Isaac Newton — Truthseeker

Dr Hugh Murdoch

Inspirational Lives …

Picture of Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton

Newton is widely recognised as probably the greatest scientist of all time. However, it is now well known but not as widely recognised as it should be, that his whole life consisted of an all round search for truth which went far beyond science into other areas such as alchemy, religion and the Hermetic tradition of the ancient wisdom. His attitude to truth was universal.

What we learn about him at school and university are his laws of mechanics, especially his laws of motion and of universal gravitation. These were elaborated in his major work known for short as Principia or Principia Mathematica. The English translation of the Latin original is ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’. First published in 1687, this consisted of three volumes (or books) running to 500 pages. It is mostly closely argued mathematics in the style of Euclidean geometry with propositions, followed by mathematical deduction leading to proven results with subsidiary corollaries. The famous laws of motion which I am sure anyone who has studied any science at all, must have come across, are dealt with first but there is much much more. There is universal gravitation and its determination of the orbits of celestial bodies, such as the moon, the planets and comets. Some other examples are: treatment of the tides and the precession of the equinoxes. But I do not want to concentrate too much here on his physics, vast as is his contribution in that area.

Newton’s work paved the way for the machine age and the mechanistic philosophy of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with no room for God or for religious belief among the leading scientists. There are trends today away from that mechanistic philosophy not only in the New Age movements but also among quite a few leading scientists. However, widespread use of the term ‘Newtonian paradigm’ to describe this mechanistic science and philosophy is grossly unfair to Newton as we shall see. The term is even used by some enlightened thinkers such as Fritjof Capra.

Although the main body of the Principia is solid logically developed mathematics, Newton introduced at various points what he called Scholia making subsidiary non-mathematical statements and at the end of the third edition there was a General Scholium, in the course of which he said:

The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect….. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity…. He is not eternity and infinity but eternal and infinite; He is not duration or space, but endures and is always present. He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, He constitutes duration and space. In him are all things contained and moved.

Does that sound like the proponent of a mechanistic paradigm? It was a later generation of scientists who believed they only needed Newton’s mechanics and ignored his other pursuits in search of truth.

Newton’s Private Papers Come to Light

Newton’s vast collection of private papers was auctioned by Sothebys in London in 1936. There were over 100 lots, many of them very substantial. The largest fraction was acquired by Maynard Keynes the economist who did much to publicise them and bequeathed them to the library of Kings College, Cambridge. Many have been lost but others remain in various collections. They have been much studied by various academic scholars. This material includes notes copied from books and multiple drafts of various published and unpublished papers with alterations, corrections, deletions and insertions. He had a library of over 1700 books. The topic to which Newton obviously gave greatest attention was alchemy including his own extensive alchemical experimentation and speculation. He appears to have spent more time on this than any other subject, including his scientific work. He kept his alchemy very much to himself but it was an important part of his overall search for ultimate truth. He once chided Robert Boyle who was also interested in alchemy for talking about it too much in public.

The study of Newton’s life and activities is a vast subject and I am somewhat in awe of the magnitude of the task. I have barely scratched the surface and do not claim any expertise. For a general account of his life, I have relied on a recent biography by Michael White[1] who has written biographies of several famous scientists. For alchemy and religion I have relied on a very sympathetic account in a book by Betty Jo Dobbs of the University of California[2]. Both authors comment on the interaction of his alchemical and religious studies with his science. His was a unified search for truth.

His Early Life

Newton was born on Christmas day 1642 on a farm near the village of Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, not far from Cambridge. He was largely brought up by his maternal grandparents when his mother remarried after the early death of his father. He went to the King’s school in Grantham, boarding with the local apothecary (a pharmacist) and showed great interest in the apothecary’s chemicals and formulae. His schoolmaster recognised him as bright and wanted to prepare him for Cambridge but his mother resisted for a time, hoping he would return to work on the family estate. However, he eventually enrolled in Trinity College Cambridge in 1661 (age 18), starting on the lowest social rank known as subsizar where he had to wait on other students, but soon working his way up the hierarchy. The four-year course included classical history, geography, art, scripture and literature. He was also expected to become proficient in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He did not mix well with other students. He was deeply religious, belonging to a Puritan sect, known as the Arians after their founder Arius, a fourth-century Alexandrian priest. They did not believe in the orthodox view of the Trinity.

In his student notebook, Newton soon began to engage in his own philosophical speculations. For example, during a lecture on Aristotle, he wrote in his student notebook in Latin ‘Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but truth is my greater friend.’ Here is an early indication of what was to become his uncompromising search for truth in all its aspects. He studied Descartes but came to reject Descartes’ mechanical philosophy because of the latter’s rejection of a Creator. He was influenced by Henry More, who belonged to a Group known as the Cambridge Platonists who believed in a spirit permeating all Nature.

In 1664, while still an undergraduate, he began experiments in optics. He procured a prism and correctly deduced that white light consists of the various colours seen in the prism and that coloured objects absorb all of the colours except those by which they are seen. He believed that light consisted of small corpuscles. During the following century this concept gave way to the wave theory of light, but in this century we have come to recognise, thanks largely to Einstein, that light behaves both as waves and particles (or corpuscles) which we call photons. Newton also at this time carried out experiments on refraction and diffraction of light. Later he built his own instruments including one of the first refracting telescopes, grinding the surfaces of the mirrors himself.

In his early years, although there was no formal mathematical instruction in his course, he succeeded in teaching himself algebra, Euclidean geometry and trigonometry from books, all of which he found very easy. In 1664, a year before Newton graduated, John Barrow was appointed to the first Lucasian chair of mathematics, a chair which Newton himself was soon to hold. This chair was endowed by Henry Lucas and established by Royal warrant from King Charles. Newton neglected much of his formal undergraduate studies and so when he graduated in the following year 1665 (age 22) it was with a second class B.A. Before long he was to become the greatest mathematical physicist of all time. (Note that physics at that time was known as natural philosophy).

The Greatest Scientific Achievement of All Time?

In mid-1665 soon after Newton graduated (age 22), the plague reached Cambridge from London and Newton retreated to his mother’s estate at Woolsthorpe, returning to Cambridge for a few months in early 1666 and then retreating again until early 1667 when the University reopened. During that miraculous time of about 18 months at Woolsthorpe when he retreated from the plague, Newton formulated the laws of mechanics and the inverse square law of gravity along with the resulting centripetal force which explains the orbital motion of the moon about the earth and the planets about the Sun. He also developed during this time, the mathematical concepts which became the calculus. The combination of these results achieved at least in embryo, in this short period at Woolsthorpe, are recognised today as perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of all time. But Newton was a perfectionist and it was another 20 years until he had honed his work sufficiently to publish it as the Principia Mathematica. However, there were also long periods during those intervening years when he paid little attention to his mathematical work, concentrating on his other interests, especially alchemy.

A Prestigious Academic Chair

Soon after his return to Cambridge when the threat of the plague had passed, he passed a gruelling examination for fellowship of Trinity College, giving him a job for life. The following year he achieved his M.A. degree. The next year, 1669, Barrow accepted a position as chaplain to Charles II and, being fully aware of Newton’s worth, ensured that he was appointed as his replacement in the Lucasian chair of mathematics. At age 26, a mere 8 years after he began as a fresher, he was the most advanced mathematician of his age. There was, however, a problem. As Lucasian Professor, he was required to agree to take holy orders in due course. He wished to avoid this, since because of his Arian views against the orthodox concept of the trinity, he could not accede to the Anglican creed. Without saying why, and encouraged by Barrow, he applied to King Charles with some trepidation for exemption from taking holy orders. The King granted this exemption not only for him, but also for all subsequent holders of the Lucasian Chair. This is just as well for the current holder of that Chair, Stephen Hawking. Three years after the Lucasian appointment, Newton became a fellow of the Royal Society.

In this period he gave little attention to further advancing his major scientific work. He was reluctant to publish unless his ideas were fully formed. In 1684, following an important visit by the astronomer Halley who encouraged him to publish, he sent Halley a paper entitled ‘On the Motion of revolving Bodies’ in which he proved the details of planetary orbits based on his gravitational theory. Halley was greatly impressed and presented this paper to the Royal Society where it was well received. With Halley’s strong encouragement, Newton was now determined to present all his mathematical work and he worked feverishly until the Principia was published three years later in 1687 (age 44). In order to fully test his gravitational theory, he had pestered the leading astronomer Flamsteed, for the measured positions of many stars and also the relative positions of the planets. This enabled him to plot the course of Halley’s comet which had appeared in 1682 and thereby further test his gravitational theory.

After finishing the Principia, he quickly returned to his alchemical experiments and his study of the Hermetic texts. Dobbs writes:

…The appeal for Newton of the Hermetic texts lay in their supposed antiquity. A strong believer in the doctrine of the pisca sapientia [i.e. the ancient wisdom], Newton thought the more ancient the document, the less extensive its corruption from original pure knowledge.

He considered alchemy to be quite ancient and not far removed from the original true religion. He continued his alchemical experiments until he left Cambridge about ten years later but never ceased his pursuit of a universal Divine Truth.

Newton’s Later Life

In 1696 (age 55) Newton, feeling the need for a fresh challenge, left Cambridge permanently for London to take up a position as warden of the mint which was housed in the tower of London. In the intervening years he had served one year as member of parliament for Cambridge and had also had a brief but serious nervous breakdown from which he quickly recovered. He set about his new task at the mint with his typical almost obsessive hard work and thoroughness. He was given the task of supervising a massive undertaking of issuing a new series of coins with milled edges (as we use today) and recalling the old coins which had been successively clipped of metal. He assiduously prosecuted counterfeiters and brought them to justice. He studied every book on economics he could lay his hands on and picked the brains of the foremost financial thinkers of his time. Four years later he became Master of the mint on the death of the incumbent, a role he had long been performing in all but name. The following year he began a further brief term as member of parliament and also resigned his Lucasian chair.

In 1703, Newton (age 61) was appointed President of the Royal Society and two years later he was knighted. He set about raising the Royal Society from a rather low ebb. He submitted for publication his work on Opticks in three books, which he had sat on for about 30 years. He had hoped to provide a fourth book with a unified theory of mechanics and optics but this he never achieved, a holy grail whose full realisation still eludes the best minds today. He did, however, pose a number of possible effects in the form of queries such as the possible interaction of light with solid bodies, including the deflection of light — matters which were subsequently proved by Einstein.

Newton was a strong, proud even domineering man. He was engaged in several feuds especially one with Leibniz concerning priority in the development of the calculus. He believed Leibniz had stolen his results. It is now widely acknowledged that Newton and Leibniz developed the calculus independently with Newton being the first although Leibniz’ notation is preferred today.

In the latter period of his life, Newton was quite wealthy, lived comfortably and dispensed monetary assistance to relatives and others. He had a comfortable house in London with several servants and his niece Catherine came to live with him as housekeeper for a time. She married a friend and admirer of Newton, John Conduitt. Newton worked on subsequent editions of his ‘Opticks’ and also on the second edition of the Principia (1713, age 70) and the third edition (1726, age 83). He died the following year. Newton never married. John Conduitt was the executor of his will, and his private papers have been passed down through the Conduitt family and their descendants, who eventually put them up for auction in 1936. Fifty years earlier, they had been offered to Cambridge University and judged not fit to print.

In his later years Newton increased his interest in comparative theology, ancient history and prophecy. This was all part of his ever-intense search for truth. He believed in an ancient wisdom which had been lost or corrupted and was very interested in the Hermetic tradition. I think if he could be transported to our era, he would undoubtedly have been interested in the Theosophical Society although he would probably have wanted to keep his interest private. He kept his esoteric interests very much to himself as he had done all his life except for a few sympathetic close friends. However, thanks to his meticulous record keeping, to the Conduitt family who preserved and handed down his private papers, to Maynard Keynes who was initially responsible for publicising them to the modern world, and to subsequent meticulous scholars who have studied them, we are now able to appreciate that Newton was not only a great scientist but a great (perhaps even the greatest) all round truthseeker.

I will deal a little more fully with his spiritual search in a subsequent article.

References:

[1] White, M., Isaac Newton — The Last Sorcerer, Fourth Estate, London, 1997.

[2] Dobbs, B.J.T., The Janus Faces of Genius — The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

Bilimoria, E.D., The Quest, Autumn 1993, p.64.

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Dr Hugh Murdoch is a retired astrophysicist.
This article and one to follow are based on a talk to Blavatsky Lodge, Sydney.