Sir Isaac Newton's Occult Studies
"After Isaac Newton was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705 he adopted an unusual coat of arms: a pair of human tibiæ crossed on a black background, like a pirate flag without the skull. After some general reflections on Newton’s monumental scientific achievements and on his enigmatic life, we investigate the story of his coat of arms. We also discuss how its simple design illustrates the concept of chirality, which would later play an important role in the philosophical arguments about Newton’s conception of space, as well as in the development of modern chemistry and particle physics."
image and quote source: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1310.7494.pdf
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Newton's Occulted Studies
"Leibniz, who rejected the Newtonian theory of gravity, originated the claim that Newton conceived of gravity as an “occult quality,” an aspersion that Newton strenuously denied "
"Newton’s private writings do evince a keen involvement with alchemy and its arcane imagery, but at the time there was no clear boundary between alchemy as mysti- cism and alchemy as early modern chemistry. Moreover, the otherworldliness of alchemy as practiced in New- ton’s day may have been exaggerated by 19th-century occultists and those influenced by their interpretations Newton’s alchemical interests, which he shared with em- inent contemporaries such as Robert Boyle and John Locke, undoubtedly influenced his atomism On the other hand, the notion that alchemy contributed to his conception of gravity as an action at a distance may be, according to the most recent scholarship, “something of a canard.”
Leibniz, who rejected the Newtonian theory of gravity, originated the claim that Newton conceived of gravity as an “occult quality,” an aspersion that Newton strenuously denied Explaining that he did not “feign hy- potheses” about the mechanism by which gravity acted across empty space, Newton presented his theory as a mathematical description of gravity’s observable ef- fects, an attitude wholly compatible with modern sci- entific principles. According to a tradition collected by Voltaire, when the elderly Newton was asked how he had discovered his celebrated law of universal gravitation, he replied: “by thinking on it continually.”
Newton was a devout but unorthodox Christian who privately rejected the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the immortality of the soul as unscriptural and idolatrous.34 He dedicated a considerable effort to es- tablishing a chronology of human civilization, combining his belief in the wisdom of the ancients and in the his- toricity of the Bible with innovative uses of astronomy and other quantitative techniques. A failure from the standpoint of our current understanding of history, that work does shed light on Newton’s attitudes towards the various branches of learning.
Philosopher Richard Popkin tried to make theology the key to Newton’s intellectual development, provocatively asking why “one of the greatest anti-Trinitarian theolo- gians of the 17th century” took “time off to write works on natural science, like the Principia Mathematica?” But the fact that, in due course, Newton’s mathematics and physics were decisively embraced by an international community of scholars, the vast majority of whom were either ignorant of his religious convictions or actively hos- tile to them, suggests that Newton’s theology can con- tribute little to elucidating the content of his science. Even Newton’s belief that divine intervention is needed to keep the planets on their regular orbits —as theologically charged a claim about nature as he ever published — was based on the mathematical laws of gravity that he had abstracted from astronomical observations, and the problem that he thereby raised, the dynamical stability of the solar system, has continued to occupy physicists and mathematicians to this day.
In my view, if there is something to learn today from Newton’s religion, and more broadly from his life beyond his immortal work in the exact sciences, it is a lesson close to Max Weber’s “elective affinities” between the worldview associated with certain historical strands of Protestant Christianity, and the scientific and industrial revolutions.40 According to historian Stephen Snobelen, “in his biblicism, piety and morality, Newton was a pu- ritan through and through.” The central paradox of Newton’s life is close to what Weber underlined in his analysis of the growth of capitalism: that the Puritans, whose convictions seem so remote from our perspective,
contributed decisively to creating the modern world. In the context of the radical English Puritanism of the 17th century —of the religion of Oliver Cromwell, John Mil- ton, and the Pilgrim Fathers— the man Isaac Newton gains some intelligibility.
Puritanism and its legacy have long been contentious in English-language historiography, as reflected, for in- stance, in the widely diverging evaluations of Oliver Cromwell’s rule.43 Newton’s own (doctrinally heterodox) Puritanism may account, in part, for the antipathy of some of his biographers. Historian Frank Manuel saw the prosecution of counterfeiters during Newton’s tenure at the Mint as an opportunity for the great man to “hurt and kill without doing violence to his scrupulous puri- tan conscience,” adding that “the blood of the coiners and clippers nourished him.”44 Rupert Hall dismissed this “sadistic vampire” portrait as “blood-tub Victorian melodrama rather than biography.”