Newton Astrotheology and Galaxies

Eighteenth-century belief in the orderliness of the universe made determination of that order an important theological, philosophical, and scientific endeavor for astrotheologians. William Whiston, Newton's successor in the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University, from 1702 to 1710, when he was charged with heresy and dismissed from the university, argued that the system of the stars, the work of the Creator, had a beautiful proportion, even if frail man were ignorant of the order. And William Derham, an ordained priest in the Church of England, a vicar and royal chaplain, expressed a similar belief in his 1715 Astrotheology; or, a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from a Survey of the Heavens.

Newtonian gravitational theory practically demanded a continual miracle to prevent the Sun and the fixed stars from being pulled together. If the stars were moving in orbits around the center of a system, however, like the planets move around the Sun, the result could be a stable system rather than gravitational collapse.

In 1718 Halley reported that three bright stars were no longer in the positions determined by ancient observations. The weight of tradition was so heavy, however, that even Halley continued to call the stars "fixt stars."

Eventually Halley's discovery suggested to the self-taught English astronomer Thomas Wright that the stars might be revolving around their center of gravity, and thus prevented from falling into their center, just as the planets are prevented from falling into the Sun. In 1750 Wright proposed a model for the Milky Way, a luminous band of light observed circling the heavens.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was inspired by an incorrect summary of Wright's book and by the paradigm of the Newtonian solar system. Kant's explicitly expressed intent was to extend Newtonian philosophy; the subtitle of his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens was An Essay on the Constitution and Mechanical Origin of the Whole Universe Treated According to Newton's Principles.

Kant explained the Milky Way as a disk-shaped system seen from Earth, which was located in the plane of the disk. The arrangement of the stars, thought Kant, might be similar to that of the planets. Furthermore, the Newtonian system provided by analogy a physical explanation for a disk structure. Kant reasoned that the same cause that gave the planets their centrifugal force and directed their orbits to a plane could also have given the power of revolving to the stars and brought their orbits into a plane. Thoroughly imbued with a belief in the order and beauty of God's work, Kant went on to suggest that nebulous patches of light in the Heavens are composed of stars and are other Milky Ways, or island universes (galaxies similar to and beyond the boundaries of our own galaxy).

Between Whiston and Kant occurred a major change in worldview. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the stable structure of the universe as well as its initial creation was believed the work of God. As the century progressed, God's role diminished. By the end of the century, laws of nature and sequences of mechanical events explained evolution from an initial chaos to the then-observed cosmological structure and also implied continuing change.

Political thinkers now had confidence that they could determine the natural laws governing human association, and the American and French revolutions followed. Albeit more a disciple of Descartes than of Newton, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, a French philosopher and writer, initiated attempts to apply the spirit of scientific inquiry to the study of man in society. In his 1748 De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws), Montesquieu noted similarities between scientific laws and social laws and hoped to find a few fundamental principles of politics. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton were all enthusiastic readers of Montesquieu.

Newton's influence also pressed directly on early American statesmen, without the mediation of French political writers. Jefferson, who owned a portrait of Newton and a copy of his death mask, one of fewer than ten made, invoked "Laws of Nature" in the American Declaration of Independence. It was Jefferson's opinion that "we might as well say that the Newtonian system of philosophy is a part of the common law, as that the Christian religion is" (Feingold, Newtonian Moment, 160). On completing his second term as president of the United States in 1809, Jefferson said he was looking forward to giving up newspapers and reading instead Tacitus, Thucydides, Newton, and Euclid.

The British philosopher John Locke, who opposed authority and advocated the employment of reason in search of truth, also influenced American revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Locke would have owed much to Newton, had the opportunity for debt arisen. But Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding was completed before the Principia, even if it wasn't published until 1690, three years after the Principia. In the second edition of his essay, Locke did praise Newton's success in applying many of the same principles of reasoning as Locke had used. He didn't mind hitching his star to Newton's, and historians subsequently have linked in their own studies the images of Newton and Locke in the Age of Reason.

Also enthusiastic about Newton was Benjamin Franklin, who so idolized Newton that he had his own portrait painted sitting at a desk inspired by a large bust of Newton towering over him. It was not uncommon to include a bust of Newton in commissioned portraits or a book in the background with Newton's name on the spine. Franklin, famous for his experiments on electricity, had more justification than most to link himself intellectually with Newton. The lieutenant governor of New York, a friend of Franklin and also a scientist of sorts, commemorated his purported explanation of the cause of gravity with a portrait of himself with his own book prominently at hand and a copy of Newton's Principia on a shelf behind him. The president of Yale College made no pretense to being a scientist, yet he too had a copy of the Principia included in his portrait, plus an emblem with comets moving in long ellipses. Newton's science had become an iconic image in art.

Back in the realm of politics, the British political philosopher Edmund Burke, who believed that even human taste had universal fixed principles and invariable and certain laws, had been sympathetic toward the American colonists and insisted that reason should govern political decisions. But he became dismayed by the violence and chaos in France, which he blamed on the undiscriminate application of the rules of reason. No more for Burke the cold abstract expression of an eternal logical system.

The strongest and most extensive link to Newton is found in the Scottish economist Adam Smith, who attempted to discover general laws of economics.

His cultural and intellectual milieu was dominated by the image of Newton, and he especially understood and appreciated Newton's achievement. While a youth, Smith wrote an essay, The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries; illustrated by the History of Astronomy. Before reaching Newton in his history, Smith thought so-called scientific hypotheses were but arbitrary creations that might lend some coherence to the appearance of nature "by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects" (Hetherington, Smith, 281), but he doubted the reality of such associations. After contemplating Newton's achievement, however, Smith was persuaded that there are real connecting principles or chains that bind nature. He wrote:

The superior genius and sagacity of Sir Isaac Newton therefore, made the most happy, and . . . greatest and most admirable improvement that was ever made in philosophy, when he discovered, that he could join together the movements of the Planets by so familiar a Principle . . . Such is the system of Sir Isaac Newton, a system whose parts are all more strictly connected than those of any other philosophical hypothesis. Allow his principle, the universality of gravity, and that it decreases as the squares of the distances increase, and all the appearances, which he joins together by it, necessarily follow. . . . His principles, it must be acknowledged, have a degree of firmness and solidity that we should in vain look for in any other system. The most sceptical cannot avoid feeling this. . . . And even we [Smith], while we have been endeavouring to present all philosophical systems as mere inventions of the imagination, to connect together otherwise disjointed and discordant phaenomena of nature, have insensibly been drawn in, to make use of language expressing the connecting principles of this one, as if they were the real chains which Nature makes use of to bind together her several operations. Can we wonder then, that it should have gained the general and complete approbation of mankind, and that it should now be considered, not as an attempt to connect in the imagination the phaenomena of the Heavens, but as the greatest discovery that ever was made by man, the discovery of an immense chain of the most important and sublime truths, all closely connected together by one capital fact, of the reality of which we have daily experience. (Hetherington, Smith, 281-82)

In his 1776 Wealth of Nations, Smith presented real connecting principles of economics. Copying Newton's strategy, Smith first listed phenomena, next obtained general laws—ostensibly by induction—and then deduced both the listed phenomena and further phenomena from the general laws. Newton's and Smith's answers to the question of the ultimate nature of their general principles are also similar. Unable to determine whether the propensity to exchange one thing for another was an original principle of human nature or a necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, Smith argued that it was enough to know that the principle was universal, or common to all men. He would not frame or feign an uncertain hypothesis. Furthermore, Smith invoked Newton's principle of gravity both metaphorically and descriptively: "The natural price, therefore, is, as it were, the central price, to which the prices of all commodities are continually gravitating" (Hetherington, Smith, 284). The reference to grav ity was no accident; two pages later, Smith repeated the phrase. And lest his readers fail to see the connection to Newton, Smith coyly called attention to his wording: "But though the market price of every particular commodity is in this manner continually gravitating, if one may say so, towards the natural price" (Hetherington, Smith, 284).

French economists also appreciated Newton. From their belief that government policy should not interfere with the operation of natural laws of economics came the phrase laissez-faire, laissez-passer ("allow to do, let things pass"). Charles Fourier, a French utopian socialist, despised laissez-faire liberalism and attributed his own discovery of a principle of human motivation to his musings on the fact that an apple in a restaurant cost fourteen sous, the same price as for a hundred apples in the country. To Adam's, Paris's, and Newton's historically significant apples, Fourier added his own. Newton had discovered the physical laws of universal attraction; Fourier, the laws of passional attraction, in opposition to morality, which taught people to war within themselves, resist their passions, and deny that God organized our souls.

Newton's influence also spread to the arts, especially music. The ancient Greeks had sought mathematical bases for music, and music was part of the quadrivium taught in medieval universities, along with astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry. The French composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau, who composed several operas for which Voltaire supplied the librettos, believed that music was a science which should have definite rules drawn from evident principles known to us with the aid of mathematics. Rameau wanted to raise the status of music to the high level newly enjoyed by Newtonian science. In his 1722 Traité de l'harmonie Reduite à ses Principes naturels (Treatise on Harmony reduced to its Natural Principles), Rameau formulated principles of harmonic composition. When a better writer extracted the substance from Rameau's book and expounded it with lucidity and elegance in 1754, Rameau acquired the title of the "Newton of harmony," even if his theories owed more to his keen observation of music than to his employment of mathematics, or indeed any scientific method.

Literature, too, was affected by Newton's scientific achievement. Voltaire lamented, wittily as ever:

Fine literature is hardly any longer the fashion in Paris. Everyone works at geometry and physics. Everyone has a hand at an argument. Sentiment, imagination, and the finer arts are banished. A man who had lived under Louis XIV, if he came back, would not recognize the French; he'd think that Germans had conquered this country. Literature as such is perishing visibly. Not that I am angry that science is being cultivated, but I don't want it to become a tyrant that excludes all the arts. In France it is nothing but a fashion which succeeds another fashion and which will pass in its turn; yet no art, and no science, should simply be "in fashion." They should hold each other by the hand; we ought to cultivate them all the time. (Buchdahl, Image of Newton, 63-64)

Voltaire did not "see why the study of physics should crush the flowers of poetry. Is truth such a poor thing that it is unable to tolerate beauty?" (Buchdahl, Image of Newton, 64).

Nonetheless, science and the arts were beginning to drift apart. Poets were uncomfortable with what they saw as excessive rationalism and rigid determinism of nature's laws. They wanted to speak to the heart and to the imagination. Still, even Romantics in rebellion against Newtonianism recognized Newton's great achievement. Goethe was prouder of understanding optics and the science of colors better than Newton had than he was of his own literary achievements, which he acknowledged were equaled by other poets in his time and would be surpassed in the future. The German dramatist and poet Friedrich van Schiller wrote, in addition to his "Ode to Joy" sung in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, that "Man had to be an animal before he knew that he was a spirit; he had to crawl in the dust before he ventured on the Newtonian flight through the universe" (Feingold, Newtonian Moment, 177). The concept of genius, previously reserved for artists and poets, was expanded by them to include Newton.

Samuel Johnson, the leading literary scholar and critic of the eighteenth century, wrote that Newton stood alone because he had left the rest of mankind behind him. Johnson might better have written that Newton had beaten a new path, one that the rest of mankind was now following. Jean D'Alembert, scientist and co-editor of the French Encyclopedie, which was intended to unify and popularize achievements of the new science, wrote:

The true system of the world has been recognized . . . natural philosophy has been revolutionized . . . the discovery and application of a new method of philosophizing, the kind of enthusiasm which accompanies discoveries, a certain exaltation of ideas which the spectacle of the universe produces in us; all these causes have brought about a lively fermentation of minds. Spreading throughout nature in all directions, this fermentation has swept everything before it which stood in its way with a sort of violence, like a river which has burst its dams . . . thus, from the principles of the secular sciences to the foundations of religious revelation, from metaphysics to matters of taste, from music to morals, from the scholastic disputes of theologians to matters of commerce, from natural laws to the arbitrary laws of nations . . . everything has been discussed, analyzed, or at least mentioned. The fruit or sequel of this general effervescence of minds has been to cast new light on some matters and new shadows on others, just as the ebb and flow of the tides leaves some things on the shore and washes others away. (Buchdahl, Image of Newton, 62—63)

His new science linked through interrelationships with human values, culture, religion, society, and history in general, Newton washed away perhaps more ancient thought and superstition than any other individual in the tides of human affairs, and washed in more new and revolutionary thinking. His influence on so many aspects of eighteenth-century life and the continuing history of Western civilization is incredibly immense.

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