This is the beginning of a series which has been in my writing plans for some time, but which so far I haven’t got round to. I’ve been spurred into action, however, by a Grant Piper article on Medium.com (click here) which claimed that Isaac Newton’s devotion to alchemy was a sign of madness. I therefore wrote this article (click here) as a preliminary response. Here I’ll begin a full treatment of the issues. My primary sources are Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer by Michael White¹, and In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times by Gale E. Christianson². (Unless otherwise stated, the quotes and page references come from White.)
There is a well known saying, the winners rewrite history, and that is certainly true in the case of Newton. The winners in this context are the scientists of the so-called Enlightenment, who have created a fiction about him which, unfortunately, Piper is perpetuating. The story runs like this.
Newton was a scientific genius. That part is certainly not fiction. White lists his contribution, impressive in that he achieved it single-handedly, thus:
- he made “unparalleled contributions to science — principles that have moulded the modern world” (p 1).
- he was the father of modern empirical science (p 29), in that he was the first to apply the modern scientific method fully (p 182).
- he unified Galilean and Keplerian mechanics “into a single, coherent, mathematically and experimentally supported whole” (p 221), a synthesis which “can be seen as a watershed in the development of physics”, some perceiving his work “as making possible the Industrial Revolution” (p 29).
- his primary work, the Principia Mathematica, “laid the cornerstone for the understanding of dynamics and mechanics which would, within a space of a century, generate a real and lasting change to human civilisation” (p 221).
However, he also had a mad side because he was obsessed with alchemy, the ridiculous and impossible search for the ability to transmute lead into gold. Who on earth could take this seriously? This is an inexplicable paradox for modern scientists. As if that were not bad enough, the whole truth is even worse, because he devoted more time to alchemy than he did to science, writing over a million words about it (p 4); “the most respected scientist in history, the model for the scientific method, had spent more of his life intensely involved with alchemy than he had delving into the clear blue waters of pure science” (p 2).
He also studied and wrote about natural magic, astrology and numerology, which for Piper must be more obvious signs of madness. He was deeply religious, a devoted — albeit heretical (Arian) — Christian, spending many hours on biblical exegesis, being especially interested in the Book of Revelation. This would also have been a mystery to Enlightenment scientists, who promoted the idea that he discovered the laws governing a mechanistic universe, which contributed to the foundation of modern materialism, with its atheistic implications. This is exactly the opposite of what Newton himself believed. In an early notebook he described God as a spirit penetrating all matter, and “he never swayed from his assertion that God was responsible for maintaining planetary motion through the device of gravity” (p 149). So much for a mechanistic universe! In reality he believed that the laws he discovered were a manifestation of divine creativity.
Newton was also influenced by the ideas of the occultist magician John Dee; they shared beliefs, and both of them were deeply interested in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric secret society. He possessed a copy of the Rosicrucian Manifestos and other Rosicrucian texts, about which he made extensive notes.
In passing, it’s also interesting to note that Pythagoras was a source of inspiration for Newton’s scientific ideas. By the 1690s Newton “had concluded that the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras had been acquainted with the inverse square relationship and had described how it governed planetary motion. He reached this conclusion from his reading of Pythagorean concepts of harmony and number. The Greek philosopher had supposed that the universe operated via strict numerical relationships. For him, number was all” (p 348). This is somewhat ironical, since this belief of Pythagoras was another target for Piper’s accusations of madness.
This ‘mad’ side of Newton was kept from the world for a long time, which explains how the false portrayal of him as one of the founders of the Enlightenment, and father of modern science was allowed to develop. The truth came to light when a collection of his private papers was acquired by the economist John Maynard Keynes in an auction in 1936. They had been in the hands of the Portsmouth family, who had earlier made a gift of them to the University Library of Cambridge in the 1880s. However, “the manuscripts on alchemy and theology were soon back in the hands of their donors” (Christianson p 204), since they were deemed to be of no scientific value. That is arguably true. They were, however, obviously of immense historical value, since they would have given us many precious insights into Newton’s true nature. (I have read elsewhere that the University was embarrassed by what they saw, and preferred to keep quiet about it.)
This Enlightenment myth about Newton continues in that these two sides are now deemed to be completely separate; he was this brilliant scientist, who nevertheless had a mad and inexplicable obsession with something completely unscientific. In the previous article I speculated that maybe it was because Newton was a genius that he was interested in alchemy. Perhaps it was his research into alchemy that led him to his scientific discoveries. That may seem an extraordinarily unlikely suggestion nowadays, but is nevertheless precisely the view of both biographers, who should know better than most, given their extensive research. Michael White’s unequivocal conclusion is: “the influence of Newton’s researches in alchemy was the key to his world-changing discoveries in science. His alchemical work and his science were inextricably linked” (p 5). Christianson: “There is no question that the roots (of the idea of gravitation) eventually found ready nourishment in the fertile field of his alchemical thought” (p 231).
Further elaborating comments by White are as follows:
- “he constructed a detailed theory (of gravity) based on both alchemical knowledge and experimental verification… Without his in-depth knowledge of alchemy, he would almost certainly never have expanded the limited notion of planetary motion as he saw it in 1665/6 into the grand concepts of universal gravitation, of attraction and repulsion, and of action at a distance” (p 93).
- his scientific achievements were the result of “unsurpassed insight, peerless technical powers and a willingness to explore exotica such as alchemy. Newton saw the power of attraction and repulsion at the bottom of the alchemist’s crucible as well as in the movements of heavenly bodies and was able to make the imaginative leap that linked the two, establishing that all matter attracts other matter” (p 221).
- the Principia Mathematica is “probably the greatest single work of science ever written”, but it was “the mathematical, alchemical and religious ferment of Newton’s imagination (which) gave the book form” (p 190).
- there was a concluding section to the Principia found in his papers, two versions of which were not published during his lifetime. The reason for this was that “the basis upon which his ideas of subatomic forces operated was too obviously derived from alchemy and the hermetic tradition — he could not risk exposing his sources” (p 226). (The practice of alchemy at that time was illegal.)
- “the concept of what the alchemists called ‘active principles’ took on far greater importance and led him to a radical reassessment of how gravity operated… One Newton scholar has gone so far as to say that Newton could not have visualised attraction at a distance had it not been for his alchemical work” (p 206)³.
How is it possible that the nature of motion and gravity can be inferred from an impossible search for the transmutation of metals? The answer must be that there is much more to alchemy than that; it depends upon a certain understanding of the nature of the cosmos, obviously one radically different from that of Enlightenment scientists. I’ll discuss that in the next article.
We can see therefore that the portrayal of Newton and his ideas in modern science books is wildly inaccurate; he is “not the man that history has claimed him to be” (p 1). The truth is much closer to the titles of my two source biographies. Newton stood in the presence of the creator, and was the last of the sorcerers. Keynes, the acquirer of his papers, clearly exposed the falsity of the fiction I’ve been describing when he said: “In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of 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… (However) Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago”⁴.
Along similar lines, White says: “Ironically, although Newton was largely responsible for the development of the scientific enlightenment which swept away the common belief in magic and mysticism, he created the origins of empirical science and the modern ‘rational’ world in part by immersing himself in these very practices” (p 105).
This leads us on to the question of why he would do that. What did he see in alchemy, astrology, numerology, and magic that persuaded him to spend so much time studying them? The answer, according to White, is that “he was interested in a synthesis of all knowledge and was a devout seeker of some form of unified theory of the principles of the universe… Newton believed that this synthesis — the fabled prisca sapientia — had once been in the possession of humankind” (p 106); “the most ancient civilisation was also the most knowledgeable, the most pure, the most advanced” (p 154). Such a suggestion would obviously be anathema to the incipient Enlightenment movement.
Alchemy was part of this ancient knowledge: “Newton was motivated by a deep-rooted commitment to the notion that alchemical wisdom extended back to ancient times. The hermetic tradition — the body of alchemical knowledge — was believed to have originated in the mists of time and to have been ‘given’ to humanity through supernatural agents” (p 109).
It would seem therefore that Newton was actually not the forward thinking and innovative genius that modern science claims; he was rather deeply rooted in the past, an “occultist, the seeker of the ancient flame of wisdom and arcane knowledge” (p 132). He openly acknowledged this in a letter to Robert Hooke where he said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”⁵.
The motivation of the Enlightenment scientists for promoting a false picture of Newton is obvious. They want us to believe that humanity is marching onwards and upwards, through the progress of ‘science’, towards ever greater understandings, perhaps even to ultimate truth, and that we have left behind us the magic, superstition, illusions, and false religious ideas of the ancients. (A blatant example of this viewpoint is Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress⁶. The title says it all.) How embarrassing that their principal hero was deeply immersed in all this ‘nonsense’, which was actually the source of his scientific ideas.
Grant Piper’s accusation of madness is therefore completely misplaced. If it were not for Newton’s alchemy, we would not have had his science.
In the next article I’ll focus upon the practice of alchemy, how it might just be possible to achieve the desired transmutations. In a third I’ll explore those who may have achieved success.
1. Fourth Estate, 1998
2. The Free Press, 1984
3. Richard Westfall, ‘Newton and Alchemy’, in Brian Vickers (ed.) Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, CUP, 1984, p 330.
4. in a 1942 lecture to the Royal Society Club, quoted by White, p 3
6. Penguin Books, 2019