Throughout his study, Newton was at pains to keep his endeavours secret. ‘…The Mercurial principle… has
been thought fit to be concealed by others that have known it, and therefore may possibly be an inlet to something more noble
that is not to be communicated without immense damage to the world if there be any verity in [the warning of the] Hermetic
writers. There are other things besides the transmutation of metals which none of them understand.’ Newton only communicated
his alchemical ideas to a few fellow devotees. He believed he was penetrating a secret tradition of knowledge, which had been
(and needed to be) protected from the scrutiny and naïveté of the vulgar by its symbolic language. Precisely because the tradition
was secret, it was sacred, noble and powerful. As Dobbs points out, in Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy: the reason Newton
never produced a work on alchemy probably means he had enough success to think that he might be on the track of something
of fundamental importance and so had a good reason for keeping his ‘high silence’.
Newton scoured many ancient alchemical authorities in his search for the ‘Truth’ of nature. His early concept
of the aether was similar to the Stoic philosopher’s pneuma. Both were material in nature, and both inspire the forms
of bodies and give to bodies the continuity and coherence of form that is associated with life. They believed – like
Newton – that the cosmos is living, ordered and rational and under the benevolent, providential and constant care of
the Deity. Spiritualised forms of the pneuma entered early Christian theology in discussions of the immanence and transcendence
of God and the Holy Spirit. The Stoic argument for the existence of God from design also entered Christianity. Newton had
clearly read some of the Stoic’s texts – or at least texts influenced by Stoic philosophy. The universal spirit
and its fermental nature were all originally Stoic ideas, passed down through Neo-Platonism.
Contemporary (or near cotemporary) authorities such as: Johannes Grasshoff, Michael Maier and Eiremaeus Philalethes were
all cited frequently in Newton’s work. Newton’s theory of light was especially influenced by Philalethes. Henry
More, the Cambridge Platonist, influenced Newton’s scientific methodology. It was a self-correcting approach; because
every science was subject to error, a more certain approach was to be obtained by utilizing each separate approach to correct
the other. This explains why Newton never neglected any area of his interest: no endeavour was better than any other. They
could all provide aspects of the whole Truth.
Cartesianism and corpuscularianism posed significant problems for Newton. The atoms in their theories were not guided by
God. Newton could not accept this; he believed it would only lead to the belief in a much weaker deity and eventually materialism
and atheism. The Cartesians tried to solve the problem by advocating Deism. Later, they instated a Christian providence among
the atoms. Only providence could account for the obviously designed forms of plants and animals. The difficulty for them was
the question of how providence could operate in a law-bound universe. Newton responded by saying that the mechanical action
of matter was not enough, it could account for some but not all processes of life, and certainly not the most important processes.
‘Blind metaphysical necessity’, as he called mechanical action, could not produce variety, because it is always
and everywhere the same. Variety required a divine spirit. This spirit is what he provided in his alchemical and theological
Newton’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone was closely related to his belief in the Arian Christ. Both were
God’s agents in the creation and governance of the world and they were both agents of perfection and redemption. Newton
believed that if he could demonstrate laws of divine activity in nature, he could then demonstrate the existence and, most
importantly, the providential care of God. Because Newton’s God was so transcendent, it required an ‘active principle’
to connect and interact with the natural world. This was Newton’s ‘vegetative spirit’ that would shape the
passive matter of the universe.
Newton also believed that creation had been an alchemical process: ‘that the spirit of God moved upon the waters
which was an undigested chaos, or was created before by God’. By doing alchemy he was mimicking God’s providential
work. Light was a major factor in Genesis. By illuminating the world God was using his power to activate and reactivate lifeless
matter. Newton’s belief in the special nature of light was clearly influenced by this, along with all light’s
associations with inspiration divinity prophesy and beauty.
Alchemy held Newton’s interest for over 30 years, much longer than his optical, mathematical and mechanical work.
More than one tenth of his collection of books and manuscripts were alchemical. His work on alchemy cannot be reduced to youthful
folly; more than half of his alchemical papers were produced after the Principia. In Newton’s mind his scientific work
on forces such as gravity and inertia were not separate from alchemical forces. In Opticks he proposed that microscopic analogues
of the force of gravity, acting between tiny particles of matter, could explain a variety of chemical phenomena: precipitation,
deliquescence and displacement. He insisted that microscopic forces were observable, only the causes of which were hypothetical.
Newton was quite explicit that alchemy was the most important science: gravity and vulgar chemistry were purely mechanical.
The transformability of matter and the notion of the unity of all matter are two principles that form a bond between Newton’s
alchemy and mechanical philosophies. His aether is material, so when set to work to explain natural phenomena its role was
virtually indistinguishable from ‘material media’ in mechanics. This can partly explain why his system was co-opted
by others (mechanists, materialists, deists and atheists alike) whose beliefs would really be antithetical to Newton’s.
These people have helped shaped the view we have of Newton in contemporary society.
Newton’s reputation today as the brilliant and reasonable father of modern science blurs our perception of his involvement
in alchemy. Marie Boas Hall defends Newton by saying that lesser men also tried to do what he was doing. He was simply a ‘man
of his times’. He was performing ‘chemistry’ not ‘alchemy’. And his habit of looking back to
antiquity to find the Truth was seen to be a ‘touching tribute’ to his predecessors rather than naïveté; believing
the Truth was available further back in history. However, it cannot be denied that Newton was an alchemist. By Newton’s
day alchemy had been pursued consistently for 2000 years in a series of widely divergent cultures. He very much wanted to
be a part of this tradition. His goal was to translate the alchemists’ expressions into a simpler, more reasonable philosophy
of nature. He believed his endeavours to be both noble and sacred. Additionally, he rejects occult qualities that some in
the Hermetic tradition have espoused: ‘These [alchemical] principles I consider, not as occult qualities supposed to
result from the specific forms of things, but as general laws of nature, by which the things themselves are formed, their
truth appearing to us by phenomena, though their causes be not yet discovered… To tell us that every species of things
is endowed with an occult specific quality by which it acts and produces manifest effects is to tell us nothing.’ However,
Leibniz charge that Newton’s theory contained ‘occult qualities’ caused Newton’s credibility as a
public figure to diminish, and thus it was impossible for Newton to reveal his indebtedness to ancient alchemical traditions
– he had to emphasise the observable status of force – which further explains the backseat status of his alchemy
today. Nowadays, the interest in divinity has diminished and the interest in the science of nature for its own sake has heightened.
This has led some scholars to read Newton narrowly; selecting only mathematics, experiments, observation and reason as the
essential components of his scientific method.
To do this would be a mistake; not only in omitting what seems to be the main focus of his life’s work, but also
to dismiss the most thorough analysis of alchemy ever seen. Newton cannot be seen as any less scientific or reasonable simply
because he is a product of the time in which he lived. Newton’s alchemical work is an important document in the history
of science and also of history in general, for it encompasses theology, science and philosophy.
Barnes, Barry, ‘Traditions of Research’, T. S. Kuhn and Social Science, New York, 1973.
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2005, pp. 642-643.
Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter and Margaret C. Jacob, ‘Newton’s Early Alchemy’ and ‘Newton’s Discovery
of Stoic Philosophy’ in Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1995.
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in The Janus Faces of Genius, Cambridge, 1991.
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Newton, Isaac, ‘Remarks on an Alchemical Treatise, “Manna”’, 1675, in Malcolm Oster, ed., Science
in Europe 1500-1800, New York, 2002.
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