Newton and Alchemy I: John Maynard Keynes and the Myth of Newton the Magician

On 13 and 14 July 1936, a huge amount of private papers of Isaac Newton belonging to Viscount Lymington were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. The auction was not a big success: the entire collection only raised £9,000 (this would be c. £640,000 today according to this calculator).[1] Still, the auction drew the attention of one famous man – the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), who ended up buying many of the papers. There were two main subjects addressed by Newton’s private papers: alchemy and theology. Keynes was mainly interested in the alchemical papers, while a Jewish scholar and collector, Abraham Yahuda, bought most of the theological ones.[2]

Isaac Newton in 1689 by Godfrey Kneller. Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain

Keynes seemed to be fascinated by Newton’s interest in alchemy, so much so that, after going through many of the manuscripts, he seems to have joined the newly-established Society for the History of Alchemy & Early Chemistry (now the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry) in September 1937.[3] But World War II and subsequent negotiations interfered with his research. Still, he made two presentations on Newton in 1942 and 1943.[4] Keynes’s speeches, together with his notes, were synthesised and read posthumously by his brother Geoffrey at the Newton Tercentenary Celebrations (Trinity College, Cambridge), on 17 July 1946. Keynes himself had died in April of that year of a heart attack, which he suffered in the midst of negotiating a large loan from the USA to a quasi-bankrupt postwar Britain. In turn, Keynes’ paper ‘Newton the Man,’ published in 1937 in the conference proceedings, made a huge impact on later studies of Newton, as William R. Newman points out in his recent book Newton the Alchemist.[5]

Keynes was a revolutionary thinker, by far the most influential economist of the twentieth century. His theories were geared against the Western consensus that advocated the policy of laissez-faire, having faith in the self-regulatory power of the markets. In the wake of the Great Depression, he successfully militated toward government intervention as way of wronging social injustice. Due to the 2008 financial crash and the coronavirus crisis, his policies are making a come-back across the world.[6]

Keynes’s power of rhetoric was recognised by both friends and enemies alike. His speeches have been compared to those of Winston Churchill for their persuasiveness and appeal. Keynes’s combination of rhetoric skill and ‘revolutionary’ attitude was not confined to his economic discourse; it is, in fact, particularly well expressed in ‘Newton the Man.’

Armed with the precious weapons of Newton’s manuscripts, Keynes sets out to contradict the received view of Newton as:

the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.

John Maynard Keynes (right) greeting U.S. Treasury Assistant Secretary Harry Dexter White, one month before Keynes died. Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain (from IMF)

We can imagine this imposing Cambridge man who was once called ‘a complete dramatist,’[7] pausing, leaning back, then, grabbing the edges of the lectern, stating in the microphone in an emphatic tone: ‘I do not see him in this light.’ The verdict of the great economist comes soon after, in the same definitive style: ‘Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.’[8]

Undoubtedly, Keynes meant to shock the venerable academic community gathered to celebrate Newton in Cambridge. If such statements were not sufficient, he went even further by making a thinly veiled comparison between Newton, ‘born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642,’ and Jesus Christ. Both were deserving of the homage of the Biblical Magi, he suggests.[9]

It is clear at this stage that Keynes held Newton in high regard, but not necessarily for the same reasons as the classical historians of science. For Keynes, Newton was chiefly ‘the magician’.[10] To uphold this striking image, he engages in an alternative biography of Newton’s life. The account begins by evoking Isaac the ‘child’ or ‘young magician’.[11] If it were not anachronistic, we could imagine Harry Potter, the wizard prodigy, as essentially embodying Keynes’ youthful Newton.

But, we learn, Newton did not abandon his ‘magic’ when he grew mature. He wrote a huge amount of ‘books of magic’, which comprise around 1,000,000 words of text.[12] His writings may come across as a kind of ‘madness,’ Keynes says, but ‘[t]hey are just as sane as the Principia, if their whole matter and purpose were not magical.’[13]

We may conclude from this that Newton’s papers contain only, or mainly, speculations on magic. In fact, there’s hardly any mention of magic or magicians in the manuscripts.[14] Instead, Keynes divides the subject matter of Newton’s papers in three categories: Newton’s theological Anti-Trinitarian speculation, his ‘apocalyptic’ writings, and his papers on alchemy. Newton’s books of magic contain, in fact, no magic.

Then why call them ‘magical’ in the first place? There are several explanations. One is provided by Newman: Keynes had been influenced by the famous writing of James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890), which lumped many practices as ‘magic’.[15] Another is that he may have been influenced by the view that placed the beginnings of alchemy in ancient Babylonia or Assyria, an area associated with the Magi of Biblical tradition. Thus we may perhaps explain Keynes’s reference to ‘Babylonians and Sumerians’ and to Newton’s belief in brethren that received ‘the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia’.[16] Perhaps the key explanation is provided by a simple semantic analysis of Keynes’s text: when he says that the collection ‘is wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value,’ he clearly associates ‘magical’ with ‘non-scientific’. In other words, Keynes terms all of the writings that do not fit the 18th and 19th century paradigm of science as ‘magic’.

Yet Keynes is not a positivist thinker; in fact, in a different essay that addresses Newton, he talks about ‘the horrors of modern science’.[17] He is clearly sympathetic to this strange ‘magic’ of Newton, and uses it to espouse a distinctly Romantic view of genius:

He was less ordinary, more extraordinary, than the nineteenth century cared to make him out. Geniuses are very peculiar… Newton was profoundly neurotic of a… most extreme example. His deepest instincts were occult, esoteric, semantic – with profound shrinking from the world, a paralysing fear of exposing his thoughts, his beliefs, his discoveries.[18]

This kind of portrayal might arouse in our mind the image of a Coleridge or a Byron, not of Newton. Yet Keynes inherits a rather mythical view of the solitary Newton who would be able to ‘hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret’.[19] Even more, Keynes thinks that Newton was not an experimentalist, but a thinker who was able to penetrate the secrets of nature only by intuition or insight. Somehow Newton was capable of ‘applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world’.[20] Keynes takes pains to argue that, for Newton, proof was only ‘dressing up’ his aprioric discovery.[21] Hence, Newton’s ‘experiments were always, I suspect, a means, not of discovery, but always of verifying what he knew already’.[22]

What can we conclude from this? It is clear that ‘Newton the Man’ talks just as much about Keynes’s ideas of discovery and genius as about Newton himself. Keynes was a mathematician by training, and he seemed to have an attraction for the ‘pure thought’ that he imagined Newton was engaging in. Keynes thus positioned himself in the camp of those historians that regarded him as an unique genius who had not used experimental techniques to achieve his results.[23]

This Keynesian view of Newton did not fail to impress. Despite Keynes’s cavalier use of terms and evidence, there was an inherent appeal to his particular image of Newton as an eccentric and unconventional genius, though of course the trope was nothing new. What was new was the insistence on the non-rational, ‘magical’ element of his personality. Keynes’ image of a man ‘with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot treading a path for modern science’[24] was going to be taken up and further expanded by the historian of science B.J.T. Dobbs in her two books, the latter of which is explicitly drawing on the same imagery: The Janus Faces of Genius (1991). However, the later scholarship on Newton will be examined in a future article.

If you wish to participate to a discussion on Newton and alchemy, the Philosophical Cafe will be hosting Professor William R. Newman on 6 November 2020, at 6pm GMT (UK),  7pm GMT+1 (Central Europe), 8pm GMT+2 (Eastern Europe), 1pm Eastern (US). The YouTube preview is available here. Join us live on Zoom or YouTube!  


References

[1] If we consider that the box contained hundreds of pages, and just this summer two single pages of Newton were auctioned at Bonhams with £62,973, this seems a meagre amount.  

[3] For more information, see The Newton Project (http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/view/images/OTHE00071?page=9).

[4] Daniel Kuehn, ‘Keynes, Newton and the Royal Society: The Events of 1942 and 1943,’ in Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 67:1 (2013), https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2012.0053.

[5] John Maynard Keynes, ‘Newton, the Man,’ in Essays in Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Royal Economic Society, 2013), 363, originally in Newton Tercentenary Celebrations, 15-19 July 1946 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), 27-34; William R. Newman, Newton the Alchemist (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 3-7.

[6] As an example, see this article in The Conversation.

[7] According to Lord Macmillan; in Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, ed. Donald Moggridge et al, 30 vols (London: MacMillan and Cambridge University Press, 171-1989), vol. 20, 84.

[8] Keynes, 363-64.

[9] Keynes, 364.

[10] Keynes, 366.

[11] Keynes 364, 373.

[12] Keynes, 371.

[13] Keynes, 368.

[14] Newton does mention the Magi in connection with the religion of fire he argued to have existed in ancient times, but there’s no mention of magic there.

[15] Newman, 3, with reference to Keynes’ Treatise on Probability (1921).

[16] Keynes, 364, 366. This view was chiefly stated by Robert Eisler, ‘Der Babylonische Ursprung der Alchemie’, Chemiker Zeitung 83 and 86 (1925), 577-58, 602; but seemed indirectly supported by R.C. Thompson, who published a piece in ‘A Survey of the Chemistry of Assyria in the Seventh Century BC’, Ambix 2:1 (1938), 3-16. The theory has since been discredited.

[17] Keynes, 377.

[18] Keynes, 363, 364. The portrayal of Newton as neurotic was already present in J.F. Nisbet, The Insanity of Genius (London, 1891).

[19] Keynes, 365.

[20] Keynes, 366.

[21] Keynes, 365.

[22] Keynes, 366.

[23] on the debate, see Richard Yeo, ‘Genius, Method and Morality: Images of Newton in Britain, 1760-1860,’ Science in Context 2:2 (1988), 257-84.

[24] Keynes, 370.

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