Shrinking Newton

A Portrait of Isaac Newton

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

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton; drawing by David Levine

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…

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