Tales from the Dark Enchantment: the case of Sir Isaac Newton

“It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact … That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance, through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it. Gravity must be caused by an agent, acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my readers.

Sir Isaac Newton, excerpt from a letter to Richard Bentley.

The enchanted Newton

In 1665 Isaac Newton left Cambridge and returned to his family home in Lincolnshire to escape the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since the Black Death of 1348. Newton’s next three years were spent in productive isolation during which he demonstrated that white light is composed of coloured light, explained that the same, universal law of gravity governs the movement of both heavenly and earthly bodies, and developed his theory of “fluxions”, the foundation of his approach to the calculus, and perhaps the most important advance in the entire history of mathematics.

Newton, in these dire circumstances, also turned his attention to finding a cure for the plague. He proposed that:

“the best [cure] is a toad suspended by the legs in a chimney for three days, which at last vomited up earth with various insects in it, onto a dish of yellow wax, and shortly after died. Combining powdered toad with the excretions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affected area drove away the contagion and drew out the poison.”

We may view this as medieval eccentricity but Newton would have seen little difference between his experiments in optics and his experiments in plague medicine. Newton, after all, believed that all matter was ultimately composed of a single protean substance. For example, in the first edition of the Principia, published in 1687, Newton asserted that:

“Any body can be transformed into another, of whatever kind, and all the intermediate degrees of qualities can be induced in it.”

The cure for the plague may be hiding within the body of a toad, just waiting to be distilled out of it. Many modern medicines are sourced from the natural world. So although Newton’s cure may now seem magical hocus-pocus it has the same scientific intent and content as his other, more successful, experiments.

All periods of history are contradictory and therefore transitory. Every thing is in the process of becoming other than what it currently is. But some periods, and some individuals, are especially contradictory. Newton had one foot in his present, which was the enchanted world of medieval Christianity – ultimately governed and animated by occulted spirits – and another foot in the emerging disenchanted world of the scientific revolution – governed and animated by inhuman forces, mechanisms and laws. A world of occult and ineffable spirits versus a world of intelligible causal mechanisms. In consequence, some of Newton’s other activities are more difficult to understand from the point of view of modern science. 

The enchanted Newton, like many of his contemporaries, believed that God had originally bequeathed pristine knowledge of an authentic theology to ancient peoples that had subsequently been corrupted and forgotten. The Bible, and other ancient texts, therefore contained secret wisdom that, when properly interpreted (hubristically according to Newton’s own rules of exegesis) would reveal God’s divine plan.

On this basis Newton prophesied, with supernatural accuracy, that the Jewish people would return to Palestine in 1944. He also prophesied that the world would end, in a transformative apocalypse, no earlier than 2060. 

Newton wrote a chronology of pre-Christian ancient kingdoms, covering the period of the first millennium BC, in an effort to mine the past for glimpses of the original theology. He casually accepted the existence of centaurs as historical fact. He asserted that God had made King Solomon the greatest philosopher of the world. Newton believed that the design of Solomon’s temple was a divinely inspired model of the solar system.

We could go on. Newton was a spooky fellow and, to our modern minds, presents a beguiling mixture of extreme rationality and irrationality. The enchanted Newton was an intellectual embarrassment to the more disenchanted intellectual environment of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. And so this spooky side of Newton was buried.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century, and the rediscovery of Newton’s “non-scientific” manuscripts, that a fuller and more complete picture was re-established. The turning point was Keynes’ 1946 declaration, after reading Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, that Newton was 

“the last of the magicians … because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret”. 

For Newton the entire universe was enchanted: a “cryptogram set by the Almighty”, full of occult secrets that — for those able to decipher them – would restore the lost primordial knowledge, reveal God’s design and precipitate a New Jerusalem. Newton was fervently devoted to the great historical work to reverse humanity’s fall. Newton, driven by a great fire in his belly, devoted himself to deciphering the mystery of nature. His scientific work on mechanics, gravity, chemistry, optics and the calculus were all attempts to solve the cryptogram, uncover the occulted Truth of the cosmos, and therefore achieve a more conscious and perfect union with God’s design.

The universal law of attraction

Newton’s Principia, one of the most revolutionary texts in the history of science, presented the law of gravity in mathematical terms. The law of universal attraction between masses explained the orbits of the planets with a high degree of accuracy given the measurements of the day. Newton’s theory was hugely successful but a residual question remained: what was the nature of the gravitational force? How did it operate?

Rene Descartes, writing before Newton was born, proposed that all matter is immersed in an invisible but substantial medium called the ether. God, the Aristotilean unmoved mover, first set matter into motion at the beginning of time. Subsequently, matter now moves purely mechanically, hitting and interacting with the ether and other bodies via direct physical contact, without the need of God’s intervention.

Newton, following Descartes, initially believed that the gravitational force was transmitted mechanically through the ether. Now, if the universe was really filled with ether then the movement of huge masses, such as planets, would deviate from the predictions of the law of gravity due to “ether resistance”, just as projectiles in the earth’s atmosphere deviate from the laws of motion due to “air resistance”. Yet, when Newton studied the data compiled by the astronomers, he did not observe any celestial retardation.

Newton therefore hedged in the Principia. He wrote that the law of attraction might be due to the “action of the bodies themselves” or “agitating each other by spirits emitted” or “the action of the ether or of the air, or of any medium whatever, whether corporeal or incorporeal”. As a natural philosopher, Newton was interested in the nature of gravity, and allowed himself to speculate, but he wouldn’t commit without evidence. And anyway, regardless of the underlying cause of universal attraction, Newton’s mathematical description would remain the same. 

Traditionally, the ether was believed to exist because a pendulum swinging in a vacuum jar would eventually come to rest. Yet the predictive success of Newton’s law of gravity combined with the lack of celestial retardation implied that Descartes’ ether was not merely invisible – but absent. Newton finally convinced himself of the nonexistence of ether by experimenting first with a hollow pendulum, and then with a pendulum filled with substances of different densities. All matter was porous to ether. So if ether existed, interacting with matter at the smallest scales, then a dense pendulum should come to rest more quickly than a hollow one. Newton observed no such effect.

His vision of the universe therefore shifted. He began to view it as composed mainly of empty space. And that meant that the law of attraction implied action at a distance, where matter affects matter without mechanical contact.

Newton therefore needed a new kind of causal explanation, which was nonmechanical, in the sense of not passively responding to already existing motion via direct contact. Consistent with his belief in an intellectual Fall he turned to ancient beliefs for a possible answer.

Christ as celestial god

Newton was a devout Christian, but his precise theological views were unorthodox.

The majority of modern Christians uphold the trinitarian doctrine that God has three forms – the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Christ – yet is substantially only one being, uncreated and eternal. But early Christian views were more diverse. The bishop Arius, who lived in Alexandria in the 3rd Century AD, held that Jesus was the Son of God but was created in time – and therefore Christ was not identical and co-eternal with God but a subordinate emenation. This view was eventually condemned as heresy by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

Newton’s close and intense study of the bible convinced him that there was no scriptural support for trinitarianism. And although Newton accepted the possibility of events that defied human explanation, such as the miracle of turning water into wine, he could not accept the mathematical impossibility of the trinitarian doctrine where one equals three, and three equals one. Newton therefore became convinced of the correctness of Arianism and viewed the trinitarian doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church as a corruption of the original and authentic theology.

In the early 1700s Newton observed that

“it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends on a deity for its laws of motion as well as for its existence”.

Newton therefore entertained the idea that action at a distance was governed by a non-mechanical, active agent – an occult spirit. And the Arian Christ could be that spirit. According to Arianism, Christ was God’s first creation and had a purely spiritual body. But at a specific point in history Christ became incarnate as flesh, in the form of a man, to redeem humanity. Christ’s death on the cross, and resurrection, returned Christ to his original purely spiritual form. Christ, apart from a brief period of incarnation, was the animating spirit of the world, or Logos, present everywhere, mediating between God and His creation, enacting His Father’s will. Newton speculated that it was the invisible hand of Christ who enforced the law of gravity, who literally moved things around by enforcing the law of attraction.

The movement of celestial bodies is therefore not merely mechanical but also spiritual. The spookiness of action at a distance in Newton’s theory of gravity was noted by Leibniz who wrote that 

“the rebirth in England of a theology that is more than papist and a philosophy entirely scholastic since Mr Newton and his partisans have revived the occult qualities of the school with the idea of attraction.”

Newton’s Christ was a cosmic Christ, a universal animism, which he believed was present not just in the Heavens but also in mundane matter upon the Earth. The cryptogram presented itself both in the largest things, and the very smallest. Around 1667 Newton turned his attention to alchemy, which would keep him obsessively occupied for over a quarter of a century.

Christ as philosopher’s mercury

16th or 17th century depiction of Hermes Trismegistus

The Emerald Tablet is a short fragment, dating from between 200 and 300 AD, supposedly written by the mythical figure, Hermes Trismegistus (“Hermes the thrice great”). Hermes is not an ordinary person but a Greco-Egyptian god. And so the Emerald Tablet, like the Bible, has a divine origin. Newton, looking into the past for ancient and forgotten wisdom, translated the Emerald Tablet.

The tablet contains the famous line:

“that which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below”

which continues:

“to do the miracles of one only thing. And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.”

These evocative words conjure the parsimonious visions of pre-critical metaphysics. Hermes here seems to be informing us mere mortals that all the miracles of nature are the progeny of an original, mercurial One, and therefore all the Many things inherit the One’s fundamental and universal properties; in consequence, nature is self-similar at all scales

The Hermetic literature is full of occult affinities between things that we would now consider unconnected. On the other hand, most workers in scientific fields take the deep unity of the laws of nature for granted. We can view Newton’s laws of motion, which gloriously unify Kepler’s celestial mechanics with Galileo’s terrestrial mechanics, as a vindication of the Hermetic proposition that the microcosm and macrocosm are fundamentally similar.

Alchemists, due to the influence of Hermetic metaphysics, typically believed that all substances formed from a primordial, singular substance. In consequence, alchemists, throughout the ages, have always dreamed big. If all emanates from an original One then, starting with Many mundane materials in the laboratory, we might be able to reverse the emenation, and gain access to the One, or at least get closer to it. We might be able to precipitate the “philosopher’s mercury”, a god-like, magical substance with the universal causal powers of the One, the power of pure potentiality. Alchemists therefore dreamed of possessing this substance which could do anything, such as bestowing the gift of everlasting life, curing  all illnesses, and supplying infinite worldly riches by transmuting lead into gold.

Newton set to work. He adopted the alchemical pseudonym, “One Holy God”, and spent decades in furtive chemical research, holed-up in a wooden shed adjoining his room in Cambridge, slaving in semi-darkness over a hot furnace, surrounded by shelves laden with alchemical texts, glass jars, crucibles, and retorts. Newton was pious, however. He wasn’t interested in worldly riches. Instead, he wanted to understand how the world worked. The possibility of distilling a God-like substance from the mundane forms of everyday reality must have been a siren call. Newton wanted, as he described it, to get at “the fire at the heart of the world”.

Once again, Newton’s Arianism enlivened his scientific investigations with metaphysical speculation. Alchemists had proposed that the philosopher’s mercury was a form taken by the god Hermes himself. But for Newton this was a pagan corruption of the real truth. Might it be possible that Christ, as Son of God and mediator of God’s will in the world, not only organized the macrocosm through the law of gravity, but also the microcosm as the hidden, mercurial spirit in the heart of matter? “The condensed spirit of the world”, the philosophical mercury, could be the cosmic Christ. Hermes Trismegistus was a pagan distortion of the truth: Hermes was actually Christ.

Newton wrote copious notes in the cryptic, allegorical language of alchemy, totalling about 1 million words. Despite his enormous efforts he failed to reduce chemistry to universal mathematical laws. But no-one in the 17th Century, not even a genius such as Newton, could have cracked this particular cryptogram. 

In 1693 Newton suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, probably from obsessive overwork, and he stopped his alchemical research. He had failed to distill Christ from mundane matter. He had not even discovered how to transmute lead into gold. Newton was neither spiritually or materially better off. His failure, and breakdown, precipitated a revolutionary career change.

The disenchanted Newton

In 1696, at the age of 54, Newton accepted an offer to become Warden of the Royal Mint. He left Cambridge, and the academic life, took up lodgings in London, and started a new career as a servant of the Crown.

England’s silver coins were very old, worn-out and easy to counterfeit. No-one trusted their metallic content. Prices were inflating to compensate for counterfeit coins. Workers rioted when paid in coins made from tin, or coins clipped to almost nothing. The commerce and unity of the nation was under threat. 

Newton was therefore charged with re-coining the nation’s currency and establishing a trustworthy monetary standard. That meant withdrawing the old coins, manufacturing high quality new coins, and cracking down on counterfeiting.

Newton took to this task with obsessive energy. He conducted time-and-motion studies of coin production. He proposed manufacturing changes to increase efficiency. He opened new mints up and down the country to increase production. His alchemical studies were put to good use to ensue strict quality control of the minting process. He introduced new milled coins, which reduced clipping.

But counterfeit coins remained a problem. Although Newton could entertain multiple hypotheses for the causes of natural phenomena, and retain an open mind in the absence of compelling evidence, when it came to matters of King and Country, and ensuring the integrity of the nation’s coin, he acted with an unshakeable conviction only matched by his belief in God. Newton personally tracked down counterfeiters, following leads into public houses and brothels. Here he mixed with the truly poor, downtrodden and oppressed classes of society. But Newton seemed to have no social conscience or sympathy for the plight of the poor who were so desperate they braved the wrath of the State in order to live a dignified life. Newton caught hundreds of suspects and subjected them to close cross-examination. Newton’s evidence led to the hanging of 27 people between 1697 and 1698. The worst offenders were dragged to the scaffold by horse, publicly hanged, almost to the point of death, then emasculated, disemboweled, and finally beheaded and quartered.

In the space of a few years Newton revolutionized the operations of the Royal Mint. He was promoted from Warden to Master. He became an MP. He was elected President of the Royal Society. He became wealthy, partly due to receiving a royalty percentage on every minted coin. So although Newton the alchemist failed to transmute lead into gold, Newton the Moneyer succeeded in transmuting ordinary metal into the currency of the realm, and in doing so received a share of the State’s seigniorage profit. Newton was not only the “last magician” but the first truly successful alchemist. The ruling class, of which Newton was a member, had the right, through the offices of the State, to manufacture legal tender from ordinary metals, and then simply distribute some of that money to themselves. But the lower classes had no such right. Counterfeiting was a secular blasphemy.

In Newton’s twenty one years at the Mint he seems to have mainly concerned himself with the proper physical medium of money (its substance, weight, nominal value etc.) For example, he collected foreign coins and analyzed their composition. He occasionally expressed monetary opinions to Parliament, for example stating his belief that issuing unbacked paper money might stimulate commerce. But Newton did not develop any significant economic theory. He focussed entirely on the physical, not social, properties of money. The nature of economic value didn’t seem to trouble him. 

In Newton’s imagination a universal animism reigns in the natural world, both microcosm and macrocosm, which imposes a beautiful order reflected in the austere and perfect forms of geometry and mathematics. But in the profane world of economics, populated by market hagglers, chisellers and counterfeiters, and where, as Newton wrote, he “could not calculate the madness of the people”, only sovereign state power and Puritan morals prevented social breakdown. The dirty cities of early modern England were a testament to fallen humanity ignorant of God’s divine plan. The world of money was godless. The realm of economics lacked occult properties to be discovered. Here there was no cryptogram. Society’s appearance was immediately its essence.

Dawn of the Dark Enchantment

Newton’s age is quite recent, but seems ideologically very distant. Newton combined medieval faith with an emerging scientific materialism. He carefully separated his mathematical and experimentally-verified natural philosophy from his theological-metaphysical speculations. But both mechanism and spirit were real for Newton, and so he oscillated between material and spiritual explanations. 

For Newton, matter was passive and lacked will or cognition. Once set in motion, off it goes, predictable and clockwork-like. But a spirit, in contrast, is active, with a will and purpose that can be the cause of new motion. Christ, the occult spirit of the world, might therefore act upon passive matter and be the ultimate cause of action at a distance, and also be the mercurial spirit, the “fire at the heart of the world”, that shapes and governs the many forms of matter. 

The idea that some mechanisms, in virtue of their causal structure, might also have a will and be the actual cause of new motion would have been alien to Newton. So too the proposition that all gods, big and small, merely have a social reality. Newton discovered universal laws in nature yet believed that an occult spirit ultimately enforced those laws. Newton’s strict demarcation between mechanism and spirit allowed the subsequent Newtonian revolution to drop the spirits altogether, and become purely mechanistic, full of laws without agents of the law.

John Desagulier, member of the Royal Society and Grand Master of Freemasonry in England, was an energetic promotor of the Newtonian system, giving hundreds of lectures and demonstrations. He wrote an allegorical poem, “The Newtonian System of the World, the Best Model of Government”, in which he proposed that universal laws of attraction, which achieved order in the Universe, could also achieve a just and harmonious society, where liberty and mutual commerce was maintained with mathematical precision, overseen by a “limited Monarchy”.

Although Newton didn’t develop any significant economics himself, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”, published about fifty years after Newton’s death, was directly influenced by him. Smith proposed that market prices “gravitate” around their “natural” prices, sometimes above or below, but always near their “centre of gravity” which was determined, not by the haggling in the market, but by costs of production. Smith, following Newton but going further than him, also viewed the economy as a law-bound system of matter-in-motion, and therefore potentially intelligible in terms of mathematical laws.

But Smith’s laws of economics were mechanistic not animistic. The “invisible hand” of the market only metaphorically suggested the intervention of an occult will that orders passive matter. For Smith, and his modern followers, the invisible hand is merely the unintended consequence of individual human wills pursuing their own rational ends. God is not mentioned once in the Wealth of Nations. For Smith, commerce has a moral dimension but he thought it should be free from the interference of religion, especially tithes that hinder the improvement of the land. The early modern period was truly becoming something else. A new kind of society – capitalism – went on to obliterate all religious obstacles to its growth and dominion.

The enchanted world of Newton, where Christ was universally present in all things, retreated. The new bourgeois realm of economics claimed to be an entirely secular affair, rationally and spontaneously organised by impersonal and natural laws. This new myth – of a disenchanted realm of economics – modern and entirely free of medieval and religious superstition, is now powerful and all-pervasive. We, like Newton, believe the economic realm to be Godless, lacking any occult properties to find.

Further reading

“The Janus Face of Genius: the role of alchemy in Newton’s thought”. B. J. T. Dobbs. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
“Isaac Newton the Last Sorcerer”. Michael White. Fourth Estate, 1997.
“Newton and the Counterfeiter”. Thomas Levenson. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
“The Kingdom of Darkness: Bayle, Newton, and the emancipation of the European mind from philosophy”. Dmitri Levitin. Cambridge University Press, 2022.
“Essays on Capital as a Real God”. Ian Wright.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s