The figure of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) looms over the Enlightenment as the giant who steered humanity out from under the dark shadows of superstition and into the bright, sterile light of the mechanical universe. Armed with the navigational tools of empirical evidence and mathematical proofs, he deciphered the forces of nature using human reason alone. With the publication of his masterwork Principia in 1687, the archaic belief in Nature’s soul was left shipwrecked on the shores of the unscientific past. Newton’s legacy is scientific positivism, or the belief that an idea is true only when it can be proved mathematically. If, in collective memory, René Descartes (1596-1650) succeeded in splitting the mind from the body, then Newton’s clockwork universe desacralized nature and cleaved the body from the soul.
Newton’s rational-empirical worldview is the pivot point where human contemplation of the mystery of nature turned to human fixation on the mastery of nature. But the few works that he published during his lifetime conceal his true beliefs. Two hundred years after his death, in 1936, Sotheby’s in London auctioned his personal papers, over ten million words of writing that revealed deeply held secrets: he was a heretic, an alchemist, a magician. He believed an immaterial force guided the whole of creation, its presence manifesting through such phenomena as motion and gravity. In the words of economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), purchaser of many of Newton’s papers:
Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians….He looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret that could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues that God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood…He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty.
Newton dressed his mystical intuition in mathematical proofs before presenting his ideas to the world. The father of mechanical science believed that spirit animated matter and his work was to understand, using the gifts of his meager human intellect, the eternal and divine.
“A certain infinite spirit pervades all space into infinity, and contains and vivifies the entire world,” Newton wrote in his journals, musing on the ancient wisdom of pre-Christian philosophers like Thales of Miletus (c.646-548 B.C.), who believed the gods were present in all things. Newton was convinced that prisca sapientia, or sacred knowledge, had been lost in the centuries after Christ’s death, and he was resurrecting the ancient truth. An alchemist as well as a pious Protestant, his boyhood was occupied by memorizing Scripture, copying sections over and over to understand how passages were linked, how to read the deeper meanings. He combined religious thinking with deference for ancient prophets like Pythagoras, Moses, Thoth, and Hermes, and saw himself as their kin, decoding the universe that God had created according to definite laws, laws that could be approached mathematically. He signed one of his alchemical notebooks with an anagram of his Latin name, Isaacus Neuutonus: Jeova sanctus unus––Jehovah the holy one.
Newton’s inward search for hidden truth began in early youth. Born in the English hamlet of Woolsthorpe on Christmas Day 1642, sickly Newton came into the world a year after Galileo’s death. He was not expected to live. It was the onset of the English Civil War, the country’s most unstable period in history. His father died months before his birth, and his mother deserted him at the age of three to live with her new husband, a much older pastor in a nearby village. He never recovered from the abandonment, threatening his mother and stepfather to “burn them and the house over them.” When he inherited a notebook of his stepfather’s writing, Newton titled the volume the “Waste Book” and used the paper to sketch his own mathematical proofs.
He took his solace in the study of theology and experimentation. Even as a child he was drawn to books like Mysteries of Nature and Art, a manual that blended occult philosophy with amateur experiments in engineering. The book provided vague instructions and left the reader to develop an individual method for achieving results. Increased experimentation led to increased knowledge, and it was recommended to not reveal one’s way of doing things to others. Young Newton built sundials that could tell time up to the minute, model windmills, and a lantern tied to a kite that “wonderfully affrighted all the neighboring inhabitants.”
Despite his great intelligence, or perhaps because of it, lack of interconnectedness haunted him his entire life. A solitary child who grew into a notorious loner, he yearned for human connection but was unable to maintain close relationships. Early on he learned to distrust the external world and to turn inward; he learned to keep his own secrets. He developed ideas––writing and rewriting the same piece half a dozen times––that he hoped would illuminate his profound insights, but he never published the millions of words he wrote. The few publications from his lifetime were printed only at the point of coercion. He withheld his theory of calculus for twenty years until the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) arrived independently at the same conclusions. Newton accused Leibniz of theft and finally published his own theory. History remembers Newton as the inventor of calculus because the records from the Royal Society of London claim it to be so. Conveniently Newton was at that time president of the society and likely authored the official history himself.
He was more at ease in the company of his own thoughts and with the disembodied voices in the books he studied than with other living, breathing humans. He never married, and on his deathbed confessed to his physician that he remained a virgin. During his lifetime, there were a handful of brilliant thinkers who could have understood him, but he developed caustic and bitter rivalries with them, men like Leibniz and physicist Robert Hooke (1635-1703). He suffered a raving breakdown at middle age––possibly the result of combining toxic chemicals in his laboratory in his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone––and threatened the lives of Parliamentarian Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) and political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), one of his few lifelong friends. After he achieved great recognition and fame later in life, his only wish was to retire to the solitude of the country.
Newton’s introduction to alchemy and heretical thought began as a young man. After demonstrating that he had little talent for managing the family farm, he was sent to study at Trinity College in 1661. He was ambivalent about his mathematical talents, preferring instead to develop his religious ideas, but understood that his intellect was a gift from God and he had a moral duty to use it.
At Cambridge he was introduced to Robert Boyle’s writings. Boyle (1627-91) was a respected natural philosopher and founding member of the Royal Society, remembered for his advancements in chemistry. His true calling, much like Newton’s, was in alchemy and theology, and at one point he claimed to have witnessed transmutation. Alchemy was experiencing a revival during this period, and Boyle, like Newton, believed that God created the universe on the basis of mathematical principles. His writing examined the relationship between the field of emerging science and religion and left a strong impression on Newton. Boyle was particularly concerned about the strain of atheism developing in the wake of Descartes’s theories.
Descartes is generally credited with introducing atheism into popular thought after proposing that physical evidence could be measured empirically, whereas the inner world of spirit was immeasurable. This is the crux of Cartesian dualism, the mind-body split, and the resulting thought was that if the spiritual dimension could not be quantified, it must not exist. Descartes himself was not an atheist—he believed the soul resided in the pineal gland—but his writings were dangerous and often banned, therefore leading to their increasing popularity among students. Newton himself read and appreciated Descartes’s mathematic abilities but ultimately rejected him for the same reasons that Boyle did, for his perceived irreligion. Fear of atheism is what inspired Newton to demonstrate the ways science and religion were intertwined, and how nature was the manifestation of God’s mind.
An outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665 sent Newton back home to Woolsthorpe. He welcomed the isolation; the plague years were the most productive of his life. He refined his laws of calculus and the theories on optics, gravity, and motion that would lead to his fame. Believing firsthand knowledge gained through experimentation was the only true path to understanding, he stared at the sun until his eyesight was permanently damaged and stuck a blunt needle in his eye socket to test his theory on the nature of light. He wrote about comets and their divine function in the universe, mused about where in the brain the soul might be located, and how the soul stored memory. The nature and content of dreams occupied him, for in dreaming, he believed, we enter the liminal space between body and soul.
During the plague years a distrust of Catholicism and the idea of the Trinity took root. As a Protestant the invention of a three-figured godhead had always been foreign to him, but during this time he came to believe that Catholicism itself was leading the world astray. He went so far as to agree with a common Protestant sympathy: the Pope was the Antichrist. Wondering where Catholic doctrine had first diverged from the truth, he read early Christian histories and found himself immersed deeper and deeper in the past, poring over the writings of early Greek philosophers and Egyptian priests. He sought the origins of the first religion, universal to all mankind, known to the ancients but lost to history. In a journal entry titled “The Original of Religions,” he spoke of the religion that “was spread over all nations before the memory of things.”
His obsession with secret knowledge about the true nature of the cosmos led him to translate the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus in 1680. Hermes Trismegistus was a legendary teacher of magic who was likely a composite of Greco-Egyptian priests living in the first or second century in Alexandria (although in Newton’s age it was believed he was a contemporary of Moses). His name means “Hermes Thrice-greatest,” a hybrid of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, gods of writing and magic. The Emerald Tablet is the holy grail of occult wisdom—also called hermetic wisdom—as it implies the secrets for understanding the prima materia, the first material and the base of all matter and existence. The prima materia is formless and beyond definition, which is why the Tablet uses a variety of metaphors to describe it. Newton believed it veiled the recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone, an elixir that could turn metals into gold, grant immortality, and reveal the secrets of matter and spirit.
In his search for the Philosopher’s Stone, Newton saw hidden meanings everywhere. He interpreted Genesis and the Book of Revelations as alchemical recipes. Greek mythology carried hidden meaning as well. In Homer’s story of Aphrodite’s adultery, Helios, the sun, represented gold; Ares, the god of war, was iron; Aphrodite, goddess of love, was copper; and her cuckolded husband, Hephaestus, the god of the forge, represented the fire used to smelt the other elements. Newton may have, during the course of his experiments, accidentally poisoned himself by mixing chemicals that were toxic in combination.
A common misunderstanding is that the only purpose of alchemy was to turn base metals into gold. This was one of alchemy’s goals, and one that sufficiently frightened the British Crown, who in 1404 banned alchemy because the ability to create gold in a laboratory would undermine the economy. (Incidentally, Robert Boyle had this law—the Act Against Multipliers—overturned in 1689 so that he could continue his transmutations undisturbed.) The modern misinterpretation is that alchemy was a form of early chemistry because both require experimenting with combinations of elements in a laboratory. The truth is that alchemy possessed a psychic dimension that chemistry did not.
The controlled fire in an alchemical laboratory slowly dissolved an element down to its core, the form changing but the essence remaining unaltered. The alchemist combined the pliable materials into new combinations as spirit, the “material soul of all matter,” fused with the experimenter’s own mind to manifest a new physical form. Nature did not function in only a mechanical way, there was “a more subtle, secret, and noble way” to understand the forces that animated matter. This “secret” of occult philosophy was participating consciousness, that all things were alive and interrelated––matter contained Mind and could influence and be influenced.
It was in this mindset—that nature was animate, alive, sensitive to conscious influence; that an original religion once permeated the earth and was known to all––that Newton wrote the treatises that made him famous. His experiments on the nature of light led him to develop a new telescope, and the Royal Society invited him to share his ideas on light and colors in 1672. Newton was initially delighted at the recognition but his enthusiasm soured after being told that no one could replicate his experiment. This is largely owing to the fact that Newton first explained his methods obscurely, and then offered alchemical modes of thinking as proof. He had to learn to verify mathematically what he knew intuitively so that he could explain it to others. In a conversation with astronomer Edmond Halley, who asked Newton how he discovered a particular planetary motion, Newton allegedly replied, “Why, I’ve known it for years. If you’ll give me a few days, I’ll certainly find you a proof of it.”
It was Newton’s hesitancy to show his proofs that ultimately led to his greatest achievement. His intellectual rival Robert Hooke challenged Newton to demonstrate how he arrived at his theories on planetary orbits. In 1687, at the age of forty-four, Newton published The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica—Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Principia was the result of twenty years’ work and described his theory of calculus, the three laws of motion, and the universal law of gravitation. The publication is considered the foundation of modern physics and describes the world as clockwork, operating on a mechanical basis. Although Newton developed his ideas using hermetic philosophy and alchemical experimentation, he presented his findings in only mathematical terms. What was the reason for this?
If Newton’s thoughts were the product of intuition, they were the subjects of social order. Pathologically secretive by nature, he had two close calls in recent years that reminded him of the dangers of sharing his true thoughts. In his work Optics, he wrote of the human soul being made in God’s image, the soul unchangeable as God is immutable. This led to the criticism, “Does [Newton] not through this definition of persons exclude the Trinity, imagining God as existing in one person, for no other reason than because man exists in one person?” Of course Newton did deny the Trinity, but he needed to keep his theological secrets to himself. To announce publicly this heresy would be social excommunication.
Trouble arrived from another passage in Optics, when he emphasized that natural phenomena demonstrated the existence of an immaterial, omnipresent, living intelligence, and he compared the natural world to this being’s—God’s—sensorium. Leibniz and others accused Newton of calling nature God’s body, or worse, claiming that God is Nature. Fearful, Newton blocked these editions from circulation and edited future books to change any language that might be mistaken as heretical. By the time he published Principia, Newton was cautious to present his findings in ways that would not be seen as religiously unorthodox. Besides, in Newton’s mind, truth could be discerned in a variety of ways: by studying natural phenomena, by reading holy texts, and through the use of his God-given intellect. The cosmos were divine, and his mathematical blueprint showed the power of the human mind to approach the infinite. Mortals could come no nearer.
With Principia, Newton became one of the most well-respected men in London. He was appointed President of the Royal Society as well as Master of the Mint. But his fame came with a price: he never again had flashes of insight that led to groundbreaking theories. In the centuries since Newton lived, he has been seen as a bastion of atheism and of the need for hard proofs. Science has become the rival of mysticism, and the Newtonian worldview has been interpreted to mean that cold, inarguable truths are the only valid explanation of the natural world. The earth is no longer seen as a living being but rather as a dead object that can be manipulated with machines, the emblems of rational-empirical logic. The original condition of humanity—standing in awe before the sacred powers of nature—was obliterated first by the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution, and humanity lost the memory of its own divine spark. The contrast between thinkers like Newton, who believed a sacred, secret knowledge had once existed but was lost, and our modern mentality, which claims those who came before us were hopelessly superstitious, is stark. Even in all his brilliance, Newton could not find a way to decode the riddle of Nature, so he settled on a definition of external conditions. But he did not mean to imply that external phenomena were reality. On the contrary, the natural world was animated by a mysterious force, hidden from sight. “There is a vital agent diffused through everything in the earth, a mercurial spirit, extremely subtle and supremely volatile.” ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Parabola, SECRETS. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.