Isaac Newton received much fame in his lifetime. He was professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, served two terms as Member of Parliament, became Master of the Royal Mint, and President of the Royal Society. As Master of the Mint he was in charge of issuing new currency and cracking down on counterfeiters; he took this job very seriously and about two dozen counterfeiters were executed under his watch.
He was hailed for his part in the unfolding scientific revolution by laying the foundations of classical mechanics in his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (or simply Principia), first published in 1687, and as a co-developer of infinitesimal calculus.
He used the law of universal gravitation to explain planetary motion and terrestrial phenomena such as tides, built the first practical reflecting telescope, and wrote an influential book on light. The Principia was praised for presenting a new view of the physical world as clockwork, governed by physical laws.
We are not interested here in his dispute with Robert Hooke regarding priority in the discovery of universal gravitation law since, in the words of the historian Ofer Gal, the assumption of “inverse proportion between gravity and the square of distance was rather common and had been advanced by a number of different people for different reasons” by 1660s.
He had a dispute with Leibniz regarding priority in the invention of calculus. Leibniz gave an account of his methods in 1684 and Newton did not describe his method fully until 1714, but his supporters claimed that the Principia had implicitly used calculus.
Newton’s great contribution was a synthesis of ideas into a theory to explain experimental results. By not wishing to go beyond the theory, he made his presentation elegant and sparse. Thus in gravitational attraction, he saw no need to explain how action at a distance worked.
Some claim that he saw the place of God in the initial conditions, in reality he believed that as an agent God could intervene in process. He said: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” Undoubtedly he was aware that the clockwork universe was incomplete for it did not explain human beings or other agents.
His alchemy and occult studies became widely known only in the last century. He personally thought that these studies were far more important than his mathematics, which explains why he carried on this work for nearly thirty years, although it was kept largely hidden from his contemporaries.
This work, to our modern eyes, is so thoroughly silly so as to be beyond ridicule. How could he have spent so much time on ideas that made no sense, which sages from the ancient world thousands of years prior to him would have laughed at?
After studying Newton’s alchemical works, the economist John Maynard Keynes declared at the tercentenary of Newton’s birth in 1942 that he “was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.” But if one looks dispassionately at his record one finds that he was less a magician in his occult preoccupations and more of a simpleton who was even out of touch with his contemporary scientists and philosophers.
He believed he found a recipe for the philosophers’ stone, a substance that could turn base metals like iron and lead into gold and also help humans achieve immortality. He thought the philosophers’ stone was located at the center of the Earth and this created first what he called progenitors (that he believed were like spirits) of precious metals. The transmutation of minerals took place at the center of the Earth and from there they migrated to the crust.
He wrote: “Indeed, these spirits meet with metallic solutions and will mix with them. And when they are in a state of motion and vegetation, they will putrefy [and] destroy the metallic form and convert [it] into spirits similar to themselves. Which can then ascend again and thus a perpetual circulation of metals takes place.”
Communication with angels and Day of Judgment
He believed in angels and the possibility of communicating with them. Perhaps this is why he believed he had been specially chosen by God for the understanding of Biblical scripture. He wrote a forensic analysis of the Bible in an effort to decode divine prophecies.
This is what he thought happens on the Day of Judgment: “When the saints & martyrs rise from the dead it is to be conceived that they converse only with one another, & appear not to mortals unless perhaps upon very extraordinary occasions, for the children of the resurrection are as the Angels in heaven. And after the thousand years are expired the rest of the dead live again small & great & the books are opened & all the dead are judged according to their works & whoever is not found written in the book of life is cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
He added: “This day of judgment, the ancient of days sits on a great white throne & the earth & heaven flee away & there appears a new heaven & new earth & God makes all things new & a new Jerusalem comes down from God out of heaven which for its power & dominion & glory & righteousness is compared to a city of gems & the nations do bring their glory into it, & they reign for ages of ages.”
Chronology and End of the World
Biblical chronology is a favorite subject for those who accept a literal reading of the book. Bishop James Ussher (1581 –1656) analyzed Biblical accounts to establish the time and date of the creation as around 6 pm on 22 October 4004 BCE. The passage of time from the Creation to the Exodus is measured by adding the ages of the patriarchs at the birth of their firstborn sons and the reigns of the kings of Israel.
Newton took these chronological studies seriously. His book The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended appeared posthumously in 1728. In a manuscript he wrote in 1704, he used the epistle ascribed to Barnabas which says that “in six thousand years shall all things be accomplished” to conclude that the world was going to come to an end in 2060.
This is what Newton wrote: “So then the time times & half a time are 42 months or 1260 days or three years & an half, reckoning twelve months to a year & 30 days to a month as was done in the Calendar of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of [long-] lived kingdoms the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner.”
He took great earthquakes as signs of disapproval from God. He thought that God had created caves in the mountains to hide idols of the non-believers.
He was also a believer in numerology and he argued that “the number of the Beast 666 is to be counted in such manner as the number of God’s servants 144000 was counted.”
From our vantage point, how to explain Newton’s alchemy? It tells us something about the human mind for if Newton chose to see only certain things and ignore others that is because in the words of Henri Bergson: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
Newton’s approach to the world didn’t die with his passing. The idea of machine-like interaction of humans and classes led to the ideology of Marx and the many tyrannies it has engendered. Our contemporary elites who are seeking world government based on neoliberal economics seem to be driven by similar ideas.
In the sciences, those who believe that artificial intelligence will lead to conscious machines belong to this same mind-set.