Kees-Jan Schilt has a background in physics, astrophysics and history and philosophy of science (University of Utrecht), and is currently a doctoral researcher in early modern history of science at the University of Sussex. A member of the Newton Project, he specializes in early modern history, history of science and religion, and in the life and work of Isaac Newton.
When Isaac Newton died in 1727, he left a manor, a substantial sum of money, a library with nearly 1,800 books and a large number of manuscripts. Remarkably, what he did not leave was a will. Matters surrounding the manor, the money and the books were settled quickly among his heirs, with the library being sold for a few hundred pounds. That library held many interesting books, to which we’ll return later. Dealing with the manuscripts turned out to be a more complicated issue. After much quarrelling among his (half-)nephews and nieces about their possible value, it was decided that the papers would be examined by Dr. Thomas Pellet, a member of the Royal Society, with the intention to publish and sell them.
To cut a long story short, only one out of eighty-one items (the Chronology) on Pellet’s list was deemed suitable for publication, while four others were to be reconsidered. The rest received the tag “Not fit to be Printed”. Many of these manuscripts were of a theological nature. Theology as such was of course not an issue, but, on the contrary, an asset: After all, Newton was one of the true defenders of the faith against popish plots and Cartesian deism. But Mr. Pellet must have had a bad time when he realised that Newton’s theology was of a very heretical nature. Leafing through piles of apocalyptical interpretations and anti-Athenasian rants, Pellet understood that Newton’s anti-Trinitarianism and idiosyncratic interpretation of Church history should not be made public, lest the image of the great Newton be blemished.
And indeed, up until the 1970s history of science was mainly history of what science should be, not history of what science actually was. In Pellet’s days the term “science” (a label that came into common use only in the nineteenth century), had obviously not yet achieved its current status, but many of the historiographical elements of post-Enlightenment history of science were present. These were most notably exemplified in a form of deification or heroification of the main actors, and a progressive narrative of disenchantment. The latter involved an exclusive retrospective focus on science in its contemporary form and a exclusion of those branches of practise that had died out due to them not being, well, ‘scientific’.
Again, Pellet had no problems with Newton being religious; that phase of censorship had yet to come. He was mainly concerned with preserving the image of Newton as a faithful Anglican. The other category of papers, however, were of a different nature. At the time of his death, Newton’s library contained at least 138 books on alchemy, many of which showed signs of extensive use. This was not unheard of for ‘enlightened scientists’: some were avid book collectors, interested in all sorts of curiosities. The manuscripts, however, proved that Newton’s interest in alchemy went far beyond curiosity. There are thousands of folios with Newton copying from all sorts of alchemical manuscripts, and recent scholarship has shown that he must have been actively involved in the circulation of alchemical knowledge. Not only did he read and copy out entire tracts, Newton even gave detailed descriptions of alchemical experiments he performed himself. How could a hero of modern science be engaged in such occult and ‘unscientific’ practices?
The inverted commas I use indicate that the attitude towards these issues reflected in current historiography has changed. We no longer try to recreate Newton, or any other figure of science, ‘in our own image’, and historians of science are no longer merely interested in what eventually led to modern science, but want to understand the process of how we got there in the first place. To be able to do this we need an integrative perspective that seeks to do justice to as many aspects of scientific practice as possible, no matter how ‘unscientific’ they may look like through modern lenses. This may seem obvious for historians, but it’s far from that. Enlightenment attitudes are deeply rooted in our society and in people’s framework of reference. The image of Newton under the apple tree shaking off the scholastic chains and mechanizing our worldview is still pretty dominant (and the BBC knows it). Yes, people do like these new stories of “Newton the last sorcerer”, but mainly because it makes his paving the way for modern science all the more impressive. And yes, seventeenth-century people were very religious, but that’s gone now, isn’t it?
The challenge for twenty-first century historians of science is to start believing again. Not in a theological sense, but in a historiographical sense. To believe that once upon a time the world was enchanted, and its actors filled with a deep sense of awe for the divine and nature alike. A time when religion was unquestionable and atheism more than just frowned upon. A time when hidden knowledge was there to be discovered by those who tried really hard and persevered. And it’s this belief that we have to convey to our readership. To become storytellers once more, but no longer of Enlightenment children’s stories, myths and legends. We have to tell stories of real struggles, of the many far from obvious ways of how we arrived to where we are now. Because it’s these stories that are “Fit to be Printed”.
© Kees-Jan Schilt
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