It may seem suprising to present Isaac Newton, the founder of modern mathematical natural science, as a serious student of alchemy. He himself must have felt this anomaly, since at all stages of his life he was concerned to hide his occult interests from the public. Until very recently his large collection of alchemical manuscripts was hardly looked at, much less systematically sorted or studied, in contrast to his better-understood manuscripts dealing with mechanics or the theory of matter. Yet Newton dedicated at least as much time to alchemical and theological studies as to his mathematical and physical ones.
The process of dating his manuscripts has shown that Newton worked on alchemy at all periods of his productive life, in parallel with his scientific work. This evidence proves that his occult studies were not the aberrations of senility. Newton would hardly have devoted so much time to such “absurdities” if he had not been convinced that some deeper knowledge lay hidden, which he eventually believed that he had at least in part discovered.
Newton attempted to make a synthesis of his occult-alchemical and exact-scientific research. For him a means of attaining this goal was the study of the so-called “prisca sapientia, ” a tradition of ancient wisdom. Newton considered that the original wisdom of the ancients, which had been gradually lost through the ages, was most fully retained in the writings of the Hermetic tradition. He saw himself as endeavoring to explain, by means of experimental science, this “sapientia, ” which had grown unintelligible.