Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

The Last Sorcerer
by Michael White
Fourth Estate/Helix
review by Arthur Mortensen

Psychohistory has has gotten a bad press in recent years.  One suspects that histories based on genetic discoveries are due their day in court one day as well..  The reason for such comeuppances, if that is what they are, is that these approaches represent applications of hindsight that are hard to verify.  Even if we know, for instance, that Lincoln was a manic-depressive, who is to say how the environment of his time, nevermind Lincoln himself, combined in how that affect  played out?  Or whether  genetic markers from Jefferson mean that Tom himself, or one of his sons, fathered children with slaves?  In the latter, they're still of the Jefferson line regardless.  In the former, it appears that Lincoln managed.  Not that hindsight shouldn't be a part of historical writing -- indeed it would hardly be possible to do without.  But hindsight is opinion, even if dressed with the latest scientific interpretation.

For example, the wisdom of Tuchman's examination of 14th century Europe, or of Gibbon's of Rome, was not extracted solely from knowable facts.  Tuchman's objective was to  illuminate frightening parallels with and astonishing differences from our own times.  Gibbon's was likely aimed at a decaying British monarchy's incompetence in imperial administration (Decline and Fall... was released just after 1776).  Both used thousands of sources, more than half of which were commentary made after the time under study.  The power of both histories surely arises from their writers's gifts in associating what may have seemed disparate events, trends, commentary and literature, as well as from their remarkable eyes for revelations about particular players.

Beginning with Freud's Leonardo's Kite, historians chose to analyze the psychological bases for action, a trend lost on some who could not associate history with  non-empirical opinion.  This difficulty with psychobiography was amplified by the revelation that Freud's association of a drawing by Leonardo with a play on words in one of the notebooks was in error (the bird in the drawing was not a kite, and the sexual pun Freud discovered was only available in its German translation).  However, historians in the grand tradition of Gibbon and Freud's error* to the contrary, there are goods reason to explore plausible if not factual psychological motivations for individual action.  Just as we occasionally need fictional representations that show apparently good people with malevolent intentions, so too with histories.  

And Isaac Newton is again ripe for this kind of treatment.  Despite a flurry in the late 60's and early 70's, from Frank Manuel's Newton: A Portrait, to Betty Dobbs' Foundation of Newton's Alchemy, and Richard Westfall's The Role of Alchemy, the hagiographic view of Newton as the great rationalist is still widespread. (In the 1930's there had also been a rush of studies, with a major revelation that Neoplatonist metaphysics informed Newton's science, acknowledging that the unprovable could motivate its opposite.) So,  this latecomer, which has enjoyed wide distribution, is an important contributor to revising the popular view, the academic having been partly settled some decades back.

If you didn't know, the author makes clear that generations of stories about the great rationalist were patent lies.  This is not to say that Newton was a fraud.  He remains a monumental figure in science as co-discover of the calculus, developer of celestial mechanics, and provider of theoretical tools not only for the Industrial Revolution but for landing human beings on the moon.  He was a brilliant auto-didact, whose ferocious absorption of disapproved or ignored texts in the sciences let him cross a threshhold that predecessors such as Harriot, Fermat and Descartes had been unable to reach.  But, according to this author and many others, Newton was no great rationalist, coolly observing the intricate machinery of the world, rather an often bitter man of unsubtle obsession and virulent competiveness.  He may have been self-delusional as well and, known to a few, was also a lifelong alchemist. He seems to have suffered,, from the evidence of correspondence, notes and records,  deep psychological disturbance from the loss of one parent and abandonment by the other.   And he was inescapably of the world just emerging from late medievalism in the "science" of 17th century England.  While the facts of Newton's alchemy have been known since the mid-19th century, it's still startling to read about his endless nights in a fiery laboratory adjacent to his living quarters.

While earlier texts on Newton's alchemy were as much accusatory as revelatory, the author of Sorcerer... makes an attempt to place Newton in his time.  This seems a more valuable way of demonstrating limitations of a given historical player.  For one, it doesn't deny what they contributed. However, it makes clear why they could go no further.  A good resource for this, much used by White, is Jung's exploration of alchemy as a psychological process whose real results were different eyes for the alchemist.  Jung's perceptions of alchemy applied to Paracelsus,**  a leading physician of 16th century Switzerland, and revealed a man who faced similar dilemmas to those of Newton.  In a time that acknowledged only religious and monarchical authority, he had the task of acknowledging the radical difference between such authority and mundane reality; indeed, the survival of his patients depended upon it, as did the science of Newton. (The connections with Jung's  unusual explorations preceding his own work in psychology bear comparison.)

By Newton's time it was not quite settled that spiritual authority is purely a matter of faith; while mundane reality can only be found in observation.  That authority had been much fractionated by the convolutions surrounding the separation of the Church of England from the Vatican, and by the even more convulsive civil war that surrounded the rise and fall of Cromwell and the Puritans.  The restoration of the Royal Court may have impressed its members that all was back to normal, but that cozy world would not last very long.  The immense complexity of new, and international, commerce and colonization, the outburst of wealth and enterprise in England itself,  required a much wider franchise for power.  In such an environment a mind with the reach of Newton's had more to do than uphold the status quo; indeed, the temptations would have been wholly in the other direction. Nonetheless, what seems to have been Newton's liberating journey of the mind was at least as much in alchemy, an activity not only close to witchcraft in popular suspicions but proscribed by an edict of the King.

That division is even more prevalent now.  Even those who have strong belief in God acknowledge the separation of the world of faith and the world of mundane reality.  Indeed, in our time the two scarcely cross paths, except in fights over teaching evolution in Kansas.  When expressing this view wasn't possible then, in fact would make one the object of a witch hunt, other roads were taken.  For Paracelsus, according to Jung, and by White's estimate, for Newton,  alchemy's purification processes, intended for materials, actually released the alchemist from his bond to established authority.  Alchemy proposed to find that lumen naturae, described as the philosopher's stone (or by a thousand other names),  and with it be able to fashion nature much as God had original creation.   Of course it always failed; it was doomed to such a fate.  (However, the similarity of motivations between an alchemist and a more practical descendant, such as Linus Pauling in the realm of the chemical bond, is startling.)   Of course we know why.  Alchemy was as much rite and ritual as anything else, even though some physical chemistry evolved from it.  Constrained to certain royal ways to revelation, alchemy was not so different from research that proceeded from religious authority.  As is often true, the method revealed the madness that prevented alchemy from bursting into modern chemistry. Any scientist today, and since Newton, knows this is a method doomed to failure.  Each learns early on a simple truth:  if method A doesn't work, try method B, ad infinitum if necessary. The only royal way is within the confines of physical law (unless, of course, physical law isn't complete, in which case, try the method X).  But such pragmatism was not available to Paracelsus, nor was it to Newton early on, as much as he claimed the opposite later in life.

And so,  for Paracelsus, and perhaps for Newton as well, alchemy may have been less a way of finding practical truth than a means to getting around the power of spiritual (or psychological) authority.  Think of it as part of a scientific negative capability, the powerful (and illegal) temptations of alchemy leading one to more powerful temptations to betray one's beliefs in favor of one's eyes (or instruments).  Indeed, according to Jung in Alchemical Studies, alchemy can be more precisely viewed by modern researchers as a psychological, meditative process that permitted individuation of the alchemist (and the development of self-expression in contradiction of other authority).  And so, the real philosopher's stone or sacred water that emerged for Paracelsus (or Newton far more successfully) may well have been the alchemist's capacity to do work unsteered by religious authority or by psychological barriers.

And, in a country only lately emerging from Medievalism, whose religious wars were often fatal to disciples, alchemy for Newton, the author argues, was not only a way to help him look differently, but informed much of his science.  Some of this thesis, such as the comparison of the search for the cause of gravity with the alchemical search for the homunculus, is extremely speculative.  But in other areas, such as the philosophical basis for alchemical research, White's arguments are compelling.  For instance, Newton believed, as did Paracelsus, in the Golden Age thesis, that at some point in history there were such shamen as understood the true light of nature, and could formulate the physical world in a single theory.  As such they could, like God, enter into the natural world as movers and shakers.  Newton's intents for his science were no different.

Such a motivation for research, to someone with the obsessive, consuming mind Newton evidently possessed, may well have been the reason he persisted in scientific work that contradicted alchemical methods.  In other words, he was smart and open enough to leave the narrow royal road of alchemy when it suited his scientific researches.  The paradox, while of apparent comfort to those who would dash scientific research as merely cultural, did yield scientific tools still used worldwide***.  The author supposes that what produced them was not Newton's captivity to a particular culture, but the tension between what he saw and what he believed, and his effort to resolve it.  As such, he was hardly different from Kepler or  other predecessors and colleagues whose work exploded their most deeply held beliefs.  Perhaps, resolving this in alchemy, a process with startling similarity to psychological processes we all use to resolve difficult paradoxes in perception, was not so irrational after all.

There was a price for this approach, however necessary in 17th century England.   Newton's secretiveness not only in alchemy but in science led to blind alleys for British mathematics and science.  Not the least, according to White, were fifty years of a calculus hobbled by Newton's peculiar notation (no longer used anywhere).  The rest of the world followed Leibnitz, whose notation, evolved from Descartes, made his version an increasingly available tool.  And, as solid proofs emerged from the Bernoullis, Euler and others, that tool became less an artifact of personal and cultural conflicts as of external method and practice.  If this were not so, the debunking that finally came to Newton's reputation might have sullied science as well.

Other qualities Newton exhibited were revelations for this critic, and have parallels among scientists of the 20th century. Following Manuel's psychohistory of 1967,  White portrays a man whose passions must have terrified his contemporaries, but whose afflictions, from the death of his father before his birth, the abandonment by his mother shortly after, and the indifference of classmates and teachers that, can draw real sympathies.  Nonetheless, sympathetic or not, one can't avoid the ugly consequences.  Newton was a vicious and uncompromising administrator whose tenure at the British Mint sent hundreds to horrible tortures and the gallows for counterfeiting (although he played a huge part in saving the British economy).  He was unable to relate to women except as correspondents or younger (and emotionally distant relatives); and his letters and the reports of others suggest a ruthlessly repressed sexuality.   Newton's coldblooded self-protectiveness was notorious; and led to betrayal of friends and colleagues.  The list of perceived competitors at the Royal Society whose careers were ruined by Newton's megalomania is quite long, and includes Flamsteed, the first Royal Astronomer, who contributed immensely to the proofs of Newton's theories. (For a modern parallel, look at the long refusal to acknowledge Rosalind Franklin, co-discoverer of DNA with Watson, Crick and Wilkins -- not simply a feminist issue, but a story Newton's colleagues would have recognized as already old-hat.  Flamsteed did all of the observational work for Newton's work on the lunar orbit, as did Franklin (and Wilkins) in crystallographical studies for DNA.).   Newton's battle with Leibnitz was another of these.  Leibnitz was willing to concede that Newton and he had co-discovered the calculus, which Newton refused to accept.  And soon, his warfare on Leibnitz became an international embarrassment, not fully resolved, and in both their favors, until the 20th century.  His continuing alchemical researches probably damaged much of his scientific work.  Yet what remains, for all of this, is still a magnificent mind whose grasp of contemporary and classical work, combined with astonishing deductive and inductive powers, evolved the foundations of modern, technological society not only for England but for most of the world.

It is a pleasure to read such material.  The temptation to "god up" the scientists (a phrase the late Red Smith used to describe how sportswriters turn drunken ballplayers into national myths) is a bad one.  But it is still practiced, particularly on what passes for science news on television.  It's important to know that each, no matter their reach, was a human being enmeshed in conflicts both personal and public which colored and ultimately limited their work.  As such, each left room for other researchers to follow the same pursuits to evolved or to entirely different conclusions.  Without this as a guiding perception, no scientific researcher could work beyond the shadows cast by a predecessor, particularly those as immense as Newton's.  Evidently, the gang in Copenhagen felt that way when, led by Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and others, they revised Newton's mechanics away from those of an ideal machine to those of the real universe.

The book is highly recommended. Put this one next to James Gleick's Genius, a biography of the late Richard Feynman. But read it.

*Freud's interpretation of someone who made such plays on words was sharply reasoned; that it didn't apply to Leonardo was no proof of a general error on the part of Freud, only that he didn't read his source closely enough.

**Jung, K.G., Alchemical Studies, Princeton University Press, 1961

*** Richard Feynman remarked in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, that relativity, the first of the earthquakes in modern physics, was, relatively speaking, "a footnote compared to the work of Newton," a remark not bound to gain favor among the hagiographers of Albert Einstein, and one not intended either to denigrate the General or Special Theories but to show the enormous power Newton holds even today, 260 years after his death. Feynman would probably have further argued that Einstein first had to master Newton, before moving on, perhaps a more difficult task than Newton himself had.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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