Edgar Allan Poe expressed his contempt for readers who habitually flocked to books by famous authors on the sheer merit of their popularity without an individual appreciation of the contents. Likewise, I have a handful of the famous, the great people whose celebrity I hold no regard as I am going to unveil now. I have never liked Isaac Newton, albeit his genius is doubtlessly uncontested. Cantankerous, bellicose Newton was horrible to deal with, especially when you were his servant or maid or whoever he thought insignificant in his Elysium of high intelligence. He was also a closet occultist masquerading with the face of Rational Man with long-faced gravitas adorned in a long wavy wig. So how come Newton became a votary of Aristotle, who took the virtues to be central to a well-lived life? Since I tend to disassociate any such persona non grata (Newton, obviously) from one in my high regard (that is, Aristotle), I wanted to find out the incompatibility of the sullen scientist and the benign thinker.
Aristotle’s ethics, or study of character, is constituted around the premise that people should achieve an excellent character as a prerequisite for living a meaningful life. It is an essence of metaphysics in which Aristotle holds that there must be a separate and unchanging being that is the source of other beings. Only by becoming excellent could one achieve eudaimonia, happiness/blessedness that constitutes the best kind of human life. This philosophical perspective also applies to the ideas of self-sufficiency by Ralph Waldo Emerson and of Amore fati, the intellectual love of life by Friedreich Nietzsche.
Emerson regarded two separate elements as being united to create the world inside of you for the former. They are raw experiences gained from somatic sensory stimulation transformed into ideas and thoughts in the realm of reason, a process akin to a caterpillar transforming mulberry leaves into gorgeous silk. Nietzsche’s Amore fati is theologically conceived in an attempt to manifest the presence of Providence or God’s will with his infallible existence through Immanence by which an adequate idea of simple attributes of formal essence of God is applied to an adequate knowledge of the simple truth of things. It might be akin to the Eureka moment when Archimedes started running naked around the town in the enthusiasm of knowing the weight of the gold in the king’s crown from his water-filled bathtub. Or it could be the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa captured by Bernini as a cherub was mischievously thrusting the arrow back and forth into the heart of the virgin. In sum, Aristotle was right in saying that knowledge isn’t innate or guaranteed prima facie but gained from the reports of the senses and logical inference from self-evident truth.
I still believe that someone like Newton had no regard for moral excellence any more than gaining the knowledge of the universe because studying humanity was anathema to his lofty vision of the world and beyond, such as the alchemical realm. Newton was keen on Aristotle’s theory of the 5th element on top of the earth, air, fire, and water – that is, space of aether. Methinks, Newton was trying to get Rosetta’s stone in manipulating the 5th element proposed by Aristotle. He had not known that it would have become such a magical element to turn stone to gold. Notwithstanding Newton’s beguiled ambition to be a perfect Gargamel with the help of Aristotle, so to speak, my appreciation of Aristotle’s metaphysical school of thought decides that his brilliance is brighter than Plato and on par with Socrate in the constellation of philosophers’ stars.
I never particularly liked Newton despite his paramount discovery of the law of Universal Gravity from the fallen apple tree in his mother’s little garden. Maybe it was his somber, irate facial expression adorned with a long white wig. He was a reluctant spiritual godfather of physicists Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, whose theoretical findings are based on and upgraded from Newtonian laws of physics. However, being a keen observer of human characteristics, I am inclined to write the review about Newton’s personality traits, not a drab biological chronology and analyses of his laws of motion.
Isaac Newton was never the kind of chap whom you could be jovial with. If you caught Newton in a cafeteria or a coffeehouse and asked for an autograph, he would first give you a look with an exasperated grimacing and either reluctantly succumb to your request if he was in a good mood or curtly said, “I am busy.” His gaucheness in social interactions might be due to a deficiency in maternal affection and care. Newton’s mother willingly separated from her young and tender son when she married her second husband after the death of Newton’s father, whose name was also Isaac Newton. Although I object to profiling any kind and any person because it leads to a grave miscarriage of justice in many cases, Newton’s character profile doesn’t read favorably in any of his writings. To illustrate, Newton used to be harsh on his family servants, whom he often mistreated with corporeal measures and hit his younger sister. Nevertheless, his genius purchased indemnity for all his character flaws and beautified them as individual eccentricities endemic to the intellectual elites.
But the illustrated Godfather of Science was also a discreet practitioner of alchemy in search of the Philosopher’s Stone to turn it into gold. I wonder if all of the laws of motion Newton discovered were unexpected comeuppance of his private practice of alchemy. Not surprisingly, Newton kept his behind-the-façade business, and it was until the mid-18th century that the truth came to shine in his journal. Despite its occultist nature and nuance, Alchemy was also not too far from chemistry in studying metals according to three principles: Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury, based on four elements of air, earth, fire, and water. To this fascinating manipulation of heaven and earth, Aristotle added the 5th element of aether that was believed to fill the universe beyond the terrestrial sphere. The weightlessness due to the absence of gravity occurs in outer space full of invisible aether propagating light waves. As Newton’s principal muse to inspire his scientific musings, Aristotle is plausible to understand Newton’s fascination with alchemy. He treated it not as a magical practice but as a branch of chemistry that would have looked magical to the uninitiated.
Grumpy as he was, Newton was nonetheless a remarkable individual who devoted life to the pursuit of truth, a satisfaction of reason, in the temple of science, believing there are more than material bodies in this world, which became a foundation of quantum physics. With his head filled with the mystery of numbers and frail body subsisted on the nourishment on the mind, Newton was a lifetime bachelor without chivalric anecdotes or sybaritic tell-tales. Instead, he spurred his energy on his studies, wallowing in the delicacy of quiet and uneventful solitude. Newton influenced multidisciplinary studies including philosophy, and music, with his laws of motion, especially making the word “inertia” so democratically popular with the public that British pop band Blur made it a title song in their first Leisure album. You don’t have to like Newton to appreciate his contribution to the consilience of science and humanities. But it wouldn’t hurt you to learn what makes him enshrined in the Parthenon of civilization of humankind, even though he wasn’t a nice person to chat with.