Introduction to Western Humanites:  Baroque & Enlightenment

Voltaire's essay on Isaac Newton

[The essay was included in Voltaire's Philosophical Letters (1734).  For discussion of this work, consult the introduction to Voltaire's essay on Frances Bacon.  The translation is by William F. Fleming, from The Works of Voltaire:  A Contemporary Version (New Yourk:  Dingwall-Rock, 1927) Vol. XIX,  Pt. I,  pp. 172-76]


Newton was first intended for the Church.  He set out with the study of divinity, and retained a tincture of it to his dying day.  He very seriously adopted the cause of Arius against Athanasius, and even went farther than he, as all the Socinians actually do.  There are at present a great many of the learned of this opinion; I shall not venture to criticize this communion, as they make no distinct body.  They are, moreover, divided among themselves; and several of them have brought their system to pure Deism, to which they have adapted the morality of Jesus Christ.  Newton was by no means of the number of these latter, and differed from the English Church only on the point of consubstantiation, being orthodox in all the rest.

A proof of the sincerity of his faith is his writing a commentary on "Revelation."  Here he finds it clear, to a demonstration, that the pope is Antichrist, and explains the rest of the book exactly as the other commentators have done.  Possibly he meant, by this commentary, to console the rest of the human race for the great superiority he had over them.  There are several who, having read the little treatise on metaphysics which Newton has placed at the end of his "Principia Mathematica," have met with something fully as obscure as the Apocalypse.  Metaphysicians and theologians are much like those gladiators who were obliged to fight hoodwinked.  But when Newton worked, with the bandage removed from his eyes, on his mathematics, his sight pierced to the utmost limits of nature.

He invented the calculation of infinites; he has discovered and demonstrated a new principle, which sets the universe in motion.  Light was wholly unknown before his time.  There were only confused and false ideas of it, till Newton pronounced the most admirable fiat, and said, "Let light be known," and light was known.

He was the inventor of reflecting telescopes; and the first that ever was seen was the work of his own hands.  He also demonstrated the reason why the power and focus of common telescopes can not be augmented.  It was owing to this new telescope that a German took Newton for a mechanic, that is, for a spectacle-maker.  "Artifex quidam nomine Newton," says he, in some paltry book.  But posterity has since sufficiently avenged the affront.  He had still greater injustice done him in France, where he was held as a blundering trier of experiments; and because Mariotte made use of false prisms, the discoveries of Newton were exploded.

He was admired by his countrymen as soon as he had published and proved the truth of his theory by his newly invented instruments; but it was forty years before he was properly known in France.  But to make amends, we had the fluted and ramose matter of Descartes, the little soft vortices of the reverend father Malebranche, and the system of M. Private de Molière.

There is no one of those in the least degree acquainted with Cardinal Polignac, who has not heard him say a number of times that Newton was certainly a Peripatetic, and that his colored rays and his attraction bordered on atheism.  Cardinal Polignac joined to all those advantages he had received from nature a very great share of eloquence; he composed verses in Latin with a surprising and a happy facility; but he knew no other philosophy than that of Descartes; all of whose arguments he had retained, just like so many dates.  He had not yet become a geometrician, and nature had not formed him for a philosopher.  He was an excellent judge of "Catiline's Conspiracy," or of "Æneid"; but by no means fit to decide on the merits of a Locke or a Newton.

When one considers that Newton, Locke, Clarke, and Leibniz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, and burned at Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason?  One would swear it was a native of England in the present age at least.  In the time of Queen Mary there was a violent persecution on account of the proper way of pronouncing Greek, in which the persecutors were, as usual, in the wrong.  They who put Galileo before the Inquisition were still more so; and every inquisitor ought to blush, from the bottom of his soul, at the sight of the sphere of Copernicus.  Nevertheless, had Newton been born in Portugal, and had a Dominican friar happened to discover a heresy in his inverted ratio of the squares of the distances of the planets, Sir Isaac Newton had certainly walked in procession in his sanbenito at some auto-da-fé.

It has been often asked how it comes to pass that they who, by their function, should be learned and human, have so commonly proved to the last degree ignorant and implacable.  Their ignorance was wholly owing to their having studied too closely, and too much; and their unrelenting cruelty was occasioned by the consciousness that their wretched learning was the just object of the contempt of true philosophers.  Notwithstanding, those very inquisitors who had the effrontery to condemn the system of Copernicus not only as heretical but as absurd, had not the slightest grounds of apprehension from that system.  Although the earth performed her annual revolution around the sun, together with the rest of the planets, the Church would, for all that, have enjoyed both her revenues and her dignities.  Even the ecclesiastical dogmas are in perfect safety, when impugned only by philosophers:  all the academies under the cope of heaven are not able, with their utmost efforts, to make the smallest revolution in the common creed of a nation, let its tenets be never so absurd.  From what source, then, arises this pious rage which has so often inflamed the disciples of Anitus against those of Socrates?  It is because the former are conscious that they merit and enjoy the sovereign contempt of the latter.

I had a notion in my younger days that Newton had made his fortune by his extraordinary merit.  I made no doubt that both court and city at London had created him, with one common consent, chief manager and supreme director of the coin of the kingdom.  I was herein greatly mistaken; Sir Isaac Newton had a pretty niece, called Mrs. Conduite, who had the good fortune to please the lord high treasurer, Halifax. Had it not been for this handsome niece, his doctrine of gravitation and infinitesimals had been wholly useless to him, and he might have starved with all his talents.


adopted the cause of Arius against Athanasius:  Arius,(250-336) was a North African Greek bishop who argued (c. 319) that the Son was not co-equal or co-equal with the Father, but rather (only) the first and highest of God's creations out of nothing, and hence of a substance different from that of the Father.  Athanasius (c.296-393) opposed Arius at the Council of Nicea (325), which insisted that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, and declared the doctrine of Arius a heresy.  The controversy was not definitively settled, however, until 381, at the Council of Constantinople.  Return.

Socinians:  Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) was a Protestant reformer born in Siena, Italy, who developed the anti-Trinitarian views of his uncle, Laelius Socinus (1525-62) into the doctrine known as Socinianism. The teaching affirmed that Jesus, though genuinely a revelation of God, was by nature merely a man.  It thus denied that Jesus's crucifixion served as atonement for original sin.  But it also insisted that Christ had been raised by God to the office of divinity, and so refused, against the stricter unitarians, to renounce the worship of Christ.  Return.

the calculation of infinites:  This is what today is called "the calculus," which is necessary in physics, for example, in specifying instantaneous acceleration (due, for instance, to gravity or propulsion).  Cf. the reference to "infinitesimals" in the final paragraph of the present essay.  Return.

"Artifex quidam nomine Newton":  "a craftsman by the name of Newton."  Return.

"Catiline's Conspiracy" and the Æneid:  In 63 BC, during his term as consul, the Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero (103-43 BC) prosecuted five prominent citizens for their participation in a plot by the senator Catiline to seize power by violence.  Cicero's five speeches before the Senate are collectively known as "Catiline's Conspiracy," and were considered classical examples of Latin political oratory.  In the Æneid (modeled on the epics of Homer), the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) retold the myth of the founding of Rome by the Trojan Æneas, survivor of the Trojan War.  The epic qualifies as the greatest poem in Latin.  Return.

Peripatetic:  Aristotelian philosophers were nicknamed "Peripatetics," after the habit reputed of Aristotle of expounding his ideas to his students while walking about.  Return.

san benito and auto da fé:  An auto da fé - or "act of faith" - was a public ceremony in which the punishment assigned by the Inquisition would be carried out.  This could range from flogging to burning at the stake (usually after strangulation).  Persons condemned to the stake were taken to the public square dressed in a wide piece of cloth marked with the sign of the cross.  This scapulary was called a san benito, a name that derives from the sacco benito, or sackcloth, worn by penitents in the early days of the church.  Return.

this pious rage which has so often inflamed the disciples of Anitus against those of Socrates:  In 399 BC the philosopher Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian Assembly on a charge of having corrupted the youth of Athens by teaching falsehoods about the gods.  Anitus was the leader of the group of citizens who conducted the prosecution before the Assembly.

The trial of Socrates is the subject of Plato's dialogue known as the Apology (which means not "apology" but "defense").  Plato covers the aftermath of the trial in the Crito, in which Socrates explains why it would not be morally permissible for him to avail himself of the opportunity arranged by his friends for him to escape from prison, and in the Phaedo, which depicts the discussions Socrates had with his disciples the night before his discussion, and of his drinking the hemlock.  This latter is the subject of Jacques-Louis David's painting The Death of Socrates (1787).


Halifax:  Lord Halifax was Chancellor of the Exchequer.  In 1696 he appointed Newton Warden of the Mint, and three years later, on the basis of his excellent administration, Master of the Mint.  As a unitarian in religion, Newton was ineligible to be appointed don at his university, Cambridge, where he was professor (and whom he twice represented in parliament).  His scientific work had meanwhile ceased with a breakdown in 1693.  His appointments in connection with the mint ensured an income in keeping with his stature.  Return.

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      Notes copyright © 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 25 August 1998.