Published in the Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2014.
A Reputation in Constant Motion
It was claimed that Newton’s writings on alchemy and theology were products of mental derangement.
In the 1940s, a visitor to the Sir Isaac Newton Library on the campus of the Babson Institute (now Babson College) in Wellesley, Mass., could find herself transported to the front parlor of the house on St. Martin’s Street in London where Newton had lived between 1710 and 1725. Grace Knight Babson, wife of the shrewd investor and millionaire Roger Babson, had purchased the room—including its original pine-paneled walls and carved mantelpiece—and brought the pieces to Massachusetts, where it was reassembled as a tribute to the man who had lived and worked within it.
Roger Babson had made his fortune, he said, by espying Newton’s “law of action and reaction” in business cycles. To Babson and his wife, Newton was a seer who had divined the laws of markets as well as of nature. This was a quirky view of Newton, to be sure. But from the moment Newton died in 1727, different visions of the man arose. In “The Newton Papers,” Sarah Dry tells the story of these competing images of Newton by following the trail of the manuscripts Newton left behind.
At his death, Newton left some eight million words written on what an assessor of his estate called “loose and foul sheets,” unlabeled, tied with string and stuffed into boxes in no apparent order. His nephew John Conduitt planned to use them to write a biography of Newton, whom he idolized as a kind of intellectual saint. Conduitt soon realized the papers contained not only mathematical and scientific notes but also writings on alchemy, theology and church history—some demonstrating that his uncle held the heretical belief of “Anti-Trinitarianism,” which denied the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The incredible bulk of papers overwhelmed Conduitt, and he died in 1737 before completing his task. Newton’s estate passed to his descendants, the Portsmouth family, and most of the manuscripts were deposited in their home at Hurstbourne Park. The secretary of the Royal Society, Samuel Horsley, proposed publishing a complete edition of Newton’s writings in 1775 and was granted access to the papers. In the end only nine items—all related to Newton’s scientific pursuits—were printed. Horsley abandoned the plan of publishing the complete manuscripts, “most likely,” Ms. Dry speculates, “because of the papers’ heretical content.” After Horsley, no one was interested in the papers for decades.
Ms. Dry contends that for 150 years after Newton’s death the papers were “hidden from sight” because they threatened Newton’s image as a “paragon of rationality,” showing him to be “an obsessive heretic” interested in turning base metals into gold. But it is not clear that the papers were suppressed so much as ignored. In the author’s own telling, few thought it worthwhile to consult them. The indifference to Newton’s papers in the 18th century is even more astonishing—especially given today’s compulsion to pore over the ephemera of the famous—than the conjecture that the papers were purposely hidden away.
In the 19th century, Ms. Dry asserts, interest in unpublished letters and manuscripts suddenly became “all the craze.” She connects this to the scientific spirit of the age. Biographical claims, like scientific ones, required evidence, and so biographers began scouring unpublished material like naturalists seeking fossils in geological strata. Biographical studies of Newton started to appear, each painting a different image of the man.
After examining letters written by Newton’s acquaintances, the French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Biot claimed in 1822 that Newton had suffered a “mental derangement” in his late 40s—and that his writings on alchemy and theology were products of his madness. In a book published in 1831, Scottish physicist David Brewster tried to defend Newton’s mental health but was forced to agree that Newton did have a temporary nervous breakdown after a fire destroyed his laboratory. Yet, unlike Biot, he played down the heretical nature of the religious writings.
The banker-turned-historian of science Francis Baily inspected the papers left by John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, and found evidence that Newton was a vindictive and duplicitous man who had surreptitiously added a scathingly critical preface to Flamsteed’s own book. Brewster again rode to Newton’s defense with a massive two-volume biography that appeared in 1855.
Brewster had requested, and was granted, permission to examine the Newton papers at Hurstbourne Park. In the 1880s, most of Newton’s scientific manuscripts were donated by the Portsmouths and deposited in the Cambridge University Library, where they remained ignored by scholars for 60 more years. Finally in 1939, much of the stash remaining at Hurstbourne—the material dealing with alchemy and theology—was auctioned off. The economist John Maynard Keynes purchased and studied Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, concluding that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Biblical scholar Abraham Yahuda bought the theological material and came to see Newton as a “monotheist” who wished to “extend the universalistic character of Christianity.” At a time when Jews were being persecuted and murdered across Europe, Yahuda saw Newton as a kind of theological fellow traveler.
Ms. Dry’s style can be overwrought, with sentences like: “The papers of Isaac Newton waited, like a fairytale princess waiting for the prince who would bestow the kind of kiss to end centuries of enchantment.” As she traces the path of Newton’s manuscripts, she also narrates a history of the antiquarian book-selling trade, describing the eventual formation of a “Newton industry” of scholars in the kind of publication-by-publication detail that only a member of that field could enjoy. Her book, though, does succeed in showing how each of the different images of Newton that arose in the centuries after his death could indeed be found in Newton the man—and in the papers he left behind.