»  The New Criterion

May 2003

  The Apple in Our Eye


Newton: The Making of Genius
by Patricia Fara
Columbia University Press; 347 pp. $27.95

I picked up this book thinking it was a biography of Newton. Thus disposed, I picked it up with some reluctance — and then, only after two or three weeks of procrastination. That Sir Isaac Newton was a tremendous genius, there is no doubt at all. There are excellent arguments for the proposition that, so far as mathematics and its physical applications are concerned, Newton's mind was the most powerful that ever existed. The story of Newton's life, however, is, to put it very mildly indeed, not enthralling. He never traveled outside eastern England. He took no part in business, or in war. In spite of having lived through some of the greatest events in English constitutional history, he seems to have had no interest in public affairs. His brief tenure as a Member of Parliament for Cambridge University made not a ripple on the political scene. Newton had no intimate connections with other human beings. On his own testimony, which there is no strong reason to doubt, he died a virgin. He was similarly indifferent to friendship, and published only with reluctance, and then often anonymously, for fear that: "[P]ublic esteem, were I able to acquire and maintain it … would perhaps increase my acquaintance, the thing which I chiefly study to decline." His relationships with his peers, when not tepidly absent-minded, were dominated by petty squabbles, which he conducted with an irritated punctiliousness that never quite rose to the level of an interesting vehemence. "A cold fish," as the English say.

I was only able to stir myself to pick up Patricia Farr's book at all in the slim hope that it might be a "mathematical biography" — which is to say, much more math than biography. (Compare: "musical biography.") Newton's math has never had the attention it deserved. His work on cubic equations, for example, is one of the distant ancestors of modern algebraic number theory, whose achievements include Andrew Wiles's 1994 proof of Fermat's last Theorem. It would be nice to see a math-leaning biography — I don't think there has been one.

In fact I quickly found, with some relief, that Ms. Fara has written not a biography at all, but an altogether different kind of book. Instead of an account of Sir Isaac's life, Ms. Fara has written an account of his reputation. How, her book asks, did this man become an icon of scientific genius? Given his accomplishments, it was inevitable that now, 275 years after his death, Newton should be a famous figure, but what path did his reputation take? How did it fare under the various cultural changes of the last three centuries? How was it seen outside his own country? Who were its opponents, and who its inheritors? Where are its shrines? What are its associated myths?

This gives the author a very rich deposit of material to mine. I am surprised she managed to hold herself to such a modest length. There is a host of colorful characters here, some familiar (though usually not in this context) some quite unknown. Among the former, we early on meet Caroline of Anspach, George II's queen, for whom Newton was a convenient peg on which to hang her aspirations both to be a bluestocking and to be an English patriot. Caroline had a grotto built in the royal gardens, containing stone busts of her five intellectual heroes: Newton, Locke, Boyle, metaphysician Samuel Clarke and theologian William Wollaston. The two last are now, of course, utterly forgotten. (And Boyle had pride of place in Caroline's display. It is understandable, but regrettable, that the author did not include the one exchange for which this lady is remembered by her countrymen. On her deathbed she expressed the wish that her husband should remarry. The heartbroken George replied: "Non — j'aurai — des — maîtresses." Sighed the expiring queen: "Cela n'empêche pas.") Of the unknowns, I think my favorite was George Cheyne, a medical reformer who tried to apply principles of Newtonian attraction to medicine, in a weird construction known as "iatro-mathematics." Cheyne struggled heroically, but mostly unsuccessfully, with problems of diet and alcohol intake, eventually becoming so fat that "a servant had to follow him with a stool so that he could recuperate every few yards."

"Iatro-mathematics" illustrates an important aspect of Newton's influence. The fame of Newton's theories was so great, even among people who barely understood them, that Newtonian, or "Newtonian," concepts leaked out into other areas of inquiry and activity. In Newton's own time this meant mostly matters of theology and cosmology, from which 17th-century political science proceeded. This casts new light on the famous Newton-Leibniz quarrel, which went much deeper than competing claims to have invented the differential calculus.

According to Newton, God had created independent, individual particles that, as they traveled through empty space, constantly interacted with each other and formed new associations. In contrast, Leibniz maintained that God had established a harmonious universe completely filled by inherently active entities called monads. Although they operated independently, and no longer needed God's direct control, Leibniz's monads had been in a sense pre-programmed so that they worked together to fulfil His plans.

These different cosmologies were then used as supporting arguments for the different political arrangements of England and Germany, with the numerous petty states of Leibniz's Germany in the role of self-sufficient monads. The great political innovation of Newton's time, constitutional monarchy, was by contrast seen as an image of God's power to intervene in the affairs of the universe, a power whose exercise, in a well-regulated system, should hardly ever be required. In the course of the 18th century these notions fed into the swelling stream of English (and then — I genuflect here to historian Linda Colley — British) self-regard. By the end of that century, Britons had it firmly fixed in their minds that they were paragons of practical common sense, possessed of a system of government founded on empirical principles. In a chapter headed "Icons," Ms. Fara describes the mass marketing of engravings featuring elaborate allegorical images of famous Britons, including Newton, Locke, and the Duke of Marlborough. Locke seems to have been especially linked with Newton — he was there in Queen Caroline's grotto, recall — and this is entirely fitting, given that he himself confessed a philosophical debt to the younger man.

Large currents of thought were influenced not only by Newton's ideas but also by the idea of Newton. Was he born a genius, or had he been trained up to it? By the middle years of the 19th century what we nowadays call the "nature-nurture" debate was well under way, and was just as loaded with political prejudices as it is in our own time. Lecturing at the London Mechanics' Institute, the reforming journalist Thomas Hodgskin, who was an influence on Karl Marx, argued that Newton was little more than a product of his time, able to gather up the researches of others and form them into a synthesis. (A notion in fair agreement with Newton's own self-deprecating remarks about "standing on the shoulders of giants." But some component of Newton's remarks was surely only a pro forma style of gentlemanly modesty. His actual estimate of his own powers was probably somewhat higher.) Contrariwise, stern Tories like Carlyle held to the idea of Newton as an innate genius, a "gifted spirit," of a type no mere social improvement could bring forth.

This is, in fact, one of those books — Paul Johnson's Birth of the Modern is another — that sets you to thinking about the deep currents of thought that prevail in any given age, across fields as distant from each other as mathematics, philosophy, political science, architecture and theology. The 20th century was an obvious case, with relativistic concepts beginning in mathematical physics, then spreading out to the human sciences, and thence to the popular imagination. We have so thoroughly internalized Newtonian ideas that it is hard for us now to see how striking they were when new, and how tempting to a wide range of thinkers. Including satirists: Voltaire's mistress Émilie du Châtelet, a keen Newtonian, was lampooned by Francesco Algarotti in his Newtonianism for the Ladies, uttering such absurdities as: "After eight Days' absence, Love becomes sixty-four times less than it was the first Day, and according to this Progression it must soon be entirely obliterated …"

Voltaire was, as I think is well known, a quite fanatical Newtonian. He published one of the earliest accounts in French of Newton's ideas, with a frontispiece representing du Châtelet as the Goddess of Truth. (Voltaire believed, probably correctly, that his lover had a better grasp of mathematics and science than he had.) Ms. Fara gives over a whole chapter to the French reception of Newton. In the decades prior to the French Revolution, Newtonianism played into the general Anglo-manie current in French intellectual circles, as well as the obsessions with Reason and Vision, and with all else that contradicted the stuffy Throne'n'Altar conservatism of the ancien régime. Newton was actually a subversive figure in 1740s France — Diderot put him into a pornographic novel. France had an intellectual totem of her own in Descartes, and Newton was at first put on a level with him. Political and religious factions soon pulled the two philosophers apart, however. The Jesuits in particular favored Descartes for his affirmation of the existence of the soul, and denounced Newton as a materialist and atheist. This would have been startling to Newton (dead at this point — we are in the 1740s), who was intensely religious, though in a narrow and peculiar way. The Jesuits, however, controlled a large part of the educational system of Catholic Europe, and their point of view was correspondingly influential and long-lasting. French wits chuckled over the story of a Cartesian beating a Newtonian in a fist-fight. Lacking any repulsive force, the Newtonian fell to the ground when the Cartesian's fist was attracted to his center, instead of being deflected in a circle as Descartes concept of "vortices" required.

Newton: The Making of Genius gives off a slight whiff of po-mo grievance-mongering, and I suspect Ms. Fara of feminist sympathies, though for the most part she keeps them decently under control. Here we are, for example, with an exchange between Newton and the astronomer Edmond Halley. Newton, struggling with the Principia, had likened philosophy to "an impertinently litigious lady." If this was so, replied Halley, it was a lady "whose favors you have so much reason to boast of." This is too much for Ms. Fara, who lets fly with a blast at "the gendered foundations of academic science, in which knowledge is pursued by celibate males unveiling the secrets of female nature." Possibly so: but surely this is a little hard on Sir Isaac, considering how little actual ladies had to fear from his attentions. It is difficult to see how Newton fits into the core feminist theory that "all men are rapists" without stretching metaphors to breaking point.

These slight and occasional deformations aside, this is an excellent survey of Newton's reputation from all angles. The book is nicely produced, with a good index, plentiful notes, and a vast bibliography. Factual errors are few: the Academicians in Gulliver's Travels were making sunbeams out of cucumbers, not vice versa, … but I spotted nothing more consequential than that. The argument is seasoned with a pleasant sprinkling of curious little facts. Did you know that at the time of his death — he was 84 — Newton had lost only one tooth? That the tree from which the celebrated apple fell was made into a chair? That John Maynard Keynes was a keen collector of Newton's alchemical manuscripts? That British partisans of Newton vented their patriotic pride in Newtonian drinking songs?

The atoms of [Des]Cartes Sir Isaac destroyed;
Leibniz pilfered our countryman's fluxions;
Newton found out attraction, and prov'd nature's void
Spite of prejudic'd Plenum's constructions.
Gravitation can boast,
In the form of my toast,
More power than all of them knew, Sir.

Are Cambridge undergraduates toasting confusion to the Queen's enemies with songs about Stephen Hawking? I doubt it. One can't help feeling that some of the fun has gone out of science.