Introduction to Western Humanites:
Baroque & Enlightenment
Voltaire's essay on Isaac
[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
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.
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
"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.
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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