Now Thom has written a book that is intended for popular consumption and has as I have noted above done an excellent job of it. In fact his work is so excellently researched and argued that I am going to do him the honour of treating it as an academic volume and reviewing it as such. This means that much of what follows will appear to be negative but appearances can deceive. When an author write a serious work of history he presents an interpretation of the facts of the case as he sees them; alone what he considers to be the facts is an interpretation. A second historian working in the same field, who reads and reviews this work will consider the theories of the author embracing them if he is in agreement and criticising them where he is not. Thus the presented work and its review will form the basis of a dialogue that helps to further our general understanding of the period or events under discussion.
In general, as should be clear from my review of the popular book above, I embrace most of the interpretation that Mr Levenson presents us with but in some points I think that he is in error with his interpretations or has ignored what I consider to be important facts. My first disagreement is a relatively minor one and concerns the measurement of the size of the earth that Newton used to make his first calculations of a force of gravity (pp 17-18). It was not as Thom writes the mariners who had refined these measurements in the proceeding two centuries but the astronomers and cartographers, who were in fact one and the same. Also if one points out that Newton’s first attempt to demonstrate a universal force of gravity failed because of an inaccurate value for the diameter of the earth then one should, in my opinion, also point out that his second attempt 20 years later succeeded because the French astronomer Jean Picard (whose birthday it is today) had produced an accurate value for the earth’s diameter in the mean time. My second criticism has more to do with what I see as an unfortunate turn of phrase that then creates a misleading impression, Thom writes: “So he [Locke] asked Huygens – after Newton the most important scientific thinker of the day – whether he could accept the Principia’s technical arguments on faith, simply assuming their validity.” Now at the time of Locke’s inquiry Huygens was the most important scientific thinker of the day and would remain so, in the eyes of his contemporaries, for quite some time to come. Although the publication of the Principia lifted Newton into the top rank of European science it would be some time before he was seen as the primus and that not till long after Huygens’ death.
As I have already pointed out in my previous review Thom does an excellent job of describing Newton’s alchemical activities and their importance for his whole scientific enterprise but in one of his main conclusions I think he errs. This is also a point in which I think something fundamental to Newton’s story in missing in Thom’s account. Thom argues that Newton’s alchemical researches were intended to display “divine action (i.e. the presence of God) in nature” (p.84) in order to dispel the threat of atheism inherent in the mechanical philosophy. I see the function of Newton’s alchemy differently. Newton was a prisca theologian that is he believed that when God created the world the first humans were in possession of perfect knowledge of that world, since the creation mankind had degenerated and this knowledge had become lost. Newton’s own discoveries in natural philosophy were not discoveries but re-discoveries of this once held knowledge and he, Newton, had been especially chosen by God to make these re-discoveries. His studies in alchemy were motivated by the fact that alchemy was ‘the oldest’ form of knowledge and if he could unlock the secrets of alchemy then it would bring him closer to the source of that original, now lost, perfect knowledge of the natural world. Newton’s prisca theology which I think is absolutely essential in understanding the complex nexus of science, religion and alchemy that made up Newton’s research programme does not get a mention in Thom’s otherwise excellent account.
My last criticism is also of what I see as a serious omission and this time of a central player Charles Montague. Now Charles Montague does in fact appear several times in Thom’s narrative but only as a minor figure whereas in fact he was the central figure in Newton’s work in economics and at the Mint. Montague was a dominant figure in the politics of England in the third quarter of Newton’s life and Newton’s most important patron. They had become ‘intimate’ (Newton’s own expression) friends when Montague was a student a Cambridge and it was Montague who acquired the post at the Mint for Newton, not as Thom says at the request of Locke but at the direct request of Newton. On page 109 Thom writes that William Lowndes, Secretary of the Treasury, “wrote a letter asking advice of England’s wisest men. Some were obvious choices. John Locke had written a series of papers on money and trade… Sir Christopher Wren had extensive experience… Charles Davenant was one of England’s leading…etc. etc. But Newton?” Elementary my dear Thomas, Lowndes’ boss Montague the Chancellor of the Exchequer had told him to include his intimate friend Isaac. Montague stands at the centre of all the economic discussions and activities that form such an important part of the story Thom tells but Thom has banished him to the shadows, why? As a closing comment that has nothing to do with the story Thom tells so well, it was Montague who arranged for Newton to be knighted not as is commonly claimed because of his services to science but to help him win a parliamentary election in Cambridge. It didn’t help, Newton lost but even Isaac couldn’t win them all.