Isaac Newton Newton, Isaac (Vol. 53) - Essay

Myra Stillman, Beulah Tannenbaum


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Isaac Newton 1642-1727

English physicist and mathematician. For additional information on the life and works of Isaac Newton, see Literature Criticism 1400 to 1800, Volume 35.

Inspired by the work of Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Nicolaus Copernicus, among others, Newton developed experimental methods and theories in the areas of physics, optics, and mathematics. He is credited with determining the binomial theory and developing differential and integral calculus; his Opticks (1704) is the result of his exhaustive experimentation in light and color, work that led to his devising the reflecting telescope. Arguably Newton's most influential publication, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (or Principia, 1687), explains the movement of the planets through the establishment of three laws of motion and a theory of universal gravitation. Newton's work was influenced by theological as well as scientific principles, and he extensively wrote on theological issues and alchemy. While Newton viewed the universe as guided by mechanical, rational laws, he understood the first cause of such universal machinations to be God. His interest in nonscientific inquiry was long downplayed by critics, but many modern scholars have sought to understand the place and significance of such studies within the larger context of Newton's life and work.

Biographical Information

Newton was born in 1642 at Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, shortly after his father's death. He was educated at local schools before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1661; he graduated in 1665. When the university subsequently closed for two years as a result of the plague, Newton returned home to Woolsthorpe and embarked upon a period of intense study and experimentation in the areas of astronomy, calculus, optics, and mechanics. In 1667 Newton returned to Cambridge to complete a master of arts degree. After Isaac Barrow, Lucasian chair in mathematics, championed Newton's privately circulated papers, Newton was appointed mathematics professor in 1669. In 1696 Newton was appointed master of the mint, and he left Cambridge for London. In his later years Newton spent his time writing on alchemy and theology. Although by this time he had ceased most of his scientific experimentation, he was regarded as the dean of English science and was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703. Newton was knighted in 1705 and died in 1727.

Major Works

Newton's first published paper, "Of Colours" (1672), was based on a series of lectures he gave during his first three years of teaching. The treatise, which eventually became Book One of Opticks, explained Newton's theories on light and color. Book Two of Opticks was issued along with "Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light" (1675), a controversial essay outlining a new system of nature. The final section of the Opticks contains a series of "Queries" concerning light and color as well as other topics. A completed edition of Opticks was published in English in 1704; it wouldbecome the most widely read of Newton's books during his lifetime. While Newton's Principia was published in 1687, it contained theories Newton had worked through twenty years earlier, during the period he had retreated to Woolsthorpe to avoid the plague. These theories concern the nature of motion and the orbit of the planets, as well as a revolutionary theory of universal gravitation. Astronomer Edmond Halley encouraged the development of Newton's theories and their corresponding calculations; Halley also served as the financial patron for the publication of Principia. The work was published in Latin, and Newton added a "General Scholium" to later editions in which he defended his methodologies. In terms of quantity of words, Newton's materials on theology and alchemy far surpass his writings on science; however, many of the notebooks on nonscientific matters contain passages Newton transcribed from other works he was studying. Of particular interest to Newton was the correct interpretation of Biblical prophecies, not to predict the future, but to identify divine activity in the world. His primary theological writings include the posthumously published Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations upon the Prophesies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733).

Critical Reception

The contemporary reception of Newton's work was mixed. While his first published paper on light was generally well-received, a few scientists responded with skepticism, questioning his departure from the standard scientific method of establishing a hypothesis or exploring alternative theories. The Principia was slow to find acceptance, and Continental scholars were generally cooler in their responses than their English and Scottish counterparts. While early critics focused narrowly on Newton's scientific works, modern commentators have also examined his nonscientific writings, in an attempt to provide a fuller picture of Newton and his beliefs. I. Bernard Cohen has shown that manuscripts and other materials that became available only after Newton's death have made a much fuller analysis of Newton possible. He has argued that such documents reveal the significance of Newton's interest in theology and alchemy; the influence of René Descartes' thought on Newton's development; and the progression of Newton's views on the nature and significance of aether. Critics such as Christopher Hill, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, and Margaret C. Jacob have examined how personal and social issues influenced the development of Newton's work. Hill has suggested that Newton's Puritan upbringing, as well as his having lived in a post-revolutionary society (Newton was born the year in which the English civil war broke out), were both significant factors in the shaping of his thought. Dobbs and Jacob have maintained that an understanding and appreciation of Newton's efforts to "construct a unified system of God and nature," helps to explain his interest in alchemy and theology.

This developing picture, derived from readings of both his scientific and nonscientific work, offers a more complete understanding of Newton and his view of the world. Nevertheless, it is his achievements in the areas of physics and mathematics that have most greatly influenced later thought, affecting virtually all areas of Western culture. While some of Newton's principles have been supplanted by the theory of relativity and other advances in twentieth-century science, scholars agree that Newton's coherent and comprehensive description of the workings of the universe formed the necessary starting point for these modern developments, indeed, made such developments possible.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] (essay) 1687

Opticks: or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. Also Two Treatises of the species and Magnitude of curvilinear Figures (essays) 1704

Arithmetica Universalis [Universal Arithmetic] (essay) 1707

The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (essay) 1728

Observations upon the Prophesies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (essay) 1733

The Correspondence of Isaac Newton. 7 vols. (letters) 1957-76

Isaac Newton's Papers and Letters on Natural Philosophy [Edited by 1. Bernard Cohen] (essays and letters) 1958

Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton (essays) 1962

The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton. 8 vols. (essays) 1984

The Optical Papers of Isaac Newton (essays) 1984

Christopher Hill (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Newton and His Society," in The Annus Mirabilis of Sir Isaac Newton, 1666-1966, edited by Robert Palter, The M.I.T. Press, 1970, pp. 26-47.

[In the following essay, Hill reviews the social and personal influences on Newton's life and work, suggesting that the most potent influences were Newton's Puritan upbringing and the post-revolutionary society in which he lived.]


One way for me to approach the subject of Newton and his society would be to quote Professor Alexandre Koyré: "The social structure of England in the 17th century cannot explain Newton."1 Then I could sit down. But of course we must gloss Koyré by...

(The entire section is 10704 words.)

I. Bernard Cohen (lecture date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Thrice-Revealed Newton," in Editing Texts in the History of Science and Medicine: Papers Given at the Seventeenth Annual Conference on Editorial Problems, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982, pp. 117-84.

[In the following, which was first delivered as a lecture in 1981, Cohen shows how Newton's interests and works have been revealed in three stages: in the material Newton himself chose to publish; in the manuscripts that were discovered and published after his death; and in the remaining manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks, and annotated texts that were sold at auction in 1936 by Newton's family. Furthermore, Cohen discusses the relevance of such findings, arguing that...

(The entire section is 23640 words.)

Milton Wilson (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Reading Locke and Newton as Literature," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 4, Summer 1988, pp. 472-82.

[In the following essay, Wilson argues that such literary topics as narration, point of view, diction, image patterns, and "creative myth making or imaginative range" may be found in the works of both Locke and Newton. Wilson explores Newton's use of first-person narration, the settings and props used in discussion of experiments, and the use of negative interrogative syntax.]

What does one expect from a title like 'Reading Locke and Newton as Literature'? Maybe some account of their prose style, or, more broadly, of their rhetoric, as it...

(The entire section is 6224 words.)

Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Isaac Newton (1642-1727)," in Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism, Humanities Press, 1995, pp. 3-31.

[In the following excerpt, Dobbs and Jacob survey Newton's life and works, highlighting Newton's primary beliefs, influences, and discoveries up to his writing of the Principia.]

Newton's Youth

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, the premature, posthumous, and only child of an illiterate yeoman farmer of Lincolnshire in England. Not really expected at first to live—he was later to remark that at his birth he was so small that he might have been put into a quart mug—he survived war, revolution, plague, and the...

(The entire section is 17107 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Wallis, Peter and Ruth Wallis. Newton and Newtoniana, 1672-1975. A Bibliography. Folkestone, England: Dawson, 1977, 362 p.

An exhaustive bibliography of works by and about Newton.


Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest. A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, 960 p.

A definitive biography using recent scholarship. Contains an extensive bibliographic essay.


Cohen, I. Bernard. "Newton in the Light of Recent Scholarship." Isis 51, Part 4, No. 166 (December 1960): 489-514.


(The entire section is 214 words.)