Back in May the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones asked, “Is Leonardo da Vinci a great artist or a great scientist?” making, as I pointed out at the time, a serious category mistake. Something must be in the drinking water at the Guardian because now Stuart Clark on the Guardians Science Blogs is asking “Was Newton a scientist or a sorcerer?” making, you guessed it, a serious category mistake. As my Internet friend Tom Levenson, who is himself something of a Newton expert, pointed out on twitter Gotta stop with “Scientist and/or sorcerer” nonsense. Newton never saw himself in those terms… In fact Tom’s tweet says it all but for those not in the know, who might want to learn more, I will elaborate.
For all those at the back who haven’t been paying attention Newton cannot have been a scientist because the term was first coined by William Whewell in 1833 and did not come into common usage until around 1870. There are those who will immediately say that Newton thought like a modern scientist so it doesn’t matter if the term is anachronistic he was one, so there. The problem with this claim is that it’s based on a very limited knowledge of Newton, his life, his work and the way he thought. Put very simply Newton did not think like a modern scientist, which brings us to the second prong of Stuart Clark’s dichotomy.
Clark calls Newton a sorcerer because he was a practicing alchemist, which displays an immense ignorance of the world of seventeenth century thought on his part. A sorcerer is a practitioner of magic in fact a practitioner of black magic and that is a very, very different thing from an alchemist. What follows is a brief outline as to why Clark’s appellation is so inappropriate (with apologies to all serious historians of alchemy, astrology and natural magic for a totally inadequate explanation of these disciplines in the early modern period).
In the early modern period there are three so-called occult (occult just means hidden or concealed) sciences: astrology, natural magic and alchemy all of which found their legitimacy in the micro-cosmos macro-cosmos philosophy. This cosmology says as above so below or the world we live in is a reflection of the heavens. Astrology investigates the connections between the heavens and the earth and tries to define the heavenly or celestial influences. Both natural magic and alchemy are methods that try or at least hope to directly influence or manipulate those influences. Practitioners of all three disciplines distance themselves clearly from demonic or black magic that tries to manipulate nature through demonic powers. A sorcerer is a user of demonic magic.
Newton rejected both astrology and natural magic and is also on record as not believing in witches or ghost so I think we can safely say he also rejected demonic magic, so he definitely wasn’t a sorcerer. He was however a convinced alchemist. This was not a mild side-line or passing fantasy as some commentators on Clark’s post would like to believe, the study of alchemy was his main occupation six months of the year for about thirty years. Also this was not after he ceased doing scientific work as many sources would have you believe but parallel to his main period of scientific activity between 1666 and 1696 when he gave up academia to move to London and the Royal Mint. It is important to understand that for Newton and his fellow alchemists, which included Robert Boyle and John Locke, alchemy was an epistemic discipline that is a branch of knowledge like optics or mechanics.
So Newton was neither a scientist nor a sorcerer so what was he? We have already seen he was a committed alchemist, what else?
Newton was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge so it is safe to call him a mathematician. To find out what he was we can look at his two principle publications The Optics and Principia. The Optics is basically a book on geometrical optics, which was then still a sub-discipline of mathematics, in fact Newton in his roll as professor lectured on optics, so this can safely be subsumed under his roll as mathematician. The Principia is actually titled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or in English The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, all of which tells us that Newton was a natural philosopher. So we have mathematician and natural philosopher. However the title of his main work tells us that he was a representative of a fairly new breed of academic the mathematical natural philosopher. Newton wasn’t the first of this genus, which had slowly evolved since sometime in the High Middle Ages, Galileo, Kepler, Borelli and Huygens being other examples from the seventeenth century.
Maybe we could restate Clarks question as “Was Newton a mathematical natural philosopher or an alchemist?” but should we do so we would be again doing Newton an injustice. We are back to the reason that Newton did not think like a modern scientist. For Newton his theological studies (that I haven’t dealt with here) and his alchemical studies were an integral part of his natural philosophical investigations, in fact they were at the very heart of those investigations so to present these two aspects of his work as a dichotomy would be totally false.
In his blog post Clark quotes a footnote from Richard Westfall one of the deans of Newton studies:
“My modes of thought are so far removed from those of alchemy that I am constantly uneasy in writing on the subject … [Nevertheless] my personal preferences cannot make more than a million words he wrote in the study of alchemy disappear.”
He then goes on to quote novelist Rebecca Stott:
“Westfall admitted to wishing that he could make those million words disappear.”
This is a complete misrepresentation. It was one of Westfall’s doctoral students Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs who wrote the definitive account of Newton’s alchemical studies The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or the Hunting of the Green Lyon and also the definitive account of how his alchemy fitted into his approach to knowledge The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Both books are highly recommended for anybody who wishes to know more about Isaac the Alchemist.
For an excellent short account of the misrepresentation of Newton’s alchemical activities I recommend this post from last year by Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt at he blog Teleskopos: Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise?