The American philosopher Daniel Dennett proposed in 2003 that atheists and agnostics should call themselves “the brights”, with the clear implication that religious believers are dimwits. One of the problems with this categorisation is that these fools include some of the most brilliant thinkers in human history, including one of the founders of modern science, Isaac Newton.
Many scientists today – even ones who do not have strong views about religion – believe that Newton spent time studying the Bible and investigating alchemy in his dotage, after his creative juices ran out. But this is incorrect, as scholars have confirmed using documents that have become available to them over the past four decades. Newton regarded his theological studies as more important than his work on mathematics and on understanding nature: he believed that he was born to understand God’s role in creating the world.
As Rob Iliffe points out in this fascinating new book, Newton spent an inordinate amount of time studying the writings of ancient priests, “whose lost wisdom and scientific knowledge he believed he was resurrecting”. Newton considered that natural philosophy – the study of the natural sciences – was largely a religious enterprise that enabled its practitioners to understand how God had created the world. He drew clear distinctions between studies of the natural world that were merely conjectural and those that could be treated with mathematical precision, such as planetary motion. Similarly, he drew a sharp distinction between the authentic scriptures and material added to them by corrupt authorities and false traditions. Woe betide people who disagreed with him – they would soon be on the wrong end of his tongue or his quill, or both.
Iliffe, now professor of history of science at the University of Oxford, was formerly the acting director of the Newton Project, and has overseen the publication of more than 4 million words of Newton’s theological writings, many of which are now available online. The principal focus of his book is the development of Newton’s religious scholarship from his lonely childhood in Lincolnshire to his deathbed in 1727, at the age of 84. But Priest of Nature also gives a compelling account of Newton’s intellectual journey, including his other contributions to learning, not only to mathematics and natural philosophy but also to the numerous other interests that he pursued with his formidable focus and energy. Much of the material will be new to non-specialists, although they will still be left with the now familiar picture of Newton as a thoroughly unlikeable man. His contemporary John Flamsteed, a leading astronomer, said that he always found him “insidious, ambitious & excessively covetous of praise & impatient of contradiction”. It seems that no one ever saw Newton laugh.
Each of the 401 pages of the book is a testimony to the depth, breadth and subtlety of Iliffe’s scholarship. For readers who want the story in a nutshell, I recommend his 2007 contribution on Newton to Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introduction series. Both books leave us wondering how such a devotedly Christian person could behave in so many ways that are patently unchristian. Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: Newton was no dimwit.
Graham Farmelo is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the author of Churchill’s Bomb.
Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton
By Rob Iliffe
Oxford University Press, 536pp, £22.99
Published 28 September 2017