Newton's Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings

By H. S. Thayer; Isaac Newton | Go to book overview

What Isaac Newton Started

Isaac Newton is not only by general acclaim the greatest scientific genius the English-speaking peoples have produced, and one of the half-dozen towering giants of the intellectual movement that has distinguished the modern world from all other societies. He also gave his name to an entire age, which is more than even Darwin could do for the Age of Evolution or Freud for our own Age of Anxiety. He lived at just the right moment to reap the harvest sown by several generations of scientific pioneers. By temperament and intellectual sympathies he was able to weave together the two main strands of seventeenth-century scientific thought: the mathematical rationalism of the Continental tradition (in England then as now entrenched at Cambridge); and the "physicomathematical experimental learning" which the Royal Society cultivated. His achievement in synthesis caught the imagination of the early eighteenth century, and he came to stand as the symbol of a broadly conceived new "natural philosophy," or physical science.

After two centuries of battles fought in the name of warring theologies and church polities, most men were only too glad to welcome this new natural philosophy as a secular alternative to religious quarrels of which they had grown tired. Many wanted to forget theology and get down to business, especially that middle class which in Western Europe had been growing so rapidly in economic strength and was now making ready to take over political power as well, in the great revolutions of the end of the century. What the middle class needed was a new set of ideas to provide the intellectual leverage for dislodging the lingering feudal landlords and breaking the hold of the older social controls of industry, now grown restrictive. For them, "Newtonian science" furnished a "Nature" fully as effective as the earlier "will of God." It had, in fact, at last demonstrated what the will of God really was; and what it demonstrated was that the Divine Will had

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