"And All Was Light"
The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern
Culture. Mordechai Feingold. xv + 218 pp. New York Public
Library and Oxford University Press, 2004. $22.50.
The exhibits of Newton's works at Cambridge University Library in
2001 and at the New York Public Library from October 8, 2004, to
February 5, 2005, were of note, among other reasons, for the
attention they drew to a December 2004 auction of rare Newton
manuscripts. Mordechai Feingold has, meanwhile, created a lavishly
illustrated and immensely entertaining companion volume to the New
York display of Newton's great achievement. The book serves to
demonstrate that the rationalism of the European Enlightenment,
which was marked by upheaval in America and in France, was defined
in such large measure by the conception and diffusion of Newton's
great works in mathematics and physics that the epoch could be
viewed as the Newtonian Moment.
Here is a Newton deified, not only in a state funeral at Westminster
Abbey (rare for a philosopher) but also by endless numbers of
paintings and engravings of the great man—some of which Newton
himself distributed. Gentlemanly experimental philosophers, even
amateur ones, later took pains when having their own portraits
painted to have apparatus and portraits of Newton and Bacon in the
background. Thomas Jefferson was so smitten that he obtained one of
the few copies of Newton's death mask made in 1727. The colossus of
Newton strode across the 18th century, subduing nature, even as
Alexander Pope eulogized him with this couplet: "Nature, and
Nature's Laws lay hid in Night. / God said, 'Let Newton
be!' and all was Light."
From the moment of Newton's death, even amid the controversies that
surrounded his greatest accomplishments in mathematics, physics and
chemistry, the philosopher was to be emulated. By mid-century,
Newton was the highest embodiment of reason, even for French
philosophes. For Denis Diderot and for Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, Newton represented the ultimate fulfillment of the
Baconian program of experiment. But for Rousseau, even moral
philosophy could be expanded by the Newtonian method—as Newton
himself had proclaimed in his Opticks, a work that his
executor John Conduitt believed "joined Morality to
Philosophy." Thus the grand image of Newton was manufactured.
Feingold engages in his own revision of Newton's autocratic image.
He reveals a Newton surrounded by conflict, battling Robert Hooke,
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and innumerable others over optics in
particular, and contending with some who were highly suspicious of
his theological sentiments. Feingold advances the debate among
scholars over Newton's sporadic withdrawal from philosophic dispute,
suggesting particularly that Hooke's real animosity was not quite so
personal as it has been portrayed. The actual issues, Feingold
maintains, had to do at least in part with the failure of Newton to
provide a physical explanation for his prismatic experiments.
Likewise, Newton's differences with Leibniz were not entirely about
the invention of the calculus, although this later became a
cause célèbre as Newton used his
presidency of the Royal Society to advance his claims. Rather, the
conflict followed upon the antagonism toward Leibniz of Newton's
disciples John Keill and Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss
mathematician who was supposedly "mentally unstable." But
this assertion is as speculative, it seems to me, as the previously
proposed theory that there was a deeply intense relationship between
Fatio and Newton, the collapse of which contributed to Newton's own
mental breakdown in the 1690s.
Amid the controversies swirling around Newton's achievements, the
"near-total incomprehension" of those who read the
Principia was a major hurdle overcome only by the
increasing efforts of scientific amateurs. Feingold demonstrates
that Newton's reputation owed much to those who could barely
understand his great mathematical achievements. Indeed, even those
versed in mathematics sought out assistance from the few individuals
who had been initiated into the calculus of motions. The
dissemination of Newton's experimental science, which enhanced the
importance of instruments in natural philosophy, is suggested to
have originated in the lectures of John Keill at Oxford. Although a
more convincing claim for influence might well be made for the
lecturer John Harris or even James Hodgson, a teacher of mathematics
who made experimental apparatus essential, these are mere quibbles.
Those who were enamored of experiments—for example, Willem
Jacob 's Gravesande and Hermann Boerhaave in Holland, and Voltaire
in France—were fundamental to the spread of Newton's method,
as were those who declared that they found much to admire in the
English world of religious pluralism and experimental philosophy.
Even the ultimate rescue of the reputation of French science at the
end of the century, by the innovative chemistry of Lavoisier, owed
much to the development of the experimental world by Newton's disciples.
Feingold's work is full of insight into how Newton made the
Enlightenment and what use the Enlightenment made of him. Two
reproductions of the broadsheets of Newton's disciple William Whiston
are hopelessly small, but apart from that, this work is brilliantly
illustrated. Indeed, illustration was at the very center of Newton's
reputation. An engraving made by Bernard Picart in 1707, which showed
Descartes (followed by Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Zeno) being led by
Lady Philosophy toward Truth, was appropriated by the English, who
replaced the image of Descartes with that of Newton and altered the
accompanying text to indicate that Newton's explanation of gravity had
shattered Cartesian vortices. Gravity, it seems, put Newton at the
center of the European achievement that so impressed Benjamin Franklin
and Thomas Jefferson as they manufactured their own
revolution.—Larry Stewart, History, University of Saskatchewan
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