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.

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