Rob Iliffe. Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 536 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-999535-6.
Reviewed by Sachiko Kusukawa (Trinity College, Cambirdge)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)
Signs of the Times
The writing of history is conditioned by the historical sources that are available to us. But the present availability and distribution of primary sources and archives is not just a result of lucky escapes from fire, flood, or mold, but also a reflection of the values and choices made by those who were in a position to preserve, parse, reorder, or discard them. The Nachlass of Isaac Newton, as is well known, is no exception. In the nineteenth century, the University Library at Cambridge acquired from the Earl of Portsmouth his “scientific” papers relating to mathematics, astronomy, optics, and the Principia (1687). The manuscripts that were deemed “non-scientific” were later dispersed for a song. The alchemical papers were acquired by John Maynard Keynes and are now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge. The theology manuscripts were acquired by Abraham Yahuda and are now at the National Library of Israel.
The mathematical papers of Newton at Cambridge were the first to be edited by Tom Whiteside and have long been available through Cambridge University Press (1967-81). In 1998, Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote, as general editors, set out to produce a comprehensive edition of Newton’s “non-scientific” papers, which became the “Newton Project” online. To those of us who remember the advent of the internet, it is a remarkable achievement that this project of scholarly transcription, translation, and digitization has endured and kept up with the developing digital technology, software, and standards and now has become a place to gather all of Newton’s writings.
Iliffe, drawing on years of work on the Newton Project, offers us a new portrait of Newton, Priest of Nature. It is largely focused on Newton’s theological writings, but eschews earlier scholarly efforts to reduce Newton’s mind to a single, coherent methodology that Newton applied equally to the study of God and Nature. Newton, after all, deemed religious truths as radically different in character from mathematical ones.
Instead of placing Newton’s theological writings within well-known parameters of his biography, Iliffe has chosen to write outwards from Newton’s deeply private writings about God, ecclesiastical history, and prophecy and connect, where appropriate, to the more public enunciations and events in his life. This is not a biography that starts with Newton’s family background and progresses chronologically through every part of his life. It focuses on the earlier part of Newton’s life (though his interest in religious topics was lifelong) and is about the religious preoccupations of Newton and his own sense of self as “priest of nature.”
Iliffe introduces the fractious religious climate of local Lincolnshire, where Newton grew up, highlighting the local politics and religious debates that affected the careers of those around Newton, such as the rector Humphrey Babington and the apothecary William Clarke, with whom Newton lodged. Newton arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was in religious turmoil after the Restoration, with the fellowship split on the correct form of worship and whether the to accept the Act of Uniformity. Godly discipline was nevertheless expected from the students, and Newton appears to have taken to heart the exhortations of Trinity tutors like James Duport not to waste time on football, fishing, or riding. Newton went through the standard arts curriculum, acquiring Greek and classical forensic skills (i.e., for the law courts), learning natural philosophy, and reading religious texts, including those on practical divinity.
Newton’s first investigations into the natural world centered on a key question, raised by Rene Descartes, about the extent to which humans, as finite beings, could understand the infinity of the universe and an infinite God. Newton’s answer was that it was possible for human reason to grasp what was really infinite, whether mathematical, physical, or divine, provided that it could curb the work of “fancy” or imagination, which was the cause of many a hypothesis. The only way to keep the imagination in check was a continuing, purposeful engagement of human reason, to be “never at rest.” This was how Newton conducted himself, to exercise his reason and devote himself to study of serious matters. He began poring over ecclesiastical history and contemporary religious tracts. And he discovered that Christian religion had been corrupted by Athanasius, who succeeded in introducing the false doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea. Though we do not know for certain the exact of circumstances or sources of his anti-Trinitarian belief, this became a main driving force of his scrutiny of biblical and historical sources. Athanasius was not the only source of corruption. There were others who followed him, who developed Catholic doctrine after Nicaea, who introduced a raft of false forms of worship. The rise of monastic culture, according to Newton, was nothing more than the work of the devil. The only way to avoid carnal temptation and idolatry was to avoid idleness and pursue a celibate life devoted to intense study.
In pursuit of the original form of Christian worship, Newton turned to pre-Christian religion, and there too he found evidence of perversion. Newton, as with several scholars before and in his time, believed in the idea that pre-Christian civilizations may have had some insight into the true nature of religion. He also believed that they also knew about the true workings of the cosmos (which was Newtonian, of course). Such true knowledge was guarded by a priesthood across the world, who kept its real content hidden from the masses, leaving only hints and mysteries in poetry. But Egyptian priests, motivated by malign self-interest, introduced worship of the heavenly bodies as gods and transmigration of the souls, thereby corrupting knowledge of nature and religious worship.
Newton left more than a million words on prophecy. He believed that the prophecies in the Old and New Testaments foretold events in Christian history. Informed by contemporary exegetes such as Henry More and Joseph Mede, Newton went about studying prophecies rigorously and systematically, setting out rules for interpreting their figurative language and working out how exactly prophecies explained each other. Newton desisted from identifying contemporary or future events in prophecies and connected significant parts of prophecies with significant events in past history for which there was empirical evidence. Newton thus detected in the “Great Apostasy” developments in the fourth century involving Athanasius, and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. Such truths could only be scrutinized by a select group of experts capable of understanding difficult things.
Newton did not believe that truths about the natural world could be derived from the literal or figurative interpretations of the Bible. On the other hand, natural philosophy could help the biblical exegete detect and understood nonliteral passages. Thus the Principia could be an aid to scriptural exegesis, but was also a means to discovering God’s creation and its end. The parallel intellectual universes of theology and natural philosophy converged, however, when Newton became embroiled in disputes with Christiaan Huygens and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Then, Newton applied all the techniques of scrutinizing human and textual witnesses that he used to put Athanasius on trial to his litigious opponents in natural philosophy.
Newton, as Iliffe carefully demonstrates throughout the book, was well read in matters of religion. He shows in painstaking detail what Newton had learned from the language, method, and erudition of Ralph Cudworth, Hugo Grotius, Athanasius Kircher, More, Mede, Edward Stillingfleet, Gerard Vossius, and others and that yet he was never slavish to one method or a single author. He was a formidable exegete who forged his own way, with his own idiosyncratic obsession against the Trinity and Catholics. Here is Newton the devout Christian and biblical scholar.
He was also the author of Principia mathematica philosophiae naturalis. If there is any common feature to be found here, it is in Newton’s sense of himself, dedicated to the ceaseless exercise of reason, living a life beyond moral reproach, and seeking the truth that few had the ability to comprehend, be they truths of religion or of the cosmos. Doctrine and natural philosophy were both made by men, and the corruptions and faults in both were a result of their imagination running amok. The only antidote to that was a ceaseless, disciplined life of reason.
From the Enlightenment genius who produced the Principia to the “last of the magicians,” scholars have found many different Newtons from among the papers. This one, Newton as priest of nature, the private Newton, is a new and original contribution and a demonstration of what can be achieved when a historian attends to what Newton deeply cared about through most of his life. Iliffe has achieved this through careful and close reading of abstruse and difficult texts that have been edited over many years, and which are now readily available to the world. It is a work that deserves the serious attention of students of religion, natural philosophy, and Newton.
. For more “traditional” biographies, see Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); and Niccolo Guicciardini, Isaac Newton and Natural Philosophy (London: Reaktion Books, 2018).
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Sachiko Kusukawa. Review of Iliffe, Rob, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton.
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