Manual Newton and Religion: Context, Nature, and Influence

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Tara Nummedal emphasizes the simultaneously bookish and practical aspects of alchemy. Doing alchemy required sorting through a maze of allegorical references and confusing terminology while at the same time employing artisanal skills at the furnace. Bruce Moran looks specifically at Andreas Libavius' combination of humanist erudition with the technical and vernacular language of the workshop. Jennifer Rampling reveals a similar integration of praxis and textual scholarship.


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GREENHAM 7 of 12 Rampling describes the perplexity and frustration experienced by early modern alchemists—similar to those of modern historians—when faced with the multiplicity of symbolic cover names, or decknamen, used to disguise the materials and processes of the Art p. In response, alchemists integrated their own practical observations into the textual tradition. William Newman's recent summary of Newton's alchemical motivations describes Newton's attempts— similar to those of the alchemists Rampling discusses—to decode the mythological language of alchemical texts into material substances or processes pp.

Newman emphasizes the distinction between Newton's alchemical interpretation and his chronological and biblical reading, arguing that the former merely attempted to extract the enciphered secrets of his contemporaries and did not indicate a belief that ancient mythology had enciphered original alchemical knowledge p. Both Newman and Principe's emphases on Newton's actual textual practices reorient our understanding of Newton's alchemy towards the textual and practical synthesis of his contemporaries.

Nonetheless, a careful analysis of Newton's reading of alchemical texts need not completely dismiss the relevance to Newton's scientific chymistry of his interpretation of ancient mythology. Stolzenberg argues that Kircher and his fellow esoteric antiquarians sought to correctly decipher ancient iconography, focusing on the symbolic forms by which the prisca had been disguised more than the philosophical or mystical implications of that knowledge. A second promising area for considering how Newton's textual methods differed or did not from his contempo- raries lies in his heterodox reading of scripture.

Dmitri Levitin discusses a revisionist moment currently under way in the writing of early modern sacred history. According to the standard narrative, as Levitin describes it, early modern scholars provided uncritical accounts of ancient Jewish, Christian, and pagan religion that pedantically rehearsed a stale orthodoxy only to be shattered by Enlightenment natural religion and textual criticism beginning in the late 17th century with Spinoza.

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In contrast, Levitin details how the newly coalesced field of the history of scholarship reveals a far more complicated picture, and one that stretches the chronology of biblical criticism back to the beginnings of confessional debate in the Reformation and even to its roots in the philological preoccupations of Erasmus and Lorenzo Valla. Thus, in his philological interest in mythological and alchemical symbolism as well as his heterodox reading of scripture, Newton can be seen as a man of his times.

As such he should play a central role in current considerations of the intersection between the history of scholarship and the history of science. In many ways, this image continues to drive attempts to understand him and his work as unique, as we seek the special stamp of genius in all of his activities. And, after all, are we not interested in Newton precisely because of his science, his role as an architect of modernity?

Otherwise, why should we care about the eccentric reading of Scripture or alchemical musings all too common to a man of his times? However, I believe it is precisely because Newton's reading of Scripture and alchemy is representative of early modern approaches to texts that it should attract our interest. Even aside from Newton's place in the scientific narrative, the extraordinary wealth of documentary evidence remaining from this singular individual represents an historical treasure.

Newton's surviving manuscripts contain roughly 10 million words of mostly unfinished and unpublished treatises spanning multiple early modern disciplines. This resource has become increasingly available to the public via online transcription The Newton Project and digital scans. Portraying Newton as a humanist, an erudite reader of texts, and a participant in various hermeneutical communities does not detract from his value to historical narratives of the development of science.

Rather, it shows both the importance of the history of scholarship to the history of science and the need to constantly evaluate the historical categories we apply to individuals from the past. The author also wishes to thank Yiftach Fehige and Stephen Snobelen for their comments on this material in its early stages, as well as the anonymous reviewers and the section editor, Daniel Stolzenberg, for their very helpful feedback.

Indeed, investigations of the intersection of Newton's interests have proliferated, particularly regarding his theology and physics. For more, see Knoespel ; Markley ; Moreira ; and Morrison GREENHAM 9 of 12 8 An additional example of close analysis between textual sources and resultant position philosophical in this case can be seen in De Smet and Verelst's study of the Neostoic and Neoplatonic influences on Newton's concept of gravity in the General Scholium to the second edition of the Principia See also Blair ; Blair ; and Grafton Intellectual History Review, 25, 37— Humanist methods in natural philosophy: The commonplace book.

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Journal of the History of Ideas, 53, — An early modernist's perspective. Isis, 95, — Too much to know: Managing scholarly information before the modern age. Buchwald, J. Newton and the origin of civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Casini, P. Newton: The classical scholia. History of Science, 22, 1— Isaac Newton's Principia, the scriptures, and the divine providence. Morgenbesser, P. White Eds.

New York: St. Martin's Press. Cohen, I. Newton's scholarship in historical perspective. Nauenberg Eds. Singapore: World Scientific. Davis, E. Science and Christian Belief, 3, — Literary structure of scientific argument. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Newton, Corruption, and the Tradition of Universal History

De Smet, R. History of Science, 39, 1— The Janus faces of genius: The role of alchemy in Newton's thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dry, S.

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The Newton papers: The strange and true odyssey of Isaac Newton's manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ducheyne, S. Newton's training in the Aristotelian textbook tradition: From effects to causes and back. History of Science, 43, — Theology and Science, 4, 71— Review essay: Honor thy Newton. Early Science and Medicine, 12, — De scriptoribus chemicis: Sources for the establishment of Isaac Newton's al chemical library. Shapiro Eds. Force, J. Richard H. Popkin's concept of the third force and the Newtonian synthesis of theology and scientific methodology in Isaac Newton and Samuel Clarke.


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    Grafton, A. Commerce with the classics: Ancient books and Renaissance readers. Grant, E. Much ado about nothing: Theories of space and vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution. Greenham, P. The role of musical analogies in Newton's optical and cosmological work.