The Last of the Magicians

1674-1692

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These familiar quotations from Newton are sometimes presented as expressions of his humility (a quality not otherwise much in evidence in his thinking). In fact, though, it became clear in the course of the twentieth century that they are really an expression of Newton being not just a great scientist, but a kook. Here’s a less familiar quotation
from Newton about the intellectual origins of heliocentrism

It was the opinion of not a few, in the earliest ages of philosophy … that under the fixed stars the planets were carried about the sun; that the earth, as one of the planets, described an annual course about the sun, while by a diurnal motion it was in time revolved about its own axis. … This was the philosophy taught of old by Philolaus, Aristarchus of Samos, Plato, … and of that wise king of the Romans, Numa Pompilius, who, as a symbol of the figure of the world, erected a round temple … and ordained perpetual fire to be kept in the middle of it.

The Egyptians were early observers of the heavens; and from them, probably, this philosophy was spread abroad among other nations … It was their way to deliver their mysteries, that is, their philosophy of things above the common way of thinking, under the veil of religioius rites and hieroglyphic symbols.

The Renaissance was committed to recovering the ancient past. This led not only to the recovery of ancient art, literature and science, but also to the recovery of a whole body of ancient magic and pseudoscience. For example, many Renaissance thinkers, and Newton, were fascinated by the mystical writings of “Thrice Great Hermes,” an alleged Egyptian sage. By Newton’s time it had already been demonstrated that these writings were “pseudepigraphia,” a nice scholarly term for “fakes”; Hermes Trismegistus never existed. Nevertheless, Newton was convinced that there was an esoteric tradition preserved by the ancient Egyptians, passed on to Moses, Pythagoras, and Plato, and hidden away in the Bible. Read the Bible or Pythagoras closely enough and you could recover the inverse square law of gravitation. Newton spent huge amounts of time throughout his life trying to recover further scientific secrets from the Bible.

John Maynard Keynes, who got hold of some of Newton’s papers wrote

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.

I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.

After Newton, it became clear that modern science had surpassed anything achieved by the ancient world, and natural science and the humanities went their separate ways. Reverence for the secret wisdom of the ancients would survive in the weird Masonic pyramid on the back of the US one dollar bill, and in the novels of Dan Brown.

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