Arts review: Let Newton Be!

An imaginative play is a reminder that Newton was as interested in religion as he was in science, says Rob Iliffe

March 31, 2011

Credit: Menagerie Theatre Company

Craig Baxter's play Let Newton Be! takes the audience on a journey through Isaac Newton's life and is entirely constructed from primary sources composed by, or about, him. It uses the device of a dialogue between three versions of Newton drawn from different stages of his life.

The young boy is by turns curious, funny and brilliant, while the university scholar is a severe and radically unorthodox anti-Trinitarian Protestant. The retrospective views of the ageing autocrat appear throughout the performance, although he comes into his own towards the end of the play as the great scientific dictator.

From godly youth to irascible octogenarian, Newton has demons that haunt him, yet they somehow endow him with the energy that is necessary for greatness in a number of different fields. The title, a reference to Alexander Pope's intended epitaph, is a sort of plea that Newton should be left by his tormentors to rest in peace.

This is a narrative that takes seriously Newton's immense study of Christian doctrine, Christian history and, more broadly, what he described as the "true religion".

Commissioned by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge, Let Newton Be! addresses Newton's seminal work on optics and universal gravitation but makes it clear that theological study - effectively Newton's religious practice - was the most important topic for Newton himself.

A central moment in the play is Edmond Halley's legendary encounter with Newton in the summer of 1684, when the astronomer asked Newton to prove that an elliptical orbit was implied by an inverse-square law. Although we know that this led ultimately to the publication of Newton's "divine" (as Halley called it) Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica three years later, it is surely correct to believe that this initially appeared to Newton as an unwelcome distraction from more significant pursuits.

The play is a fascinating medium for considering the overall coherence both of Newton's self and of his intellectual projects. As for the first point, doubtless Frank Manuel was right in his 1968 book A Portrait of Isaac Newton to argue that the troubled boy and the older man shared many psychic features, lashing out at people who would not bend to their will. Dramatically, the presence of three Newtons on stage occasionally makes the narrative hard to follow, but we are constantly reminded that Newton was a complex, evolving character whose reminiscences are the source of much of our knowledge of his early years.

The question of how his various interests are interconnected has always been a pressing problem for historians of Newton's life and works. Until fairly recently, scholars seemed fated to reproduce Enlightenment or even positivist divisions between his "scientific" works and his religious or theological writings. Half a century ago, the justified belief that Newton's place at the pinnacle of the Western canon derived from his discoveries in mathematics and the exact sciences meant that most historians of science disdained his "non-scientific" works.

In response, a new generation of scholars focused on his alchemical writings and showed that they were serious pursuits for Newton, as they were for many of his contemporaries. The theological writings were the most intractable of all, not least because they were made available to scholars only in the 1970s. It soon became clear that Newton had written major tracts on a wide range of theological topics at the same time as he was producing his major work in science.

The millions of words of personal, scientific and theological materials now published for the first time through the online Newton Project (the alchemical writings are being published by the Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project at Indiana University) call into question any simple story of how his intellectual pursuits were related.

The emphasis Baxter places on Newton's natural theology indicates, correctly, that Newton's natural philosophy was galvanised by a search for the divine in nature. Indeed, Newton made this crystal clear in the famous comments on God's sensorium published in later editions of his Opticks and Principia Mathematica. The assiduous redrafting of his thoughts on these matters in his private papers shows that these were not merely tacked on to placate critics who believed that he had said too little about God in the first editions of these works (1704 and 1687, respectively).

Newton's remarks on the purpose of natural philosophy offer no solace for anti-supernaturalists participating in modern discussions about the relations between science and religion. Newton did indeed see his "philosophical" work as part of a much larger enterprise, whose ultimate goal was the knowledge of God. It follows that he saw natural philosophy as a sort of religious activity, and believers have drawn solace from these points.

Indeed, his general comments on natural theology have recently provided intellectual sustenance for a range of different groups, from creationists, to supporters of "intelligent design", to adherents of various versions of the anthropic principle.

Nevertheless, further study of Newton's theological work complicates this picture, for the bulk of it depends on a radical, if scholarly, Protestant understanding of Judaeo-Christian prophecy. This giant project had little to do with natural theology, and historians have found it much harder to assimilate this to his work on natural philosophy.

The great treatises Newton wrote on the subject in the late 17th century should initially be placed in the tradition of Cambridge apocalypticists such as Henry More and Joseph Mede, whose style and proof structure he consciously mimicked or adapted. Doubtless we will in time find some commonality between these extraordinary writings and Newton's other outputs - such as the Principia. However, the efforts so far have been superficial and disappointing, with too many false positive connections having been allegedly identified.

Moreover, the drive to link aspects of his work in this way seems to derive from a peculiar loss of nerve, as if historians of Newton's non-scientific interests believe that this work is only really worthy of study if it is related to his writings on cosmology or rational mechanics.

The issue of Newton's alchemy is often raised in this context, in part because there is a widely distributed but ultimately glib assumption that the "non-scientific" interests of Newton must be related (perhaps deriving from a single part of the brain separate from that dealing with more acceptable pursuits). Only a handful of "alchemical" texts originally composed by Newton survive, and only one of these is an extended tract.

There is also no evidence, unlike the cases of many other alchemists, that Newton was concerned with spiritual alchemy. His theological researches are clearly different in approach, tone and content from anything to be found in this area and there is not one reference to alchemical themes or concepts in his unpublished theological papers.

Whatever one thinks about the relevance of Newton's theological researches to the science-religion question as it is discussed today, Baxter is to be congratulated for placing them at the heart of his work. We get closest to Newton the man when we see him in his Cambridge lair, engaging in the sort of scholarly exercises that were common to people of his type. Indeed, for the duration of his Cambridge years (1661-96), Newton should be primarily thought of as a college don whose theological interests typified that sort of Fellow. Although he was rather good at both, physics and mathematics took him away from what was really important.

Baxter is also right to link Newton's theology to his emotional life. Newton was most incandescent when he convicted 4th-century corrupters of Christianity and scripture, and he applied the same forensic standards of analysis when assessing - and condemning - the moral probity of contemporaries such as Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz and William Chaloner.

With such rich historical sources, a complex subject and an entertaining script, the Menagerie Theatre Company's slick and thought-provoking performance of Let Newton Be! fully deserves the extended run it has enjoyed in the UK and will enjoy in the US and Canada over the next few weeks.

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