Newton and Historical Science

Newton maintained that by Divine Providence comets are prevented from disrupting the beautiful order of planetary motions which cause the Earth to be a particularly fit abode for man; thus he made the Earth central to the solar system, in spite of the Copernican revolution in astronomy. The fact that comets are orevented from interfering with the system proves that the earth is central spiritually, if not materially. He did not assume that the protection of guardian angels against the action of comets was eternal. It had been at work since the Creation of Man, for which he accepted Bishop Ussher’s date of 4004 B.C., and it would last as long as it took for man to complete his historical cycle.

Having reached his conclusions for theological reasons, Newton tried to make them acceptable scientifically by reducing them to a question of empirical evidence. It is for this reason that he compiled lengthy studies, some of which were published, in which he tried to demonstrate that the Old Testament contains predictions of future historical events. By means of these elaborate investigations he endeavored to prove the existence of a Providence that goes beyond mechanical causes. To prove that prophecy can be accepted scientifically he reduced the entire problem to a question of chronology.

If it can be documented empirically that the prophecies of the Scriptures can be trusted, one would have reasons to accept the promise of an unhindered development of the history of mankind to its final fulfillment in the Kingdom of Christ on Earth. Newton’s studies of prophecy are an essential element in his astronomical thought, and it is a crime against sound scholarship to ignore them, as it has been done unanimously by all historians of science.

Since Newton intended to reconcile Christian theology with empirical evidence, it was even more important to him to prove that it was not a fact that comets had brought about catastrophes on Earth within the memory of man. It is obvious that one cannot assume that they will not have disruptive effects in the future if they had in fact worked to this effect in the past. It was, as we have seen, an accepted opinion among the astronomers of Newton’s time that the historical records of the ancients preserved memories of worldwide cataclysms, and that their cause could be traced to the actions of comets.

It is in the light of Newton’s preoccupation with the role of comets that one must understand his concern with historical studies; these incluaea a complete tHeory ot the origin of civilization, a theory about how mythology should be interpreted, and a radical revision of accepted ancient chronology. On these topics he became engaged in an intense polemic with certain French scholars, and in the last year of his life was polemicizing not only with Whiston, but also with Nicolas Fréret (1688-1749), the first permanent secretary of the Academic des Inscriptions, who is properly described as l’un des savants les plus illustres que la France ait jamais produit.1 In a series of monumental studies published in the acts of this academy, Fréret foresaw the immense advances that could be made in the study of ancient history by combining linguistics, mythology, chronology, geography, astronomy, and history of science in general, taking into account the information that was beginning to be available concerning the civilization of Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China. He realized that with this material there could be obtained conclusions that not only are revolutionary, but also particularly reliable. This point is summed up in his essay: Reflexions sur I’étude des anciennes histoires et sur le degré de certitude de leurs preuves. The conclusions of Fréret implied what was said openly by other French scholars, that scientific thought had developed quite early and hence that the history of mankind must be much longer than that calculated by Bishop Usher, whose date of 4004 B.C. for Creation was adopted by Newton. Fréret was also assuming that the accounts provided by ancient authors and by ancient mythologies about astronomical events must have had a basis in actual observations. For instance, he argued that the reports that Venus changed its appearance and course in the time of the flood of Ogyges could be explained by assuming that a comet was mistaken for Venus. Fréret saw that the data of ancient history were in conflict with the theory of Newton. He challenged Newton’s views about mythology and ancient science by which the latter tried to dismiss ttie evidence for changes in the solar system before the era of Nabonas-sar. A number of scholars of the time wrote heatedly for and against his Defense de la chronologie fondée sur les monuments, centre de système chronologique de Newton (Paris, 1758). The strongest argument, however, against Newton’s contention that the ancient evidence on astronomical events is unreliable, is contained in Fréret’s essay on ancient geodesy, in which he maintained not only that the length of circumference of the earth was well known in ancient times but also that the Egyptians knew the length of their country almost to the cubit.2 In 1816, Jean-Antoine Letronne (1787-1848), after reviewing the entire documentation on the subject in a work crowned by the Academic des Inscriptions, concluded that, given the precision of the Egyptian methods of geodetic surveying, the declaration of Freret “is verified or at least ceases to be too exaggerated.”3

When he died Newton, who in general did not like to publish any of his manuscripts and published them only if put under pressure by his friends, was spontaneously preparing for publication The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms Amended. It was put out shortly after his death by his nephew John Conduit; no lesser figure than Alexander Pope took care of formally editing the text.

Biographies of Newton usually dismiss in a few lines this last book or nis; they consider it the product of an irrelevant side of his activity.

Frank E. Manual in Isaac Newton, Historian (Cambridge, Mass., 1963) has tried to explain the meaning of this work by examining it in the lignr or unpublished manuscripts on similar topics. Manuel’s book has somewhat lifted the veil from Newton’s historical manuscripts, and goes a lone way toward helping us to better understand the significance and purpose of this book of Newton. By providing us with descriptive summaries and by calling out quotations, Manuel has greatly contributed to our understanding of Newton’s thought. He has produced a work of diligent scnoiarsnip full of precious information, but he completely distorted the meaning of the data by staling general premises contrary to the truth. For instance, he does not feel any compunction in repeating the canard that the book was published at the insistence of Whiston with the aim of discrediting Newton, as an act of revenge against his former patron. It is left unexplained how suddenly Whiston had acquired such power among his former enemies, and why he should be so concerned with having it made clear that his former mentor was specifically interested in refuting him — that the book was actually directed against Whiston. In any case, Whiston reports in his memoirs that he gave Newton’s executor the warning that this work was totally worthless, historical research being a field in which Newton’s genius had utterly failed him. He wrote in his memoirs: “I expected very little from his own Chronology, when it should be publish’d. Which Expectation I used to suggest to my friends before such Publication, yet would none of them believe me at the Time, though they did afterwards.” He published a refutation of Newton’s book a few years later. But after this first breach of the historian’s obligation to the records, Manuel advances an even more irresponsible concoction: it is, actually, but a new variation on the theory of Newton’s insanity. In substance he suggests that Newton pursued historical research for cathartic purposes, in order to get rid of unwholesome thoughts. The purpose of Newton’s long patience in research and writing in the matter of history and chronology would have been “a denial, a censorship, a repression.” This kind of double talk is justified by the f actually incorrect claim that Newton, though “psychically committed” to his historical books, “belittled” and “on occasion even mocked them.” In other words, following a usual theme of Newton’s biographers, it could be said that Newton “the scientist” mocked Newton “the madman.” Manuel claims that Newton “did what other men do” when they have sick ideas. This seems to me to be a unique psychiatric theory, but I grant that it may be true in the area of Newtonian studies. Since the issue has been framed in psychoanalytic terms, it may be legitimate tor me to ask whether it is not a case of projection in which the denial, the censorship, and the repression function in the mind of Manuel and his colleagues.

Manuel would like to have us believe that Newton’s interest in chronology and related subjects was an expression of what is usually called the insane part of his personality. But Manuel well knows that most of the prominent astronomers of the age of Newton and of somewhat older times were interested in or wrote on the question of chronology; that at the time Newton’s historical manuscripts were written they dealt with topics that were intensely debated among scholars. This concern with historical data was, as we have seen, a necessary consequence of the Copernican revolution and of the subsequent finding of the periodicity ot comets. But Manuel has not grasped that the purpose of Newton’s historical reasearches was to refute the historical researches of the Renaissance, and those of Whiston in particular. Their main object was to discredit all the historical evidence presented for changes in the solar system. For instance, he tried to prove that in Mesopotamia astronomical science did not begin before the era of Nabonassar (747 B.C.).

In order to prove his point Newton based himself on a scheme for the revision or accepted ancient chronology which, according to Whiston, he had formulated between the age of forty and fifty on the basis of the Canon Chronicus Aegyptiacus, Ebraicus, Graecus published by John Marsham in 1672. Newton used this chronological scheme in order to dismiss the evidence for the occurrence of past cometary impacts. He apparently built his chronology when he was still in agreement with Whiston and used it later for a different purpose.

The new scheme of chronology is used by Newton in order to justify more far-fetched historical theories. The lowering of the dates of ancient chronology is used to claim that civilization began quite late. The knowledge of writing would have begun to spread only after the eleventh century B.C. This contention is followed by the further radical contention that all accounts of events that were not put down in writing at the time of their occurrence are absolutely untrustworthy.

Newton carried this contention to an extreme point, arguing, for instance, that it is unscholarly to try to reconstruct Chinese history for the period before 230 B.C. On the subject of early Roman history he took an equally uncompromising attitude: “But the Romans, having no historian during the first 400 years of their city, I forbear to meddle further with their original antiquity.” He dismissed the reliability of all accounts of Greek history before the age of Herodotus. Newton thought that he had found a oerenrotory argument against those who quoted accounts or cosmic catastrophes: if such catastrophes had taken place, all records would have been destroyed, so that it is contradictory to assume that reliable memories of them have been oreserved.

Newton’s purpose in taking these extremely critical attitudes towards historical records is further elucidated by the circumstance that in the same context he develops the euhemeristic theory of mythology that I have mentioned earlier. He argues, for instance, that Jupiter was a man who lived at a specific point of history and Venus was his daughter. Newton’s purpose was to discredit the texts of mythology that refer to astronomical events.

In the works of Newton the doctrine of the eternal stability of the solar system is clearly presented as an assumption based not on scientific data but on faith in a providential order. But the flood of popularizations that made Newtonianism the basic doctrine of the eighteenth century claimed that Newton had provided scientific mathematical proof of the marvellous order that he accepted on faith. Carl C. Becker, who has examined this development in The Heavenly City of Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), concludes that the thinkers of the Enlightenment, while they believed themselves to be anti-Christian or even irreligious, were, in the name of Newton’s mechanics (though not his religion), returning to the tenets of medieval theology along with Newton. Not since the thirteenth century had there been such an alliance between faith and reason. It was again possible to lift up one’s eyes to the changeless movements of the sky—signs of divine perfection and eternal laws. As Becker remarks, Newtonianism was an immediate success with the educated public, because “the desire to correspond with the general harmony springs perennial in the human breast.”4

Every good textbook of history points out that Newton’s astronomy precipitated a religious revolution. Newton was perfectly aware that he had expounded the religious view that was called “natural religion agreeing with revealed.” The new religion was called theism and its Nicene Creed was the General Scholium of the Principia.

The six primary planets are revolved about the Sun in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. Ten moons are revolved about the Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of orbits of those planets; but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions, since the comets range over all parts of the heavens in very eccentric orbits; for by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, they are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and hence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful system of the Sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.

In the popularizations of Newton theism became deism, and the latter evolved into the mechanistic atheism of La Mettrie (1709-1751) and D’Holbach (1723-1789). All these views of religion had in common the belief that the perfect regularity of the universe, expressed by the analogy of the mechanical clock. “The ideal of a clockwork universe was the great contribution of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth-century age of reason.”5


  1. Grand Dictionnaire Universel, ed. by Pierre Larousse (Paris 1866-90), VIII. 818, s.v. ‘Nicolas Fréret.’
  2. Memoires, Academie des Inscriptions, XXIV (1756), 507-522.
  3. Recherches critiques, historiques et geographiques sur les fragments d’Heron d’Alexandrie (Paris, 1851), 133.
  4. (New Haven, 1932), 63.
  5. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (New York, 1960) 118.