Newton was evil. John Flamsteed had helped Newton out on his Principia Mathematica, but then witheld information from him. Newton then seized all of Flamsteed's work and had it published Flamsteed's mortal enemy, Edmond Halley. But in the nick of time Flamsteed won in court, against the publication of the information. Because of this Newton had him excised from future editions of the Principia.

And then there was Gottfried Leibniz. Both Leibniz and Newton had been working on calculus. Newton had discovered it first, but Leibniz had published his own findings before Newton did. Because of this Newton accused Leibniz of plagarism, and rigged the review comittee. All the members of the comittee were Newton's friends, and he wrote the comittee's 'findings' himself, as well as an anonymous review of those findings. Following Leibniz's death from a heart attack, he addmitted to enjoying breaking Leibniz's heart.

Shortly after midnight on Christmas morning, 1642, Hannah Newton gave birth to a tiny son whom she named Isaac after his deceased father. The boy spent his childhood under the watchful eye of his maternal grandmother, who taught Isaac to fear God, to recite his catechism, and to say his prayers. Under the tutelage of a local Puritan schoolmaster, Isaac learned the seriousness of life and the need to work hard with both head and hands. Much of his youth was spent either observing intently the world around him or making mechanical devices. These included a sundial, a water clock, and a small windmill that could actually grind grain.

Newton attended Trinity College at Cambridge UNiversity and came under the influence of Isaac Barrow, clergyman, mathematician, and a natural philosopher, who encouraged him in his scientific pursuits., The ability perceived by Barrow quicky bore fruit. Within the next few years, Newton discovered the binomial theorum and devised a new system of mathematics, the calculus. At about the same time, he began to consider what makes the planets travel in their elliptical orbits around the sun, and he initated a series of studies on light and color. These studies proved that sunlight consists of a whole spectrum of colors and led him to invent a new kind of telescope, the Newtonian reflector. His accomplishments caused such a stir that when he was still only twenty-nine years old, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Fromt 1684 to 1687, Newton was engaged in the greatest project of his career- building a foundation of mathematical reasoning for the law of universal gravitation. Finally, he published his researches into the laws of motion and gravitation in the form of a Latin treatsie, Philosphiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), usually known simply as the Principia or Principia Mathematica. In the Principia, Newton provided solid proof that the same force of attraction which binds matter to the earth also holds the heavenly bodies in their courses.

In later life, Newton accepted various official duties, including membership in Parliament and service as Warden of the Mint and then later as Master of the Mint. In 1705, he was knighted by Queen Anne and became Sir Isaac Newton; he was the first Englishman to be so honored for scientific achievement rather than military victory. Despite his great honors, Newton at the end of his life was able to summarize his career in these unassuming words:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

When Newton died in 1727, his funeral at Westminster Abbey was a national event. Today, he is recognized as perhaps the greatest scientist of all time.

Chronology of Newton's Life
1642 born at Woolsthorpe, England
1661 enters Trinity College, Cambridge University
1667 elected fellow of Trinity College
1669 becomes professor of mathematics at Trinity
1672 elected member of Royal Society
1687 publishes Principia(laws of motion and universal gravitation)
1696 appointed Warden of the Mint
1699 appointed Master of the Mint
1703 elected president of Royal Society
1704 publishes Opticks(on nature of light)
1705 knighted by Queen Anne
1727 dies in London

Little known fact about Isaac Newton: far from being a no-nonsense scientist disdainful of superstition and the occult, Newton was actually heavily steeped in esoteric lore and Hermetic thought. One might think of him as being both the last of the magicians and the first of the scientists.

To begin with, it seems that Newton had certain connections with Freemasonry. In 1703, around the time he had been elected President of the Royal Society, he became friends with a French Protestant refugee named Jean Desgauliers, who was later to become one of the most influential figures in the spread of the Craft throughout Europe in the 18th Century. While there is no record of Newton himself being a Freemason, he had been a member of a quasi-Masonic society called the Gentlemen's Club of Spalding, whose other members included such notables as Alexander Pope, and further, some of his works and attitudes reflect prevalent Masonic thought of the time. For instance, he esteemed Noah more than Moses as the ultimate source of all esoteric knowledge. In 1689 he embarked on what he himself considered to be his most important work (even more than what posterity would think of as his most important, the Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis), The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended. This work was a historical study of ancient monarchies that attempted to establish the origins of the institution of kingship as well as the importance of Israel over all other ancient kingdoms. Furthermore, Newton believed that ancient Judaism had been a repository of divine knowledge, much of which had been lost, corrupted, suppressed, or diluted over thousands of years. He believed that some of these divine secrets had filtered down to Pythagoras, whose notions about the "music of the spheres" he believed were a metaphor for the law of gravitation he is credited with formulating. In order to establish a precise chronology for dating events in scripture and mythology, he used Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece as a pivotal event, and interpreted it, as did many other Masonic thinkers of the time, in alchemical terms. He attempted to find Hermetical correspondences between music and architecture. And like all Masons, he was obsessed with the Temple of Solomon, believing that hidden within the dimensions and configuration of the structure were secret alchemical formulas and the ancient rituals performed there involved alchemical processes.

Newton was also a deeply religious person, and was obsessed with the search for natural correspondences and the laws of nature. This led him, apart from formulating the Theory of Gravity and the Laws of Motion, into a study of numerology and sacred geometry. Newton was also a close friend of Robert Boyle, who suffered a fate similar to Newton at the hands of modern scientific historians, as he is remembered to be the ultimate debunker of alchemy when he was actually its greatest exponent at the time. Newton and John Locke had inherited Boyle's papers after his death in 1691, and Newton is also known to have practiced alchemy actively. His personal library included annotated copies of the Rosicrucian manifestos, and hundreds of works on alchemy, including a work by Nicolas Flamel, which he is said to have copied entirely by hand.

And there's more: Newton was also vehemently opposed to the idea of a Holy Trinity, and questioned the divinity of Jesus, collecting all works that discussed the subject he could find. He also disliked the fashionable Deism of the time, although he is widely believed today to be one of their number, which is blatantly untrue. He could not accept the idea of the cosmos being a vast machine and of God as the celestial engineer who put it all into motion. He further believed that the New Testament was not completely authentic, but rather that some passages were corruptions created by vested interests in the 5th century.

These kinds of preoccupations and interests lend credence to the theory that Newton may in fact have been at one time Grand Master of that mysterious secret society known as the Prieure de Sion.

Newton, whose father had died before he was born, was born on Christmas Day, 1642. In his early twenties, he invented calculus, proved that white light was a mixture of colors, explained the rainbow, built the first reflecting telescope, discovered the binomial theorem, introduced polar coordinates, and showed the force causing apples to fall is the same as the force that drives planetary motions and produces tides. Many people don't realize that Newton was also a biblical fundamentalist, believing in the reality of angels, demons, and Satan. He believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis and believed the Earth to be only a few thousand years old. In fact, Newton spent much of his life trying to prove that the Old Testament is accurate history. One wonders how many more problems in physics Newton would have solved if he spent less time on his biblical studies.

Newton said that much of his physics discoveries resulted from random playing, rather than directed and planned exploration. He once said he was like a little boy "playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." Newton, like other great scientific geniuses (Nikola Tesla, Oliver Heaviside, and many others), had a rather strange personality. For example, he had not the slightest interest in sex, never married, and almost never laughed (although he sometimes smiled). Newton suffered a massive mental breakdown, and some have conjectured that throughout his life he was a manic depressive with alternating moods of melancholy and happy activity.

How influential was Newtonian natural philosophy?


Newton had a huge influence on the progression of natural philosophy but his approach was different to that of Aristotle; particularly in its strong emphasis on the importance of the experiment and his explicit rejection of hypotheses. He was an architect of the mathematisation of nature and this write up attempts to show how this affected post-Newtonian natural philosophy. In addition, Newton's obsession with alchemy played a substantial part in formulating his style which was a lot more ambiguous than it sometimes seems. Although in the twentieth century he is frequently dubbed "the great British physicist", there are several other interpretations of the man and his work.

Experimental natural philosophy

In Newton's seminal work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he made the famous statement: "hypotheses non fingo." This is commonly translated from the Latin as "I frame no hypothesis" and does a significant amount to summarise the novel aspects of his brand of natural philosophy. Newton disliked conjectural explanations because they lacked a cogent argument and were solely supported because observations could be directly deduced from them. Rather, his brand of natural philosophy relied on "forces" that were unequivocally demonstrated by his experience and experiments instead of one of a multitude of airy hypotheses. Newton's preference for empiricism was exemplified by his various proofs "by experiment." He claimed that the precise detail with which he recorded his methods was instrumental to the perceived validity of his theories and said that the only genuine attempts to rebut them was by experiments of equal precision but with contradictory outcomes. His emphasis on empirical method bore great influence and, by the time Opticks was published, Newton's critics used predominantly experimental arguments. Indeed, the new treatises on optics of the early nineteenth century all used exact descriptions of carefully conducted experiments.

Newton's style of natural philosophy bears a stark contrast to that based on Aristotelian causation where bodies are only influenced by pushes and pulls - a billiard ball could be said to move off in a particular direction because it had been struck by the cue ball. Where there is no obvious cause for an observed interaction (such as the attraction of magnets or a salt dissolving in a solvent) an "occult" power was said to be at work. However, this did not stand up to scrutiny or detailed analysis - Newton sought to explain physical events and changes empirically and aimed for a "reduction of all phenomena to the operation of a small number of active principles of motion."i Newton's natural philosophy had the strength that it managed to supply easy-to-understand explanations in terms of forces. The imagery associated with the traditional tale about an apple striking his head is especially important as it began to reduce credence in the Aristotelian idea of the untouchable harmony of heaven. Instead, Newton's apple associates the familiar actions on earth with those of the universe – the same forces apply as the apple falls to the ground as when the moon "falls" around the earth. "Toward the start of the nineteenth century, a new style of scientific research was established that advocated a deliberate and explicit integration of natural philosophical theories with mathematics and experiments,"ii and so the mechanisation of natural philosophy began.

Not only did Newton contribute to natural philosophy, but he promoted a particular view of it which was opposed to the old peripatetic principles. While, admittedly, there was not the vastest difference, Newton extended the Aristotelian ideas and accepted explanatory principles that were yet to be explainable. This allowed for "unprecedented possibilities of application … which would have remained closed forever to the orthodox mechanicists of the seventeenth century."iii His style of natural philosophy was distinct not only because it favoured experiments over hypotheses but also as Newton notably did much to encourage the overlap of mathematics and natural philsophy. The mathematisation occurring at the time helped provide the geometry that assisted him in developing his reflecting telescope and, more famously, the theory that white light is composed of a spectrum of colours. At first this mechanical style of natural philosophy drew antipathy or was only partially acknowledged but, over time, the most renowned scientists began to accept it.

Newton the alchemist

After Keynes' lecture to the Royal Society in 1942, Newton's penchant for alchemy and magic has been widely known. His notebooks and journals were deemed "of no scientific value" and Keynes himself scoffed at the idea that such a respected scientist should have been so preoccupied with sorcery. However, Newton's dabblings may have been essential to formulating his experimental method and he may have even discovered the force of gravity through magical induction rather than the Aristotelian brand of natural philosophy. Magicians did not construct hypotheses or even attempt to explain causes or reasons behind phenomena. The central concern of magic is learning what causes what by experiment and there is no scope to learn why. It is fair to question how great a role Newton's alchemical work had in formulating his style of natural philosophy.

However, it cannot be denied that Newton received his share of criticism. Throughout his working life he was continually corrected and vehemently rebutted and not all the attacks were against the values he put forward rather than his theories of natural philosophy. His methods were not fully accepted and Huygens among others lodged objections to the way he worked. Despite his assertion, "hypotheses non fingo," later in his career Newton was increasingly willing to draw fanciful conjectures. He laid out an extensive body of fact drawn from careful observations in Opticks, and afterward included propositions unsupported by experimental verification. With ambiguous phrasing he did not go as far as making flat hypotheses, but he did allow "philosophical" conjectures that were general in nature and not backed up by mathematics. Newton was a deeply religious man who professed to read the Bible every day and tried to make his conclusions conductive to Christianity as he worried that natural science was beginning to allow atheism to gain ground. However, contrary to his intentions, the escalating divisions and separation of religion and science in the years following his death relied substantially on the foundations of his work. The development of natural philosophy (and later, science) was probably not in the spirit he would have wanted. Newton rejected the wave theory of light and his methods imposed certain restrictions on scientific practise in the future. Lastly, he exerted his influence in England to great effect but this had the result that Leibniz' superior brand of calculus was largely disregarded. This meant that English mathematicians were, in some ways, lagging behind their European counterparts.


Newton's lasting effect on the progression of science cannot be denied. Although it took time for his reputation to reach the height of today, he was greatly revered at death and there were numerous dedications to his memory. We still owe him many great discoveries such as that of gravity, and his three laws of motion are taught to pupils in every school. In comparison to peripatetic methods, Newton was responsible for a considerable change in the way natural philosophy was practised and thought about while few deny that he massively increased human understanding of the universe. Newton today is regarded as a genius and probably the most influential British scientist in history, but his influence was not all positive nor immediately noticeable. As science became more important in the nineteenth century, so did his import and recognition. While during his lifetime he was a renowned natural philosopher, it was only later that his full legacy became apparent.

  • i Dijksterhuis, E. J. The Mechanisation of the World Picture, 327, p. 489 (Oxford, 1961).
  • iiFauvel, John. Let Newton Be!, IV, p. 98 (Oxford, 1988).
  • iii Dijksterhuis, E. J. The Mechanisation of the World Picture, 327, p. 490 (Oxford, 1961).
  • Fara, Patricia. Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (2004).

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