- 9 pages
- Level: high school and above
Mordecai Feingold wrote this 2019 article in response to work by Robert Illife that emphasized Isaac Newton’s religious life. The article was published in the journal Annals of Science. Feingold thinks Illife offers too static a portrait of Newton’s religious views, portraying Newton as always on a quest to live a saintly life. Feingold asks whether Newton’s path was “quite so straight or did the formative saint emerge gradually, after 1680”, after the death of Newton’s mother, and urges “the possibility that just as Newton’s scientific ideas evolved over time, so did his theological opinions.” This would explain why the first edition of his Principia was largely devoid of references to religion, while his later additions contained much more religious content.
What follows is an excerpt from the article. Click here to access the entire article from Annals of Science. The article can also be freely read through many libraries via EBSCOhost Academic Search Complete (consult your local library for information).
ANNALS OF SCIENCE, 2019, VOL. 76, PAGES 210-218
Half a century ago, Frank Manuel published an original and provocative ‘portrait’ of Isaac Newton. Seeking to better comprehend the elusive mind-set of the great man, Manuel availed himself of psychoanalytic tools as he conjured the possibility of a profound emotional bond between Newton and God. Manuel was unable to determine ‘the precise origins’ of Newton’s anti-Trinitarianism. What he did locate, however, was a ‘religious dedication’ which, Manuel was convinced, permeated all of Newton’s works. Three years later, after consulting the Yahuda manuscripts in Jerusalem, Manuel found confirmation of his previous intuitive assessment: Newton conceived himself to be the elected ‘priest-scientist’ of his generation, from whom ‘nothing had been withheld’. Equally to the point, Newton’s ‘scrutiny of nature’ – in Manuel’s exegesis – ‘was directed almost exclusively not to the increase of sensate pleasure or comfort’, but to the knowledge of God. Such a broad-stroked sketch of Newton’s religiosity assumed a timeless Newton, consistent and unwavering throughout the eight and a half decades of his life. Consumed from the start by a psychic quest for his father, so the argument persisted, Newton and his research ‘were animated by one overwhelming desire, to know God’s will through His works in the world.’
In [the 2017 book] Priest of Nature Rob Iliffe largely avoids psychologizing. Respectfully acknowledging his standing on the shoulders of previous scholars, Iliffe rightly claims to have produced the ‘first extended examination of Newton’s early research’ on prophecy, church history, Christian doctrine and natural theology (p. 22). Whereas Manuel only sampled the theological manuscripts, Iliffe luxuriates in them. As the acting director of the Newton Project, he read, over and over, every surviving word written by Newton and, indeed, such unprecedented familiarity with the content of Newton’s manuscripts enables Iliffe to accomplish the best reconstruction to date of Newton’s theological opinions. Significantly, in contrast to Manuel – who made little effort to engage with Newton’s scientific ideas – Iliffe appraises Newton’s intellectual and religious endeavours in tandem. Equally to the point, Iliffe surpasses previous scholars in recognizing the need to furnish the requisite social and academic context within which Newton lived and worked.
And yet, much like Manuel, Iliffe conceptualizes Newton’s religiosity as something static and proleptic. He posits the intensity of Newton’s radical faith, the obsessiveness with which he scrutinized Scripture, and his aversion to Anglican worship, as single constants in Newton’s life. This assessment is informed, to a large extent, by statements made by John Conduitt and William Stukeley during the late 1720s—regarding their perceptions of Newton’s faith – which Iliffe assumes to be equally valid for the previous half century. The extent to which this assumption informs Iliffe’s careful reconstruction of the theological manuscripts is the focus of this essay. Since previous reviewers have already delineated, and justly applauded, Iliffe’s major contribution to our understanding of the content of the theological manuscripts, I find it unnecessary to cover similar ground here. Instead, I find it more fruitful to focus on and challenge a premise underlying Iliffe’s careful and caring reconstruction of the manuscripts, to which previous reviewers have paid little attention. By questioning Iliffe’s construal of Newton’s career as something uniform and timeless, I wish to posit the possibility of a more jagged intellectual trajectory for the young Newton than any suggested by Priest of Nature, beginning with its most basic scaffolding: chapter titles and subchapter headings. ‘A Divine Web’ sets out Newton’s earliest years; ‘A Spiritual Ant’ his undergraduate days. Subchapters also suggest messages of an ever-saintly constructed identity: ‘A godly boy’, ‘Godly discipline’ and ‘A Young Saint’. Hence, I wish to begin my line of questioning here, in Newton’s youth: was his path quite so straight or did the formative saint emerge gradually, after 1680?