Book Review: Isaac Newton by Mitch Stokes

June 2, 2010

My undergraduate degree is in engineering. Engineers all know that Isaac Newton was a genius. His ‘Principles’ define modern physics and make engineering possible. His discovery of gravity (and countless other natural phenomenon) are known popularly.

Prior to reading this book, my respect for Newton stopped at his science. It was my understanding that the man was otherwise a kook for the following reasons:

1) He was into alchemy (with the implication that this is akin to being a wizard stirring eye of neut into a cauldron full of goat’s heads).

2) He was religious fanatic who wrote complicated numerology on prophesy and rejected orthodoxy.

3) He was generally a reclusive weirdo.

As a result of this limited knowledge, I was reluctant to read this book. I am really glad I did.

Mitch Stokes, a fellow at New St. Andrews, took the interesting approach that maybe Newton was not the schizophrenic caricature that is popularly conceived. He attempts to explore Newton’s whole life (alchemy and religious fanaticism included) to see if it makes a coherent whole. The result is really a wonderful book that accomplishes this goal brilliantly.

Newton was an only child born to a single mother (his father died during her pregnancy). Although he could have lived a secure life as a wealthy farmer, Newton’s studies proved him to be better fitted for academia. As he grew, each teacher he encountered recognized his amazing gifts. Newton had the unusual combination of brilliance and diligence. Despite being educated at good schools, Newton was mostly self taught. At Cambridge, students relied on tutors to set their course of learning; Newton had an absentee tutor. Newton was not disappointed. This allowed him to spend his time devouring mathematics and philosophy texts that met his interests.  Newton obtained his PhD from Cambridge and became a professor there. Before long, Newton was the leading authority in optics (Newton was the first to show that white light contains all the colors of the rainbow), mathematics (Newton invented Calculus), and physics (discovered gravity, and defined the basic principles of physics).

Newton was also the foremost authority in alchemy. In today’s world, alchemy is the stuff of quacks – turning lead into gold via magic spells. But Stokes dispels this picture. In the 17th century alchemy was a respected field. There was a common belief that all matter was made out of a common substance and that transmuting metals would simply require rearranging this basic building block of nature. Newton certainly was not alone in academia  Robert Boyle (of ‘Boyle’s Law’ fame) used to trade letters with Newton regarding this pursuit.

Newton devoted more time to theology than any other field. He studied the bible voraciously. He diagrammed the prophesies. He searched out every detail. He also devoured the writings of church fathers. Newton wrote more on the scriptures and theology than he wrote on physics, optics, or mathematics.

What were his theological views? Was he orthodox? To answer the first question, Newton was highly religious and his religion was one of an active God. His God was the Creator of all things and the sustainer of the world.  Newton had puritan influences in his life and in many ways fit this profile very well. He viewed his diligence, his science, and his advancements to be the simple outworking of his duty to do all things for the glory of God. Newton would in many ways represent the best that puritanism had to offer but there is one apparently major exception.

Newton in private correspondence and writings made clear that he had significant reservations about the classic formulation of the Trinity.  Newton believed that Jesus was God. Newton agreed that the Holy Spirit and the Father were God. He also, of course, agreed that there was one God. Newton has often been accused of adopting the heresy of Arianism but his assertion that the Son was eternal make such a conclusion untenable. Newton’s concern with the Trinity was mostly focused on the creedal statement regarding Jesus and the Father being “of the same substance”. Newton once wrote that the people that formulated the Creed at Nicaea didn’t understand what it meant and that no one has since. Stokes says that it is impossible to categorize Newton with regards to the Trinity; it is possible that Newton himself never came to a conclusion on the matter. Newton never went public with his doubts. He respected the authority of the Church and remained an Anglican all of his days.

Newton’s religious convictions allowed him to break with the scientific mainstream of his day. Cartesian mechanical philosophy was by far the majority view in science. This view taught that everything must have a mechanical cause. For this reason, most great thinkers of the day (including Newton’s intellectual rival Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz) believed that the planets were held into orbit by some sort of invisible material commonly referred to as ‘ether’. When Newton proposed a force, he was mocked as bringing back superstition. Newton (being a religious fanatic) didn’t mind. He didn’t know what caused the invisible force of gravity that held the universe together (neither do we) but he was ok with this. He did not hold that there must be natural mechanisms behind all things.

The best part about Stokes’ biography is the way that he ties all of these areas together. Stokes makes the case that Newton didn’t dabble in disparate and unrelated areas. Newton was attempting to tie it all together. Newton was a unifier. He believed that if the Bible was God’s true and uncorrupted word then it should lend insights into chemistry, physics and mathematics. All of it would shed light on divine wisdom for God’s glory and man’s betterment.

I cannot express how much I enjoyed this book. It was well written, well researched, and paints an amazing picture of an amazing man. I hope this book becomes a classic.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Isaac Newton by Mitch Stokes”

  1. KB Says:

    Great review! I have been wanting to learn more about Isaac Newton. Pure Genius!

  2. Rob Henry Says:

    W.,
    Thank you for sharing this review. I would like to find time to read it, but even if I am unable, I have definitely benefited from reading your thoughts about Newton and the book.


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