"Not Fit to Be Printed": The Suppressed Alchemical Papers of the Great Scientist Sir Isaac Newton

William Blake's Painting of Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton's influence on the modern scientific worldview is profound, and despite a paradigm change in physics a century ago through the discoveries of the quantum world, many people still see the world through the prism (no pun intended) of 'Newtonian' physics. Indeed, that scientific philosophy has now become synonymous with a purely mechanical cosmos, stripped of superstition, magic, and even the impact of consciousness, via the loss of free will. It is a worldview, however, that may have horrified Newton himself.

When the great scientist died in 1727, he left behind him a substantial estate, including a library with nearly 1800 books and a large number of manuscripts. He did not, however, leave behind a will. After much debate and argument, it was decided that the manuscripts would be examined by Dr. Thomas Pellet, a member of the Royal Society, with the intention to publish and sell them. Once Pellet had looked over the papers though, the idea of releasing them publicly quickly receded - in the end, only one out of eighty-one items was published. The rest were tagged “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.

...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 economist John Maynard Keynes purchased Newton's works - many of which were encoded and needed deciphering - at auction in 1942, and on discovering the alchemical nature of much of it was moved to state that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians".

For those interested in learning more, see the Nova feature Newton's Dark Secrets embedded below:

(via Forbidden Histories and Dangerous Minds)

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Anthony McCarthy's picture
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20 March 2013
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The "last of the magicians"? Hardly. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc. are always creating "genes" to materialistically explain the "behaviors" they invent for our ancient, prehistoric ancestors to have performed. All without having evidence of the "behaviors" in our prehistoric ancestors, or the "genes" that are supposed to nail the materialistic identity of our behavior. Or, that should be our "behavior" since much of "behavior" is actually constructed, conveniently, to order for the same purposes. There are no more fecund magicians who regular make their words "flesh" than the materialists. And that's not to mention multi-verses and other such things created out of nothing but materialistic desiderata. I mean, not just entire universes but jillions of them!

And few, if any, of our modern magicians have produced scientific ideas as durable as Newton's.

terry the censor's picture
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> The "last of the magicians"? Hardly. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc.

Your comment has nothing to do with the post.

Doug Skinner's picture
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Newton's alchemy is no longer suppressed; here's a catalog, with links to many online texts: http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/pr...

pov's picture
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What is astounding is that, in the past few decades, there has been a push to reduce science to a narrow, pedestrian set of beliefs and approaches.

LastLoup's picture
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"pseudo" is a word that often "magically" appears before the word "science" when speaking today of alchemy. I scoff at the scientists who see alchemy as nothing more than something to deny ever happened. It's like they are insulting their ancestors. Alchemy, as we know it and how we are conditioned to know it, lead to the creation of many things we take for granted today, gun powder and fireworks for example.

Every time a science themed show comes on and a professor from some Ivy League university describes alchemy as a false science, I feel the urge to jump through the TV and kick their ass for being stupid...but of course that's irrational :P

...I forgot how I got here but everyone seems to be heading off in that direction. I hope someone brought food. I have a feeling this is going to be a long journey................

anonymist's picture
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The Secrets of Alchemy by Larry Principe seems to be a great read for anyone who is seriously interested in the subject. He's a chemistry professor who doesn't just study the history of the texts and the alchemists but also actually reproduces the alchemical processes in the lab: many of them really work. The other side of that coin is that for the actual alchemists their work was a lot less magical and occult than it later appeared to people staring at the dramatic names and weird illustrations and wondering what it was all about. From the Times Literary Supplement review (read the whole thing!):

To protect their hard-earned knowledge, alchemists wrote under pseudonyms and encrypted discoveries in mystical-sounding codenames (Decknamen). While this contributed to alchemy’s association with mysticism, Principe argues persuasively that its traditional essence lay in the expert combining of substances, and that no account of it can rightfully ignore its experimental and material foundations.

Principe’s most robust evidence derives from his own laboratory expertise and philological sleuthing. By deciphering the substances concealed under Decknamen and re-creating the reactions elaborated in seemingly obscure texts, he reveals alchemists to be proficient manipulators of chemical phenomena, capable of creating remarkable effects through distillation, fermentation, cupellation and more. Alchemy’s experimentalism, marriage of theory and practice, as well as attention to material causality explain the enthusiasm with which luminaries of early modern science such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle practised it.

[...]

But though adepts with pitch-perfect Hermetic names such as Basil Valentine intensely contemplated how their labours illuminated the sacred, Principe’s bewitching laboratory work demonstrates that their reflections derived from practical wisdom gained from sombre experimentation. Alchemy was rarely feared as heterodox; even its most virulent critics tarnished alchemists more as frauds than as heretics.

Alchemy’s significance has altered radically in the three centuries since this heyday, Principe argues, after professionalizing Enlightenment scholars rejected the suitability of Decknamen, pseudonyms and dreams of transmutation to a properly rigorous, public science. Denied knowledge of their physical references, Victorian occultists and Jungian psychologists mythologized the arcana of alchemical texts as autonomous allegories, as symbols for occult forces or a psychological manifestation of the collective unconscious. Meanwhile, historians of science dismissed its practitioners as gullible fools. Many recognized that the quest for the Stone involved work at the forge, but alchemists were still frequently portrayed as credulous dupes who begged God’s favour as they wishfully tossed arbitrary heaps of plants and metals into their fires.

For Principe, such flawed interpretations stem from projecting post-Enlightenment meanings of alchemy onto the earlier period and assuming that earlier alchemists’ spiritual declarations wholly governed their coded recipes. Scholars now equipped with revelatory chemical expertise, he insists, will recognize that these reflected a context in which all knowledge was described as a divine gift – a claim strengthened by his lucid deciphering of esoteric images and fascinating replications of experiments purporting to transmute silver into gold, revivify dead bodies, and grow trees of gold.

So Nova's "dark secrets" hoo-hah is misleading (as Nova itself gets around to admitting at 26m 34s); apparently even its description of his end-of-the-world calculation is somewhat misleading.

Here's a video of Principe discussing alchemy.

emlong's picture
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As someone who has worked quite a bit with "ormus" my own feeling about this is that alchemists of old often stumbled onto substances with very unique and provocative properties - as "medicines" psychotropic or otherwise if you will - without having clear ideas as to what was going on molecularly or atomically, but just the experiences they had imbibing or being near these strange things continued to pique their interest and their devotion. For instance, an alchemist often just wanted to know the many tested procedures for creating what we now call monatomic gold. There could be a practical interest in retracing the laboratory steps to achieving these substance even though the actual chemistry may have been but poorly understood. Results counted. Practicality counted.

My current professional involvement with orgonite admits that we have no very clear picture of why this stuff is so lovely to be around, but that doesn't stop me from continuing to make it in a lab situation that is little different from that of the alchemist. Purely as a practical matter we orgoniteers share our findings and procedures even if we don't understand them scientifically.

sam67243's picture
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This is highly technical stuff. The alchemical stuff is technical, the scientific stuff is technical, the religious stuff is technical. I was more interested in the papers and the characters that worked on them. 70-332 dumpsOne person was David Brewster, who wrote a biography of Newton during the Victorian Era. He fought long and hard to resuscitate Newton’s reputation. But he was also one of these Victorians that had to tell the truth. So when he published his biography [in 1855], it included much of the heresy and alchemy, despite the fact that Brewster was a good orthodox Protestant.

terry the censor's picture
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It is well-known that Newton was deeply involved in alchemical experiments.

Newton scholar Richard Westfall wrote about this in 1975 in his paper "Isaac Newton's Index Chemicus," Ambix 22(3): 174-185. Westfall also wrote extensively about alchemy in his 1980 Newton biography Never At Rest.

Also in 1975, historian Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs published The Foundation of Newton's Alchemy.

On a more popular level, in 1990, neurologist Harold Klawans speculated in his book Newton's Madness that the great man's mood disorders were caused by mercury poisoning -- mercury used by Newton is his alchemy experiments.

emlong's picture
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The chemical disaggregation of gold (and other platinum group metals) leads to a mono or diatomic form that is in a higher energy state than the larger molecules. The electron orbitals deform at these levels and that's where the fireworks begin. Imbibing these forms can bring on very unique mental states and have medicinal qualities. This scene alone motivated many alchemists of yore. The endless "divisions" they performed were often dedicated to disaggregation because they knew that this is what led to the medicine and the "stone" though they did not understand the quantum mechanisms.

The same procedures were performed on other elements such as mercury, and truly disaggregated mercury can be a "medicine," but because mercury is so toxic in its normal state and because the old alchemy was so hit or miss working with mercury was very hazardous and had some ugly consequences for many practitioners.