Review of the 'Memoirs of Isaac Newton'
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1 January 2000
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MEMOIRS OF SIR ISAAC NEWTON.
As a general rule, the biographies of men of science are not interesting to ordinary readers. It is not that their lives are uneventful. We have memoirs of poets, novelists, historians, divines, — all teeming with interest, although the incidents which the biographer has to relate are scarcely more important than those which worthy Dr. Primrose thought it beneath him to chronicle, when his family in the vicarage moved from the blue room to the brown room, and back again from the brown room to the blue room. The life of Samuel Johnson was uneventful, and yet his biography is the finest in the language. But we have no memoir of a man of science that has proved of deep and lasting interest, unless we except the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The fact is that the more completely a man devotes himself to sciences he becomes the less a social being; the less, therefore, a man, and the more a philosophical instrument. And as we do not suppose that memoirs of Babbage's calculating machine would be very entertaining, so neither is the biography of a man whose life has passed into a algebraical formula, and whose thoughts are ever intent upon x — that terrible unknown. "Does Mr. Newton eat, drink, or sleep like other men?" well might the Marquis de l'Hopital ask. "I represent him to myself as a celestial genius entirely disengaged from matter."
Sir David Brewster has just published an elaborate biography of Newton, to show that he is entitled not only to the admiration which the whole world accords him, but also to the love of our hearts. He has done his best to place Sir Isaac in a good light. He has, in short, written two large volumes to illustrate one line written by Pope, —
"God said, 'Let Newton be,' and all was light."
After a careful perusal of this lengthened panegyric, we are forced to the conclusion that Sir David is a good Christian and a bad biographer; and that if Sir Isaac in his intellect was almost a god, in his heart he was scarcely a man.
Sir David has been engaged on the life of Newton for 25 years, and in all that time he has not been able to arrange his materials with a coherence greater than that of an almanac, where we learn that Sir Robert Peel was born four days before Queen Victoria was married, and Her Majesty was married a couple of days before Lady Jane Grey was beheaded. He suddenly dashes forward 20 years, then back 30, forward again 10, back two or three, forward a century, and so to and fro, till the bewildered reader gives up in despair the task of following the author's chronology, and is almost content to believe that Sir Isaac was knighted when a schoolboy, and that in his last days he turned alchymist. This fault is fatal to a biographer, and all the scientific attainments, all the lucid exposition, all the brilliant writing of Sir David Brewster cannot retrieve it. Besides which, he writes with a partiality that, while it wins our affection for his goodness, destroys our respect for his opinion. It is right to speak with reverence of the dead; let the memory of Newton be sacred; but so also should the memories of Huygens and Hooke, Leibnitz and Flamsteed, at whose expense Sir David Brewster has exalted Newton. We are quite sure that the author is not aware how much he has been influenced by partiality, and we shall therefore give a single example of his special pleading, in favour of Sir Isaac. It was reported that Newton had called Sir Hans Sloane, the secretary of the Royal Society, "a tricking fellow" and "a villain." It does not much matter whether the report was true or false, only Sir David imagines that there were no such terms in Newton's vocabulary. "When he was irritated at the conduct of Flamsteed he could not command a harsher term than that of puppy. — See p. 239." We turn to page 239, and read Flamsteed's account of the affair. "He called me many hard names; puppy was the most innocent of them." And why should Sir David go thus out of his way to show that Newton could not use a hard word? We, indeed, doubt very much whether he ever called Sir Hans Sloane "a tricking fellow" and "a villain;" but we do not think that the man who when a schoolboy fought his companion in the churchyard, and rubbed his nose against the wall, who told Flamsteed to hold his tongue, and called him a puppy, and who addressed some Fellows of St. John's when he saw them examining a haunted house, "Oh, ye fools!" was incapable, as Sir David supposes, of employing such terms. Of what avail is all this veneering? If only defeats its purpose. Excessive praise always results in excessive depreciation. This has happened once already in the case of Newton. His partisans in the Royal Society had lauded his intellect so vehemently, and his claims over foreigners so unfairly, that, as a natural consequence, the foreigners took advantage of a moment of weakness and pronounced him mad. The elaborate life of Newton contributed by M. Biot to the Biographie Universelle is written throughout on the assumption that from his 45th year, when the little dog "Diamond" is said to have upset the candle and burnt his papers, to the day of his death his mighty intellect was obscured. Sir David has satisfactorily disproved the insanity of Newton, but he need not wonder if the idolatry of which he sets the example should call forth imputations equally injurious. Why should not the truth be spoken about Newton? With all our veneration for his name we have no sympathy with those who think they honour him by denying his faults, and who seem to us to be guilty of the folly of those divines who explain away the falsehood of one Scripture saint, and out and out defend another for cheating his father and robbing his brother.
The common idea of Newton is very vague. In writing to the earliest of his biographers, Pope expressed a desire to have some "memoirs and character of his as a private man." The desire might still be expressed. We have no intimacy with Newton. Few persons, if asked to describe the character of the man, could say more than this — that he was exceedingly absent, and that he was imperturbable almost to insipidity, perhaps quoting as an illustration of the latter characteristic the apocryphal story of the philosopher and his little dog "Diamond." This is not saying much, and yet the half of it is incorrect. The contemporaries of Newton describe him as anything but imperturbable on certain occasions. Locke declared that he was "a nice man to deal with," but "a little too apt to raise in himself suspicions where there is no ground." Flamsteed always "found him insidious, ambitious, and excessively covetous of praise and impatient of contradiction." Whiston describes him as equally impatient, and of the most fearful, cautious, and suspicious temper that ever he knew. D'Alembert gives the French idea of him when he says — "In England people were content with Newton's being the greatest genius of the age; in France one would have also wished him to be amiable." If Newton was really unamiable, it was chiefly a negative unamiability. He was unsocial, he was reserved, he was absent, he was silent; in the course of five years his secretary, Humphrey Newton, never saw him laugh but once, and that once it is impossible to comprehend why; worst of all to a Frenchman, he had none of the graces — could not, like Fontenelle, begin a treatise on astronomy by saluting a lady and comparing the beauty of day to a blond and the beauty of the night to a brunette. The only qualities in Newton that were positively unamiable were his suspicious temper and his impatience of contradiction. All else was negative. His goodness even was negative, with the exception of his piety and his veracity. He was good, because he was passionless; and he was not loveable, because he was void of emotion.
Bishop Burnet says that Newton had the whitest soul he ever knew. We can well believe it so. Newton was utterly unworldly, and the unwordliness of the man who was content to pace about his chamber and his trim little garden from morning to night, save when he turned out for half an hour to see if anybody would listen to him as Lucasian Professor, must have rather astonished the bustling, courtly Scotch Bishop. Then he was pure as a child; his niece tells us that he broke an acquaintance of the greatest intimacy with Vigani because the Italian chymist told him some loose story of a nun. Bishop Burnet's remark, however, is true in a much more stringent sense than this, — in a much more stringent sense than, perhaps, he ever contemplated. Newton had the whitest soul he ever knew, simply because his emotional nature was the sheet of white paper which the metaphysicians of that period were continually talking about. Sir David Brewster has done his best to prove the contrary. He even fancies that he has discovered Sir Isaac in love. Sir Isaac in love! — It is incredible, it is impossible. Fancy the sedate Lucasian Professor addressing Lady Norris like one of those fops called "pretty fellows," whom Steele shortly afterwards satirized in the Tatler. "Can you resolve to wear a widow's habit perpetually?" he writes. "Whether your ladyship should go constantly in the melancholy dress of a widow or flourish once more among the ladies" — that is the question, and that is the style of courtship which Sir David, with his eyes open and all his brilliant optical reputation, attributes to a philosopher whose soul was fixed on one idea — the increase of gravity inversely as the square of the distance. Sir Isaac, we make bold to say, never had a thought of love. In comparison with Newton, Uncle Toby's behaviour to the Widow Wadman was the extreme of gallantry and licentiousness. It must be remembered that Newton was a god, and Alexander the Great used to say that two — he might have said three — things reminded him that he was a mortal, and not a god — love, sleep and food. These three things proved the divinity of Sir Isaac, for he never spent a thought on love, took very little sleep, and as for his dinner, he never cared for it, and often never ate it. "He kept neither dog nor cat in his chamber," says Humphrey Newton, "which made well for the old woman, his bedmaker, she faring much better for it, for in a morning she has sometimes found both dinner and supper scarcely tasted of, which the old woman has very pleasantly and mumpingly gone away with."
While speaking of food, we may mention, in passing, as a set-off to the negations of Newton's animal and emotional nature, his one physical enjoyment. He liked fruit, and could eat any quantity of it. As a boy, we find him in his account-books spending his money on cherries, tarts, and marmalade. This latter taste seems to have grown with him, for he was always very fond of a small roasted quince for supper. He was as fond of orangepeel as Dr. Johnson, and used to take it boiled in water for his breakfast, instead of tea. Apples, too, appear to have been a favourite fruit of his; one of his letters exhibits him longing after cider, and making great endeavours to secure some grafts of the genuine "red streaks." Perhaps it was one of those favoured "red streaks" that falling from the tree suggested the system of the world — the universality of the law of gravitation. Other enjoyments Newton had none which were not purely intellectual. Even as a boy he never joined in the games and amusements of his companions. We find him making dials and water-clocks and windmills; and on the day of the great storm of 1658, when Cromwell was drawing his last breadth in Whitehall, and Goodwin stood by his bedside, assuring him that his soul was safe, and Bates went soft and sad from room to room, and the trees in St. James's Park were uprooted by the tempest, Newton, in his 16th year, was jumping about in the gale to measure the force of the wind. In more advanced years his amusements were still more severe. When weary of his other studies, the differential calculus and the irregularities of the moon, he "refreshed himself" with chronology and all the dry details of lustrums, Olympiads, and the expedition of the Argonauts. With such pleasures it will not be surprising that we return to negation, and say that his æsthetical nature was utterly blank. He had a perfect horror of poetry, and would have echoed the sentiment of his friend Barrow, that it is "an ingenious kind of nonsense." He showed his regard for sculpture when he said of his friend, the Earl of Pembroke, that he was "a lover of stone dolls." And his opinion of painting is expressed in an anecdote which we do not profess to comprehend, but which, according to the interpretation suggested by Sir David Brewster, implies that he considered pictures nothing but "dirt."
As we look further into Newton's character we find everywhere the same absence of colour, the same whiteness that Bishop Burnet observed. One curious specimen of it is presented in a letter of advice to his young friend, Francis Aston, who was about to set out on his travels. "If you bee affronted," wrote the philosopher, "it is better in a forraine country to pass it by in silence, or with a jest, though with some dishonour, than to endeavour revenge; for in the first case your credit's ne'er the worse when you return into England, or come into other company that have not heard of the quarell. But, in the second case, you may beare the marks of the quarrell while you live, if you outlive it at all." Here is a lily liver with a vengeance — dissuading his young friend from a quarrel on the ground not of high Christian principle, but of unmanly fear. If the truth must be spoken, Newton was a coward. It is the most amazing thing to read how frightened he was to face the public. He could never bear publicity. This was partly the result of a timid disposition which made him shrink from criticism, but partly also it was the result of a self-absorbed and unsociable nature that was all in all to itself, and felt no need of human sympathy. When, shortly after writing the above letter to Francis Aston, he was asked for permission to publish one of his papers in the Philosophical Transactions, he gave his consent, on condition that his name should be withheld. "For I see not," he writes, "what there is desirable in public esteem, were I able to acquire it and maintain it. It would, perhaps, increase my acquaintance — the thing which I chiefly study to decline." This appalling self-absorption is without a parallel in the history of the human mind. After having been embroiled in a trifling optical discussion with a Dutch physician of the name of Linus, he writes as follows to one of his friends: — "I see I have made myself a slave to philosophy; but if I get free of Mr. Linus's business I will resolutely bid adieu to it eternally, excepting what I do for my private satisfaction or leave to come out after me." That sentence represents Sir Isaac to the life. All his pursuits were for his own private satisfaction; he shunned mankind; and there is not one of his discoveries that would ever have been published if it had not been dragged into the light by his friends, while he looked on, fretting and muttering at the intrusion. Of him it may be said with truth, what was never truly said of Milton, "His soul was like a star, and dwelt apart."
Dwelling thus apart, and viewing with singular apathy all that men most prize in public esteem and private sympathy, it was natural that Newton should look with stoical contempt on all the objects of human ambition. Love he needed not; honour he sought not; above all things he despised wealth. Master of the Mint, money had no charms for him. Speculum metal for his reflecting telescope was to him the most precious of the metals. The bursting of a soap bubble when pursuing his experiments on colour gave him more concern than the loss of 20,000l. on the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. His indifference has extended to his latest biographer, who has not condescended to hint at the loss. Sir Isaac thought more of a lens and a prism than of all the ingots at the Mint and all the diamonds in Amsterdam. He parted with his money freely — so freely, indeed, that his biographers have regarded it as a proof of singular generosity. It was nothing of the kind; it was no more generosity than is the act of the poor savage who gives away inestimable treasures for a glass bead or a little bit of mirror. What cared he for wealth? He had no interest in human life; he had no sublunary pleasures which money could purchase, except pippins and red streaks. He gave it away to anybody who asked for it. In one of his absent fits he had his pocket picked of more than 3,000l., and suspected a nephew of the celebrated William Whiston; he made no efforts to recover his bank bills, and when asked how much he had lost, only replied, "Too much." He was so far imposed upon that he paid 4,000l. for an estate in Wiltshire worth only the half of that sum; he was told that he might vacate his bargain in equity, and he declined the trouble. "I have seen," says honest Humphrey Newton — "I have seen a small pasteboard box in his study set against the open window, no less, as one might suppose, than 1,000 guineas in it, crowded edgeways; whether this was suspicion or carelessness I cannot say; perhaps to try the fidelity of those about him." It was certainly carelessness; but poor Humphrey (how vividly he remembers it all?) felt sorely tempted when he saw "as one might suppose" — for he was too honest to count them — "no less than 1,000 guineas," "crowded edgeways," and it was a help to his fidelity to believe that the trial was intended by his master — his master, to whom, when at the head of the Mint, a Duchess all in vain offered a bribe of 6,000l. At one period of his life Sir Isaac gave some study to alchymy, and we might suppose, from one of the sentences in the letter to Francis Aston from which we have already quoted, that he had thought of transmutation as a means of money-making. He recommends his young friend to inquire on the Continent about transmutations, these "being the most luciferous, and many times lucriferous experiments too, in philosophy." This letter, however, it must be remembered, was written not long before his circumstances were such as to givehim some anxiety, and he was glad to escape his weekly payments as a member of the Royal Society. If ever he thought of money-making, it was only to pay his frugal buttery book, and buy putty for his lenses and oranges for his sister. He gave away his money without concern; he was even offensive in his liberality, and quarrelled with persons who refused his purse. Think of Sir Isaac taking a handfull of guineas at random out of his pocket and offering it as a fee to a physician like Cheselden.
We have not said anything of the controversies which brought Newton into contact with his fellow-men, and put his manliness to the test; and we must leave it to others to adjust all the microscopic details of authorship and copyright which these controversies involve. But it is impossible to pass without reprehension the unfairness with which Newton treated his opponents Huygens and Hooke, Leibnitz and Flamsteed. It is a just retribution that Newton's corpuscular theory of light has succumbed before the undulatory theory defended by Huygens and Hooke; that his law of double refraction has been displaced by that of Huygens; that his theory of the inflexion of light has been forgotten for Hooke's; and that his method of fluxions, which raised the greatest din of all, has been supplanted by the differential calculus of Leibnitz. For one thing in these controversies we may be proud of Newton. His jealousy was absurd, all generosity was forgotten; but he never descended to the atrocious frauds which disgraced his opponents Bernoulli, Leibnitz, and Wolf.
Such was Newton as a man. Glorious in his intellect, with a piety rather intellectual than devotional, he was a stoic without the merit of a stoic, for he had no feelings to contend with. It is very saddening to find that the two most splendid names which science can boast of belong to men so deficient in their moral natures as Lord Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton. In the former we find a positive moral obliquity, which would awaken pity were it not joined to so majestic an intellect that it excites terror and despair of human nature. In the latter we find simply a vacuum — iron intellect on every side surrounding and maintaining the tremendous gap within. We have no desire to moralize on the fact. We have simply endeavoured to give a faithful representation of Newton's character, believing that no possible good can result from the fulsome flatteries which are heaped on his name. When the contemporaries of Newton hailed him as a god they declared in very brilliant phrase that he was not a man.
Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. By Sir David Brewster, K.H. In two vols. Edinburgh; Thomas Constable and Co.