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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 2

The Newton Affair


Copyright (c) 1984 by Dorothea Stecchini

Today, one excludes any discussion of possible changes in the motions of the planets and of possible catastrophes on Earth on the basis of the authority of Newton, who supposedly would have proved both occurrences to be impossible. But we are confronted here with a falsification of Newton's thought.

For two hundred and fifty years the zealots of Newtonianism have resisted the repeated efforts to publish Newton's manuscripts, even those of complete and practically finished works. In the case of figures considerably less significant than Newton, scholars and learned societies have taken care to cause to appear in print every piece of paper they ever put ink on, even when these are trivial and not related in any way with the activity for which they are famous. In the case of Newton, still today about nine-tenths of his manuscripts remain unpublished, and these are manuscripts to which he dedicated long years of research and thought and which are directly related to the development and formulation of his ideas in matters of astronomy. To make the matter worse, even some of his published works are ignored: specialists of Newtonian studies barely mention them and dismiss them as insignificant. If they report their contents, they present them inaccurately.

In the course of the eighteenth century Newtonianism became a religion, and the tenets of this religion continue to be upheld dogmatically by scientists today. It is characteristic of religious sects to argue to the point of mutual slaughter which works are canonical and which are uncanonical. The activity of censorship extends to some passages of the Principia which are glossed over in the presentation of Newton's thought, and which instead would become poignantly significant if related to the contents of the work classified as uncanonical. The few who have tried to throw light on Newton's full scientific personality have been given by the upholders of Newtonianism the kind of welcome that is granted by orthodox Christians to nonsectarian historians of early Christianity.

The massive censoring of Newton's writings has been justified in terms of pious respect for a man who was not only a genius but also insane, or at least mentally deranged. Newton is quoted as an accepted example for this theory by Lombroso in his famous book Genius and Insanity. The theory of Newton's insanity keeps turning up again and again as a bad coin in the studies on Newton. The only foundation for this theory is that about the age of fifty he suffered what may have been simply a case of extreme fatigue by a man who had been engaged in a Herculean pursuit of several lines of monumental research at the same time, and whose productivity and range of interests were as extensive as those of Aristotle.

Some recent biographers have adopted the psychoanalytic approach, ascribing major significance to an unhappy and unfortunate childhood: he lacked a father, and the mother was more interested in finding another man than in her son. If one were to take seriously what these dilettante psychoanalysts intimate and put it in plain words, one should say that Newton was a repressed homosexual with paranoidal tendencies. Indeed, there is no doubt that Newton's personality reveals paranoiac traits, and he may have had other serious emotional difficulties; but the same can be said of many creative geniuses - and many human beings who are not geniuses.

Nevertheless, following in the Freudian line of reasoning, one should say that he sublimated or encapsulated them most effectively. Actually, I cannot think of another innovating genius who was as successful in pursuing practical affairs and in achieving concrete results. He was able to triumph over all opposition, was rewarded with honor and money from the very beginning, and was able to keep an uninterrupted pace of intense productivity to a most mature age, except for the mentioned episode. To Freud this is the test of mental health, since disturbing drives are the common share of all human beings.

In dealing with the poem De Rerum Natura, the greatest work of Latin poetry according to many critics, Saint Jerome reported the story that its atheist composer, Lucretius, wrote it per intervalla insaniae, being insane in the other hours of the day in which he was concerned with the writing of other books. According to his self styled admirers, Newton had two personalities: there was Newton "the scientist" and Newton "the madman". Since this story is difficult to accept, there have been presented other versions of the history of Newton's mental health. One, to which I have already referred, is that Newton became mentally deranged sometime after he published the first edition of the Principia. He would have turned prematurely senile, becoming concerned with topics such as theology, history, mythology, and so on. This theory of Newton's mental state has the advantage of being more credible on the face of it. But it has the disadvantage of not squaring with the facts. If there are two Newtons, these are the Newton of the Newtonian religion of our contemporary scientists, and the true historical Newton.

In a brilliant and penetrating essay on "Newton the Man," written for the Royal Society Newton Tercentary Celebrations (Cambridge, England, 1947), the economist Lord Keynes declared:

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of modern-age scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untutored reason. I do not see him in this light.

The main contention of the essay is that Newton had "a foot in the Middle Ages and a foot treading a path for modern science". This contention had been advanced earlier by other scholars, but this time it met with the approval of outstanding historians of science, because Keynes had gained access to the unpublished manuscripts of Newton.

There is nothing to justify the claim that the unpublished works reflect mental derangement: they are just as logically constructed, carefully documented, and well finished as the works that have been deemed fit for publication. Nor can they be dismissed as occasional efforts. To them, Newton dedicated more time than to his scientific writings. But, most important of all, most of the unpublished works are directly related to the published works and reflect a single stream of thought. Newton's scientific production was but one aspect of this unified stream.

If for two hundred and fifty years there has been a stubborn resistance to the efforts to let the body of Newton's works appear in print, it is because, even though the unpublished manuscripts range from politics to alchemy to ancient history, the lion's share belongs to works on theology. They make clear what Newton himself stated in his letters, namely, that natural science was not his major interest, and that he conceived of it as an auxiliary to theology, as ancilla theologiae. That he was unusually successful in his scientific endeavors does not disprove that his main aim was to reconcile astronomy with religion. Newton, as we shall argue, believed that the astronomical revolution linked with the names of Copernicus and Galileo had destroyed the foundations of religious belief, and that it was necessary to return to the medieval world view. He was a Biblical fundamentalist who tried to prove, among other points, that the Bible contains prophecies of future history. His interest in science was a by-product of his effort to prove that even science does not conflict with Biblical religion, conceived by him as the medieval synthesis of Biblical religion with Aristotelian cosmology.

In order to separate the Principia from its background and in order to interpret it as a product of mechanistic science, there has been advanced a new version of the story of Newton's insanity. Instead of assuming that Newton became mentally deranged after writing the Principia, it is assumed that he was mentally deranged up to about that time. In other words, the Principia was the product of theological thought, but through it he became a scientific thinker in the modern sense of the word.

Lord Keynes, in the essay on "Newton the Man" quoted earlier, tried to explain away the unpublished manuscripts, of which a large portion passed through his hands. He granted that: "All his unpublished works on esoteric and theological matters are marked by careful learning, accurate method, and extreme sobriety of statement. They are just as sane as the Principia. . . ." He could have added that they were as carefully finished and as important to him. It can also be observed that the phrase "esoteric and theological" is a loaded one, since in the mind of Newton they were not esoteric and were not more relevant to theology than the Principia. But Lord Keynes continued with an outright falsehood that "they were nearly all composed during the same twenty years of his mathematical studies", that is, before his much-touted nervous breakdown at the age of fifty. But it is added: "And when the turn of his life came and he put his books on magic into the box, it was easy for him to drop the seventeenth century behind him and to evolve into the eighteenth-century figure which is the traditional Newton."

I have mentioned the opposite theory of Biot that Newton became insane and ceased to be a true scientist after this crisis. According to Lord Keynes the development was the opposite, since Newton as a result of the crisis would have become sane and a true scientist. This is explained by the theory that the life of Trinity College was bad for Newton's constitution, and that he became mentally healthy, developing a new concept of science, after moving to London. All this is factually and logically such nonsense that one is tempted to make light of it and ask simply whether the writer of this essay, too, was under the influence of the miasmic atmosphere of Trinity College were it not that distortions of this kind are current in the writings on Newton's thought.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that the present task of science is to give full justice to Newtonian thought. It is necessary to pick up the investigation at the point where Newton and his contemporaries left it. One cannot accept the notion that Newton settled once and forever the problem of the history of the solar system and at the same time use his arguments only half way, committing him to an insane asylum and taking him out as it is convenient.

. . . to be continued.

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