Newton, Bentley and Kant:
The Alchemist, the Humanist and the Gnostic


By R. D. Flavin



Newton: Anglican (quasi-Arian) Alchemist


A 1689 painting of Sir Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller (1649-1743), who also painted Newton again in 1702.

    Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was born into a farming household, raised with the spiritual ethics as required by the Church of England, rejected his farming background and chose to pursue mathematics and related scientific disciplines.  His intellectual contributions defy casual description, though for the purpose of this critique, some generalizations will be made.  Also, his personal spirituality and interest in the occult art of alchemy must be addressed. [1]  Newton was a brilliant, psychologically troubled individual and a human singularity, who John M. Keynes (1883-1946) referred to as the “last of the magicians,” yet however we regard him, what is apparent is that we will, unfortunately, likely never see a man of his compassion and genius again. [2]


Image from Westfall, Richard S.  1963.  “Short-Writing and the State of Newton's Conscience, 1662 (1)."  Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 18:1. 10-16.  Plate 1 (Facing p. 13).  The diary is currently in the possession of the Fitzwillia4m Museum, Cambridge.  The shorthand used is that of Thomas Shelton (fl 1612-1626), author of Short Writing (London: 1626; later re-issued as Tachygraphy).

     Newton was profoundly religious in his youth and early manhood, as is recorded in one of his early diaries (i.e. his 1662 notebook), written in shorthand, which lists such sins and digressions as “Squirting water on Thy day,” “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them,” Not living according to my belief,” “Not loving Thee for Thy self,” etc.  It must be presumed that Newton with his devout Christian nature, though maintaining an anti-Trinitarian belief (Arianism), was also with his voracious obsession with alchemy, that these did not essentially impede his faith and he was able to balance his beliefs and interests while remaining an Anglican of good standing. [3]  He was, after all, Newton and his achievements speak for themselves.


A typical page from Newton’s unpublished alchemical writings (estimates range from a million to a million and a half words).  Origin and current whereabouts unknown to the present author.

     Trinity College (of the University of Cambridge) was essentially Newton’s home and workplace from 1661 until 1696, when he removed himself to London, where he passed his final years.  With several minor, as well as a couple of major publications, already to his credit, in 1662 Newton received a letter sent by Richard Bentley (Oxford, Robert Boyle Lecturer on the existence of God) which challenged his insistence that the diurnal rotations of the planets and their relationship to a central point (i.e. our Sun) should be explained by purely mechanical principles, and not necessarily assigned a priori to an undefined function of God, as Newton maintained.

     Newton first wrote back to Bentley on December 10, 1662, followed in 1663 with three more; these four letters are referred to as “Newton's Letters to Bentley.”  While Newton and Bentley were both were religious, rigorously scientific (for their time), Bentley rightly challenged Newton to explore and explain the laws of gravity on a cosmological scale, and ...discussion has been and will always remain a mainstay of the scientific method.  Personalities aside, we owe Newton and Bentley our near ineffable respect for pushing the investigation forward.     

Bentley: Anglican Humanist


Detail of a 1710 oil painting by James Thornhill of Richard Bentley, currently in the possession of Trinity College, Cambridge.

     The Rev. Richard Bentley (1662-1742), of humble origins like Newton, achieved his various positions and advancements through a fortuitous combination of hard work and outstanding intellect with a sincere dedication to scholarship.  Bentley’s remarks (an appendix, of sorts) in Dr. John Mill’s translation of Epistola ad Millium by Joannes Malelas [4], included insights, corrections, and his focused efforts on the Attic dramatists and the lexicon of Hesychius, which justly earned him the highest of regards by his peers.  It was ‘this’ Bentley, at his intellectual peak, who wrote to Newton about the nature of our universe and how gravity effects not only an apple, but ...the cosmos.

     Despite, or perhaps in spite of, Bentley’s participation in the Church of England, he displayed judgements and exercised criticisms which today are described as of the “Humanist” movement. [5]  Though God-fearing, deiist, and dedicated to ethics and morality, Humanists didn’t need transcendental justifications, dependence on blind faith or the acknowledgment of a supernatural realm.  They were content with ad fontes or "to the sources.”  And, within reason, Bentley wrote Newton about the possibility that gravity, though ultimately derived from God, that God may have had more of a ‘passive’ role in our universe than by (the often perceived as) the ‘active’ God who got the ball rolling and it’s up to us to either catch up to it or avoid it altogether.  Bentley placed humankind and knowledge before scripture and his correspondence with Newton is a grand testimony to honesty and the pursuit of science.


Handwritten corrections for Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica; second edition (London: 1713).

     Later, when Bentley had become master of Trinity College, he developed the idea that distant stars may have planets circling about them and those planets could be populated, just like our Earth.  Also, he began to encourage a second edition of Newton’s Principia, under the editorship of Roger Cotes (Trinity College, Plumian professor of astronomy).  The timing for the second edition couldn’t have been worse, as Newton was then engaged with the controversy over the invention of the calculus with Liebniz, as well as having difficulties with his new position as Master of the Royal Mint.  The second edition of Principia was eventually published, Cotes wasn’t paid for his efforts, nor acknowledged in print, and Newton’s many handwritten corrections were circulated among his associates.
   
Kant: Pietist (Lutheran) Gnostic


An engraving by H. Lips, based on a work by C. Wernet, of Immanuel Kant.  Date unknown to the present author.
               
     Immanuel (baptized as “Emanuel”) Kant (1724-1804) experienced emotional participation in many of the spiritual and philosophical movements of his day (e.g. Lutheran Christianity, classical philosophy, proto-Transcendentalism, dogmatic rationalism, skepticism, and finally ...a personal judgement very much akin to the Gnostic tradition, in that knowledge is inherent within us and we just have to access it).  While serving as a Privatdozent (Ger. “Private [unpaid] lecturer”) from 1755 to 1770 at the University of Königsberg, Kant formulated his nebular hypothesis and published his Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels [6].

     Kant speculated about the “Scattering of the all material elements throughout the entire extent of space,” and mentions a “General sinking down of elements towards this central body, and concludes with the provocative assessment that there’s an “Impulse of all particles to bring themselves to a common plane and to accumulate there.” Such writing compels us to consider Newton, gravity, and the origin of our universe.  Similar ideas were expressed in Edgar Allen Poe's 1848 Eureka: A Prose Poem (New York: Putnam) and also in Un Univers homogène de masse constante et de rayon croissant rendant compte de la vitesse radiale des nébuleuses extragalactiques (Brussels, BE: Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles [47A], 1927) by  Prof. Georges-Henri Lemaître (Université Catholique de Louvain, mathematics), who introduced us to the hypothesis we call today, “The Big Bang Theory.”

     Though Kant later published much on the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘judgement’ (e.g. 1781's Critique of Pure Reason) and many regard him as a forerunner to Huxley’s “That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him,” I respectfully disagree and suggest that Kant was, for the lack of a better term, a ‘Gnostic’ (Late Latin gnosticus > Greek gnostikos, concerning knowledge > gnosis, knowledge; now used to describe that which relates to a person who possesses self-revealed intellectual or spiritual knowledge; often belonging to a sect, usually Christian-based) who held the belief that knowledge resides in all of us and that we just have to look for it.

What makes us free is the Gnosis
of who we were
of what we have become
of where we were
of wherein we have been thrown
of whereto we are hastening
of what we are being freed
of what birth really is
of what rebirth really is*


The Nag Hammadi codices (early ‘books’) written in Coptic, discovered in 1945, are 3rd and 4th cent. CE texts based on 1st and 2nd Greek originals which are now lost.  The Coptic codices themselves are fine and continue to contribute to a better understanding of our past.

Comparison and Contrast

     Newton, Bentley, and Kant all considered the nature and origin of our universe, all allowed for gravity to contribute to the ordering of the cosmos, but each disagreed about God’s role in the (so to speak) maintenance.  Such interchangeable terms as “mechanistic” and “created by God,” as the answers to the questions about the beginnings of time, matter, and life are still with us.

     I believe the reliance on God to explain the mechanics of the cosmos steadily decreased between Newton, Bentley and Kant.  All remained Christians and ‘Godfearers’ (Greek Sebioi > Arabic Sabi'een/Sabi'oon and related to the Hebrew Toshavim), but as they individually developed an understanding of how the universe functions (and, perhaps, with less reliance on a ‘personal’ God who, like Santa Claus, watches over all), they steadily needed God less and less.  And, of course, as modern science emerged the need for God has continued to decline, but that is a concern for tomorrow and not this critique.    

     We owe a debt to Newton, Bentley and Kant and await further work by today and tomorrow’s scientists.  Newton may have described and qualified his contributions with “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants," a remark first used by Bernard of Chartres, the twelfth-century French Neo-Platonist philosopher, and Bentley wrote “It is a maxim with me that no man was ever written out of reputation but by himself.,” but Kant suggested that “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”  All did well, spoke well and had fine intentions.    

Notes:

[1] White, Michael.  1997.  Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
[2] Keynes, John M.  1946.  “Newton, the Man.”  Lecture given at The Royal Society of London
  to celebrate the tercentenary of Newton's birth; originally planned for 1942, World War II
  postponed it, Keynes died three months before the event and the lecture was read by his brother,
  Geoffrey Keynes.  Online at: http://www.gap-system.org/~history/Extras/Keynes_Newton.html.
[3] Christianson, Gale E.  1994.  In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times.
  New York: The Free Press.
[4] Mills, John. 1691.  Epistola ad Millium (Joannis Antiocheni, cognomento Malalae, Historia
  chronica).  Translated by Mills from The Chronicles of John (of Antioch) Malalas, with
  contributions by H. Hody and R. Bentley.  Oxford: Sheldonian Press.
[5] Tinkler, John F.  1988.  “The Splitting of Humanism: Bentley, Swift, and the English Battle
  of the Books.”  Journal of the History of Ideas.  49, 3: 453-472.
[6] Kant, Immanuel.  1755.  Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels. Königsberg,
  Prussia: J. F. Petersen.  An English translation (“Universal Natural History and Theory of
  Heaven”) is online at: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/kant/kant2e.htm.

*From: Harold Bloom’s 1979 novel, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  The lines are Bloom’s combination of several sayings attributed to Valentinus (ca. 100-153 CE), taken from the infamous Gnostic apocrypha, The Gospel of Truth, and other writings by Valentinus or those of his school.


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