By common consent, Isaac Newton was a genius. He was born on Christmas Day, 1642. There were obvious difficulties in celebrating the 500th anniversary of that event. Instead, the Royal Society put on a week-long celebration in July 1946 at Trinity College Cambridge – the college where Newton had spent so much of his life and where he wrote Principia Mathematica.
John Maynard Keynes went to King’s College, Cambridge. He too, by common consent, was a genius – and only gnats straining at a camel (to quote someone expelled from University College, Oxford) would seek to compare or contrast the two. Keynes would have experienced a special problem in celebrating Newton in 1942. He travelled with the English delegation to Versailles after the First World War. He was so outraged by the conduct of the Allies that he went back home and in something like white heat wrote a masterpiece of polemic – The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In that book he forecast in precise detail why that peace would drive Germany to bankruptcy and to seek merciless revenge. If you want to know precisely why World War II came about, you need do no more than read that book and Mein Kampf. It is all there.
But although successive governments had ignored his advice, Keynes led the way during the war in funding it. Then, after the war, he had to deal with American emissaries who were neither kind nor pleasant about repaying the debt. The effort killed him. It is not silly to say that Keynes gave his life for his country. He was a man of uncommon devotion, not just to his country, but to his school, Eton, and to his college, King’s College at Cambridge. So, when he heard that Newton’s papers were going up for sale, he intervened personally to buy a large selection and index it. On the basis of that work, he wrote a paper Newton, the Man in 1942. He died before the Tercentenary Celebrations in 1946, but the paper was read by his brother, and you can get it in a slim but handsomely bound volume of those proceeding published by the Royal Society in 1947. A reference to that paper in a biography of Newton that I re-read recently led me to acquire a copy of that volume – mainly so I could read the paper of Keynes, a man I admire so much.
In taking science away from the theories of Descartes, Newton explored three fields to lay the foundations of modern science – the calculus, the nature of white light, and universal gravitation and its consequences. The first substantive speaker at the Celebrations said that ‘Einstein’s innovations were less revolutionary to his time than Newton’s were to his.’ Einstein had said that ‘Nature to him [Newton] was an open book whose letters he could read without effort. In one person, he combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic, and, not least, the artist in expression.’ Newton said, at one time or another:
Philosophy is such an impertinently litigious Lady, that a man as good be engaged in lawsuits, as have do with her. I found it so formerly, and now I am no sooner come near her again, but she gives me warning…..the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know…..I do not deal in conjectures….I do not know what I might appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on a seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Voltaire said to a man who had measured the equator in order to verify a calculation of Newton:
Vous avez trouvé par de long ennuis
Ce que Newton trouva sans sortir chez lui.
(Roughly: ‘After great troubles you found what Newton found without leaving home.’)
The citation from Keynes that first caught my eye read:
Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day 1642 was the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.
Later, Keynes said:
For in vulgar modern terms, Newton was profoundly neurotic of a not unfamiliar type, but – I should say from the records – a most extreme example. His deepest instincts were occult, esoteric, semantic – with profound shrinking from the world, a paralysing fear of exposing his thoughts, his beliefs his discoveries in all nakedness to the inspection and criticism of the world. ‘Of the most fearful, cautious and suspicious temper that ever I knew’, said Whiston, his successor in the Lucasian Chair.’……Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood…..He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty…..
Newton was a magician in another sense. He was fascinated by alchemy and the occult. He believed that truths could be sought in alchemy and in papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in a kind of apostolic succession from the original cryptic revelation in Babylon. Some scientists have been scandalised by these preoccupations of the great man. A bit of hushing up was in order – as was the case with Newton’s denial of the Trinity. Of the papers that Keynes obtained, he said:
Another large section is concerned with all branches of apocalyptic writings from which he sought to deduce the secret truths of the Universe – the measurements of Solomon’s Temple, the Book of David, the Book of Revelations…..Along with this are hundreds of pages of Church History and the like, designed to discover the truth of tradition. A large section, judging by the handwriting amongst the earliest, relates to alchemy – transmutation of philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. The scope and character of these papers have been hushed up or at least minimised by nearly all those who inspected them…..
…..But there are also extensive records of experiments. I have glanced through a quantity of this – at least 100,000 words, I should say. It is utterly impossible to deny that it is wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value; and also impossible not to admit that Newton devoted years of work to it.
Well, being a genius doesn’t mean that you are not human, and the timber of humanity is not straight. Keynes had been a thoroughly queer member of ‘The Apostles’ but he later settled into sedate married life with a Russian ballerina. He would say that Newton was walking ‘with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot treading a path for modern science.’ And who is to say that Newton’s penchant for fads about the medieval and the occult did not serve to grease the cogs in his brain and imagination and help to direct him to walk along paths and byways not even guessed at before? The inscription at Westminster Abbey reads: ‘Let mortals rejoice that such and so great an ornament of the human race has existed’.
The English have a knack of getting the most out of their geniuses. Newton and Keynes both studied mathematics at Cambridge. They would also have two other things in common. Both served their nation on matters of finance at the highest level – Newton as Master of the Mint, and Keynes as the man who financed England in World War II. Then, each had to survive a financial crisis that wiped out so many people – the South Sea Bubble and the Great Crash and Depression – but each died a very wealthy man.
Keynes concluded his remarks on the papers of Newton as follows:
As one broods over these queer collections, it seems easier to understand – with an understanding which is not, I hope, distorted in the other direction – this strange spirit, who was tempted by the devil to believe at the time when within these walls he was solving so much, that he could reach all the secrets of God and Nature by the pure power of mind – Copernicus and Faustus in one.