“Was Newton a man?” – The Enigma

After twenty years of full time Newtonian research, Richard Westfall was said to be totally
fed up with Newton. The author of Never at Rest, Westfall’s biographical studies had shown
him the evil machinations of a full fledged tyrant, who used every means at hand to get
what he wanted. He harassed John Flamsteed, the astronomer Royal, for astronomical data
which he needed for his revised Principia and his chronological studies, trying to set a
date for the Argonautic Expedition. He went as far as to have the Queen confiscate
Flamsteed’s Greenwich observatory with all in it: instruments, devices and star charts, years
and years of hard work by Flamsteed, mainly paid for by himself since his salary was
virtually non-existent. From that time on Flamsteed would continually refer to Sir Isaac
Newton in his diaries as SIN, for obvious reasons…

As president of the Royal Society Newton’s word was law, and when the Society decided to settle the priority dispute between Leibniz and Newton by means of an ‘independent’ committee in the 1710s, Newton drew up the resulting Commercium Epistolium, which of course settled the case in his favour.

Remarkably enough, it is this same Isaac Newton of whom John Conduitt recalls:

“Nor was he ever wanting in suitable returns of the sincerest gratitude and affection, he
made frequent journeys from Cambridge to visit [his mother] & even at the time when he was
in the warmest pursuit of those enchanting discoveries which made him forget his food & his
rest & seemed to transport his imagination above all sublunary things, broke loose to pay
his duty to her.

During a malignant feaver which she caught in nursing her son Smith in the same distemper
and of which she died at Stamford in 1689 [sic] Sir Isaac attended her with a true filial
piety, sate up whole nights with her, gave her all her Physick himself, & dressed all her
blisters with his own hands made use of that manual dexterity for which he was so
remarkable to lessen the pain which always attends the dressing the torturing remedy
usually applied in that distemper with as much readiness as he ever had employed it in the
most delightfull experiments.”

When Betty Jo Dobbs introduced the Janus faced Newton, she was referring to where he stood
in the history of science: with one face looking at the past, the old, alchemy, ancient
history, the ancient Prytanea, Saturn & Jove; the other face looking into the future:
modern science. But the duality of the Janus faced nature can also be applied to Newton’s
character. Both tyrant and tender, both very patient and easily distressed.

And again, when we look at Newton and publication, we see this same two-sidedness: an
enormous reluctancy to publish and to draw attention to himself, and yet at the same time
devoting three years of his life to the Principia, deifying himself in the process and in
the years thereafter. Various scholars have shown how Newton carefully crafted an image of
himself, creating the first scientific celebrity, who when he died was lamented by the
whole of society. In Conduitt’s words:

“When wee consider his talents his virtues Even wee that knew him can hardly think of him
without a sort of superstition which demands {all} our reason to check – nor forbear saying
with the Marquis de l’Hospital was Newton a man? Thus far surely wee may say that [h]ad
this great & good man lived in an age when those superiour Genij inventors were Deified or
in a country where mortals are canonized he would have had a better claim to those honours
than those they have hitherto been ascribed to, his virtues proved him a Saint & his
discoveries might well pass for miracles…

It is a policy in the Roman Church to canonize none till they have been dead 100 years that there may be no living witnesses of their imperfections – it is a happy circumstance that whilst I am writing this many are alive who knew him & can bear witness for psterity will hardly believe so many virtues & no vices could exist in any man — mortal.”

When you listen very carefully you can hear some muffled noises – John Flamsteed turning in his grave…


3 Comments Add yours

  1. gerdien says:

    Obviously, Newton was a woman.

  2. Virginie says:

    and still is,
    in a way.

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