Newton: Kosmos, Bios, Logos
paperback, 170 pp., 1. edition
published: september 2014
recommended price: 240 czk
Irena Štěpánová in this book explores Isaac Newton’s engagement with ancient wisdom, the Hexameral tradition, Hermeticism, theology, alchemy as well as natural philosophy. In so doing, she brings together the established historiography with her own new insights.
Štěpánová’s study is more than a study of Newton’s thought, for it contains a good deal of background on ancient (e.g., Hermeticism) and early modern thought (e.g., the Cambridge Platonists). She also uses the interpretative lenses of several contemporary Newton and non-Newton scholars in her work. Moreover, provides helpful summaries of Newton’s thought (e.g., his theology).
Štěpánová has provided Newton scholarship a great service in this book, not only by making her Czech-language work available in English, but bringing to the English-language reader learning on Hebraic thought, philosophy of life and Hermeticism originally published in Czech.
(Abstract from the review by Stephen David Snobelen
Associate Professor, History of Science and Technology Programme, University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Director of Newton Project Canada)
Using as one of her starting points, John Maynard Keynes's well-known characterisation of the thinker we now know as a mathematician, physicist, theologian and alchemist as "the last of the magicians", Irena Štěpánová in this book explores Isaac Newton' s engagement with ancient wisdom, the Hexameral tradition, Hermeticism, theology, alchemy as well as natural philosophy. In so doing, Štěpánová brings together the established historiography with her own new insights. Štěpánová begins her book by outlining a commendation outlook on the history of ideas. Using the metaphor of sedimentation, she rightly notes that while there is much talk about the increase of human knowledge, in fact much like the geological process of sedimentation, "new information covers up old knowledge and pushes it into oblivion". This metaphor ultimately has two applications in Štěpánová's study of Newton's thought. First, it relates to Newton's own interest in and respect for ancient wisdom, a late example of the Renaissance topos of the prisca sapientia. Second, this book also engages in the uncovering of aspects of Newton's thought world that in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries were covered with layers of rational and secular interpretations of his work. This process of uncovering these other aspects of Newton's thought began in the latter part of the twentieth century and continues into the twenty-first. This work has been facilitated by the increasing availability of Newton' s intellectual Nachlass in his private manuscripts. Štěpánová' s project comes out of this project and has affinities with the work of Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, who pioneered work on Newton's alchemy.
After an introductory chapter in which she briefly outlines her metaphor of sedimentation and declares the importance of Hermeticism to Newton's thought, Štěpánová tackles in her second chapter some of the sources of Newton's humanistic ideas, including such prima facie disparate areas as the interpretation of the Genesis Creation (the ancient and medieval Hexameral tradition), the corpus Philonicum, early modern interest in Egypt, the Medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists, the Renaissance commitment to the recovery of ancient wisdom (the prisca sapientia) and Hermeticism. As Newton's own humanistic interests were eclectic, so Štěpánová demonstrates that the Newton researcher must take an eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to the study of his thought.
In chapter three, Štěpánová explores Newton's considerable researches into history and theology. She discusses Newton's antitrintarian heresy, his study of ancient history, his interest in the original religion and his belief in history as fulfilment of biblical prophecy. In chapter four, Štěpánová turns to Newton's career as a practising alchemist. After outlining the problems of defining alchemy and summarising some modern scholarship on alchemy, she presents a brief history of alchemy, considers alchemy in Newton's own age and looks into Newton's practice of the discipline. She argues that alchemical practice has roots in mythical thinking, but that it went through a process of rationalisation over the centuries. Štěpánová sees alchemy, with its emphasis on empiricism, as one of the foundations of modern science. Although not all with agree with this, Štěpánová also sees the spiritual quest as central to alchemy.
In chapter five, Štěpánová examines Newton's natural philosophy, focussing on his manuscript "De gravitatione" and his magnus opus, the Principia mathematica. Her discussion of the first document engages with the work of J.E. McGuire (she also follows his assigned date of the document, ca. 1684). Štěpánová concludes from "De gravitatione" that Newton was therein involved in "theophysics": as this document "alchemy depends on God and his permanent creative role in the functioning world" (90). In the Principia, too, Štěpánová finds a theological framework, as the unity of the world and its phenomena are underpinned by the unity of God and because Newton believes space and time are also theologically construed. She applies the terms "physicotheology" and "theophysics" to Newton's natural philosophical programme and then turns in the sixth chapter to the General Scholium, which Newton added to the second edition of the Principia (1713). Štěpánová rightly notes that this is "a peculiar text" (99) in its breadth of natural philosophical and theological topics cover in so few words (about 1450 in the original Latin). Štěpánová notes the importance of the design argument to the General Scholium, along with its hints of antitrinitarian heresy and its classicism. With respect to the latter, Štěpánová counters the views of De Smet and Vereist, who in a 2001 paper argued for a strong Philonic substrate in the General Scholium, and instead sees the inspiration for the same ideas in the General Scholium coming from Hermeticism. Then follows a long and detailed section (the most substantial section of the book) in which the author compares passages from the General Scholium with those of the corpus Hermeticum. This is perhaps the mot original part of Štěpánová's book and it will be interesting to see how it is received by students of Newton.
The seventh and concluding chapter provides a summary and synthesis of the arguments made in the book. Amongst other points made in the conclusion, Štěpánová argues that Newton "tried to create an entirely new kind of theology, compatible with Hexameral literature, free of conflict between the Word of God and scientific findings" (149). More controversially, Štěpánová sees Newton as a modern pagan, who because he was so interested in this world rather than the other world could not be an "orthodox monotheist" (149). This is a provocative conclusion that some may find this interpretation too closely allied with Platonising views of Christian doctrine and eschatology. The book ends with a German summary, a multilingual bibliography and the text of the General Scholium in Latin and English.
Štěpánová's study is more than a study of Newton's thought, for it contains a good deal of background on ancient (e.g., Hermeticism) and early modern thought (e.g., the Cambridge Platonists). She also uses the interpretative lenses of several contemporary Newton and non-Newton scholars in her work. Moreover, provides helpful summaries of Newton's thought (e.g., his theology). In her treatment of alchemy, Štěpánová is more reliant on Dobbs than the work of William Newman, although there are also affinities with Newman's approach in her stress on the rational elements of alchemy. Štěpánová has provided Newton scholarship a great service in this book, not only by making her Czech-language work available in English, but bringing to the English-language reader learning on Hebraic thought, philosophy of life and Hermeticism originally published in Czech.
Stephen David Snobelen