„Fine tuning” the profetic history: or how a skilled Cambridge theologian became Isaac Newton

Dana Jalobeanu

(Rob Iliffe, Priest of Nature. The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Recent years saw a remarkable revival in the field of Newton studies: new books on Newton’s method, on Newton’s empiricism, on Newton’s biblical studies or on the strange fate and destiny of Newton’s manuscripts. Now, Rob Illiffe offers to general public a new and quite exciting biography of the strange scholar who spent decades perusing treatises of alchemy and theology, dabbled in prophecy and numerology, experimented with light, poisoned himself with mercury and managed to become, at the end of his life, the universally acclaimed scientist of the modern era. 

The Priest of Nature tells a rather different story than the one you would expect. Its main character, Isaac Newton, is a scholar and a theologian, formed in the very special atmosphere of academic freedom granted, in the 1660s, by the strong (symbolic) walls of the University of Cambridge. There, in the same decades in which historians of science have documented the birth of Newton’s optics, and of Newton’s celestial mechanics, Rob Illiffe reconstructs, from a wide array of documents, the formation and evolution of an insightful and original theologian. A “godly scholar,” a learned and competent interpreter of the Scriptures, versed in church history, with an original interpretation of prophecies, an excellent command of patristic sources and a deeply revisionist view of the history of Christianity.

Newton’s complete theological investigations spanned three decades; but unearthing them from the millions of words of his theological manuscripts will certainly take much longer. Rob Iliffe, one of the initiators of the Newton project, had a major contribution both in making these manuscripts available online, and in providing contemporary scholars with some keys to access the “religious worlds of Isaac Newton,” i.e., Newton’s numerous projects of historicizing theology, writing a history of religion(s), setting up a universal chronology, interpreting the prophecies and the Apocalypse etc.

And yet, Priest of Nature is not simply a book on Newton’s theology. Rob Iliffe has given us an engaging intellectual biography in the strict sense of the term, i.e., a story of intellectual formation of a deeply original thinker with many scholarly interests spanning fields difficult to classify in modern and contemporary terms. In contrast with the received view of a Newton engaged in theology, science and politics, Iliffe depicts a finer-grained picture of a seventeenth century scholar performing brilliantly within the confines of seventeenth-century disciplines of practical divinity and Biblical interpretation, church history and chronology, natural philosophy and mathematics, faculty psychology, alchemy and experimentation. Each of these disciplines was regulated by specific rules of practice, interpretative techniques, and sometimes by common methods of investigation and argumentation. Questions of genre, types of argumentation and style of writing are of essence in this fascinating story of the making of Isaac Newton; a story reflecting many of the recent twists and turns resulting from the “exciting chase” through Newton’s manuscripts.

Priest of Nature takes the reader through the main episodes of the making of Isaac Newton, from his religious upbringing and university education (Chapters 1-3); to his early publications and controversies (Chapter 4), from withdrawal from the world of experimental philosophers into the relative peace of a collegiate existence (Chapter 5); to his serious theological investigations into the language of the Scriptures (Chapter 6-8); from his bitter disputes of priority with Hooke and Leibniz (Chapter 5, 9); to his writing of the Principia, his political career in London, his episodes at the Mint and finally to his establishment as the president of the Royal Society, and the leading “scientific” voice of his time (Chapter 10).

The key to understand all these episodes, according to Iliffe, is to read Newton’s achievements against the background of his upbringing and education, intellectual formation and (especially) university training.  Iliffe’s Newton is essentially an independent scholar (very much in contrast with the reclusive and paranoid character depicted by Richard Westfall). But this scholar gained his independence working within the bounds, and according to the rules of a collegiate environment, i.e., the post-Restoration Trinity College, Cambridge. Iliffe’s book reconstructs convincingly the atmosphere, advantages and restrictions of this milieu of a highly regulated academic life, which still allowed, at a certain level, a degree of intellectual independence.

Iliffe constrasts the peace of this collegiate life with the lively and vibrant public science of the mid-seventeenth century “republic of letters” and pictures Newton’s reluctance to engage with the latter. He masterfully depicts the portrait of a brilliant scholar who simply “read himself into heresy” through a careful, scholarly investigation, of all the materials available on a given subject. Once convinced to take sides and to adopt a theoretical standpoint Newton would devise an approximate interpretative scheme which he would subsequently refine by appeal to more historical data. This peculiar and extremely characteristic way of working is fully explained by Iliffe on his chapters on Newton’s interpretation of the Apocalypse (Chapters 7-9) which are amongst the most complex and spectacular chapters of the book. They illustrate what Iliffe sees as Newton’s “intertwining” of a “theoretical structure” with “his use of data” (p. 292) and a long and painstaking process of “fine-tuning” the theory, which bears remarkable resemblances with Newton’s work on dynamics and optics. This initial theoretical framework was subsequently amended through a complex process of theory-construction on which the manipulation of data plays an essential role. In Iliffe’s words:

[…] the most significant aspect of Newton’s early prophetic research was the “intertwining” of his theoretical structure with his use of data. It is hard to think why he would have initially launched himself into the literature of the early church if he had not already made up his mind that the doctrine of the Trinity lie at the heart of the corruption of Christianity. With these preconceptions, he began to seriously examine the “internal” logical order of the apocalyptic visions, using Mede’s scheme as a template. Once he had developed his general prophetic scheme, he foraged in the literature for more detailed evidence that would support it. As we have seen, he amassed a vast amount of often very detailed and exact information, all of which helped him fine-tune his prophetic scheme. […] Although he was of course working in two entirely separate genres and disciplines, there are prima facie similarities between the way he adduced data in his work on prophecy and the exact sciences. There was no metaphysics, and no contamination by the imagination – just a dynamic interaction between reason and experience, that is, between a continuously enriched method and an expanding pile of increasingly detailed empirical data. In each case, his analytical framework guided the collation of special evidence from an ocean of available information – which in turn corroborated and refined a highly original theory that was essentially irrefutable (p. 292).

With this enticing suggestion, Rob Iliffe revives the idea of a “Newtonian style” of problem-solving, a subject which was recently revived in works by George Smith and William Harper (on Newton’s fine-tuning of planet trajectories on the basis of empirical data), Mordechai Feingold and Jed Buchwald (on Newton’s treating similarly empirical and historical data in optics and chronology).[i] This “fine-tuning” hypothesis offers a fresh and exciting way to unify Newton’s many projects, from so many different fields. It clearly needs further corroboration; but it also clearly offers readers a very good interpretative framework to read and understand a complex character.

But this is not all. In Rob Illiffe’s interpretation, the “unity” of Newton’s apparently split personality is also given by the role he assumed relatively early in life: that of a “priest of nature.” This role begins somehow with Newton discovering his divine mission to correct the corrupted history of Christianity. In Iliffe’s words:

The notion that he was one of the godly permeated Newton’s early work. He believed that he was a special exegete and having “searched […] after knowledge in the prophetique scriptures,” he was morally bound to spread the Word for the benefit of others. The irony in this most private of men (and an Anti-Trinitarian at that) recommending the dissemination of gospel of truth is obvious, and he warned like-minded people not to be “too forward in becoming a teacher, like those men who catch at a few similitudes & scripture phrases, & for want of <further> knowledge make use of them to censure & reproach superiours & rail at all things that displeas them.” Instead, he told his (implied) readers to thoroughly instruct themselves both in the prophecies and also in the plain simplicities of Christianity, in order to put them into practice and make them a habit” (p. 233).

This tension between Newton’s belief in his divine mission and his growing awareness of the gulf separating his Biblical interpretations from those of his contemporaries is at the very core of Iliffe’s complex character. Somehow, the whole intellectual formation of Isaac Newton is seen as an attempt to solve this tension. Iliffe’s Newton is a priest whose preaching develops on multiple and intricate layers. At the very basis, and for everyone, is a form of practical religion with an ethical core and an emphasis on the literal readings of Scriptures. On the top, there are the incredibly complex interpretations of Daniel and the Apocalypse, reserved to the selected few. Mid-way in between stood Newton’s historical projects discussing the “originals of religion” and the successive and idolatrous corruptions of it during pagan and Christian times. At this intermediate level, theology, mathematics and natural philosophy are somehow intertwined with the rest. And, so, in Illiffe’s view, a unified methodology of “fine-tuning” texts with empirical data, doubled by the assumed priestly role, eventually led the reclusive, godly scholar, from the secure confines of academic freedom to the dangerous spot-lights of “public science.”

[i] Harper WL. (2011) Isaac Newton’s Scientific Method: Turning Data into Evidence about Gravity and Cosmology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Smith GE. (2014) Closing the Loop: Testing Newtonian Gravity, Then and Now. In: Biener Z and Schliesser E (eds) Newton and Empiricism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 262-353, Buchwald JZ and Feingold M. (2013) Newton and the origin of civilization, Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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