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Isaac Newton: The Light At The Beginning of The Tunnel
Jul 1, 1995

Early life

NEWTON was born prematurely on 25th December 1645 in Woolsthorpe, a hamlet near Grantham in Lincolnshire, a few months after the death of his father. At three years old, he was separated from his mother when she remarried: his stepfather (a well- to-do man and a minister of the church) sent him to be looked after by his grandmother. Nine years later, his mother was widowed for the second time. Newton was reunited with her, a half brother and two half-sisters and went to Grantham grammar school. During this period he acquired the indispensable habits of concentration and teaching himself from books, and was locally famous for his artisanal skills. After finishing school, he respected his mother's wish that he learn to run the family farm, but could not keep his mind on the tasks assigned to him. A sympathetic uncle managed to get him prepared for admission into Trinity College, Cambridge: he was admitted in 1661 as a 'sizar', that is, a class of student required to do copying out and perhaps other menial tasks for college seniors. Teaching at Cambridge was quite haphazard and disorganized at this time. Newton, like every other student, was taught Aristotle, but the 'new philosophy', science and mathematics (Kepler, Galileo, Descartes), he had to master by himself, and he did. The University was shut down for two years because of the Great Plague of 1665. Newton, now a graduate, returned to the family home in Woolsthorpe. It is clear from his notebooks that, by the end of this period, he had worked out his 'fluxions' (calculus), and carried out much of the thinking and the experiments which were to form the basis of the Principia Mathematica and the Opticks, books which, first published about twenty years later, have informed scientific inquiry ever since. The tiny baby expected to die after a few days lived to be 82 and earn undying fame as the greatest of Western scientists.

The man, his bad temper, his religious calling

Newton did not marry. He did not, with a single brief exception, form any warm friendships. Though generous enough with his time and money when he had both to spare, he did not give with tenderness - either to relatives or acquaintances. He lived the extraordinarily narrow life of a dedicated auto-didact, hardly ever travelling outside London, Cambridge, Woolsthorpe, He was not given to lightness of manner, nor did he show any capacity for sell-irony. When angered, he became unbalanced and, it must be said, vindictive and petty.

He quarrelled with fellow-scientist Hooke for rejecting his theory of colours. Later, when Hooke (now a very old man) claimed that Newton had plagiarized the law of universal gravitation from passages from his (Hooke's) letters. Newton was cruel and scathing. Hooke's help was indeed small, but enough to have merited, from a generous soul, some gracious acknowledgement. Newton remained angry even after Hooke's death, and cut every reference to Hooke from later editions of the Opticks.

To enlarge the proofs of his calculations for celestial phenomena discussed in Principia, Newton needed the latest, accurate data, He applied to Flamsteed at the Greenwich Observatory who had been collecting just such data for a lifetime. Perhaps Flamsteed coveted ambitions of producing a theory of his own; for whatever reason, he was not minded to supply the data Newton needed. Newton, as President of the Royal Society, felt he could demand the records on behalf of the Society and took them; the court ease that followed decided for Flamsteed, who had his records returned to him. However, the process look so long that Flamsteed died before seeing his lifetime's work in print. Again, Newton was unforgiving, and removed all acknowledgments to Flamsteed from the later Principia.

The most bitter, most public, and most protracted of Newton's quarrels was with the German philosopher, Leibniz, about which of them had priority in discovering the calculus. It is a fact that Newton wrote his paper first; it is also a fact that Leibniz published first and arrived at the calculus by a quite independent route. That Leibniz had seen Newton's paper in some summarized form is only a possibility. Disciples of the great men joined in this argument about nothing which grew into polemics against each other's general philosophy of nature. The Newtonian camp kept up the debate even after Leibniz's death.

How is Newton's conduct to be explained?

The explanation usually offered is a psychological one:

Newton had never known his father and then been separated from his mother in early infancy: this had so traumatized him that he suffered from an excessive need for approval and excessive fear of rejection. Therefore, it is argued, he was slow to publish his work, then uncontrollably angry at any suggestion that he had not merited the applause it received, and absurdly reluctant to acknowledge the share of others in it. The same explanation could be advanced for his self-teaching: he would prefer to copy out long passages of books he was studying, go through proofs and calculations over and over until he had mastered them entirely on his own, rather than save effort by applying to someone who had already understood the material.

There must be some truth in this explanation but it is not commensurate with the greatness of what was at stake for Newton. He believed intensely in God as the Divine Architect who had both created the universe and directly inspired the Bible.The metaphor of the book of God's works (nature) and the book of God's words (Scripture) was an intellectual commonplace in 16th and 17th century Europe. The most famous statement of it is Francis Bacon's:

Let [no one suppose that] a man can search too far, or be too well studied in, the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficienc[y] in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity and not to swelling; to us[efulness] and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these two learnings together.

To judge by the volume of manuscripts he left behind, Newton devoted rather more of his time and energy to the 'words' than to the 'works' of God. He trusted in Divine guidance to unfold to him, personally, both the secrets of nature and the secrets of Scripture. The burden of, first, being quite sure of what he had understood, then, of conveying it to others, must have been heavy indeed. That would explain his extraordinary aptitude for solitary concentration, his reluctance to publish results of whose meaning, coherence and completeness he was not wholly certain, and his desire to hold on to his work as his own - insight into the mind of God, as revealed in His words or His works, was not lobe obtained, as it were, by committee, collaboratively with others. What was manifested in the outside world as a petty possessiveness was, in Newton's inner world, a perseverance in carrying by himself responsibilities which he believed to be uniquely his own.

The glory of Principia lay in the comprehensiveness and elegant simplicity of the laws of motion. Newton had written:

Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things... It is the perfection of God's works that they are all done with the greatest simplicity. He is the God of order and not of confusion [Newton MS, quoted in Manuel, 1974]

At this point, he may have felt his strictly scientific work was complete in its essentials. In the emptiness after having, in some sense, explained everything' in Principia, Newton suffered a nervous breakdown, He wrote paranoid, accusing letters to Locke and the diarist, Samuel Pepys. Neither man was angry in return:on the contrary, both expressed compassionate concern for Newton's health. It is to Newton's credit that he apologised, explaining that his outbursts were due to insomnia. He had been worrying about taking a government post which, on the surface, had nothing to do with his calling to understand and expound the secrets of the two books'. In the event, he proved to be an exemplary public servant, and, alongside revisions and enlargements of Opticks and Principia, dedicated many hours to his theological works.

His science and religion

The separation of scientific reflection on nature and study of religion - a cardinal principle of the scientific revolution in Europe - was, for Newton, a strictly procedural separation, not a philosophical one. Church authorities in England were quite broad-minded at the time and many of the scientists contemporary with Newton were ministers of the Church. Differences on the accidentals' of faith, discreetly believed and practised, were tolerated - and this tolerance (for most Protestant opinions) was legally established by Parliament towards the end of the 17th century. Newton enjoyed and admired this tolerance and would not abuse it: he saw no merit in religious disputes. The Church to which he belonged all his life required its members to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. Newton did not make public his own firmly held anti-Trinitarian convictions. To do so would have ruined the peace of his fellow-countrymen and, most certainly, jeopardized acceptance of his scientific work. He was faithful to his convictions to the extent that he refused to take holy orders: by this refusal he denied himself the post of Warden (head) of Trinity College. Indeed, his election as professor of mathematics was only possible because a special Crown Patent (1675) exempted him uniquely from the requirements of the College statutes. (Newton's disciple and successor to that professorship, William Whiston, lost his post when he published his antiTrinitarianism.)

Newton believed in One Omnipotent and Omnipresent God who designed the universe to intelligible laws and governed its operations, moment by moment, according to His Will. Newton detested the metaphysics taught by Descartes and refined by Leibniz., both of whom believed in God as a once-for-all Creator, a First Cause, who had no further engagement in the operation of the universe. Leibniz ridiculed Newton's view as implying that God was an incompetent Creator who needed to, as it were, continually tinker with His creation. Newton believed that the creation was too subtly interconnected to be sustainable without the ever-watchful dominion of Divine Will:

Each time a planet revolves it traces a fresh orbit, as happens also with the Moon, and each orbit is dependent upon the combined motions of all the planets, not to mention their actions upon each other. Unless I am much mistaken, it would exceed the force of human wit to consider so many causes of motion at the same time and to define the motions by exact laws which would allow of an easy calculation. [Unpublished Scientific Papers, Hall & Hall, 1962. p.281]

In his Chronology of the world, Newton argued that good science and good religion occurred together. Any lapse from monotheism into idolatry (he invariably referred to Roman Catholicism as idolatry) entailed a lapse from clear understanding of the creation. Thus macrocosmic and microcosmic science (astronomy and alchemy) had thrived in Pre-Socratic Greece and again in Egypt before both societies degenerated into the worship of false gods; similarly, it revived after the Reformation rid Christianity of its idolatry.

Newton subscribed to a form of natural theology. God was revealed to every individual human Conscience, the Divine Message to mankind being always consistent, albeit refined down the ages. Therefore, an understanding of virtue and morality was common to all men:

The other part of the true religion is our duty to man... This was the Ethics, or good manners, taught the first ages by Noah and his sons the heathens by Socrates, Confucius and other philosophers, and the Christians more fully by Christ and his Apostles. This is the law which the Apostle [Paul] tells you was written in the hearts of the Gentiles, and by which they will be judged in the last day. Romans 2.12, 14, 15. ... Thus you see there is but one law for all nations . . . dictated to the Christians by Christ, to the Jews by Moses, and to all mankind by the light of reason ... [Therefore] we ought to love those who profess and practise it, even though they do not yet believe in Christ, for it is the true religion of Christians as well as heathens., though not all the true Christian religion. [Mc Lachlan (ed) 1950. pp.52-3 ]

This is, for a committed Christian, an unusually forthright expression of the essential community and equality in worth of all human beings, even heathens. It is certainly attributable to Newton's passionate faith in the Oneness of God and his rejection of those doctrines (incarnation, atonement) which inevitably lead to the exclusion of the great majority of human beings from the dignity of virtue.

Newton was a student of nature and of the Scripture for the same reason - to express and improve in knowledge, love and worship of God. Right relationship with God ('godliness) was, in Newton's mind, directly linked to tight relationship with others ('humanity'):

Godliness consists in the knowledge, love and worship of God; Humanity in the love, righteousness and good offices towards men Opposite to the first [godliness] is Atheism in profession and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors [adherents]. [Here Newton lists many symmetries in the forms of living creatures. Whence arises this uniformity in all their outward shapes but from the counsel and contrivance of an Author? Whence is it that all the eyes of all sorts of living creatures are ... so truly shaped and fitted for vision that no Artist can mend them? Did blind chance know that there was light and what was its refraction, and fit the eyes of alt creatures after the most curious manner to make use of it?

These and such like considerations, always have, and ever will prevail with mankind, to believe that there is a Being who made all things, and has all things in His power ... [ibid., pp.48-9]

Plainly, Newton was rather optimistic. At least in Europe (which, culturally, now includes many peoples not racially European) atheism prevails and, even among those who profess belief in God, the concept of a Creator-God is rejected as a nuisance or irrelevance from any rational (scientific) account of nature. What then did Newton achieve?

Influence and reputation

Acclaim for Newton's scientific achievement, when it came, was on a grand scale, nationally and internationally. He was knighted in 1705 - an honour previously accorded, among scientists, only to royal physicians. Following the peace of Utrecht in 1714 which (for a time) contained French military ambitions in Europe. Newton's works, well-known among savants, were widely translated and circulated- there was even an Italian Newtonianism for the Ladies. More than the victory over France, Newton's fame signalled the growing primacy of England. He was national hero and buried with great public ceremony in Westminster Abbey. The poet, Alexander Pope, wrote this tribute which, at the time, was not felt to bean exaggeration: Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.! God said, 'Let Newton be' and all was light. Perhaps out of religious sensitivity, these words were not, as first intended, inscribed on Newton's tomb.

Within seventy years of the great man's death, the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions had happened, with Napoleon about to come on stage. Religious sensitivity was of less account. In 1796 a French aristocrat published a manifesto in which the proposed that a temple be built in Newton's honour and the calendar re-dated from the day of his birth. How deeply this would have offended Newton who wrote:

Idolatry is a more dangerous crime [than Atheism], because it is apt ... to insinuate itself into mankind .,. it seeming very plausible to honour the souls of Heroes and Saints, and to believe that they reside and act principally in the statues dedicated to their honour and memory. ... [This] is in Scripture condemned and detested above all other crimes. [ibid., p.49]

However irreverently excessive the Frenchman's compliment, it nevertheless recognized that, for Europe, a new age had dawned. It was an age that, for all practical purposes, idolized human reason as a means to master nature through knowledge of its mechanisms. Knowledge was divorced from wisdom and married, instead, to economic and military power. Galileo's struggle against academic philosophy (Aristotelian or Neo-Platonist) which had been manoeuvred by his enemies into a struggle against the authority of Scripture was over: the Principia marked an apparently irreversible victory. Thereafter, in European thought, every branch of knowledge, including the study of human nature and human society, vaunted its independence from traditional authority.

Voltaire, the Enlightenment's wittiest and most active publicist had failed to meet Newton, but did attend and was deeply impressed by Newton's funeral. The Enlightenment defined the intellectual temperament of modern Europe: it owed a great deal of its self-confidence to Newton's success which was generally received as the victory of European reason over nature.

There was a shift away from the Newtonian belief that God was ever-watchful over His creation towards the (Deist) position that God merely set the initial conditions of the universe and then retired. Far from liberating man, such belief chains him to the cycles of nature. God is made remote in the manner of the most vicious paganism for which human life is an incomprehensible (often cruel) entrapment in nature by an inaccessible supreme deity who can be placated only through human sacrifice. The liberation experienced in Enlightened Europe was only a liberation from Church authority and the authority of those who exercised it by wealth. There was no improvement in the morality with which power was used, only an improvement in rationalization and efficiency. The true measure of Equality and Liberty is the degree of Fraternity realized in human relations: we are only now beginning to understand that the rationalist structures of law and government, instituted during and after the Enlightenment, and managed ever since by unelected professionals, exist not to serve representative government but to create the political environment that lets the financially powerful operate without interference.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, the printing of false promissory notes to finance short-lived economic miracles, became institutionalized: In 1715 in France, John Law (1671- 1729) founded, with royal support, the fraudulent Banque Generale (later the state bank), which collapsed after five years impoverishing millions; in England, the South Sea Company (launched 1711) took over the national war debt in exchange for the right to exploit the mirage of wealth in South America - the scandal which followed exposure of the fraud touched both the royal family and government officials. The spinning-jenny was invented in 1764: the industrial revolution (the adaptation of human labour to the demands and routines of capital intensive machinery) had begun. Adam Smith's An Inquiry into ... the Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776- the first philosophical work to 'secularize' economics, i.e. separate it from ethics, political science and jurisprudence: the theory was catching up with the spirit and practice of the age. Two years later, the posthumous publication of David Home's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion destroyed for most thinking Europeans, what little dignity was still attached to the 'argument from design': the argument (so dear to 17th century scientists) that the evidence of design in nature indicated the existence of a Designer.

As for Newton's belief in the equality in worth of all human beings: within a century of his death, the slave trade had depopulated Africa of between 40 and 100 million human beings - abolition of the trade being soon followed by colonization. Over the same period, the extermination of 10 million native Americans was going on steadily - just as that most reasonable of Enlightened men, George Washington, had projected: Indians own nothing human about them except the shape... extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as the wolf, to retire; both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape'. No one has bothered to compute the numbers of native people killed in Australia. Any way of life not based upon the rationalism which distinguished Europeans in their own eyes as the model of what human nature and society ought to be, was treated with contempt or indolent sentimentality. In a reversal of Newton's Chronology, they believed their present to be the desirable, inevitable future of all peoples. Thus were born the categories of 'primitive' and 'medieval', and the myth of social progress. They felt they had nothing to learn from other societies, including those of their own past: to be medieval was to be irrational. The 'others' had no place except in museums or histories constructed by their conquerors: most of the major European universities had set up 'Oriental Institutes' before 1750.

European Christianity, if it spoke out at all, was a voice of irrelevant, ironic protest, while European civilization marched into and destroyed the traditional patterns of life of every people on every continent. Perhaps some attachment to Christianity helped the Europeans to believe, even while acknowledging the unprecedented scale of their barbarity that they nevertheless remained the models for others to aspire to. This moral amnesia was irresistibly sustained, as it is to this day, by superior military power derived from superior rationality and organization.

For the great majority of the world's human beings the period of European domination has been the darkest in history, a long tunnel whose end is still not in sight. However, Newton's science belongs to the 17th century, not the 18th or 19th, and was its climax. Newton represented, for the last time in Europe, an attempt to hold, in one and the same mind, accurate knowledge and religious truth. Therefore we describe his religious-scientific worldview as the light at the beginning of the tunnel, a light, as it were, already pointing and moving into its own shadow.

Neither the argument from design', nor the analogy of the two Books, are now heard in professional scientific debate. Newton's laws of motion are invalid for velocities approaching the speed of light. The weight of evidence seems to be favoring the wave theory of light over Newton's preferred corpuscular (particle) theory. But the reputation of Newton's method remains undimmed: the ideal marriage of mathematics and physics, and of brilliant, imaginative theory with meticulous, accurate experimentation. No words better express the sense of sheer wonder in 17th century science or Newton's humility before God than his own famous observation: 'I do not know what I may appear to the world: but to myself I seem to have been only like a little boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me,'

We are now two and a half centuries further along into the idolatry of human reason: the image of the curious boy at the sea's edge brings to mind sinister present realities - the ocean polluted, the boy a disoriented urban child holding the pebble with intent of some mischief.


Newton was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College in 1667. His senior colleague, Isaac Barrow, realizing the younger man's genius, resigned his chair in mathematics in favour of Newton in 1660. Newton's early work on the infinitesimal calculus and the binomial theorem was forwarded by Barrow to the Royal Society. Characteristically, Newton was reluctant to publish it. His first lectures in Cambridge (1670-72) were developments of work on the phenomena of colour. On the basis of experimental demonstration, Newton rejected the classical theory of light as a homogeneous entity 'modified' into colour. He showed, instead, that light was heterogeneous and colours were produced by refractive analysis. He showed also that the separated rays had different refractive indices and that, therefore, chromatic aberration could never be eliminated from lenses, no matter how well crafted. To get round this difficulty be himself constructed a reflecting telescope. In 1671, the Royal Society (founded 1660) welcomed this invention and honoured its inventor with membership. Newton then submitted a paper on colour to the Society. Criticism of it by Robert Hooke, a senior member, so upset Newton that he hid himself in solitary work, preferring angry letters to reasoned discussion. He could have grasped that the heterogeneity of light was a revolutionary concept which, despite the evident experimental proofs, was not easy to accept. Only when Hooke signalled some approval of the earlier paper did Newton venture (in 1675) a second essay on the analysis of light by reflection as well as refraction and a demonstration of the periodicity of optical phenomena. These lectures and papers were later published (1704) as Books I and II of the Opticks. Following further strained correspondence with Hooke and others, Newton withdrew once more into solitary work in Woolsthorpe and Cambridge.

He applied himself relentlessly through the latter years of the 1 670s at (al)chemical books and experiments, encouraged by another Society member, Robert Boyle. A massive quantity of papers and notebooks relating to this work remain unpublished. Newton, it seems, accepted the allegorical terminology of the alchemical tradition and was convinced of the existence of a single, invisible 'catholick matter' from which, by various processes of association and dissociation, all the different forms of visible matter were derived. However, he explicitly rejected the possibility of achieving by chemical process either 'multiplication' (increase in the mass of a substance) or transmutation (changing one substance into other). He tried to describe the structure of particles in precise quantitative terms: he believed each particle to consist of geometrically shaped units of void and matter in ratios whose variation explained the different properties of visible matter. A number of these speculations found their way into later editions of the Opticks as Queries. With hindsight, the worth of this 'chemical dynamics' lay in Newton's reflections on inherent attractive and repulsive properties which could act at a distance, that is, without an intervening medium. The effort to express mathematically the action of (invisible) force acting over distance may have helped dispose Newton's mind to the concept of gravity

Newton applied the idea of attraction and repulsion, in terms of centripetal and centrifugal force, to orbital dynamics. Renewed correspondence with Hooke on this subject (1679) inspired him to calculate accurately the elliptical orbit of an object pulled away from a rectilinear path by a central attractive force. The astronomer Halley applied to Newton for these calculations and was answered with the short tract On Motion (1684). Further reflections on and revisions of this tract led Newton to the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. In 1686, he submitted to the Royal Society the manuscript of Book I of Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. All three books of Newton's masterpiece were published the following year, with revised and enlarged editions in 1713 and 1726.

Newton's laws described, with the greatest precision and predictive accuracy, the motions of all bodies of 'sensible magnitude', that is, all visible bodies. It must have seemed to its first readers that everything was now explicable and calculable - the movement of Jupiter's satellites, the trajectory of comets, the relationship between the moon and the tides, the difference in the earth's polar and equatorial diameters, as much as a humble wheel for raising water from a well. The Principia combined observation and experiment with geometry and exact calculation in a decisive proof that the structure of nature is mathematical - not as a literary or mystical metaphor for coherency or harmoniousness, but as a positive fact, demonstrable by any number of easily repeated experiments.


The Principia brought instant glory. Newton was elected to represent his University in a dispute with the Crown, and was for a time its Member of Parliament. Renown brought him a wider circle of acquaintances, most notably the philosopher, John Locke. With the help of a rising politician and admirer, the future Lord Halifax, Newton obtained the post of Warden of the Royal Mint (1696). He resigned his duties in Cambridge in 1701 and settled in the capital, An exemplary civil servant, he was incorruptible, authoritative, innovative, and industrious: he helped in the design and manufacture of the new coinage commanded by Parliament, improved book-keeping and accountancy techniques, reduced waste in the minting process, devised ways to defeat and catch counterfeiters, and urged adjustment of the rate of silver against gold so that the coinage would hold its value.

Newton was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703 and re-elected annually until his death. He changed its character from a 'gentleman's dub' to a professional body of practising scientists required to do and discuss real experiments and attend anatomical demonstrations. He also managed, mainly through his personal prestige, to secure a right for the Society to supervise the work of the Greenwich Observatory. It is impossible to record here the government committees and learned societies for which his fame required him to act as unpaid consultant, or the technical queries scholars and scientists put to him directly or through correspondence, or the support he gave to many young scientists, glad to call themselves Newtonians.

We must record, however, that in the last years of his life, Newton revised and enlarged theological notes he had worked on intermittently since his undergraduate years. He wanted to publish his religious views in relation to his science; his techniques for reading Scriptural allegories; his chronology of the world; and his textual proof that the New Testament verses on which the doctrine of the Trinity is based were corrupt. In fact, he did not quite have the courage (or was not satisfied enough with his work) to publish any of this. A modified account of his general philosophy of nature appeared in the scholia and addenda of the revised Principia. The book on Scriptural allegory, The Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John, and his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended were published soon after his death (1 733), Through the agency of Locke, a manuscript of A Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, was prepared for publication in Holland. But, even when it was agreed that the work be published anonymously and in translation, Newton backed away. It was not published until 1785 when, presumably, it was 'safe' to do so.