Book Reviews Peter Ackroyd: Newton

Peter Ackroyd: Newton

Peter Ackroyd's account of Newton's life inspired the following thoughts.

Hindus believe that human beings progress through four stages: first, brahmacharya, the stage of learning, second, gārhasthya, that of householder and active worker, third, vānaprasthya, loosening of social bonds and finally, sannyāsa, the life of a hermit.  The first stages represent commitment to self, family and society, and the last two to God, i.e. a widening spiral from egocentricity to selflessness.  But this is not a linear development. Learning, for instance, is continuous throughout life and one generally hopes to become wiser as one grows older.  In the case of Isaac Newton, however, he began at the end and moved backwards.  He became a sannyasi when he was young and a householder in his middle and old age.

As a very young man, he could look into the nature of things and understand their composition and functions.  In today's world people speak glibly of being able to see, of living in the now, and most often they are simply referring to having a good time or being successful in a worldly sense.  But seeing, in the way that Buddhists describe, requires genius and most of us, myopic beings, wait for genius to reveal what it sees and then we see vicariously and utter clichés as though we understand.  But how many of us have read or are capable of understanding Principia Mathematica.  Ordinary people like me, do not understand the processes.  What is truth for the genius are platitudes for the rest of us. We simply accept their conclusions and these become our boundaries.  For those who truly see, who truly live in the now, conclusions are stepping-stones to deeper insight.  They are  "an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever."  (Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson)

From early in his life, Newton could see and spent his days and nights finding mathematical proofs to validate what he saw.  He became something of a hermit, closeted at his home in Woolsthorpe or in his rooms at Cambridge experimenting and writing out proofs. His interests included, in addition to Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography and Optics, the study of ancient religions and alchemy.  For Newton, the study of science, religion and alchemy were complementary and together gave him greater insight into the mysteries of existence.  He worked very hard to find proofs for what he uncovered about the cosmos and light and believed implicitly in what he propounded.  According to Ackroyd, he became enraged at criticisms of his work, cut off ties with critics and withheld his knowledge.  But he was universally acclaimed in his lifetime for the revolutions he brought about in our way of thinking about existence.

In his youth, though Newton was so preoccupied by his studies that he often forgot to eat, he nevertheless, still lived in the world and had to survive so, in addition to scholarships and junior appointments at university, he became a usurer, but he never became rich.  It was only after his appointment to the Mint that he began to acquire wealth.  It was also a time in his life when mathematics and science receded into the background.  When he became Master of the Mint, his rule, though it brought order and efficiency, was authoritarian and intolerant.  It seems that his vision had been reduced from an all-encompassing view of the universe to narrow, myopic desires for worldly self-aggrandisement.  And, like an ordinary human being, he became obsessed with power and control. 

Perhaps that is how it ought to be.  One's great work ought to coincide with youth and energy, when the mind and body can withstand the tremendous pressures put upon them to understand and explore existence.  But it is only genius that can see without acquiring experience of the world, for the rest of us wisdom, of a lesser kind, comes only with age and experience.

May 2008 

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