Art. I. – 1. Biographie Universelle, Ancienne et Moderne, &c. &c. tom. xxxi. NEWTON. Par J.B. Biot, &c. Paris, 1822, 8vo.

2. The Life of Sir Isaac Newton. By David Brewster, LL.D. F.R.S. London, 1831. 18mo. (Murray's Family Library. No. xxiv.)

3. Journal des Savans, 1832, Avril, Mai, Juin. Critique de la Vie de Newton par Brewster. Par J.B. Biot. 4to. Paris.

The lives which have been devoted most assiduously and successfully to the intellectual pursuits of science, are seldom those which are most fertile in incident, of which afford the best subject-matter for the biographer. Were it otherwise, that of Newton, whose high destiny it was to unravel the mechanism of the universe, and who contributed so largely to the advancement of natural knowledge, would be one of the most interesting and instructive that ever was written. Yet the biography of Newton is little else than a general history of the progress of the mathematical and physical sciences during the age in which he lives. Exclusive of his scientific discoveries, his life presents very few incidents of peculiar interest, or from which we may derive any lessons of practical wisdom. Thirty years of it, after the age of boyhood, he passed in the retirement of a college, closely engaged in profound studies, and having very little commerce with the world. For a short time he occupied a seat in Parliament, where he made no conspicuous figure; and though he afterwards held the office of Master of the Mint, yet he neither took an active part in public affairs, nor connected himself in any way with the political history of his country. The latter part of it — and it was prolonged to the full term of human existence — differed in no respect from that of thousands of ordinary men, in affluent circumstances, of a literary turn, and quietly going through a specified routine of official duty. Accordingly, it is not from anecdotes relating to his domestic life, but in the study of those immortal works which he has left behind him, that we can discover his superiority over other men, or learn the vast extent of the obligation which the world owes to his genius.

Nevertheless, curiosity will not rest satisfied without some mi <2> nute information respecting the habits and private life of a man whose name occupies so large a space in the annals of scientific discovery. The Marquis de l'Hospital used to inquire of the Englishmen who visited him, whether Newton ate, drank, and slept like other men. It happens, in the present case, that the materials for satisfying such curiosity are neither scanty, nor of doubtful authority. Newton made all his great conquests in science before he arrived at the meridian of life. Consequently, he became an object of general attention, and homage was paid to his genius from all quarters, while the friends and associates of his youth were still alive, and the particulars of his early years fresh in their memories. Many anecdotes connected with this period of his life, and received from his own mouth, were detailed by his friend Dr. Pemberton, in the preface to his excellent View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy; Mr. Conduit, the husband of his niece, who lived long in his family, and acted as his official deputy in his old age, collected such as appeared to him worth recording, and transmitted them to Fontenelle, who interwove them in his admirable Eloge. From these materials, which were increased by some additional details published by Mr. Turnor, in his Collections for the History of the Town and Soke of Grantham, most of the memoirs of Newton, which have appeared in the Encyclopædias, or been prefixed to various collections of his works, have been composed. The subject appeared to afford no room for novelty; but it has lately acquired a new interest in consequence of the appearance of the works announced at the head of this article, the authors of which both occupy a distinguished place among the successful promoters of those sciences over which the genius of Newton shed so refulgent a lustre.

M. Biot's memoir of Newton in the Biographie Universelle, forms one of the not least distinguished among the many admirable articles of the invaluable biographical repository. Like all the other productions of this excellent and engaging writer, it displays consummate ability; and as the subject could not fail to be popular in this country, it was translated into English, and published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge as one of their Tracts, in which shape it has, we believe, obtained a very wide circulation. M. Biot did not pretend to have derived information from many new sources; nevertheless he was the first to make public one very affecting incident in the life of Newton, which was received with surprise, and has given occasion to much subsequent discussion. This related to an illness with which Newton was at one period of his life afflicted, and which appears to have had the effect of producing a temporary aberration of intellect. Sir D. Brewster, on the other hand, in preparing his <3> more recent Life of Newton, had access to documents beyond the reach of foreigners. The records of the University of which Newton was so long a member, as well as collections of unpublished correspondence in the hands of private individuals, were at his service; yet such had been the industry of former gleaners, that with all these advantages, the work is far more remarkable for the manner in which the ingenious author has contrived to mix up his own idiosyncrasies with the narration, than for the number or the importance of the new facts he has brought to light.

In going over the same ground and discussing the same subjects, Sir D. Brewster has frequent found occasion to animadvert on the work of Biot. It is to be regretted that on such occasions he has not always confined himself to legitimate criticism, and that he should have descended, not unfrequently, to a species of personal attach which seldom fails to injure the cause it is intended to support. Some of the remarks of the French biographer have been represented by him as injurious to the memory of Newton, and even as having a tendency to throw discredit on the truths of revealed religion. To these charges M. Biot has recently given a formal, and, we think, a very satisfactory answer in the three numbers we have quoted of the Journal des Savans; but as this periodical is not extensively circulated in this country, while the charges and insinuations which it repels are in the hands of every one, we think it peculiarly incumbent on us, as foreign reviewers, to set the illustrious foreigner right in the eyes of our countrymen, and to contribute what is in our power to make his defence as widely known as the accusations brought against him.

At the commencement of his remarks on that part of Sir D. Brewster's work in which he gives an account of Newton's optical discoveries, M. Biot has pointed out a mistake into which Sir D. Brewster has fallen, in his relation of one of Newton's experiments, and which, considering the great attention he has bestowed on this branch of science, as well as the precise manner in which the experiment has been related, is not a little remarkable, and tends to give rather an unfavourable impression of his general accuracy. The subject referred to is the composition of the solar spectrum, in the examination of which Sir D. Brewster has imputed to Newton the gross oversight of having neglected the effect produced by the apparent diameter of the sun. A very few words will render the subject intelligible. Conceive a beam of white light admitted through a small hole into a darkened chamber, to be composed of any number of homogeneous rays, each having its peculiar colour and degree of refrangibility. Each of these rays, when separated by the prism, will form on the spectrum a circular image of the sun, the centre of which is fixed, <4> (being determined by the refrangibility of the light of that colour,) but of which the magnitude will depend on the angle at the hole subtended by the sun's apparent diameter. Now if the diameters of these coloured circles exceed the distance between the centres of the two adjacent ones, it is clear that the circles must overlap, and the two contiguous colours be partly blended together. But as the apparent diameter of the sun depends on the distance from which he is seen, it is easy to see that by diminishing that distance, the diameters of the coloured circles may be so much increased, that several of them would interfere with one another, and partly cover the same spaces. In this case some of the colours would be confounded, and disappear from the middle of the spectrum.

"Had two other observers," says Sir D. Brewster, "one situated in Mercury, and the other in Jupiter, studied the prismatic spectrum of the sun by the same instruments, and with the same sagacity as Newton, it is demonstrable that they would have obtained very different results. On account of the apparent magnitude of the sun in Mercury, the observer there would obtain a spectrum entirely without green, having red, orange, and yellow at one end, the white in the middle, and terminated at the other end with blue and violet. The observer in Jupiter would, on the contrary, have obtained a spectrum in which the colours were much more condensed." — p. 63.


"Had Newton examined his spectrum under the very same circumstances in winter and in summer, he would have found the analysis of the beam more complete in summer, on account of the diminution of the sun's diameter; and, therefore, we are entitled to say that neither the number nor the extent of the coloured spaces, as given by Newton, are those which belong to homogeneous and uncompounded light." p. 63, 64.

All this is very true, and exceedingly ingenious; but Newton fell into no such error as that which is here imputed to him. In order to avoid the overlapping of the colours, and to obtain a perfect spectrum, it is simply necessary to concentrate the cone of light by means of a convex lens, and to place the prism behind it. By this means, the diameters of the coloured circles may be diminished at pleasure; and the experiment is better performed in this way than it could be in Jupiter or Saturn; because, while the same effect is produced as if the sun's diameter were diminished, the intensity of the illumination is greater, by reason of the less distance of the sun. Now this is precisely what Newton did; and not satisfied with taking every possible precaution to obtain an perfect decomposition of the solar spectrum, he had recourse to that of the planet Venus, because, as he remarks in a <5> letter to Oldenburg, the rays of light coming from it are less inclined to one another than those which come from the opposite borders of the sun's disk. So far, then, as concerns the refrangibility of light, the experiments of Newton were complete, and if there is any thing in the whole train of his investigation that can be regarded as a failure, it is, that he did not notice the differences that exist in the dispersive powers of prisms formed of different substances.

M. Biot also justly observes, it reference to this subject, that Newton no where supposes the simple colours to be limited to seven, or to any other definite number, as is commonly, but erroneously, imputed to him, even by Sir D. Brewster, as in the above extract. On the contrary, when he has occasion to explain the constitution of the spectrum, he expressly recognizes an infinity of simple rays, gradually differing in colour and refrangibility. But having frequently occasion to specify the different parts of the spectrum, he establishes, merely for the sake of rendering the description more clear, seven divisions, as containing so many colours sensibly differing from each other.

Notwithstanding these slips, the account which Sir D. Brewster has given of Newton's experiments and discoveries on the subject of light is really deserving of high commendation. He has also added to its interest by including a rapid, but extremely perspicuous sketch of the history of that branch of physics before it fell into the hands of Newton, as well as of its progress since, and of the general theoretical bearing of the immense multitude of new facts that have more recently been disclosed, and with the discovery of which his own name is so intimately and honourably associated. The subject, indeed, could only be well handled by a master. In no part of Newton's researches, not even in his most successful attempts to establish he {sic} laws of the solar system, and trace the complicated phenomena of gravitation, does his genius shine forth with more brilliant lustre, or are the peculiar qualities of his mind, cautiousness, accuracy, boldness and originality, perceived to greater advantage. Though experimental philosophy was yet only in its infancy, the Optics furnishes one of the finest and most instructive examples of inductive research, which the history of physical science presents to our consideration.

By those who have satisfied themselves with only a general view of the history of science, Newton is chiefly regarded as the discoverer of the law of gravity, and the founder of physical astronomy. It is on his astronomical discoveries at least that his popular fame chiefly rests; yet Sir D. Brewster has discussed his researches in this department with far greater brevity than the <6> Optics, and not in the same masterly manner. The principal results which Newton obtained are indeed enumerated; but we are not sufficiently informed either of the difficulties he had to encounter, of the manner in which he contrived to overcome or elude them, or of the influence which his labours had on the subsequent discoveries connected with the constitution of the world.

When we reflect on the very imperfect state of the infinitesimal calculus, at the time of the publication of the Principia, the number of splendid consequences at which Newton arrived in that immortal production cannot be contemplated without astonishment. With a genius that seemed to crush interposing obstacles, Newton reached his ends with very inadequate instruments of investigation. He attached the theory of the figures of the planets, demonstrated the ratio of the equatorial to the polar diameter of the earth; showed the cause of the tides, and assigned the relative action of the sun and moon in their production; determined the masses of the sun and such of the planets as are accompanied with satellites; sketched out the lunar theory, and computed some of the principal inequalities in the motion of our satellite; explained the cause of the precession of the equinoxes; and gave a method of computing the eccentric orbits of the comets. "These great discoveries," says Laplace, "presented with much elegance, assure to the Principia a pre-eminence above all the productions of the human mind."[1] Nevertheless, and it is a very remarkable fact in the history of science, this work, which has since been so much admired by those who understand it, and so much lauded and spoken of by many who understood it not, and which was destined to accomplish so great a revolution in Natural Philosophy, for a long time attracted very little notice from the first mathematicians in Europe. Leibnitz himself misapprehended the principle of gravitation; Huygens never admitted its existence among the elementary particles of matter; John Bernoulli was too strongly prejudices against Newton, in consequence of the quarrel with Leibnitz, to judge of the work with impartiality; and it was not till the important questions connected with the mutual perturbation of the planets began to occupy the attention of Euler, Clairaut, and D'Alembert, that the theory of Newton acquired a firm footing on the continent. Newton survived his great work forty years, and at the time of his death, according to a remark of Voltaire, the Principia had not twenty readers out of England. This may be accounted for, partly by the very limited diffusion of mathematical knowledge at that time, and partly by the adoption of the synthetic method of de <7> monstration, which renders the perusal of the work a difficult and unnecessarily laborious task, even to those who have made considerable advances in mathematical learning. It may appear a paradoxical assertion, but we doubt not it is a true one, that the number of its readers, out of England, is not greater at the present time. A few mathematicians of the first order, men, for example, like Laplace and Biot, will continue to study it, especially in reference to its connexion with the history of science; but with the great mass of geometers, even in our own country, it is a work laid on the shelf; and for this very good reason, that methods, infinitely more simple and comprehensive, have been devised of demonstrating the same results. In the progress of analysis, the solution of whole classes of problems has been frequently comprehended in a single formula; and difficulties which, according to Newton's methods, could only be vanquished individually by a special and often laborious exercise of the understanding, now easily give way to general methods and systematic rules.

Having concluded this brief account of the Principia, Sir D. Brewster proceeds to enumerate the discoveries of Newton in pure mathematics. A large proportion of this division of his subject is taken up with the famous controversy with Leibnitz respecting the invention of the infinitesimal analysis — a controversy which was carried on with a bitterness of feeling on both sides, that at this distance of time can only excite pain. In the account which he had given of this unfortunate and protracted quarrel, Sir D. Brewster appears to have been animated by the spirit of a zealous partisan, and to have regarded it in the same light in which it was viewed by some of the most active and least discreet of Newton's friends, namely, as a systematic attempt on the part of the continental mathematicians to insult England in the person of her greatest philosopher. It is not without reason that Biot complains, that

"though it cannot be said that he (Sir D. Brewster) represents Leibnitz exactly as having taken the differential calculus from Newton, yet the series of inventions of these two great men, and their communication by letter, are related so artfully, the characters of their methods are represented as being so analogous, and the differences in their analytical processes as so trifling, and the irritation of the one as so keen, compared with the forbearance of the other, that all the wrongs, all the injustice, appear to have sprung from Leibnitz, if, indeed, his conduct does not deserve even greater reproach." — Journal des Savans, Mai, 1832, p. 266.

It is not necessary, in order to come to a right conclusion, to enter into many details respecting this long and angry controversy. The documents that are really essential in order to place the ques <8> tion on its right footing may be discussed within a small compass, and are in fact contained in four letters that passed between Newton and Leibnitz, through the medium of Oldenburg, the Secretary of the Royal Society, and which are published in the Commercium Epistolicum. All the subsequent proceedings that took place from the publication of Newton's Optics in 1704, when the quarrel began, till the death of Leibnitz in 1716, when it terminated, though the throw some light on the literary history of that age, may be flung aside without detriment to the question at issue.

The first is a letter from Newton, addressed to Oldenburg for the purpose of being transmitted to Leibnitz, and is dated June 23, 1676. This contains the binomial theorem, and some results found by Newton relative to series, but gives no hint whatever of any peculiar method by which these results have been obtained. Newton merely states that he was in possession of a method, by the aid of which, when the series were given, he could find the quadratures of the curves whence they were derived, as well as the volumes and centres of gravity of the solids engendered by their revolution. Leibnitz replied to this letter by another, which bears the date of the 27th of the following August; and after remarking that all the objects mentioned in Newton's letter could be effected by a method already published by Mercator, he adds, that he himself, in the investigation of similar problems, employed a different method, which consisted in the decomposition of the given curve into its elements, and in the subsequent transformation of these infinitely small elements into other equivalents. He then gives some examples of the application of his method, and adds, that with regard to those questions, in the solution of which it is necessary to pass from the tangent to the curve, he had already solved many of them by a direct analysis; and instances one, which though it had appeared of great difficulty to Descartes and Beaune, neither of whom was able to find the solution, yielded to his method on the first attempt.[2]

A less specific statement than the above might have sufficed to show Newton that Leibnitz already closely touched upon a method equivalent to that of fluxions, if, indeed, he was not actually in possession of it. Accordingly, as if anxious to establish the priority of his claim, he lost no time in addressing a second and very elaborate letter to Oldenburg, dated the 24th of October of the same year (1676), in which, after giving an account of the process by which he had been led to the discovery of the series referred to in his former letter, he states, that he was in possession <9> of two methods applicable to the problems involving the inverse method of tangents. But instead of frankly communicating these methods, he thought fit to conceal them in anagrams, or sentences of transposed characters, in order, doubtless, as Biot remarks, that he might have a proof of the priority of the invention in the hands of Leibnitz himself. It would appear that this letter, from some unexplained cause, did not come into the hands of Leibnitz till a considerable time after it was written, as his reply to it bears the date of the 21st of June in the following year 1677. In this second reply, Leibnitz adopted the precise course which might be expected would be taken by a man perfectly conscious of the independence of his discoveries. Laying aside all mystery and concealment whatever, he gave a frank, full, and explicit exposition of the differential calculus, with its algorithm, its rules, the method of forming differential equations, and the application to examples; employing, moreover, the identical notation which he had made use of in his first letter, or that of the previous year.

The question to be considered is, not whether Newton or Leibnitz was the first inventor, — because it is admitted that Newton was in possession of his method of fluxions so early as the year 1669; but — whether Leibnitz borrowed his calculus from Newton. To determine this question, it is obviously most essential to take into consideration the first letter of Leibnitz, that of the 27th of August, 1676, which clearly proves him to have been in possession of his differential calculus before the famous letter of Newton was written, in which the method of fluxions was not indeed communicated (being locked up in anagrams which no one ever pretended were deciphered), but, according to Sir D. Brewster, "so fully described, that Leibnitz could scarcely fail to discover that Newton possessed the secret of which geometers had been so long in quest." (p. 197.) Now it is a most extraordinary fact, that this very important letter has not been once mentioned, or its existence so much as alluded to by Sir D. Brewster. "Heaven defend us," exclaims Biot, "from supposing there was an intention of infidelity in this omission, but it was inevitably necessary that we should repair it, on account of the importance of the omitted document." — Journal des Savans, Mai, 1832, p. 267.

Even from the brief account which we have been able to give of the early communications between Newton and Leibnitz, it will be readily perceived that their intercourse was at first of the most friendly nature, though marked on Newton's side by some traces of suspicion. Had any dispute arisen at this time about their respective claims to the invention, it would, in all probability, have been settled amicably and satisfactorily. Unfortunately, it <10> sprung up thirty years later, when the different steps by which the inventors had been led to their discoveries were in a great measure forgotten, and when Newton and Leibnitz themselves could only appeal to the correspondence we have quoted for facts respecting which, at the time of the discovery, there could have been no dispute. Leibnitz, conscious of his own rights, appealed against the attacks that began to be levelled at his good faith to the Royal Society, which was presided over by Newton, and which contained many members who had taken up the matter as a national, or even a personal quarrel. The committee appointed to examine into the circumstances acted, we must admit, with the most scrupulous impartiality, so far as regarded the collection and publication of documentary evidence; but in their report, by insinuating that Leibnitz might have taken advantage of the previous discoveries of Newton, they seemed to leave it doubtful if he had not actually done so. By the decision of posterity, the originality and independence of Leibnitz's discoveries have been fully allowed. The subject might here, then, be allowed to drop, for although the biographer of Newton must needs give an account of those lamentable dissensions, he is not called upon to revive them, or to renew exploded calumnies, which, first uttered in a moment of irritation, were better consigned to oblivion. Sir D. Brewster has not, however, viewed the subject in this light; and in his one-eyed zeal to promote the glory of Newton, or rather to justify Newton's instigators in the controversy, he has not hesitated to cast aspersions on the character of Leibnitz, which his conduct, violent as it sometimes was, certainly did not warrant. The following is his account of the breaking out of the quarrel: —

"When Newton's Optics appeared, in 1704, accompanied by his Treatise on the Quadrature of Curves, and his Enumeration of Lines of the Third Order, the Editor of the Leipzig Acts (whom Newton supposed to be Leibnitz himself) took occasion to review the first of these tracts. After giving an imperfect analysis of its contents, he compared the method of fluxions with the differential calculus, and in a sentence of some ambiguity,[3] he states that Newton employed fluxions in place of the differences of Leibnitz, and made use of them in his Principia in the same manner as Honoratus Fabri, in his Synopsis of Geometry, had substituted progressive motion in place of the indivisibles of Cavaleri. As Fabri, therefore, was not the inventor of the method which is here referred to, but borrowed it from Cavaleri, and only changed the mode of its expression, there can be no doubt that the artful insinuation contained in the above passage was intended to convey the impression that <11> Newton had stole his method of fluxions from Leibnitz. The indirect character of this attack, in place of mitigating its severity, renders it doubly odious; and we are persuaded that no candid reader can peruse the passage without a strong conviction that it justifies, to the fullest extent, the indignant feelings which it excited among the English philosophers." — pp. 202, 203.

So far from participating in this conviction, we feel persuaded, on the contrary, that no reader but one blinded by party prejudice, would ever have dreamed of giving the words of the reviewer any such interpretation. We cannot, however, accuse Sir D. Brewster of being the discoverer of the "artful insinuation" contained in the comparison above quoted; he has only repeated the interpretation put on the passage in the Observations on the Commercium Epistolicum. But, unfortunately, he does not seem to think it necessary to listen to two sides of an argument, for he could not but know, though he has carefully kept it out of view, that Leibnitz, in a letter to the Abbé Conti, pointedly declares the interpretation given by the friends of Newton to be the malignant interpretation of one who sought occasion to make mischief, — an interpretation which the author of the review seemed particularly to have guarded against by the words "adhibet, semperque adhibuit;" and triumphantly appeals to the plain sense of the passage, to which no other meaning can justly be given than that Newton had employed fluxions, not only after having seen the differences of Leibnitz, but even before. Newton, indeed, did not acquiesce in this explanation, and made some remarks on the original passage tending to justify the interpretation of his friends. Sir D. Brewster follows the same line of argument, and it is amusing to see how confidently he assumes as incontestable facts that the review was written by Leibnitz, and that the interpretation which he has adopted is the correct one. "If it would have been criminal to charge Leibnitz with plagiarism, what must we think of those who dared to charge Newton with borrowing his fluxions from Leibnitz? This odious accusation was made by Leibnitz himself, and by Bernoulli, and we have seen that the former repeated it again and again, as if his own good name rested on the destruction of that of his rival." — p. 217.

The revival of charges originally brought forward in the heat of controversy, and supported by such feeble evidence, is in exceedingly bad taste. Transcendent as was the genius of Newton, and justly as England glories in him as the first of her sons, Leibnitz was in every respect a rival worthy of him. Few men have ranged over a more extensive domain. His vast genius, seconded by a memory of extraordinary tenacity, had rendered itself master of almost every department of human knowledge. In general lite <12> rature, history, poetry, jurisprudence, physics, metaphysics, theology, he was one of the most illustrious writers of his age; and with regard to the particular province in which the controversy we have been considering arose, he was at least the undisputed inventor of the algorithm and notation which have been universally adopted, and to which the infinitesimal analysis is principally indebted for its progress. Genius and talents, we admit, are no excuse for injustice, but after all, to what do the charges brought against him amount? There are two only which have assumed a tangible shape. One is, that "he was the first who dared to breathe the charge of plagiarism against Newton." This, we have seen, rests at best on a strained interpretation of a passage which it is not certain Leibnitz ever wrote. The other is, that he "calumniated that great man (Newton) in his correspondence with the Princess of Wales, by whom he was respected and believed." The calumny, it seems, consisted in his representing the philosophy of Newton as tending to materialism, and therefore dangerous to religion. In all accusations of this sort it is the motive that inflicts the sting; and it is not affirmed that Leibnitz's representations did not proceed from his serious conviction. Others, at that time, took the same view of Newton's argument; and theological tolerance was not one of the virtues of the age. But if such failings, deplorable we admit, must necessarily be dragged to light, at all events the balance ought to be held evenly between the two parties. Newton's own conduct in the affair does not appear to advantage. "He went so far," says Biot, "as to affirm that Leibnitz had deprived him of the differential calculus, and then, that this calculus was identical with Barrow's method of tangents." In the first and second editions of the Principia, he had inserted a Scholium, in which he generously but justly acknowledged the independent rights of Leibnitz to the differential calculus. Afterwards, irritated perhaps by the violence of Leibnitz and Bernoulli, he gave out that the paragraph was solely intended to assert his claim to priority; and in the third edition he had the weakness to suppress it altogether. Nay, more: after the death of his rival, when all feelings of animosity might be supposed to have ceased, he published two new letters of Leibnitz, accompanied with a bitter refutation, which he had indeed written before that event, but shown only to his friends. These proceedings, surely, do not form part of the conduct which Sir D. Brewster describes as having been "at all times dignified and just." Unfortunately, the world does not now require to be told that the possession of the greatest genius and the loftiest intellect does not necessarily imply the absence of those petty passions which agitate and prey on the weakest minds.


In entering on the subject of that illness which terminated Newton's scientific career, we feel that we are approaching a question which, by reason of the extraordinary manner in which it has been treated, has become one of the great delicacy. We shall state the principal facts as briefly as possible.

M. Biot, in his article in the Biographie Universelle, published the following note, which had been discovered among the manuscripts of the celebrated Huygens, deposited in the library at Leyden.

"On the 29th of May, 1694, M. Colin, a Scotsman, informed me that, eighteen months ago, the illustrious geometer, Isaac Newton, had become insane, either in consequence of his too intense application to his studies, or from excessive grief at having lost by fire his chemical laboratory and several manuscripts. When he came to the Archbishop of Cambridge,[4] he made some observations which indicated an alienation of mind. He was immediately taken care of by his friends, who confined him to his house and applied remedies, by means of which he had now so far recovered his health that he began to understand the Principia."

Although the accident of the fire, mentioned in this relation, had often been noticed, yet no such effect as is here stated was ever hinted at, or suspected by any of Newton's former biographers. Biot seems accordingly to have been greatly struck with the relation, and in his remarks connected it with the extraordinary and hitherto unaccounted-for fact, that Newton, who displayed such transcendant powers in early youth, accomplished nothing for science during the long evening of his life, and from the time of the publication of the Principia, continued during forty years a mere spectator of the development of those great truths which his genius had revealed to mankind. He supposes, in short, that the mind of Newton never entirely recovered the shock it sustained at that period. This is perhaps laying an unwarrantable stress on the passage, even supposing it to contain an exact account of what actually occurred; and an explanation of Newton's discontinuance of mathematical studies may be found in the interruptions arising from the duties of the official situation which he held, and more especially in a constitutional languor, which, gathering force with advancing years, indisposed him to severe mental exertion, without its being necessary to suppose that his mind was exhausted by study, or destroyed by disease. However this may be, the relation given to Huygens was certainly worth enquiring into, and Sir D. Brewster accordingly professes to have taken great pains to investigate fully the nature and extent <14> of the alleged malady. But with a perverted ingenuity which invariably leads him to discover evil motives even in the simple statement of opinions differing from his own, he has surrounded the question with circumstances entirely foreign to it; and instead of a dispassionate and philosophic inquiry into the facts, he has treated the whole relation as a calumny on the memory of Newton, and an impious attempt to deprive the Christian religion of Newton's high testimony in its favour. Entertaining these feelings, his arguments are of course all on one side; but fortunately, he has had industry enough to collect, and candour enough to produce, a sufficient number of documents to enable the reader to form an opinion for himself.

The first document produced by Sir D. Brewster, and one on which he lays great stress, is an extract from a manuscript journal of Mr. Abraham de la Pryme, who was a student at Cambridge while Newton was a fellow of Trinity college. It is as follows:

"1692, February 3d. What I heard to-day I must relate. There is one Mr. Newton, (whom I have very oft seen,) Fellow of Trinity college, that is mighty famous for his learning, being a most excellent mathematician, philosopher, divine, &c. He has been Fellow of the Royal Society these many years; and amongst other very learned books and tracts he's written one upon the mathematical principles of philosophy, which has got him a mighty name, he having received, especially from Scotland, abundance of congratulatory letters for the same; but of all the books that he ever wrote, there was one of colours and light, established upon thousands of experiments which he had been twenty years of making, and which had cost him many hundred of pounds. This book, which he valued so much, and which was so much talked of, had the ill luck to perish, and be utterly lost, just when the learned author was almost at putting a conclusion at the same, after this manner: In a winter's morning, leaving it amongst his other papers on his study table whilst he went to chapel, the candle, which he had unfortunately left burning there too, catched hold by some means of other papers, and they fired the aforesaid book, and utterly consumed it and several other valuable writings; and, which is most wonderful, did no further mischief. But when Mr. Newton came from chapel, and had seen what was done, every one thought he would have run mad, he was so troubled thereat, that he was not himself for a month thereafter." — Brewster, pp. 228, 229.

This account agrees sufficiently with that of Huygens in its general features, but in order to ascertain if they both allude to the same fact, it is necessary to examine whether they agree in referring it to the same date. The entry in Pryme's Journal is Feb. 3d, 1692; and, consequently, from the expression he was not himself for a month after, the occurrence of the accident by which Newton lost his papers, could not be later than the begin <15> ning of the year 1692, though it might have been some months earlier. But according to the relation communicated by Huygens, it must have occurred about eighteen months previous to the 29th of May, 1694, that is to say, about the month of November, or towards the end of the year 1692. There is consequently an apparent discrepancy in the two dates, on which Sir D. Brewster founds an argument to prove that the account given to Huygens must have been entirely groundless. But in bringing forward this argument, Sir D. Brewster had, with singular inadvertence, overlooked the difference of the calendar employed at that time in England and on the continent. Previous to the reformation of the calendar in 1752, the legal year in England commenced at Lady-day, or the 25th of March, and it was the usual practice to date the year from that epoch; accordingly, an event happening between the 1st of January and the 25th of March was dated a whole year earlier in England than on the continent, the intervening period being counted as belonging to the past year. It was not unusual, indeed, particularly in foreign correspondence or in important documents, to mark the year both ways; but it would be singular if Mr. Pryme, in a private diary, and using only the single date, had not followed the usual and prevalent mode. Here the single date 1692 in Pryme's journal, ought, undoubtedly, to be read 1692-3; that is to say, 1692 according to the custom which then prevailed in England, but 1693 according to the calendar now in use, and which was at that time used on the continent; and as the accident which he relates must have happened before the beginning of that year, his account, in respect of date at least, agrees perfectly with that of Huygens.

Had there existed no other documents than the two which we have now quoted, tending to throw light on this melancholy passage in the life of Newton, the relation given to Huygens might have passed for an exaggerated statement of some trivial or temporary bodily disorder. On a careful examination, however, of the history of that period of Newton's life, circumstances have been discovered which go far to confirm that relation. It states that Newton was only beginning to understand the "Principia" eighteen months after the occurrence of the misfortune; the illness must therefore have continued at least eighteenth months; if then, it can be discovered how Newton was employed during this interval, we shall be better enabled to judge of the probability of the statement.

"Now," says Sir D. Brewster, "it is a most important circumstance, which M. Biot ought to have known, that in the very middle of this period, Newton wrote his four celebrated letters to Dr. Bentley on <16> the Existence of a Deity, — letters which evince a power of thought and a serenity of mind absolutely incompatible even with the slightest obscuration of his faculties. No man can peruse these letters without the conviction that their author then possessed the full vigour of his reason, and was capable of understanding the most profound part of his writings. The first of these letters was written on the 10th of December, 1692, the second on the 17th January, 1693, the third on the 25th February, and the fourth on the 11th of February, 1693. His mind was therefore, strong and vigorous on these four occasions; and as the letters were written at the express request of Dr. Bentley, who had been appointed to deliver the lecture, founded by Mr. Boyle, for vindicating the fundamental principles of natural and revealed religion, we must consider such a request as showing his opinion of the strength and freshness of his friend's mental powers." — Brewster, p. 230.

In the above extract, Sir D. Brewster, fixing the epoch according to the relation of Pryme, and deceived by the mistake into which he has fallen with regard to the calendar, assumes that the malady existed from the beginning instead of the end of the year 1692. This mistake considerably affects the argument. The first letter is dated the 10th of December, 1692, consequently it must have been composed before that date. But the destruction of the papers must be referred, as we have seen, according to Pryme's memorandum, to the same December, though we cannot fix on the day; and, according to the relation given to Huygens by Colin, (if the phrase "eighteen months ago" is to be interpreted literarily) to the 29th of the preceding November. It is obvious, however, that neither of the accounts was intended to give the exact date of the occurrence; we may, therefore, without any straining, suppose that it happened after the 10th of December, and on this very reasonable supposition the argument drawn from the first letter falls entirely to the ground. The second letter is originally dated Jan. 17th, 1692-3; the third, Feb. 25th, 1692-3, and the fourth, Feb. 11th, 1693 only. But as this last bears internal evidence of having been written after the date of the others, there can be no doubt that the single date, 1693, was used in the ordinary sense, and that the year designated is 1694, according to our present mode of reckoning. This explanation clears up the difficulty respecting the order of the dates of these celebrated letters; and the fourth, instead of having an earlier date than the third, appears to have been written a whole year later, or about fourteen months after the accident, when Newton's convalescence may be supposed to have been considerably advanced. Thus the second and third letters only fall properly within the period when, according to the relation of Colin, Newton was suffering the greatest of human misfortunes.

Now, with respect to the evidence which these letters furnish <17> of Newton's uninterrupted sanity, M. Biot justly remarks that the first letter is the principal one, or rather the only one of any importance; the three others merely containing corrections or explanations of the arguments employed in the first. But instead of being "absolutely incompatible with the slightest obscuration of his mental powers" we can really see no inconsistency in supposing Newton to be capable of even a higher effort, although suffering under the calamity with which he is described as having been afflicted. Into the merits of the theological argument they support, it is unnecessary to enter. Allowing them to possess all the excellence that has been ascribed to them by Sir David Brewster, they are still far from affording any satisfactory proof of undisturbed tranquillity of mind. The following reflections of M. Biot put this in a strong light.

"Newton might even then meditate on the Deity, and express himself with elevation on that sublime subject, and yet the greatness and force of his thoughts not be sufficient to invalidate the testimony of positive documents as to the temporary aberration of his reason. Such is the frightful condition of man. Genius and madness may exist in his mind side by side and simultaneously. Pascal, having once suffered a great physical terror, from that time imagined that he beheld a gulf yawning beside him. His mind, disturbed and terrified, presented him with ascetic visions, the incoherent details of which he fixed in writing. He concealed these pious scraps in his garments, carried them about with him, and preserved them till his dying day; and in this state of mind wrote his profound Thoughts on God, on the world, and on man, showing an infinitely judicious and acute observation and appreciation of human societies, and of the artificial conditions by which they are united. And, what completes our astonishment, the expression of the Thoughts is admirable for the force, the grandeur, and the concision of the style. Yet he himself attached not the slightest value to them. After having written down on some loose leaf, at the moment of inspiration, the idea present in his mind, he threw the paper aside as useless, so that it was only in consequence of the scrupulous respect which his memory inspired that those fragments which we possess were preserved. The letters of Newton to Bentley are not of this order of philosophy, &c." — Journal des Savans, Juin, 1832, p. 333.

Besides the letters to Bentley, Sir D. Brewster cites also a correspondence with Dr. Wallis as affording facts which "stand in direct contradiction to the statement recorded by Huygens." There are two letters to Dr. Wallis, the first dated the 27th August, and the second the 17th September; and likewise a paper containing some observations on halos, dated the 16th June, all in the year 1692. But all these dates are anterior to December, 1692, the epoch of the accident according to the accounts of Huygens and Pryme. This correspondence, therefore, does not touch <18> the question in any way; and it is unnecessary to add, that it has only been adduced through the mistake into which Sir D. Brewster has inadvertently fallen in respect of the calendar.

Such are the documents that have been brought forward to disprove the relation given to Huygens. We shall now briefly notice a few others having an opposite tendency, and which seem to leave no doubt whatever of Newton's temporary insanity. With regard to the exact amount of the affliction, or the permanent effect it produced on his mind, it would now be in vain to look for direct testimony. The following letter is addressed to Mr. Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty: —

"Sept. 13, 1693.

"Sir, — Some time after Mr. Millington had delivered your message, he pressed me to see you the next time I went to London. I was averse; but upon his pressing consented, before I considered what I did, for I am extremely troubled at the embroilment I am in, and have neither ate nor slept well this twelvemonth, nor have my former consistency of mind. I never designed to get any thing by your interest, nor by King James's favour, but am now sensible I must withdraw from your acquaintance, and see neither you nor the rest of my friends any more, if I may but leave them quietly. I beg your pardon for saying I would see you again, and rest your most humble and most obedient servant, IS. NEWTON." — Brewster, p. 232.

The astonishment which Mr. Pepys felt on receiving this singular and incoherent epistle may easily be conceived. Thinking Newton had gone mad, and not knowing well what reply to make, he wrote to the Mr. Millington named in the letter, then residing in Magdalen College, to inquire into Newton's health, "but the inquiry having been made in a vague manner, an answer equally vague was returned." Mr. Pepys, however, did not rest satisfied, and wrote a second letter to Mr. Millington in more explicit terms, which produced a reply from which we quote the following passage:" —

"I was, I must confess, very much surprised at the inquiry you were pleased to make by your nephew about the message that Mr. Newton made the ground of his letter to you, for I was very sure I never either received from you or delivered to him any such; and therefore I went immediately to wayt upon him, with a design to discourse him about the matter, but he was out of town, and since I have not seen him, till upon the 28th I met him at Huntingdon, where, upon his own accord, and before I had time to ask him any question, he told me that he had writt to you a very odd letter, at which he was much concerned; added, that it was in a distemper that much seized his head, and that kept him awake for above five nights together, which upon occasion he desired I would represent to you, and beg your pardon, he being very much ashamed he should be so rude to a person for whom he hath so great an honour. He <19> is now very well, and, though I fear he is under some small degree of melancholy, yet I think there is no reason to suspect it hath at all touched his understanding, and I hope never will." — Brewster, pp. 234, 235.

Although Sir D. Brewster says that Mr. Pepys was perfectly satisfied with this explanation, most of our readers, we think, will be inclined to draw from it a conclusion totally opposite to that which he wishes to establish. One fact is put beyond all doubt, namely, that about the middle of September, 1693, that is to say, about nine months after the date of the accident by which his papers were destroyed, Newton was suffering severe bodily indisposition; that it produced great depression of spirits and nervous irritability, and that he entertained fancies which could have no other origin than in a distempered imagination. He mentions, in his letter to Pepys, that he had not enjoyed his "former consistency of mind for a twelvemonth." This expression, taken literally in regard to time, would fix the commencement of the disease at an earlier date than that of the accident; but we are inclined to lay very little stress on the exact determination of the date. It is perfectly obvious that neither the "eighteen months ago" of Huygens, nor the expression "he was not himself for a month after" of Pryme, nor the "twelvemonth" of Newton, can be regarded as intended to fix precisely a particular period of time. Most probably the approaches of the disease were gradual, and the mental disturbance preceded by an uncertain period of physical derangement.

The only other documents we shall quote are the well known letters to Locke, the first of which was written only three days after his letter to Pepys.

"Sir, — Being of opinion that you endeavoured to embroil me with women, and by other means, I was so much affected with it, as that when one told me you were sickly and would not live, I answered 'twere better if you were dead. I desire you to forgive me this uncharitableness; for I am now satisfied that what you have done is just, and I beg you pardon for my having hard thoughts of you for it, and for representing that you struck at the root of morality, in a principle you laid down in your book of ideas, and designed to pursue in another book, and that I took you for a Hobbist. I beg your pardon also for saying or thinking that there was a design to sell me an office, or to embroil me. I am your most humble and unfortunate servant,              "IS. NEWTON."

"London, Sept. 16th, 1693." — Brewster, p. 238.

The reply of Locke (which we have not room to extract) is filled with expressions of the most affectionate regard for Newton, and characterised by the train of good feeling to which so melancholy an announcement might be supposed to give rise, in a mind far above conceiving any offence, and only anxious about <20> the situation of his friend. Newton's reply is conceived in the following terms: —

"Sir, — The last winter, by sleeping too often by my fire, I got an ill habit of sleeping; and a distemper, which has this summer been epidemical, put me farther out of order, so that when I wrote to you, I had not slept an hour a night for a fortnight together, and for five days together not a wink. I remember I wrote to you, but what I said of your book I remember not. If you please to send me a transcript of that passage, I will give you an account of it if I can. I am your most humble servant,                          "IS. NEWTON.

"Cambridge, Oct. 5th, 1693."

"Enough," exclaims M. Biot, "and doubtless more than enough, to establish this point of literary history. There is not one of these documents which does not agree in showing the unfortunate Newton, deprived of that sublime intelligence which had elevated him above other men, and suffering in his noblest part, the common afflictions of life. One would here wish to withdraw his regards, and to rest satisfied with meditating on so great an example of human weakness. But it is no longer permitted to us to retain our respectful reserve. A philosopher, whose opinion cannot be despised, has represented our silence as an offence against this noble genius, whom, however, our admiration has placed on a higher ground than his defence has done; and through a zeal, imprudent at least if not unjust, a countryman of Newton has stirred up afresh the recollection of his bodily afflictions, in order to draw from them a public title of religious accusation against ourselves, and especially against that illustrious individual, now in the grave, whom, nevertheless, he proclaims as the most worthy of Newton's successors." — Journal des Savans, Juin, 1832, p. 331.

The nature of the accusation of which M. Biot here complains so justly, may be inferred from the following paragraph:" —

"The celebrated Marquis de la Place viewed the illness of Newton in a light still more painful to his friends. He maintained that he never recovered his vigour of his intellect, and he was persuaded that Newton's theological inquiries did not commence till after that afflicting period of his life. He even commissioned Professor Gautier of Geneva to make inquiries on this subject during his visit to England, as if it concerned the interests of truth and justice to show that Newton became a Christian and a theological writer only, after the decay of his strength and the eclipse of his reason." — Brewster, p. 227.

It is curious to remark the strange inconsistency in the charge of anti-religious sentiments, and even of active hostility to religion, so wantonly preferred against Laplace in the above passage, and the high-toned indignation which Sir D. Brewster assumes when he represents Leibnitz as having insinuated a charge of plagiarism against Newton. The statement respecting the commission given to Gautier is simply answered by a denial of its truth; and as to the motive inferred, neither Laplace, nor any one acquainted with <21> the character of Newton, or the manners of the age, could for a moment entertain the absurdity of supposing that Newton had not been a sincere Christian all the days of his life. The reply of Biot is admirable: —

"If a mind of the order of Laplace's could, in fact, have entertained such sentiments without making them known in his writings, theology and religion would have been little indebted to Dr. Brewster for having rendered them public; and, supposing the ardour of his zeal had determined him to make them known for the purpose of refuting them, charity, if not justice, ought at least to have imposed on him the duty of scrupulously ascertaining their truth. To us who have known Laplace during more than thirty years in the most complete intimacy, the sort of anti-religious mission which he is represented as having given to Gautier appears doubly ridiculous, the one being as incapable of giving as the other of receiving it. Laplace, like ourselves, had been much struck with the note of Huygens. He might take a very philosophical interest in ascertaining the relations of date between the event spoken of in that note, and the succession of labours which occupied the life of Newton. Dr. Brewster might have tolerated a curiosity in which, apparently, he himself partakes; but with regard to the anti-religious mission, we hold in our hands a letter from Professor Gautier himself, in which he authorises us formally to disavow it." — Journal des Savans, Juin, 1832, p. 323.

Having conceived the idea that the report of Newton's insanity is injurious to the interests of religion, Sir D. Brewster resolutely undertakes to disprove it altogether. It is certainly a singular circumstance that such a fact should not have been noticed by any preceding biographer, yet the note of Huygens and the memorandum of Pryme are explicit testimonies, and the letters of Newton himself to Locke and Pepys speak a language that cannot be misunderstood. These last Sir D. Brewster passes over with a very slight notice, finding them somewhat difficult to reconcile with his theory of Newton's "uninterrupted vigour of mind;" but he dwells at great length on the letters to Bentley, and we have seen how slender a support they afford his argument, especially when their correct dates are given. He speculates also on the improbability of the event, from considerations deduced from Newton's general character and habits of life: —

"The unbroken equanimity of his mind, the purity of his moral character, his temperate and abstemious life, his ardent and unaffected piety, and the weakness of his imaginative powers, all indicated a mind which was not likely to be overset by any affliction to which it could be exposed." — Brewster, p. 224.

Now it appears to us, that the character of Newton, as resulting from the facts given by Sir D. Brewster himself, leads to a directly opposite conclusion. He was constitutionally of a sombre and retiring disposition. In his youth he did not mingle in the <22> sports of his school-fellows; and at Cambridge, when fatigued with the abstruse researches on which he was so intently occupied, his mind, instead of being allowed to repose, was given to the study of mystical theology, and the interpretation of the prophecies and the Apocalypse. Even in the ordinary affairs of life his actions seem to have been marked by timidity and suspicion, the usual concomitants of a hypochondriacal temperament. He would not make known the results of his optical experiments, lest they should involve him in controversy. "Not one of his mathematical writings was voluntarily communicated to the world by himself." His demonstration of the planetary orbits from the principle of gravity was wrung from him by the importunities of Halley. His indecision respecting the publication of his Historical Account of two notable Corruptions of the Scripture, and his hesitation when requested to give an opinion before a committee of the House of Commons respecting Whiston's scheme for finding the longitude, all betoken a morbid constitution of mind, eminently prepared to call into activity the seeds of a disease, to whose desolating ravages the most highly-gifted and the most susceptible are generally the readiest victims.

In the note of Huygens, as well as the memorandum of Pryme, the immediate cause of Newton's illness is ascribed to the accidental destruction of his manuscripts. It is not necessary, for the truth of these statements, that the destruction of his papers and the loss of his reason should stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect; but the accident of the fire seems to be a fact of which there can be no doubt. Pryme says expressly that the work thus destroyed was a treatise on Light and Colours, whence it may be inferred that it was the Optics. M. Biot conjectures, with an appearance of probability, that it must have been a treatise on natural philosophy, containing probably a part of the Optics. This conjecture is formed on internal evidence furnished by the Optics itself. In fact, the first book of this treatise, which contains merely the analysis of light, had been presented long before to the Royal Society, and was consequently in safety. The second, which treats of the colours of thick plates, is in all respects perfect; but the third, which treats of diffraction, is obviously inferior to the others, both in regard to the experimental character of the observations, and the precision of the measures. But in examining this production, our attention cannot fail to be fixed by the series of questions appended to it, — questions remarkable both by their standing so far in advance of the knowledge of that age, and of our total ignorance of the steps by which Newton was led to form such bold and just conjectures respecting the elementary constitution of matter. Taking these circumstances into <23> consideration, "ought we not," says Biot, "to conclude that the third book of the Optics was unfinished when the labours of the author were interrupted, and that the natural questions appended to it are merely the summary of some great work, long followed with activity and perseverance, but the details of which have been lost through some unknown cause?"

After the fatal epoch of 1693, Newton ceased to invent. The only contributions he gave to science during the long remainder of his life were — the scale of comparative temperatures, a plan for a reflecting instrument to observe with at sea, and the solution of two problems proposed by Bernoulli. His meditations from this period seem to have been nearly confined to subjects connected with theology and chronology; and even in these departments his principal writings had been composed previously. The celebrated Scholium on the existence of God appears to have been written between 1687 and 1693; and his Letters on the Trinity, and System of Chronology, were also productions of this same period. These facts are very remarkable, as contrasting the extreme activity of Newton's mind previous to 1693 with the almost total stagnation which followed.

Like other speculations of a similar kind, the theological writings of Newton will be judged rather by the standard of orthodoxy which the reader has previously laid down for himself, than by the rules of sound logic or criticism. The great name of Newton would have secured them a certain share of respect in this country, independently of any intrinsic merits they may possess; but by Catholic writers they have been handled severely, and it cannot be denied that they abound with sentiments which deserve no other name than that of illiberal prejudices. Sir D. Brewster regards them of course as of the highest order of excellence, and adopts the prejudices as matters which admit of no dispute. In his work on prophecy, Newton asserts that the eleventh horn of the fourth beast of Daniel represents the Pope, and in reference to the reasoning on which this questionable assertion is founded, M. Biot, like a good Catholic, asks, "how a mind of the character and force of Newton's, so habituated to the severity of mathematical considerations, so exercised in the observation of real phenomena, and so well aware of the conditions by which truth is to be discovered, could put together such a multitude of conjectures, without noticing the extreme improbability of his interpretations, from the infinite number of arbitrary postulates on which he has founded them?" To this very reasonable, and apparently inoffensive, question, Sir D. Brewster replies in the following characteristic manner: —

"The obvious tendency, though not the design of the conclusion at which he (M. Biot) arrives, is injurious to the memory of Newton, as <24> well as the interests of religion; and these considerations might have checked the temerity of speculation, even if it had been founded on better data. The Newtonian interpretation of the Prophecies, and especially that part which M. Biot characterizes as unhappily stamped with the spirit of prejudice, has been adopted by men of the soundest and most unprejudiced minds; and, in addition to the moral and philosophical evidence by which it is supported, it may yet be exhibited in all the fulness of demonstration." — Brewster, p. 272.

What Sir D. Brewster's notions of the fulness of demonstration are, it might be difficult to conjecture; in the present case, no demonstration, we fear, however full, will secure an universal assent to the truth of the proposition.

"We desire," says M. Biot, "that he will have the goodness to excuse us, if we absolutely refuse to agree with him in admitting the justness of the Newtonian interpretation of the Apocalypse. We ask this favour of his tolerance; for Dr. Brewster, a zealous Protestant, may indeed believe the eleventh horn of Daniel to be the Church of Rome, but such an admission is decidedly impossible for a Catholic. This," he continues, "is a sort of argument calculated to throw much light on literary questions; and the philosophers of the nineteenth century are doubtless under obligations to Dr. Brewster for having taught them to make use of it." — Journal des Savans, Juin, 1833, p. 339.

This unhappy spirit of prejudice and intolerance, so alien to philosophy, and so incompatible with the impartial investigation of historical truth, betrays itself in almost every page of the work of Sir D. Brewster, and, indeed, forms one of its most prominent features.

"Qui n'aime pas Cotin, n'aime pas son Roi,

Et n'a, selon Cotin, ni Dieu, ni Foi, ni Loi."

But if he is unsparing in his censure, it must be admitted that he is also warm in his praise. The University of Cambridge is one of the favourite themes of his adulation. With the view of paying a compliment to this celebrated seat of science, he represents Newton as carrying with him to Trinity College "a more slender portion of science than falls to the lot of ordinary scholars," though he informs us, almost in the same page, that Newton was head-boy of the public school of Grantham, and that his mind was strongly directed to mechanical pursuits from his earliest years; that he had completed a working model of a wind-mill "which excited universal admiration;" that he had constructed a water-clock; that he had traced sun-dials, &c. It is abundantly evidence that the youth who had accomplished all this, must necessarily have acquired habits of reflection and abstraction, of infinitely greater value, as preparatory to the study of abstract science, than the most elaborate education. Newton's genius was a gift of nature, and not a result of university institu <25> tions. In the same spirit of flattery to Cambridge, he enters into an argument to prove, in opposition to a statement of the late Professor Playfair, that the Newtonian philosophy was publicly taught in the English Universities at an earlier period than in Edinburgh or St. Andrew's. Yet Whiston, who, being himself a professor at Cambridge, and moreover the immediate successor of Newton, may be assumed to be a good authority in the matter, expressly says that David Gregory, who taught in Edinburgh some years prior to 1690, when he removed to Oxford, "had already caused several of his scholars to keep acts, as we call them, upon several branches of the Newtonian philosophy, while we at Cambridge (poor wretches) were ignominiously studying the hypotheses of the Cartesians." — Whiston's Memoirs of his own Life.

On another question, namely, the service rendered to experimental philosophy by the writings of Lord Bacon, Sir D. Brewster has also taken occasion to animadvert on another position maintained by Professor Playfair. In opposition to the general opinion, as well as to that of the philosopher whom he has particularly in view, he broadly asserts that science was never benefited in any way whatever by the Baconian philosophy. On this head we are disposed to agree with him. It has been truly said that, with all his pretensions to instruct mankind, Lord Bacon never performed an original experiment, or discovered a new truth. He recommended, indeed, with great eloquence, to abandon hypotheses, and to "interrogate nature;" but the real difficulty lies in discovering how nature can be best interrogated, and towards the solution of this difficulty the general maxims of Lord Bacon can plainly render no assistance. Not content, however, with supporting his argument by general reasoning, Sir D. Brewster has recourse to authority, and in endeavouring to shew that succeeding philosophers derived no advantage from Lord Bacon's precepts, he had ventured upon an assertion that "the amiable and indefatigable Boyle treated him with disrespectful silence;" — the untenableness of which, we observe, has been triumphantly exposed by a contemporary critic.[5]

But the subject on which the mind of Sir D. Brewster appears to be most strangely warped, is the want of encouragement held out by the government of this country to scientific pursuits. On this subject he expresses himself sometimes with a pathos and feeling, sometimes in a tone of bitterness and exaggeration, that might lead us to fear he has some personal cause of complaint. There can be no doubt that the rewards which our Universities <26> have the means of conferring on scientific eminence are too few in number, and too exclusive in their character, to give such an impulse as would be desirable to the study of abstract science, and that the country possesses no other institutions from which rewards, of a pecuniary kind at least, can be supplied. These circumstances afford just subject of regret: but when he talks of the "persecuted science of England," he can no longer carry our sympathies with him. In this matter, as in many others, it is more easy to complain than to find a practical remedy. To make every man of distinguished eminence in science a pensioner on the public bounty, would, perhaps, as a general measure, be as impolitic as in the present state of things it is impracticable; and if it is proposed to raise such men to high offices in the state, no example could be worse chosen than that of Newton to support the proposition. While Newton languished "in comparative poverty" at Cambridge, he achieved all those great discoveries by which his name has been rendered immortal. After he was "called to the discharge of high official functions," he produced no original work on abstract science. Nay, so much was his attention occupied (according to Sir D. Brewster) with his professional avocations, that he could not find leisure for preparing a second edition of the Principia. Truly, science has reason to congratulate itself that Newton was not called to these "high functions" at an earlier period of life; for in that case, the Principia, in all probability, would never have appeared. So also, to a similar instance of neglect or persecution of science, we are probably indebted for the entertainment and instruction we have derived from the work which has given occasion to our present remarks.

Sir D. Brewster is convinced "that such disregard of the highest genius, dignified with the highest virtue, could have taken place only in England;" but we fear that the literary history of all countries and of all ages proves but too plainly that philosophy has never yet been the high road to riches. Pauper Aristoteles cogitur ire pedes. The example of Keppler at least might have been in his recollection, and have satisfied him, that other countries as well as England have to answer for the neglect of those men whose lofty talents and high achievements have done honour to their age and humanity. But it is needless to quote examples which will occur in abundance to the memory of every one. With regard to Newton, the complaint of poverty is ridiculous. Of all his distinguished contemporaries, not one probably, excepting, perhaps, his great rival, Leibnitz, who held an office in the court of the Elector of Hanover, was more favourably situated in respect to pecuniary resources than himself, <27> even before his promotion to the Mint, and while yet only a fellow of a college and a professor in the University of Cambridge.

As a corollary to this complaint of the neglect of science, the Earl of Halifax, who successively promoted Newton to the offices of Warden and Master of the Mint, is held up as an example to all future and particularly to all present statesmen. "The sages of every nation and of every age will pronounce with affection the name of Charles Montague [sic.], and the persecuted science of England will continue to deplore that he was the first and the last English minister who honoured genius by his friendship, and rewarded it by his patronage." Though the genius of Newton could not be greatly honoured by the friendship of Charles Montague, it is lamentable to think that the evil tongue of slander should have attempted to rob the statesmen of England of the credit arising from even this solitary instance of regard for the interests of science, by representing Newton as more indebted to the earl's affections for his beautiful niece than to his own discoveries for the patronage of that nobleman.

There is this, however, to be said, in apology for such complaints, that, in consequence of the very advanced state to which some departments of physical science (astronomy for example) have already arrived, any farther researches, if expected to lead to new discoveries, must be conducted at an expense and with apparatus beyond the reach of any moderate private fortune. In such cases, science must either be prosecuted at the expense of the public, or by means of private associations, or else remain stationary. But, in general, time is the only sacrifice required, and the consideration which in this country invariably follows scientific eminence will always bring forward a sufficient number of devoted labourers. The examples of Wollaston and Davy also prove that philosophy may, and sometimes does, conduct to wealth as well as reputation; and when we reflect on the numbers, the activity, and the talents of those who at the present moment uphold our scientific glory, we cannot but be persuaded that England, notwithstanding her defective institutions and her neglect of her government, has no more reason to distrust her future eminence, than she has reason to blush for the position she has occupied for centuries among the most scientific nations of the world.


Exposition du Systeme du Monde, p. 419.


Commercium Epistolicum, 2d ed. p. 141.


Pro differentiis igitur Leibnitianis D. Newtonus adhibet, semperque adhibuit, fluxiones; . . . iisque tam in suis Principiis Naturæ Mathematicis, tum in aliis postea editis, eleganter est usus; quemadmodum et Honoratus Fabrius in sua Synopsi Geometrica motuum que progressus Cavallerianæ methodo substituit.


The words of the original are "cum ad Archiepiscopum Cantabrigiensem venisset." As Newton frequently resided in London at that time, it is not improbable that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the person meant.


Edinburgh Review, No. CXI.

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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

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