It is not without significance that Newton’s first mentor at Cambridge was the very Henry More with whom Boyle had crossed swords.  More was a crucial influence on the young Newton, who never entirely lost his marking by More’s Platonism. It comes as a shock to realise that the supposed greatest exponent of the Galilean mechanical world view, the destroyer in chief of the mythical medieval cosmos, was himself an alchemist who believed that the world was a giant vegetable and gravity the pneumatic body of Christ.[1]  Still, we can perhaps make allowances, for, after all, genius is to madness close allied and but thin partitions do their bounds divide.    Newton had such odd views, we might well feel, because he was such an odd man.  He was, as is well known, cold and arrogant and spiteful, an emotionally damaged loather of mankind.  He was the world’s expert in dishing out put-downs under the forms of academic politeness.  Even such gems as Jerry Fodor’s ‘his writing is a fine example of the copulating snakes school of English prose style’, and Dawkins’ own ‘she raises misunderstanding to the level of art’ grow wan before Newton’s sarcastic thanking of Hooke (who was claiming that it was really he who had first discovered the inverse square law) for the part that Hooke’s ideas had played in his own development.  I would not have been able to achieve what I have done, Newton wrote, ‘without standing on ye shoulders of giants’.  Hooke was a deformed little dwarf of a man.  Our complacency might be a little disturbed, though, when we read that, on the basis of his study of scriptural numerology, Newton forecast that the Jews would return to Palestine in 1948, and that the world would come to an end in the twenty first century.  Perhaps, in an age of nuclear bombs and global warming, he will turn out to have been not so wrong in the latter view either.  We might wonder even more when we read that the leading experts on Newton’s alchemy think that, far from being peripheral to his discovery of the true nature of gravity, the alchemy was intrinsic and central to it.


The key fact about Newton is that he was an Arian.  The most fundamental debate in early Christianity had been that between the homoousians, led by Athanasius, who held that the human Christ was also fully God, and the followers of Arius who believed that he was the first of all the creations, God’s agent and creator of the earth and the force who maintained it by his presence everywhere in it, but not himself God.  It was Newton’s extreme Protestantism, his belief in the absolute holiness and otherness of God and his sense that God could not be contained by mere matter,  that led him to his passionate Arianism.  But such a view was not merely unfashionable, it was prohibited by law and, if his views had become known, would have led to his expulsion from Cambridge University and complete ostracism by the scientific community; an estrangement that, despite his constant attempts to bring it about, only masked a contradictory but burning desire for recognition by his fellow scientists of the genius that he never doubted was his.  Hence his obsessive secrecy and the widespread misunderstanding of what he actually believed.                                                     


In Newton’s view there had once been a true ancient religion, a prisca sapientia, which had now almost entirely disappeared except for fragmentary remains, to be re-discovered in what was still known of ancient religions and most especially, far more than anywhere else, in the Bible.[2]  But even this salvaged fragment of primordial truth had once again been almost totally lost in the disaster of the Council of Nicaea, where, with imperial help, the homoousians had triumphed over the Arians, and in place of true religion had established the beast foretold in the Apocalypse, the whore of Babylon, the Catholic Church.  Newton searched the scriptures for evidence that Trinitarianism was wrong.  In his notebooks he listed texts that supported his position, Second Corinthians, 4iv for example, where St Paul says that Christ is the image of God, a phrase that implied he could not himself be God, or the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is said of Christ ‘therefore God, even thy God’.  On top of that, the doctrine of the Trinity offended his sense of logic.  Turning water into wine might be remarkable but it was not illogical.  Being three and one at the same time was.   Newton was astonishingly lucky, and immensely relieved, that he was able to get a licence from Charles II that dispensed him from the necessity of signing the thirty nine articles as a condition of remaining in the university, the royal compliance even more astonishing in that Newton gave no explanation for his request and revealed the real reason for his reluctance to nobody.

[1] B.J.T. Dobbs 1991. The Janus Faces of Genius. Cambridge. Cambridge Univ. Press chs. 2 & 5

[2] Dobbs op.cit. 186-8


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