acting on the material universe. Both scientific as well as theological commitments were involved in this view of nature, and they must be viewed against the background of the ways in which the mechanical philosophy was modified in English interpretations, especially among the Cambridge Platonists active in the Cambridge of Newton’s youth.

The failure to sketch the background in sufficient detail is also evident in one of the set pieces of Manuel’s biography, the chapter on Newton at the Mint. We see the cloistered scholar of Trinity transformed into a ruthless inquisitor, entering the world of clippers and their molls with enormous relish, dangling threats and promises before his victims, and merciless in ferreting out criminal evil. Since the gallows awaited the convicted, his very efficiency and incorruptibility in the discharge of his office makes Newton seem all the more a moral monster. The mask slipped when Newton was entrusted with absolute power over his fellow human beings.

Yet it is important to remember the task in which Newton was engaged at the Mint. Clipping coins had consequences serious enough to be made a capital crime in Elizabeth’s reign. New techniques of minting coins introduced at the Restoration met with little success because the debased coin continued to circulate and drove out the improved coin. By 1695 accurate tests showed that the shilling coin was worth sixpence. Since wages were paid in clipped coin but purchasing power was decided by the weight of coins, riots on pay night were common. The situation was regarded as a national calamity when Montague decided on the great recoinage. Once undertaken, the task had to be speedily and efficiently accomplished. It was tackled in time of war, and the distress it inevitably caused was exploited by the Tory opposition. Newton’s enjoyment of his role may be psychologically revealing, but to omit the aims and special circumstances of his work is to present him too simply as “playing the God of Deuteronomy.”

The evaluation of the psychological explanations offered in this work must be left to professional psychologists. Some of the familiar problems about the irrefutability and very wide scope of explanations which focus attention on the ambivalent nature of human emotions are raised anew by it. Thus longing for the dead father and the conviction of an almost unique relationship with him explains one set of data; but Newton’s rejection of surrogates and resentment at older men who tried to be fatherly to him is explained by the fact that he also hated his father, since by dying he had abandoned him. Newton once wrote such a harsh letter to a profligate step-brother that a prudish nineteenth-century clergyman is said to have destroyed it because he did not wish the world to know that Newton was acquainted with such expressions. For Manuel, that is proof of Newton’s wreaking his vengeance on the hated step-father through a sibling. At the same time, it is implied that in the great care and kindness he showed toward his step-kindred, he was deriving the enjoyment that came from supplanting the step-father and becoming the “father-master-elder brother of the whole Smith brood.”

This is inevitably a controversial portrait, which will not (and does not aim to) supplant the two existing standard biographies. By tracing through all Newton did the promptings of unconscious drives implanted by his childhood wounds, Manuel may seem to have left little enough to admire in him as a person. This long and very entertaining account certainly furnishes new material for the current debate on the possibilities and limitations of the psycho-historical approach.

We still tend to see Newton through the distorting glass of nineteenth-century positivism. Much of the behavior and many of the fundamental beliefs of Newton seem, then, to cry out for a psychological explanation. In his earlier study of Newton, Professor Manuel himself demonstrated the crudity of such a view. What he did for Newton’s Biblical studies, in showing how they made sense in the context of his time, is being attempted by other scholars for the rest of Newtonian thought. In this they are likely to find greater inspiration in Manuel’s previous Newtonian study than in the present one. Their task involves them in breaking down the rigid conceptual barriers with which historians have tried to divide Newton’s “scientific” and “theological” concerns, and this will affect our view of the “Scientific Revolution,” whose full significance we are only beginning to glimpse. If psychoanalytical insights are to assist the historian in this task, they will have to take full account of contemporary definitions of psychological and intellectual “normality.” Newton, we may have to conclude, was indeed a nasty person, but, for his time, not an eccentric thinker.

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