Newton and God’s Truth

Christopher Hill

  • A Portrait of Isaac Newton by Frank Manuel
    Muller, 478 pp, £11.75, April 1980, ISBN 0 584 95357 7
  • Philosopher at War: The Quarrel between Newton and Leibniz by Rupert Hall
    Cambridge, 338 pp, £15.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 521 22732 1

There are at least three possible portraits of Isaac Newton. Traditional internalist historians of science depict him as an aloof scholar, remote from the world, solving in his Cambridge ivory tower problems which derived logically from the state of contemporary mathematical knowledge. A second approach, which originated with the Soviet scientist Hessen, relates the problems which Newton studied, together with other scientists of his day, to the economic needs of rising capitalist society, or draws attention to the continued influence of his Puritan background on his mode of thought. This school finds it easier than the first to explain the later Newton, the dictatorial Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society, and to take account of his continual obsession with alchemy, Biblical chronology and the end of the world – grave embarrassments for the purist ‘internalists’. The latter do not like to be reminded that Newton said he first turned to trigonometry and geometry in order to understand a book on astrology. A third approach is psychological, seeking the key to Newton’s achievement in his personality.

Far and away the best psychohistorian of Newton is Frank Manuel. His Portrait was first published in the USA in 1968, and is here reproduced without alteration: even a howler on page 112 stands uncorrected. Manuel has published two other more specialised books on Newton, but this is his best all-round study. Manuel briskly dismisses ‘such antediluvian notions as the absolute autonomy of science’, and sometimes his criticisms of more austere Newtonists like Whiteside and the Halls are sharp. He emphasises Newton’s childhood – the undersized posthumous son of a Lincolnshire yeoman, whose mother (a gentleman’s daughter) remarried when he was three and left him in the care of his grandmother. On the death of his stepfather, when Newton was 11, they were reunited. Until her death in 1679, when Isaac was 36, his mother remained almost the only human being who was close to him. Newton’s annus mirabilis, 1665-6, in which he discovered the calculus, the nature of white light and the theory of gravity, was spent at her house; the apple fell in her garden.

Manuel’s theory, put forward with judicious tentativeness, is that Isaac’s early separation from his mother left a wound that never healed. This accounts for his withdrawn personality, his secrecy and evasiveness, his insistence on absolute loyalty in his dependants and his rejection of them when they fell short by his exacting standards. Newton’s fierce hatreds of rivals are associated with childish desires to murder the stepfather who had robbed him of his mother. No earthly father figure could replace the father he had never known. Newton, born on Christmas Day, regarded himself as in some special sense the favoured son of a Father in heaven who was all-powerful and all-demanding.

Manuel thus need posit no break between the Cambridge recluse reluctant to publish his astonishing discoveries and the later Whig hero. Newton first came into political prominence when he led the opposition to James II’s attempt to intrude a Benedictine monk into Cambridge without his taking the statutory oath of loyalty to the Established Church. Newton refused to take Anglican orders, but Popery for him had always been absolute evil: in 1714, he tried to get an Act of Parliament passed declaring that Rome was a false Church. Under William III, Newton became first Warden and then Master of the Mint, offices which had hitherto been virtual sinecures. Newton turned them to important uses, including the establishment of the gold standard, which, Manuel wrily notes, ‘lasted just about as long as his universal system’. At the Mint, Newton enjoyed powers which, in Manuel’s view, enabled his aggressive feelings to be rationalised into ruthless and unforgiving persecution of coiners, clippers, forgers and other sinners.

As its President for the last 24 years of his life, Newton saw to it that the Royal Society ‘was represented on any governmental body which might remotely be involved with a scientific question’, presaging ‘a new form of scientific organisation and control’. ‘Even if allowances are made for the general truculence of scientists and learned men,’ observes Manuel, Newton ‘remains one of the more ferocious practitioners of the art of scientific controversy’. Yet he was always able to persuade himself that his rivals had sinned against the truth and Newton’s unique revelation. When Leibniz claimed to have invented the calculus before him, Newton used his now dominant position in the Royal Society to mount a campaign in which he never appeared publicly but which he master-minded. ‘The violence, acerbity and uncontrolled passion of Newton’s attacks, albeit directed into socially approved channels, are almost always out of proportion with the warranted facts and character of the situations.’ This is true of his historical no less than of his scientific controversies.

Manuel sees the outstanding characteristic of Newton’s God, his absolute power, as related to Isaac’s own deprivation and search for an all-powerful Taskmaster. Other elements in Newton’s intellectual life fit into this picture. His denial of the divinity of Christ enhances the glory of the Father by diminishing the significance of that other Son born on 25 December. Rejection of the Trinity, even after 1689, was punishable by death and would certainly entail loss of office: this increased Newton’s obsessive secretiveness and his sense of a special private relation to the Father. Newton’s wholly serious experimental alchemical studies, which continued throughout his working life, seem to be an attempt to solve the crucial problems in chemistry as he had solved their equivalents in physics and astronomy. In anyone else, this would appear insane ambition: but if Newton was God’s special interpreter it was his duty to reveal all that he could. He did not share our hindsight knowledge that alchemy had no more secrets to reveal. The millions of words which Newton devoted to Biblical chronology, and to the interpretation of Biblical prophecies dating the end of the world, are again explained by his position as interpreter of the divine mysteries. ‘Newton was pursuing the same fundamental purpose with kindred methods in whatever sphere he laboured.’

Such a summary does no sort of justice to the careful scholarship, the learning, judgment, wit and literary sophistication with which Manuel builds up his case. But it may suggest reasons for thinking this much the most stimulating book on Newton and his science which we have. Manuel makes it abundantly clear that he is not ‘explaining’ Newton’s genius, but only the outward forms in which this genius was expressed. Work published since 1968 – notably that of Margaret Jacob – amplifies some of Manuel’s conclusions and reinforces my feeling – with which Manuel would not disagree – that many of Newton’s peculiarities can be explained in sociological terms, or in terms of his religious inheritance and of the demands of post-Restoration England for order, authority, law.

‘In all these youthful scribblings,’ Manuel writes of an early notebook,

there is an astonishing absence of positive feeling. The word love never appears, and expressions of gladness and desire are rare. A liking for roast meat is the only strong sensuous passion. Almost all the statements are negations, admonitions, prohibitions. The climate of life is hostile and punitive. Competitiveness, orderliness, self-control, gravity – these are Puritan values that became part of his being.

There can be no doubt that Newton’s unusual personality contributed a great deal to his way of life and perhaps to his scientific assumptions. Manuel has brought this before us with a brilliance and a human warmth rare in historical writing.

Manuel is far from being a vulgar debunker. Newton’s historical research, he shows, was concerned among other things with establishing the tolerance and latitudinarianism of the primitive Church: for Newton, as for Milton, persecution of heretics was a historical evil of Catholicism. Newton urged an inventor to destroy an artillery model ‘on the grounds that it would soon become known to the enemy and that it tended to the annihilation rather than the preservation of mankind’ – a logic that has still not been mastered.

Manuel concludes: ‘in the latter part of the 20th century the faces of Newton and of his science have lost their pure luminousness. The polarities of his nature are paralleled in the ambiguous nature of science itself.’ ‘The overwhelming question remains whether Newton’s science, which gave him great power and little wisdom, can in some other incarnation bestow that wisdom upon his fellow men.’ ‘A closed scientific system like Newton’s, which was consonant with his personality, must in some measure have affected the evolution of western science by excluding alternatives ... When Europe adopted Newtonianism as its intellectual model, something of his character penetrated to the very marrow of the system.’

Rupert Hall’s is a more conventional but very useful study of ‘the quarrel between Newton and Leibniz’. It arises from the author’s labours as editor of Newton’s correspondence during the last 18 years of his life. Here are none of Manuel’s overtones: Hall lays little emphasis on Newton’s personality, none on his vision of himself as defender of God’s truth. Nor does he see Newton as the aggressor in his controversy with Leibniz. The whole unfortunate affair was the product of misunderstandings as the protagonists were egged on by their malicious epigones. This is all much more in keeping with the dignity of science. Wherever possible, Hall gives Sir Isaac the benefit of the doubt, returning verdicts of ‘not proven’ where Manuel categorically proclaims him guilty of manipulating puppets behind the scenes.

Hall regards ‘psychological complexities’ as ‘indeed fascinating’: but consideration of them is ‘unprofitable’ – they ‘must remain purely speculative’. His only mention of Manuel is to dismiss as ‘empty speculation’ the view that Fatio de Duillier aroused in Newton, ‘as Frank Manuel has maintained, a powerful homosexual passion’. (I cannot find any suggestion as crudely precise as that in Manuel’s discussion of Newton’s ‘friendship’ with Fatio, which concludes that ‘the nature of their intimacy remains obscure.’)

Hall starts from the fact that ‘Newton’s claim to priority in discovering the calculus, as against Leibniz’s, is perfectly justified by the ample remaining documents.’ Leibniz had by the 1690s established himself as ‘the doyen of mathematicians on the Continent’; his calculus was used all over Europe. But Newton, a compulsive hoarder, retained enough documentary evidence to establish his priority nearly half a century after the event – in private if not in print. But this was not enough. Newton convinced himself, and tried hard to convince others, that Leibniz was an incompetent mathematician who had requited Newton’s kind help by stealing his discovery.

Here some such hypothesis as Manuel’s appears necessary. Hall lucidly argues that simultaneous discovery is a frequent phenomenon in the history of science, and says, without explanation, that the 17th century ‘was the moment when European intellectual development toward freedom and maturity offered the highest opportunity for creativity’. There were perhaps social reasons for convergence in the discovery of the calculus. Although he does not account for the titanic nature of Newton’s wrath, Hall makes some interesting points: for instance, that it was Wallis who first pushed Newton on against Leibniz, on nationalist grounds. ‘You are not so kind to your reputation (and that of your country) as you might be.’ ‘Nearly all the mathematicians of this time, nearly all the ardent Newtonians, were Scots ... a fact that no doubt provides ground for comment on the characteristics of education in the English and Scottish universities.’ Hall is especially interesting on a point which Manuel did not take up: Leibniz’s ‘deep (and unchanging) philosophical criticism’ of Newton. ‘It pleases some to return to occult qualities of scholastic faculties, but because these have become unrespectable they call them forces.’ Leibniz feared lest Newton’s theory would revive the philosophy of Robert Fludd, against whom Mersenne and Gassendi had first defended the mechanical philosophy.

Hall leaves open the questions ‘whether one views the Newtonian point of view as consistent with a then normal Christian view of God’s purpose or (with Leibniz) as merely naive; whether one regards Leibniz’s mechanical philosophy as marking a necessary independence of secular thought from theology or rather as a step toward excluding God from the universe altogether’. Certainly there were other contemporaries besides Leibniz who did not think Newton’s the ‘normal’ Christian view, and many today would agree with Manuel in regretting that the victory of his ‘closed scientific system’ excluded ‘the looser models of a Hooke or a Leibniz’.