NEWTON AS ALCHEMIST

When we think of Isaac Newton, most of us probably return to high school physics. Laws of motion, gravity, incline experiments, and lists of equations come to mind. Newton was a great scientist and collective thought has enshrined him this way. But this is a very modern way to see him and casts aside and discards him as a spiritual being, for Newton was an alchemist. Sir Isaac wrote more on Biblical hermeneutics and occult studies than on math and science. He placed great emphasis on rediscovering the occult wisdom of the ancients and probably considered his scientific work to be of much less importance.

Although alchemy is generally viewed as a precursor to science (and it has that role), it was so much more. Alchemy incorporates Hermetic principles which include ideas from mythology, religion, and spirituality. Below HJ Sheppard outlines the dualistic nature of alchemy as both external (in the material world) and internal (spiritual) practices.

Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence

     and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity,

     then immortality and, finally redemption. Material perfection was sought

     through the action of a preparation (Philosopher’s Stone for metals;

      Elixir of Life for humans), while spiritual ennoblement resulted from some

      form of inner revelation or other enlightenment.

 We will probably never know the full extent of Newton’s alchemical work. Much was destroyed by fire. He also worked in a time when many alchemical experiments were banned and religious views differing from what was considered mainstream was heresy. Historians are still trying to piece things together.

An auction at Sotheby’s in 1936 created a worldwide sensation. Previously unpublished and unseen documents (Portsmouth Papers) surfaced and were presented for sale. About one-third of them were considered alchemical in nature. The papers show Newton’s keen interest in the philosopher’s stone. To this day, several projects are underway to catalog, transcribe, and make Newton’s papers available.

Other writings point to Newton’s interest in occult knowledge, sacred geometry, and prophesy. Throughout his life, Newton associated with members of various esoteric groups but his actual membership in any of them has never been confirmed. Certainly he shared many of the same interests these groups had. At the time of his death, Newton’s library contained 169 alchemical books and for its time, it would have been one of the best alchemical libraries in the world.

Recently I read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. This is a fictional story which revolves around Newton’s life at Cambridge. Stott is a professor who bases the book on actual records of Newton’s life. At its core are the mysteries of Sir Isaac’s rise to power and position, a series of murders near the university, and the influence of alchemy. A very interesting read.

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58 Comments

Filed under alchemy, Book Review, Spiritual/Mysticism

58 responses to “NEWTON AS ALCHEMIST

  1. Fantastic blog. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I think Newton was interested by the idea of unity of being, so he needed his spiritual side(the alchemy) to balance out the empirical side (the physics etc.) and he knew that the one was no good without the other.

  3. Thanks for outlining the multiple dimensions of alchemy It is a practice. It is a culture. By not aligning himself with a single philosophy, Newton was living an alchemical lifestyle, leaving an alchemical legacy??? Thank you for the literary suggestions as well! – B.

  4. Newton would have been very interesting to spend time with. Gold is the eternal treasure; but then, so is everything else.

  5. and he had a fig cookie named after him!

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    • Go for free (like WordPress). You can buy a domain name (your author name or book title) for very little. Start now so when the book is available you already have a platform. I started late and regret it.

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  8. Hi, This is Captain Nemo from Italy, visiting your Blog after you visited mine.
    Just to say you write very nice things; i do like your attitude towards life and Nature.
    Regarding Sir Isaac Newton: he was a keen alchemist and an incredible genious. Even if he was studying and practicing Alchemy at lenght, he was somehow ‘choosen’ to bring mankind towards actual, modern science, leaving the Prisca Sapientia he loved so much. Nowadays, we are the sons of the Illuminism, and that ‘s why we cannot reconnect with the true source of knowledge, which is truly Universal. We may do so only individually, unfortunately, and never as a large social body.
    What happened in the XVIIth century in Europe was a drama whose consequences are seldom brought into proper view. Sir Isaac published his wonderful Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica – the title itself bears a patent contradiction – and the whole world of western civilization turned drastically toward technology. Only in the second edition, in the explicit, Newton talks of what the alchemist call the Spiritus Universalis, or Anima Mundi, confessing that he had choosen not to speak about it, even if he was well aware – experimentally – of its existence.
    But the story its far too long…

    Congratulations for your Blog, Ellis…keep it on!

    Regards

    Captain NEMO

  9. Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing. I find historical fiction fascinating.

  10. Reblogged this on bookofshadowsandblessings and commented:
    I read this post a week or so ago. I have now read the book and I very much liked it. I thought I would share this review.

  11. Pingback: Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline | By Dee

  12. That aspect of Newton’s life is a major subplot of the historical fiction The Baroque Cycle by Niel Stephenson. He basically takes the factual outline of the history of the time of Isaac Newton and goes completely apeshit, tying in pirates, vagabond kings, early High Finance, and, naturally, several loves stories. It’s one of the best series I’ve ever read.

  13. Sounds like a great read. Right up the path of what I have been reading lately.

  14. Pingback: NEWTON AS ALCHEMIST « networks info space

  15. Pingback: An 18th. Century Recipe for Alchemical Fertilizer & A Modern Rendition | DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  16. It’s interesting to see what we end up knowing about a person of the past based on what peoples of influence focus on. After 285 years I can think blog posting was the worth of my time. Whereas, a group of people, with influence, could think it to be my math or science (for which both are non-existant, esp the math in reality!).

  17. mogwins

    Interesting – I shall have to track this one down.

    Newton certainly had a life far beyond physics/maths. In addition to his alchemical experiments (the high level of mercury in his remains suggest these may well have hastened his death), he was also Warden of The Royal Mint and responsible for drastically reducing the number of forged coins in circulation. Partly by introducing new techniques into the manufacture of coins, partly by having forgers hung, drawn and quartered!

  18. Intrigued. Adding Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as another book to my list of “want to read”.

    Thank you.

    T

  19. Sue Bursztynski here, visiting your blog after you visited mine: I do remember reading somewhere that Newton was far more into alchemy than physics. Just imagine if he’d thrown aside the physics to concentrate on the alchemy.:-) I have a vague memory of seeing a book he wrote about alchemy, why didn’t I buy it?

  20. Very good to see Newton the alchemist highlighted here – an aspect of his whole sciences which got thrown out with the bathwater! Perhaps this is the fate of most great discoverers – only a fragment gets digested and tends to be dogmatized. I’m glad they are still translating and assembling his work. Thanks for posting this.

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  22. Phil stone means turning lead into gold, some say he did it, although many today say it is impossible

  23. Reblogged this on kindism and commented:
    My husband, while not a physicist, is also an alchemist of sorts: he manages to take coffee beans and through some sort of magic make the worlds most amazing iced mocha. Like alchemy a good iced mocha liberates my morning from it’s temporal existence, achieving (albeit temporarily) some relief from the morning tedium.

  24. Loved this blog. Marvellous. Thanks for bringing such interesting insights. Would love to say more. But another time.

  25. Steven Atwood

    Ghost walks sounds pretty good.

  26. Technical question: Is there a “Like” button for your reviews that I’m just not seeing?

    • ellisnelson

      For the blog entries, you can hit “comments” and then choose like. If you’re talking about the review on the book page, you can only “like” the whole page. Hope that helps.

  27. Wow – great history lesson I learned a lot, and I am going to read Ghost Walk. Add another to my list!!! Thanks for posting this, and taking the time to learn more about a fascinating person. 🙂

  28. Very interesting to read this as I was standing outside Trinity College this week looking up at the rooms he is said to have inhabited when writing Principia. A beautiful atmospheric place where many ghosts must walk!

  29. Morrighan

    hi there, i have nominated you for the one lovely blog award! 🙂 http://wp.me/p2vEwW-Zt

  30. I did a lot of research on Alchemy for a YA series I am starting and Newton was a big mentor. Even just in books, his voice is loud. 🙂

  31. Miss Molly

    Have you read A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness? Deals with Alchemly & witchcraft….and lots of other fun stuff 🙂

  32. We had a lecture from History and Theory of Human Movement Sciences recently that touched this subject! Newton tried to understand movement coordination, looking at the notion of a soul and how muscles can be exited. He realized that it is not possible to transfer force from the brain to the muscles, because the brain and nerves are to fragile to contain this force. He then speaks of juices that are either sociable or unsociable, talking of aether that may be a mediator between the soul and the muscle juices, as both without a mediator are clearly unsociable. He was clearly inspired by his alchemic studies to deal with this problem. Unfortunately, alchemy was then banned, and indeed the alchemic work of Newton was forgotten until this auction.
    Thanks for sharing. Spirituality surrounds even these scientists, so it seems!

    • Which makes me think of current experiments in neurobiology where the time it takes to send a signal from the brain to your arm is far to long to explain how we move our bodies. Your arm actually responds faster than the nerves can signal. Scientists are looking to quantum physics to explain the process. Maybe Newton knew this centuries ago.

      • Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona was just talking about that in a discussion a couple weeks ago, that some stimuli arrives at the muscle response mechinism before it registers with the cogniscent/awareness system so that we actually jump away from some kinds of danger before we actually know what the danger is. He also refers to a study of Mexican jumping beans (I never knew there were newly hatched insects in there trying to break out! 🙂 which when observed in separate locations jumped at widely varying heights & intensity, but when brought into proximity with one another, gradually jumped in unison/unifority with each other. What the #@$% do we know? 🙂

      • ellisnelson

        I agree. We know VERY little. It sounds like you might also be fascinated by the work done by Heart Math. Our energy fields surrounding our hearts actually synch when we come in contact with each other. If you and I were in the same room in close proximity, your heart waves would register in my EKG. It’s all about interconnection and science is just beginning to entertain the notion.

      • Listening to a TEDx yesterday by that HugNation guy whose name I keep forgetting, and he’s a proponent of ditching the “them and us” mentality and getting real about the fact that there’s only us! He’s also ditched paranoia in favor of pronoia: the belief that Life, the Universe, and Everything is conspiring FOR you!

      • If you think of the name, let me know. I hope he’s right re: the universe but I’m having one of those weeks when I have a very hard time believing it.

      • John Halcyon Styn (?) You’ll know him by the pink hair, pink van, and a very cool (especialy for a Baptist) late grandpa!

  33. Love it. In a time when many people seem to be trying to cut spirituality out of their lives, you provide thoughtful, researched posts why everything we do has some element of spirituality in it.

  34. Many of the men I looked up to as a boy had strong spiritual sides that I never appreciated until I was older. In a secular world, one needs to explore their own spirituality to better recognize it in others.

  35. History gives us interesting perspectives. Excellent post!

  36. Matt Knox

    Really nice post. I enjoyed reading it.

  37. Fascinating post. I enjoyed this very much, being a chemist myself.

    Chemistry was making a serious transition from alchemy into science at the time. It was when many of the chemical principles, that we study today in freshman chemistry, were being developed. From time to time, we chemists still wonder if we can make lead become gold.

  38. I really enjoyed this blog, especially as it has two close links to Rich (the author of Jaspa’s Journey) – he also studied at Cambridge (although in his case it was for a PhD), and his parents live just five miles from Newton’s house in Colsterworth, England, and have even done volunteer work there.

  39. This is fascinating – I had no idea. I was looking for a new good read – I believe I have it now – Thanks much!

  40. Ghost Walk sounds fascinating! Thanks, Ellis, for bringing it to my attention.

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