It’s magic!

The Alchemist, In Search of the Philosophers’ Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771

Last week the illustrious ThonyC wrote a blogpost titled “Do you believe in Magic?” in which he addressed the many, many glaring errors in yet another ‘revealing’ post about a number of important scientists of the past. The title of that post alone, ” These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real” made me shiver and really, really want to continue hibernating. But alas, one of the five was of course Isaac Newton, and although Thony did an excellent job in addressing the stupendous amount of b%^&sh&^t the blogpost contained, I felt I should add my two cents.

The original post’s entry on Newton read

John Maynard Keynes called Isaac Newton (1642-1726) “the last of the magicians” with good reason. Newton spent half his life obsessed with alchemy, the transformative magic most frequently associated with turning different metals into gold. To make things even more complicated, in 1696, Newton became Warden of the Mint, and he became master of the Mint in 1700. The Royal Mint, of course, makes the coins for the entire United Kingdom. To be clear: an alchemist was the person in charge of making all the money.

Newton wasn’t the only respected mind who had visions of diving into gold coins. Robert Boyle is considered the father of chemistry, but he dabbled in alchemy as well. In fact, he was so committed to the alchemical cause that he fought to make alchemy legal, since Henry IV had banned it (because alchemy wasn’t good for the monetary supply). Needless to say, the repeal wasn’t necessary.

The philosopher’s stone Newton chased after wasn’t only able to “cure” metals that weren’t gold. It also had medical powers that fascinated Newton and his peers. Unfortunately, today you can only find the philosopher’s stone in the British subtitle of the first Harry Potter book.:

Thony has more than adequately dealt with the fact that the author believes he is revealing some sort of secret when he tells us that Newton practised alchemy, and his mistake that alchemy equals magic. Thony also points out how useful Newton’s alchemical knowledge would have been for his work at the Mint, although I’m not sure that he is right when he says that  “[o]n a scientific level the Newton experts are now convinced that his belief in alchemy enabled him to develop his theory of universal gravity, which, with its action at a distance, heavily contradicted the prevailing mechanical philosophy.” But that’s a debate I would like to leave for another time, after proper investigation. One needs to respects one’s Thonies.

No, the reason why I was rather intrigued by Thony’s “Hist-Sci Hulk treatment” (his words 🙂 ) is because it remembered me of a certain letter by Newton to Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, where he discusses Robert Boyle talking alchemy.

But yet because the way by wch [Mercury] may be so impregnated, has been thought fit to be concealed by others that have known it, & therefore may possibly be an inlet to something more noble, not to be communicated wthout immense damage to ye world, therefore I question not but that ye great wisdom of ye noble Authour will sway him to high silence till he shall be resolved of what consequence ye thing may be either by his own experience, or ye judgmt of some other that througly understands what he speaks about, that is of a true Hermetic Philosopher, … there being other things beside ye transmutation of metalls … wch none but they understand.

I ended a post that I wrote last year by asking the reader and myself what this “immense danger to ye world” might have been. When I discussed this with an eminent Newton scholar, he suggested a similar relation as our beloved blogpost author: if alchemists had really found the secret to transmute ordinary metals into gold, the economical implications would be immense. In an economy based upon the scarcity of gold, a potential unlimited resource of the precious matter would fundamentally unsettle society. Newton might not have been at the Mint in those days (the letter was written in 1676) but he firmly understood the implications of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, which by the way was not stone-like, but a certain very pure form of mercury.

Our author, who obviously knows nothing about the Philosopher’s Stone except the Harry Potter reference, might have accidentally made a point. In the light of the overall quality of his blogpost, there is but one explanation for this phenomenon: magic.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. thonyc says:

    “Although we must, I believe, agree with R. S. Westfall and Betty Jo Dobbs that alchemy conditioned Newton to accept the idea of force as a primary element of nature’s operations, we must also recognise that alchemy could not fully justify the kind of long-range action at a distance required of a force of universal gravitation. Alchemy seems to have given Newton an overall philosophical or conceptual framework that allowed forces to be primary elements of nature’s operations. It is even possible that without such a framework, he might have been reluctant to develop a system of physics based on forces, one in which a central place would be given to the elaboration of the properties and effects of a force of gravity”

    I. Bernard Cohen “A guide to Newton’s Principia” p. 62

    Needless to say Westfall and Dobbs do not share Cohen’s caution but embrace the theory that Newton’s study of alchemy led to his acceptance of action at a distance whole heartedly.

    On Newton’s aversion to Boyle publicly discussing the ‘secrets’ of alchemy, I think he is just being a traditional alchemist, alchemical knowledge is only for the adept and not for general consumption.

  2. I share your reading of that letter about Boyle, and I think it is connected to a much further reaching attitude towards knowledge dissemination. I am currently preparing a paper about this, tbc 🙂 Dobbs’s integral attitude towards Newton’s alchemy has been much debated and eventually discredited among Newton scholars, though I do thing Cohen’s analysis of Newton’s alchemy providing him with the needed framework deservers further research.

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