On my last post John Pieret of Thoughts in a Haystack added the following comment;
I notice that people often ridicule Newton for practicing alchemy. However, especially given as I understand it, the lack of much in the way of notes left by Newton about what he was doing, I don’t think we can say any more than he was exploring the closest thing to organized chemistry there was at the time. Trades like dying, metallurgy, glass making etc. probably didn’t share information and techniques very much and secrecy was, I’m guessing, pretty wide spread.
As John is obviously confused as to the true extent of Newton’s alchemical activities and their motivation I have written this post for him. On John’s comment Jeb commented;
I think to ridicule Newton for an interest in alchemy or indeed prophecy is an example of presentism.
His interests mark him as a man of his time not our own.
The society and culture he belonged to is a very diffrent ‘kind’ of thing than our own.
He is of course 100% right.
The title of this post is taken from a legendary essay by John Maynard Keynes (yes that J.M. Keynes!) on the life of Isaac Newton in which he revealed a Newton who had remained unknown to the world for two hundred years. When Newton died his papers were inherited by his niece Catherine Conduit (née Barton) who in turn passed them onto her daughter, Catherine who married into the family of the Earl of Portsmouth in whose possession the papers remained until they were auctioned in the 1930s. Keynes managed to acquire many bundles of the auctioned treasures and what he discovered as he read them both shocked and excited him. Newton’s biographers in the 18th and 19th centuries had presented him as the brilliant, rational, mathematical father of modern science a man who had guided the world into a modern age freed of superstition and wizardry. The man whom Keynes discovered in his unpublished manuscripts was a very different animal indeed, a man of very strange beliefs and practices who appeared more at home amongst the necromancers of the Renaissance than the mathematical physicists of the twentieth century. Newton was an alchemist! This discovery seemed almost blasphemous to many of his admirers and at least one Newton expert, whom I wont name, insist against overwhelming evidence that he only dabbled a bit in chemistry and the claims of alchemical secrets and strange beliefs are pure fantasy.
In order to understand Newton’s very deep involvement in the alchemical arts it is first necessary to understand his strange philosophy of knowledge. Newton was a Bible literalist, that is he believed that the Bible was a true and largely accurate account of the history of mankind, and he was a millennialist, that is he believed in a comparatively soon to take place second coming. He devoted a great deal of time and effort into trying to accurately date the creation (teaching himself Greek and Hebrew in the process) as he believed, along with many others in the 16th and 17th centuries, that the second coming would take place six-thousand years after the beginning of the world and that something in the region of five and a half thousand years had already passed. He was also a prisca theologian that is he believed that the original inhabitants of the earth had had a perfect knowledge of the laws of nature and that this knowledge had been lost in the march of time. According to this belief scholars like himself did not discover the laws of nature but rediscover them. Newton actually believed that he had been special chosen by God to receive this knowledge. Newton took up the study of alchemy because he believed that it was one of the oldest forms of Knowledge and therefore by definition closest to the original perfect knowledge that had been lost. Like most contemporary alchemist Newton was most interested in the so-called Hermetic Corpus a collection of Greek texts of supposed Egyptian origins, attributed to Hermes Trimegistus (thrice great) a supposed contemporary of Moses. These texts had been translated into Latin in the 15th century by Ficino but already at the beginning of the 17th century Isaac Causabon had shown by philological analysis that the texts were a product of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.
Newton’s studies in this direction actually started in about 1666 with the chemistry of Robert Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist but had changed within a couple of years to Boyle’s other interest alchemy. Newton would spend a large part of the next thirty years studying alchemy including six months every year of alchemical experiment in a garden shed that he had erected in the gardens of his college especially for this purpose. He acquired, read and annotated a large library of alchemical literature and wrote a vast number of manuscripts on the subject (some of which Keynes acquired), which however display little originality but are more an attempt to organise and codify his readings into some sort of systematic science. His alchemy was not conducted in isolation from his other more legitimate scientific activities but actually informed and guided his entire academic endeavours.
When he finally left Cambridge for London to take up his post as Warden of the Mint in 1696 he also gave up his alchemical investigations but in his new work he put the practical knowledge of experimental chemical procedures that he had acquired in all those years of investigation to use. At the mint he devised new and better methods of assaying metals to control their purity.
For thirty of his years in his prime Isaac Newton was a fully-fledged practicing alchemist searching for the ancient secrets of knowledge that he believed alchemy could and would reveal to him, God’s anointed. He even conducted an alchemical correspondence with Robert Boyle and John Locke the thought of which fills me with a certain sense of amusement. Here we have three of the greatest founders of the modern rational scientific world indulging in the pursuit of one of the most arcane forms of woo that have ever existed.
The definitive books on Newton the Alchemist are both by Betty-Jo Teeter Dobbs;
The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy or “The hunting of the greene lyon”, CUP, 1975
The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thoughts, CUP, 1991.