Newton, Corruption, and the Tradition of Universal History

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Abstract

Since the publication of Frank Manuel’s Isaac Newton, Historian in 1963, most commentators have recognized that Newton’s unpublished manuscripts on the history of religions fall into three broad, if occasionally overlapping, categories: those devoted to the interpretation of biblical prophecy; those concerned with the histories of ancient empires and the corruption of a primitive monotheistic religion; and those that challenge trinitarian histories of the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries.’ Although several scholars have argued that these manuscripts reveal what Betty Jo Dobbs has called the “the ultimate unity” of Newton’s thought, few have been willing to claim that this unity manifests itself as a methodological imperative in his historiography.’ In this essay, I want to investigate—and contextualize—the dialectical tensions between the redemptive history of Newton’s writings on biblical prophecy and the postlapsarian history of those manuscripts, such as The Original of Religions and the Theologiae Gentilis Origines Philosophicae [The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology], concerned with humankind’s Fall from a pristine Noachian religion. If Newton’s manuscripts on Daniel and the Apocalypse draw on a rich tradition of prophetic interpretation, and confirm their author’s self-perception as one of “a remnant, a few scattered persons which God bath chosenchwr(133)to search after truth,” then his unfinished, obsessively rewritten, and often self-censored Origines represents the dark underside of such a faith—the anatomizing of human corruption and the psychological insecurity of a truth-seeker irrevocably implicated in the fallen world that he condemns. I have argued previously that Newton’s inquiries in a variety of disciplines—mathematics, biblical scholarship, optics, alchemy, and history–constitute heuristic, and always partial, efforts to understand the workings of a mysterious providence. Precisely because these attempts to celebrate the “absent” guarantee of a divine order must employ the fallen languages of postlapsarian existence, they become, in Newton’s mind, rearguard actions fought against the forces of metastasizing corruption, embodied in trinitarian theology by Athanasius, in a deterministic, or at least non-voluntarist, physics by Leibniz, and in politics by the entwined threats of tyranny and Catholicism. In what follows, I want to extend my argument to suggest that Newton’s fascination with the origins, corruption, and cyclical renovations of a pristine monotheism locates his sprawling, if fragmentary, historical project in the context of the dominant genre of seventeenth-century historiography—universal history.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNewton and Religion
Subtitle of host publicationContext, Nature, and Influence
EditorsJames E. Force, Richard H Popkin
Place of PublicationDordrecht
PublisherKluwer Academic Press
Pages121-143
DOIs
StatePublished - 1999

Keywords

  • seventeenth century
  • marginal return
  • dialectical tension
  • universal history
  • general crisis

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