Far from the Tree

Tate, London
William Blake: Newton, 1795

Sometime in 1664 the young Isaac Newton abandoned his hitherto dutiful undergraduate note-taking on the standard Cambridge curriculum, dominated, as it had been for centuries, by classical languages and the works of Aristotle. Instead, his notebooks begin to trace his excited response to radical new scientific and philosophical ideas culled from the works of René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. This risqué engagement with suspect French Catholic thinkers, considered in Restoration Cambridge the last word in avant-garde modernity, was to trigger the emergence of Newton’s own far greater scientific genius. With astonishing rapidity, the earnest and melancholy young loner moved from admiring assimilation to pioneering explorations in philosophy, mathematics, and the physical sciences. Over the next three years, during which plague raged and London burned, Newton laid the groundwork for the innovations in mathematics, optics, astronomy, and theoretical physics whose gradual (and on Newton’s part sometimes reluctant) publication in the 1670s and 1680s would transform Western science.

Newton’s astonishing precocity in what his age called “Natural Philosophy” is well known. Reported and embellished in his own lifetime by admiring disciples, it made him that unlikely thing: a celebrity intellectual. The first scientist ever to be knighted, for the last twenty-three years of his life he dominated English thought as president of the Royal Society, and his name became Enlightenment England’s shorthand for transcendent scientific genius—in Alexander Pope’s famous couplet:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said,
Let Newton be! and all was Light.

What was less well known to his contemporaries, and largely forgotten for centuries after his death, was that Newton did not consider the mathematical and scientific discoveries on which his fame rested to be the most important aspects of his life’s work. The greatest scientific mind of the Enlightenment was also an ardent alchemist who accumulated the most remarkable library of alchemical books and manuscripts in Europe. Years of refined but futile experimentation with mercury and other poisonous metals in search of an alchemical panacea to cure all ills may well have undermined his health and contributed to at least one bout of insanity. Even more remarkably, Newton laid more weight and devoted more time to the study of the Bible and the history of religion than to more strictly scientific pursuits. From the late 1670s onward he was increasingly preoccupied with theological study and writing, to which at times his scientific pursuits seemed an irritating interruption.

Almost none of the resulting theological writing saw the light of day in Newton’s lifetime, and until the late twentieth century it was studiously ignored, patronized, or dismissed by biographers and historians of science as an embarrassing aberration. But its importance for an understanding of Newton’s mind can be gauged from its sheer bulk. When a collection of his private papers was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1936, it contained…

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