There is something very grand and noble that presents it self to our Imaginations, when we reflect upon the Deaths of those eminent Persons who have been the Glory and Ornament of their Times. Such Considerations as these strike and affect us so forcibly, and give such an awful and solemn Turn to our Thoughts, as is almost impossible for Words or Language to express. The inferior Part of Mankind go out of the World as silent and unheeded, as if they had never been born, We look upon them with but a slight and transient View, and consider them only as the ordinary Tributes of Nature; as appearing upon this great Theatre for little other Purposes, than just to keep up the Scale of Beings, to continue the Chain and Order of the Universe, and then to retire, and give up their Places to a new Succession. But when Men of exalted Reason and refined Understanding are taken from us, the Mind is naturally surprized and awakened, we immediately fall into serious Contemplations, and cannot help indulging the pleasing Melancholly. We can hardly forbear repining at the fatal Necessity, and could almost be contented even to shorten the Date of our own Existence here, so we might secure and continue to the World the Enjoyment of so great a Blessing. For we form a Notion of such People as common Benefactors to human Society, as sent amongst us by the more immediate Commission of the Deity, to enlighten the Understandings, correct the Errors, inform the Ignorance, and to be the publick Instructers of Mankind. While we dwell with Wonder and Admiration upon their illustrious Characters, we feel an unusual Ardour glowing within us, and conceive a Sort of Veneration for their sacred Memories. We take Fire, and are almost carried beyond our selves, upon a closer Review of those uncommon Excellencies, by which they have so happily distinguished themselves above the rest of the Creation. We are inspired with a generous, tho' distant, Emulation of those transcendent Virtues, which, even on this Side the Grave, exalted the Possessors of them to a Degree beyond Mortality. When such great Examples as these are set before us, the Passions are necessarily quickened and excited, and the Soul with a becoming Pride dilates and extends it self, pleased as it were to behold the Dignity of human Nature. For 'tis then we begin to be enamour'd with the Charms of Virtue, when it comes recommended to us, not by the specious Rant of Philosophy, or the Pedantry of Stoicism, but by the more powerful Influence of Example: Then we begin to perceive the Beauty and Loveliness of Wisdom, when we are taught by such noble Instances, that it is not only attainable, but that it shines forth in some Degree of Perfection even in this Life.

I have been led into these common Reflections by the Death of the late Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest of Philosophers, and the Glory of the British Nation. Who by the Strength and Compass of his Genius, the vast Extent of his Capacities, and the Depth of his Judgement, together with the indefatigable Diligence and Application, has given greater Light to Philosophy, than all the Industry of former Ages. Who, by his subtil Speculations, and uncommon Penetration into the Principles of Things, has discovered to the World, and established upon the undeniable evidence of Demonstration, what was once look'd upon as dark and inexplicable, and beyond the Limits of human Knowledge. Who by the most accurate Reasonings and Deductions has traced out the abstrusest Causes, solved the most difficult Phænomena, and laid down such incomparable Rules and Propositions as may hereafter be the Foundation of new Improvements and Discoveries. Whose inestimable Writings are as far beyond the Reach of common Apprehensions, as they are useful and excellent; and seem to be delivered to the World like the sacred Oracles of old, which excluded the Profane and Vulgar, and admitted those only who had been solemnly initiated into the Mysteries of the Deity.

How attentively did he survey, the Operations of the supreme Wisdom, by what prescribed and stated Laws the whole Universe is governed ; what a strict Concatenation and Subserviency run thro' all <2> its Parts; how the same laws exert themselves in all the Works of Nature, and are constantly observed with a wonderful Regularity? With what Art and Perspicuity did he explain the different Affections of Light, and the Origin of Colours? How ingeniously did he examine and compare the Quantities of Motion, the Powers of Gravity and Elasticity, the Actions and Properties of Fluids; and, from thence, by just and regular Conclusions, account for those Effects which were formerly ascribed to nothing but occult and unintelligible Causes, and the pompous Terms of Vanity and Ignorance? Behold him from this Earth extend his View yet farther into our System, and observe the Trajectories of Comets, Orbits, Distances, Magnitudes of the Planets, their mutual Actions and Reactions upon one another, with what Equability and Constancy they perform their Revolutions, according to the Impression of the first great Mover. See him from hence enlarge the spacious Prospect, and, as far as the human Mind can expand itself, travel over the remoter Regions of the Universe; and from the Construction, Disposition and Proportion of the Parts, and the beautiful Order, Harmony and Symmetry of the whole, drew Numberless Demonstrations of a divine intelligent Principle, an all-wise Creator. These were the Ends which this excellent Man proposed to himself in his Researches after Truth : and this indeed is, or ought to be, the Scope of all Philosophy, namely, to lead Mankind from the Creature to the Creator, and to illustrate the Power and Magnificence of that eternal Wisdom, which has made all Things in Number, Weight, and Measure.

And yet, after all that the greatest Genius in the World could comprehend, how many Things are there that still lie hid and undiscovered in the Bosom of Nature! The Sphere of human Wisdom is circumscribed within narrow Bounds, but the Compass of the Creation is infinite and unmeasurable? How many Degrees of created Things are there too minute to be perceived even by all the Assistances of Art? How many more too big and disproportioned to be submitted to the Examination of our Senses? We are not intimately acquainted even with the Objects that are within our Reach, they seem to mock our Enquiries, and flee from us as fast as we pursue: But when we would look into the Immensity of the Universe, the Mind starts back at the amazing Prospect, our Presumption is immediately checked and baffled, and our Imagination loses it self in the boundless Reflection. I shall conclude in the Words of Monsieur Paschall: Tho' our Sight, says he, is limited, let our Thoughts at least pass beyond; yet even then we may sooner exhaust the Power of conceiving, than Nature can want a new Store to furnish out our Conceptions.

© 2019 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

Privacy Statement

  • University of Oxford
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC