Newton’s Working Practices (2) – I did it my way…

In our last episode we looked at Isaac Newton’s use of catchwords. Today our focus will be on his citation practices, with special regards to his command of ancient languages. At his grammar school in Grantham, the young Newton had received a basic but thorough training in Latin and Greek. When we look at his theological and chronological draft manuscripts, many of them are in Latin, or have long Latin and Greek citations.

Take for instance the following quote, which is in a draft manuscript for Newton’s Chronology of Ancient Kingdom’s Amended, posthumously published in 1728. The citation is out of book two of Cicero’s Actionis In Verrem Secundae – De Praetura Siciliensi: pic1 The text here reads: Est consuetudo Siculorum cæterorumque Græcorum quod suos dies mensesque congruere volunt cum Solis Lunæque rationibus; ut nonnunquam siquid discrepet, eximant aliquem diem, aut summum, biduum ex mense [civili dierum triginta] quos illi ἐξαιρεσίμους dies nominant… This translates approximately as “It is a custom of the Sicilians, and of the rest of the Greeks, because they wish their days and months to agree with the calculations as to the sun and moon, if there be any difference sometimes to take out a day, or, at most, two days from a month, [which normally has thirty days] which they call ἐξαιρεσίμους day…” with the Greek word meaning ‘that can be taken out’. This quote differs however from Cicero’s original: where Newton has ‘rationibus’, Cicero has ‘ratione’, and where Newton has ‘eximant aliquem diem’, Cicero has ‘eximant unum aliquem diem’. Below we have another draft, where he again writes ‘rationibus’ (which is the right word, but the wrong Latin case): Pic2 The published version of the Chronology has the quote right: ‘ratione’ and ‘unum’. Apparently John Conduitt corrected the text before publication, looking up Newton’s quotations. This episode does tell us a few things about Newton’s citation practices. Had he been copying from a copy of Cicero directly in front of him, he would most likely not have mistakenly written ‘rationibus’; he might still have missed ‘unum’ though, an easy slip. On the other hand, citing this whole passage from mind is no mean feat. It is evident however, that Newton did not look up the quotation again when writing subsequent drafts: he simply copied from an earlier version. Another interesting example is the following: Pic3 Here Newton’s cites from the Bible, where king Solomon asks king Hiram of Zidon for wood and craftsmen. But which Bible? The text above reads: “My servants, saith he, shall be with thy servants, & unto thee will I give hire for thy servants according to all that thou desirest, for thou knowest that there is not amongst us any that can skill to hew timber like unto the Zidonians.” The King James has one important difference: instead of ‘that thou desirest’, the KJ reads: “that thou shalt appoint” Is this an error, Newton again quoting from mind? If so, then again persistently as other drafts show: Pic7 Pic4     As far as I know, there was no single Bible translation in Newton’s days that reads ‘desirest’. The only plausible answer is that this is Newton’s own translation, directly from Hebrew. Newton did read Hebrew after all, although not always flawless. Take for instance the following example. The printed edition of the Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended has a quote from 2 Chronicles 12: “God gave Sesac ממלכות הארצות the Kingdoms of the lands” Here we have Newton citing from a Hebrew Bible, and providing his own translation. The manuscripts have Newton alternatively read ‘the kingdom of the lands’ and ‘the kingdoms of the earth’:



The King James however has “the kingdomes of the countreys.’ Again we see that Newton does not quote directly from the King James, but tries his hand at his own translation. The Hebrew, written and read from right to left, has a plural form of the word for ‘land’ or ‘earth’, but both ‘the lands’ and ‘the earth’ are acceptable. That Newton was no expert in Hebrew though can be witnessed from the second image above: he has written the words in the wrong order. What is evident however is that Newton mastered Hebrew to such an extent that he felt confident to provide his own translations, instead of simply quoting from the King James Bible. These are just some snapshots from Newton’s citation practices. My research aims at providing answers by comparing all of Newton’s drafts for the Chronology. Not all quotations are immediately visible though. Who knows what authors Newton might have been inspired by, maybe without acknowledgement?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s