As I am writing this, I am in Berlin at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual conference. I am currently listening to a paper on Johannes Kepler’s astrological aspirations and his debate with Pico della Mirandola, which is quite intriguing. I have to admit, I am not an expert on Kepler: I have a fair grasp of his scientific endeavours and the principles or laws he discovered, and had heard about his esoteric studies, but had no idea how important astrology actually was for Kepler.
The parallel with Newton is obvious, although Newton did not engage in astrology. Newton spent decades performing alchemical experiments and had over a hundred and fifty alchemical books in his library when he passed away in 1727. “Astrology formed an integral part of Kepler’s astronomy” is what our speaker says. Did alchemy, in similar measure, form an integral part of Newton’s astronomy? According to Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, the first popularizer of Newton’s alchemy, definitely yes. She understood his alchemy as a search for the cause of gravity, pointing at striking similarities in vernacular. “This all-permeating spirit” is a phrase that comes to mind. The word “spirit” figures both in Newton’s alchemical discourses (heavily I would say) and in his discussion of the cause of gravity. According to Dobbs, all of Newton’s writings were connected. Modern historians of Newton’s work no longer consider this to be a valid way of understanding Newton’s work. He had several research programmes that did intersect at several nexuses, but were essentially separate.
“Kepler claimed that astrology was essential mathematical”, according to our speaker. So, Kepler understood astrology as something rational. Again, similarity. Newton understood alchemy as pointing to a hidden knowledge that God had put into nature, there to be discovered by those that would painstakingly study the hints that God provided.
We already knew that Newton considered himself to be chosen by God to deliver the truth about how to interpret Biblical prophecies. In one of his theological manuscripts, he writes
If [the prophesies] are never to be understood, to what end did God reveale them? Certainly he did it for the edification of the church; & if so, then it is as certain that the church shall at length attain to the understanding thereof. I mean not all that call themselves Christians, but a remnant, a few scattered persons which God hath chosen, such as without being led by interest, education, or humane authorities, can set themselves sincerely & earnestly to search after truth. For as Daniel hath said that the wise shall understand, so he hath said also that none of the wicked shall understand.
But in my study of the alchemical books that Newton owned, I came across a number of passages dog-eared by Newton, that differed from the passages he would usually bookmark. One of them reads
These are but a few things which I have said of the matter; which tho’ it be very secret, yet the operation of it is more secret which nevertheless in my following discourse I will reveal, so that its occult may be made manifest only to men elected by God.
The parallel is again too striking to be left untouched. Chosen by God – elected by God. There are connections between Newton’s distinct research program. They might not be topical, but there are definite methodological connections. If only because it was one and the same man that executed all these programmes – a man elected by God.