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Book Review - Isaac Newton The Last Sorcerer

Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer

by Michael White

Helix Books (Perseus Books Group), 1999. ISBN-10: 0738 0143X; ISBN-13: 978-09738201436 (paperback), $18.95. 402 pages.

Review by Joseph P. Szimhart

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), possibly more than any genius of his day, changed how we do and view science. He changed how we understand and manipulate nature to meet our needs. His discoveries helped us to get to the moon. Beyond establishing better ways to do science, Newton sought mightily to forge a path to God, as well. He was as serious an alchemist pursuing the occult as he was a scientist clarifying the calculus and laws of gravity. Alchemy in his day retained support in some royal courts, but church clerics frowned upon occultism as heretical. Much of the hard evidence for this quasi-religious side of Newton has been lost. Reports from colleagues indicate that he purposely burned the lot of his alchemy notes. Enough remains, however, for a few writers in the late twentieth century to entertain Newton as alchemist in biographies. One of the most recent of these works is Isaac Newton: The last sorcerer, by Michael White, who co-wrote science biographies about Stephen Hawking, Isaac Asimov, Einstein, and Darwin. He published this book on Newton a decade ago, in 1997. I decided to review it at this late date not so much to critique a good book, but primarily to tease out the lessons anyone might find regarding cult behavior with attendant irrational beliefs that even great scientists find compelling.

Michael White covers Newton’s life as any biographer might, and he briefs the reader on the context and content of the science that made Newton famous. We learn that early in Newton’s life his father passed away. His mother remarried when Isaac was three, and she abandoned him to his grandparents. This profound loss may have marked the genius with a lifetime distrust of relationships both personal and academic—he never married. His closest temporal bonds may have been with men. Newton was born probably prematurely and feeble on Christmas Day, a fact not lost on him. Throughout his life, Newton egotistically believed that he appeared on earth for some unique and divine purpose. By all accounts, he grew to be a socially sophisticated host. He decorated his homes with crimson furnishings and wall coverings. He guarded his reputation carefully and jealously, so much so that he sustained years-long feuds with scientists who dared criticize his fastidious proofs. Newton knew, and his students as well as his rivals understood, that few peers of Western learning could begin to appreciate his genius and insight.

Newton lived in a climate of science-resistant religious dogma and tension between Catholic and Protestant forces. Though scientific ideas had far more latitude than in Galileo’s day (Newton was born the year Galileo died), one nevertheless had to maintain certain beliefs to expect promotion at institutes of learning. And although it also helped to become a cleric or priest, Newton managed to bypass the latter requirement for his appointment as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He quietly despised the religious establishment, especially the Catholic Church. He viewed the doctrine of the trinity as ridiculous. Newton was a closet Arian with his belief that Jesus was a created being and not “co-eternal” with the Father God. He held that the worship of Jesus as God was idolatrous, but only close confidants shared this side of him. Newton sustained an intense search through scripture and ancient history to validate prophecies until the day he died, according to White.

One disciple, Nicholas Fatio de Duillier, took Newton’s religious views on prophecy too seriously perhaps, even joining a small cult that espoused similar beliefs. The Camisards, so-named because of their peasant garb or smocks, a k a French Prophets, were mainly exiled Huguenots who fled to England from French Catholic persecution around 1706. Fatio joined the group and soon became a leader in 1707. Fatio had been close to Newton and the “natural” philosophers in the Royal Society, an early version of a science club. Newton and Fatio were close collaborators in alchemy in the 1690s. Newton must have shied away from his erstwhile colleague once Fatio went public with his religious conviction. The Camisards demonstrated in the streets to proclaim the end times; they might fall down in convulsions as if possessed by biblical prophets. They spoke in tongues and claimed to raise the dead. The cult caused such a public stir that a popular playwright of the day, Thomas D’Urfey, produced a spoof called Modern Prophets, which packed one playhouse for several months of performances!

Eventually Queen Anne put a stop to the religious spectacle by putting the organizers of the French Prophets on trial. The court sentenced Fatio and another leader to stand two successive days in the pillory at Charing Cross, where they wore a note detailing their crimes. “Anyone who felt so inclined,” writes the author, “could pelt them with anything that came to hand.” The French Prophets dissolved after the trial, but Fatio maintained his radical faith until the day he died. He also continued to formulate ideas about the nature of light and gravity that we can only describe as anticipating quantum physics: “Fatio postulated that material objects are almost entirely transparent to the gravific corpuscles.” [1](Corpuscle was the current term used to describe the tiniest particles of matter and energy.) In any case, the French Prophet movement inspired later millenarian groups. Ann Lee absorbed their beliefs to start her own sect known as the Shakers.

Newton publicly disavowed any connection, to Camisard beliefs, but he was privately attracted. White quotes a book published in 1820 by Reverend Joseph Spence, who offered two reports connecting Newton with the Camisards. The first, from a letter by a Dr Lockier, declared:

It is not at all improbable that Sir Isaac Newton, though so great a man, might have had a hankering after the French Prophets. There was a time when he was possessed with the old fooleries of astrology; and another when he was so far gone in those of chemistry, as to be upon the hunt after the Philosopher’s Stone.[2]

Michael Ramsey, a friend to many of Newton’s young disciples wrote this account:

Sir Isaac Newton himself had a strong inclination to go and hear these prophets, and was restrained from it, with difficulty, by some of his friends, who feared he might become infected by them as Fatio had been.[3]

The Camisard episode in 1707 amounted to hardly a blip in Newton’s life, but his mystical pursuits as an alchemist cut a deep swathe. He kept an elaborate lab with equipment suited for alchemical experimentation. Alchemists at the time held a tenuous but powerful reputation among the elite of Europe and England while operating primarily as an underground clique. White points to some evidence that Newton maintained clandestine contact with some members of this clique. Both government and religion suppressed alchemy. The former wished to prevent social uprising and the nontaxable manifestation of gold from lead (no matter that the reality was nothing more than rank rumor). The latter would prevent the heresy that man might attain supernatural powers by his own devices, or worse, make a pact with the devil. The alchemist manipulated spirit and matter to manifest the philosophers’ stone and the elixir of eternal life, an allegorical substance or formula based on occult myths that nevertheless worried superstitious clerics. Newton apparently took the myths seriously.

Ironically, he came to alchemy through what passed as chemistry proper, considered the “lesser” path. At the time, society regarded chemists or apothecaries as little more than common tradesmen. There was little to distinguish quackery from good medicine—chemistry as science was quite primitive. As a young boy, Newton had access to an apothecary shop where he experimented with dyes and nostrums, or medicines. He was something of a hypochondriac throughout his life, devising any number of potions to treat disease. The apothecary experience directly influenced his later attraction to alchemy and its attendant philosophy. Through his dedication to empirical science, Newton the adult managed to avoid the pitfalls of a life dedicated to alchemy. Others were not so careful or wise, White tells us:

Most alchemists were either born poor and acquired money temporarily from gullible but wealthy noblemen or successful merchants, or else they were born wealthy and gradually frittered away their inheritance in ill-conceived alchemical experiments, led along the path to ruin by one sacred text or another.[4] 

I will not go into White’s interesting examples of alchemists gone broke from unproductive ideas or mad from mercury or lead poisoning, but through my work with hundreds of New Age cult victims over the years, I can vouch for his observation. History and evolution do not deter gullibility and obsession. However, there was more than mere folly in Newton’s occultism: “…his fascination with alchemy was a major influence in the development of his ideas about gravity.”[5] Ideas of attraction and repulsion are as basic to alchemy as is the famous occultist dictum “as above, so below,” also precious to astrologers. Newton noted these qualities with keen insight when he was formulating the law of gravity. Did the occult inspire his math? It would seem so, according to White. It would not be the first or last time that a scientist arrived at a solution through mystical experience. However, it is a serious mistake, in my view, to attribute the solution to a transcendent, nonhuman source—there is no evidence to support that notion. Gravity, unlike the alchemist’s immortality elixirs and magic stones, actually works and exists, whether or not Newton imagined it. Despite its foundationless mysticism, alchemy provided a fortunate matrix for Newton’s genius to percolate. We should thank the Fates that Newton did not succumb to heavy-metal toxins absorbed from his crucible. “The last sorcerer” could just as easily have become another mad hatter wandering the streets of Cambridge.

Was Newton the last sorcerer? He certainly was not the last great man of science to believe in metaphysical powers of the mind. One example was Nobel Prize winner in physics Bryan Josephson. In a letter that appeared in New Scientist (December 4, 1975: p.605), Josephson vehemently defended Transcendental Meditation and its claims that chanting mantras produces psychic powers and levitation.[6] Newton’s method that combined mathematical with empirical proof to establish a theory drove a resounding and perhaps permanent wedge between the empirical sciences and the nontestable speculations of the occultist. In effect, Newton undermined the very “religion” of alchemy he so desperately wanted to believe. Consequently, occultism has been struggling to reestablish its “scientific” prestige and technical validity through dozens of new religious movements including Christian Science, the Aetherius Society, Transcendental Meditation, and Scientology. Apparently, we still have sorcerers among us if you care to believe them.


[2] Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, 300

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 114.

[5] Ibid., 106.

[6] Michael A. Persinger, Norm and J. Carrey, and Lynn A Suess (1980), TM and Cult Mania (Norwell, MA: The Christopher Publishing House), 51.