Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic – Post 16: Newton

In the view of most natural philosophers, as scientists were called in the seventeenth century, the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 was the definitive demonstration of the Newtonian mechanical universe. In Laplace’s classical expression of it there was no room for God or chance.  If we knew enough, he wrote, about the movement of all the particles of air in the smoky gambler’s den, the rate at which the gambler’s hand was shaking as he threw the dice and  all the other details none of which would be incalculable, we could accurately predict the fall of the dice every time.  The planets were kept rolling in their orbits not through God’s providence but because of the gravity Newton’s mathematical calculations had so precisely described.  Yet the one man who did not believe in this absolutely predictable mechanical universe was Newton himself.


The salient point to grasp about him is that he was an Arian.  At the Council of Nicea the Catholic view that Christ was himself God had prevailed over Arius’s view that he was the first of God’s creations.  Newton’s extreme Protestantism led him to believe that God was so holy he could not have been enclosed in matter, and he took this view all through his life.  But he told nobody.  Not only did he have an obsessionally secretive nature, but Arianism was against the law.  Had he been outed he would not only have lost his Lucasian professorship at Cambridge but also his membership of the nascent Royal Society.  He was so successful in hiding his beliefs, in fact, that his interest in alchemy was, and is still, widely regarded as a trivial amusement with which he entertained himself while working on the Principia.  But this view was thrown into doubt with the auction of Newton’s papers in 1936.  They showed that he spent as much time studying alchemy as he did science, indeed more so. The idea that they did not connect with each other, since they were both covering the same topics,  is ludicrous. The papers were bought by a startled J.M. Keynes who described him as the first among  the scientists and the last of the magicians.  I am taking much of my information from Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’s book The Janus Faces of Genius: the role of alchemy in Newton’s thought.


Isaac Newton by William Blake. Blake thought of Newton (erroneously if the burden of this post is right) as Nobodaddy, the very father  of an unfeeling  mechanical universe.


The alchemy and the mathematics became ever more closely entwined with each other during the period when he was writing the Principia, for he regarded it as his divinely ordained task to demonstrate the truths of ancient magical beliefs through experiments and mathematics.  Indeed, it was his alchemical beliefs that led him to see gravity as action at a distance, instead of a chain of particles, as everybody else believed, moving through the supposed medium of the ether nudging each other into action.  Far from believing that the universe was an entirely mechanical structure Newton believed it was a giant vegetable.  He discovered on the basis of his researches into ancient beliefs that there had been an original religion called the prisca sapientia.  Its beliefs had become corrupted and lost but there were still traces, especially in the Old Testament.  The ancients had understood the holiness of God who created and acted on the world through the Vegetative Spirit, now identified by Newton as Christ.  The Vegetative Spirit was almost as immaterial and invisible as God himself.  This Spirit was first manifested as fire, the original Illumination of which the writings he studied spoke so much, and then as air, before descending through more and more materially disposed immaterial elements until it finally became enclosed in ‘gross matter’.


All this explains Newton’s intense interest in gravity and light. Fire and light were the first manifestations of the Vegetative Spirit, and directing the courses of the planets the first of its actions.  Newton thought of gravity not as a law of nature but was the pneumatic body of Christ.  He searched the scriptures for evidence that Trinitarianism was wrong.  He thought that he had found evidence of the prisca sapientia’s knowledge of the action of the Vegetable Spirit in the ancient Stoic doctrine of pneuma.  The Stoics believed that there was a world breath, made of air and fire.  It animated the whole living cosmos, which was one single organism, a giant living whole, moulding all material things into the shapes that they are and breathing life into animate beings.   This breath of life escapes from a living body at the time of death and allows the body to return to its constituent parts, out of which the pneuma will create new forms.  Although always material, the pneuma becomes subtler and finer as the scale of being is ascended, increasingly composed less and less of air and more and more of fire, until it approaches the pure fire which is the first of all the manifestations of the hidden divine. The presence of this active creative force is demonstrated both in the beauty and grandeur of the universe and in its rational order.  Although the Stoics were determinists, their deity was immanent and active in the cosmos through its first agent, the pneuma, and all things were guided by the benign care of a merciful providence.  Here was a description of the very Arian agent of the divine, in a preserved fragment of a lost ancient religion, that Newton was looking for.  He was much influenced by Philo, a philosopher of the early Christian period who had Christianized Stoicism. He believed he had found in ancient writings, especially in those of Hermes Trismegistus, evidence of the rituals and beliefs of the prisca sapientia. 


 A supposed descendant of the apple tree under which Newton is supposed to have conceived the idea of universal gravity in front of his rooms at Trinity College Cambridge where he wrote the Principia.

The first manifestation of the Vegetable Spirit was in fire and light.


‘This spirit perhaps is the body of light because both have a prodigious active principle, both are perpetual workers. Because all things may be made to emit light by heat ‘ (quoted by Dobbs p.38).


The first action of the Vegetative Spirit was to keep the planets in their orbits through gravity.   The idea that the Vegetative Spirit was in its first manifestation  entirely immaterial was crucial to Newton’s view of the universe. By invisible gravity it descended each day through levels of increasing materiality until it finally animated “gross matter” before ascending again to the throne of God.


‘…and in descending and becoming sensible it first puts on the body of the air which we breathe and becomes enclosed in it to nourish and vivify all nature.  And that it may act more easily upon the grosser bodies of vegetables and minerals , it becomes still denser and insinuates itself into the water’ (Dobbs p. 97)


‘…For it must descend very fast and swift as appears by the falling of bodies and by the great pressure towards the Earth.  It must ascend in another form than it descends, or else it would have a like force to heat bodies up as it has to press them down…The stream descending will grow thicker as it comes nearer the Earth but it will not lose its swiftness until it finds as much opposition…(Dobbs p.92)


Newton found descriptions of  the original temples of the prisca sapientia which indicated that a perpetual fire had been kept burning, around which each day  priests processed bearing seven lit candelabra representing the seven planets.  At the time, everybody else believed there were six, except Newton who took his belief from the ancients and used his mathematics to predict that a seventh would be found. Ironically, the mechanical universe was confirmed by the later discovery of Uranus.


Originally Newton had been an orthodox follower of Descartes’ teaching that gravity was composed of corpuscles passing through ether.  But his confidence was shaken when Halley (he of the comet) visited the obsessionally reluctant Lucasian professor at Cambridge in August 1682.  Halley’s observations through his telescope at Greenwich had indicated that a comet was imminent and he sought Newton’s mathematical confirmation.  Kepler had already worked out the theory of celestial processes but his original calculations had been purely theoretical and had taken no account of any medium through which the planets might pass.  Still accepting the universal assumption of mid-seventeenth century science that there was a corpuscular ether pervading the universe, Newton expected that he would have to adjust Kepler’s equations to take account of it, in order to bring the theoretical predictions into line with the actual observations.  To Newton’s surprise, the equations and the observations fitted exactly.  There was no corpuscular drag slowing the planets.


He then conducted an experiment with an air chamber that he had himself constructed.  Realising that Boyle’s void within the void experiment, in which Boyle had removed the air from a closed chamber, had not necessarily shown that ether as well as air had been removed by the air pump, Newton devised a further experiment designed to resolve the question.  When Boyle removed the air from his air chamber a pendulum still slowed and then halted.  So it was then presumed that it was being slowed by the ether that penetrated all matter including that of the pendulum, and interacted with it to slow down and eventually stop the pendulum’s motion.  Newton now devised an experiment to find out if this were so.  He first removed the air from the chamber and allowed the pendulum to halt as normal. If weights of lead were added to the bob of the pendulum, then the greater the weight of the lead the more ethereal corpuscles there would be, and the more quickly should the pendulum slow.  His experiments showed that there was no difference.  It was looking more and more as if the corpuscular ether did not exist.  But if it did not, then how to explain gravity?  It was this that turned Newton towards seeking a quite different explanation.


Before this, however, he had already turned his attention aroused by the discoveries of ancient writings about the Vegetative Spirit towards light.  Descartes had already experimented with a narrow beam of light shone through a raindrop a few inches away and had already discovered that light is broken up into tinges of different colours round the edges of the raindrop .His explanation was that light, like everything else, is composed of corpuscles and at different angles the corpuscles rotate at different speeds, and it is these different speeds of corpuscular movement in the light, nudging in turn the corpuscles  in the raindrop into a rotatory  movement which also in their turn re-affect the rotation of the corpuscles in the light, and this explains why colours have different hues that produce in our  brains sensations of colour.


In order to disprove Descartes Newton conducted his celebrated  experimentau crucis. He bored a small hole in a door and then shone the narrow beam of light that was emitted through a   prism.  At a distance of 22 yards the light did not fall on a wall as a circle as he had expected, the hole being circular,  but as a column of the colours of the rainbow in downward order and in oblong shapes.  He had split white light into different colours. He then shone one colour through a second prism to find that it did not alter.  This time the prism had not split the light into other colours. There were different irreducible colours making up white light.  Newton first introduced his discoveries to the Royal Society in a letter dated January 1672.  He had happened, he said, to have bought s prism at a fair and while playing with it, had found “at first a very pleasing diversion”   in seeing the brilliant colours.   Throughout the letter he presents himself as  totally without  experimental purpose “(hypotheses non fingo-“ – I do not feign hypotheses) but this was misleading.  The experiments had been set up with great care, and it is more than reasonable, in the light of the alchemical papers, to suppose  that their hypothesis was to demonstrate that in their purest state, in their first  manifestation of the Vegetative Spirit,  the colours were immaterial and invisible and only split into different hues when they became entangled in ‘gross matter’.   There followed a bitter dispute with   Hooke and Huygens who maintained that all Newton had showed  was that light can be mechanically split into angles and it is our observation of the angles that  produces in our brains the wholly subjective experiences of colour in light.    Newton, who could not explain why he had really done the experimentum crucis writhed in his fury.  Huygens, who was a skilled water colourist, argued that  the eye blends colours as a painter mixes them on his palette.  Newton replied that under a miscroscope


‘…it has been commonly observed that when diversely colored powders are mixed together a new color emerges; yet if those powders are examined with microscopes, they all appear imbued with their proper colors.  Consequently their proper colors are not destroyed in a mixture of powders, but rather by mixing a new color is only derived.  Clearly the same colors are produced from a mixing of prismatic colors as of powders.  Thus a blue powder mixed with a yellow one produces green, and the same green is produced from a mixture of rays imbued with blue and yellow.  Consequently it cannot be doubted that new colors similarly arising from a mixture of prismatic colors and are not made by assimilation but only by mixture’  (Newton’s Optical Lectures    p. 36)


But Newton’s argument that the powders were irreducible did not indicate in what state the colours in the light  were before they passed through the prism, for it was only by passing through the prism that they had been revealed.  If there was any colour that might demonstrate that colours are only produced by blending in the eye it is the green that a painter can make by mixing blue and yellow. To the corpuscular materialists of the seventeenth century all that Newton had proved was that even light is open to mathematical analysis just like everything else.   He had demonstrated the very opposite of what his excursions into the idea of Illumination as conceived by the ancients had persuaded him that light really was.   The Vegetative Spirit died with him until it arose unexpectedly from the grave in 1936.

photo of Newton’s Tree by Crapsy under creative commons licence courtesy of Flickr




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