Isaac Newton: Arian heretic, millenarian kook, scandal to the modern mind

In another world, it might have been a scandal that the greatest genius in human history was a Christian heretic, but in our world the scandal is that he was a Christian heretic.  That Newton rejected the doctrine of the Trinity–not because he was Enlightened like 18th century Deists but because of his own interpretation of scripture and the Ante-Nicene Fathers–has been well-known for some time, but a new book brings out some interesting details of which I was unaware.

By the middle of the following decade, when he gave much of his energies over to alchemy and the decoding of apocalyptic prophecy, he had an even more remarkable idea. When mankind was still young, “before the first memory of things”, Newton surmised, Noah and his sons had come up with a pure and pristine form of worship that subsequent prophets – Christ among them – had contrived only to debase.

The original religion had found its expression in holy flames surrounded by vestal temples such as Stonehenge and St Bridget’s fire, a Christianized pagan observance that persists today in the grounds of Kildare Cathedral in Ireland. These shrines, Newton wrote, stood allegorically for the place of the Sun at the centre of God’s cosmos. Over time, the metaphors had gradually come to obscure the truths they depicted, and as the sacred learning was passed down by Moses and the ancient Egyptians, the prisca sapientia had degenerated into idolatry.

This conviction led Newton down some strange byways. At one point he defended the account of Egyptian theology in Aristophanes’ The Birds, where Night is said to have spread her black wings over the chaotic void and laid an egg containing Love, which eventually hatched and created all the gods and living things. Night, Newton explained, was the unseen deity, and Love the spirit that had moved over the face of the waters in Genesis 2. He also thought that Plato had ultimately inherited an understanding of universal gravitation from the same source, and that before him Pythagoras had hit on the inverse-square law by hanging hammers of different weights from taut sheep intestines.

If there was one man who in Newton’s eyes had done more than any other to lead humanity astray, it was Athanasius…

The article’s author tries desperately to try to find some anticipation of the Enlightenment in all of this, but he must concede that Newton “seems to have spent more time mentally in the fourth century than in the seventeenth” (which I think underestimates how much the fourth century was still alive in the seventeenth).  What we do see is continuations of distinctly Renaissance and Reformation modes of thought.  From the Renaissance there is the idea of a common wisdom of the ancients and the sages of all lands.  Remember, Newton is mentally much closer to Plato and Dante than he is to us.  He doesn’t believe in evolution, and he reads scripture much more literally than today’s conservative Christians.  He doesn’t imagine that man ascended from savagery; he imagines that man descended from Eden and then from the Noah.  Naturally, these early men with more direct intercourse with God would have known more than we.  From the Reformation, there is the idea that the original wisdom has been lost and must be recovered, that we access it not through tradition but by leaping past it.  Luther and the other early Reformers would have been appalled by Newton’s conclusions, but they also sought to consult scripture and the apostolic Church directly, apart from the medium of tradition.  (The goal:  every Christian a priest.  The danger:  the scholarly guild a new papacy.)

Newton spent (some might say wasted) a lot of time consulting apocalyptic literature to predict the fall of that Antichrist, the Papacy.  Interestingly, he tags the same year that I did:  2016.  Granted, the set of people who believe the Papacy is the Antichrist and that Amoris laetitia is a disaster because it undermines Catholic doctrine is the empty set.  Still, the coincidence is kind of creepy.

Did you really think the Enlightenment would spare you, science?

Steven Pinker is vexed at the hostility postmodernism-imbibing humanities scholars hold for science.  He makes a number of good points.  Thomas Kuhn has been an extremely pernicious influence on popular scientific epistemology.  It is true that postmodernists unfairly blame science and modernity for evils (and pseudo-evils of their creation) that are as old as humanity.  Pinker thinks these humanities professors are betraying the Enlightenment, but I think this is backwards.  The postmodernist attack on science is just the next, purer, more radical phase of the Enlightenment.  Of course, this new batch of Enlightened condemn their predecessors, but parricide is standard operating procedure for the Enlightened, so we shouldn’t read much into that.

Everything becomes clearer when one drops the misconception that science is somehow connected to Enlightenment.  The scientific revolution was a century old and its astronomical achievements accomplished (by Christians) before the Enlightenment attack on Christianity began.  In other words, science was part of the pre-Enlightenment world.  And that is why the Enlightened condemn science for sins that are universal to humanity, not because scientific civilization is different from what came before, but because it is not different.  Science is offensive to the Enlightenment for the same reason that religion is, because both are based on the conviction that mankind must conform itself to an external truth, which contradicts Enlightenment’s promise of total liberation.  Even when science promises mastery of nature, she first demands the mind submit itself with full abasement to reality.

The Enlightenment would sometimes use science as a stick to beat Christianity with, but its main grievances were political.  Christianity was said to be intolerant, demanding to be recognized as the one truth, and a friend of oppression, both because of its otherworldly focus and its presumption that there is a reason for existing arrangements (since God permits them) and hence a presumptive legitimacy of the status quo.  We must not pretend that the Enlightened objected only to a cartoon version of bloodthirsty medieval Christian fanatics.  The great Enlightenment attack was a century after the Treaty of Westphalia, and today’s Enlightened hate thoroughly neutered American Evangelicals with the same passion that their predecessors hated European Catholics.  But science is as guilty as Christianity of these broader political charges.  She too claims unique access to truth and demands the state accept her judgements on which drugs are safe, what children should be taught about the natural world, etc.  She too offends against the zeal for social justice simply by being interested in something else.  As much as religion, she assumes the rationality of the world and leads one to guess that existing arrangements have been optimized by natural selection and possess some rationality.

It’s easy to misunderstand the above, to imagine I have said more than I have.  I do not claim that there are no differences between science and religion, or that any particular religion is fully compatible with modern science, or that science is or was dependent on religion.  Only that the two are members of common family, while the Enlightenment is something sui generis and hostile to both.  One may grant that Sunni and Shia Islam are incompatible and even that their differences are quite important.  Nevertheless, a Bolshevik is not likely to be impressed with these differences, and the Sunni and Shiite can expect similar treatment from him.  It is notable, is it not, how different are the clashes between science and religion vs. those between science and humanities?  Religious believers may object to particular scientific theories, but post-modernists are usually the only ones to condemn the scientific enterprise itself as somehow corrupt in its essence.

Yellow Peril?

Malcolm Pollack has found a fascinating essay by a weak student in China who went to England and outperformed all the locals.

As bright as he was, he found himself badly outperformed at this new school. When the first year’s final exam came along, he finished second from the bottom. He simply couldn’t keep up with the brilliant students all around him, and so he asked his parents to send him abroad. They did.

The young Mr. Yao ended up in England, where he flourished. There, he scored first nationwide in the high-school math exam, and was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge.

We read:

Three years later, I graduated with first class honors and got a job offer from Goldman’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity division, the division founded by my hero Rubin. It seemed like whatever I wished would simply come true. But inside, I feared that one day these glories would pass. After all, not long ago, I was at the bottom of my class in China. And if I could not even catch up with my classmates in a city few people have even heard of, how am I now qualified to go to Cambridge University or Goldman? Have I gotten smarter? Or is it just that British people are stupider than the Chinese?

There are 1.4 billion people in China: almost half again as many as in the United States and Europe combined, with a slightly higher average IQ. Given such a large number of people, and the way distributions at the tails of bell-curves work, it does not take much of an edge in IQ for the number of Chinese at the far-right end of the curve to be far in excess of the numbers in the West.

On the positive side, from the rest of the article, it seems these Chinese geniuses are less susceptible to some of the Western psycho-moralistic gibberish.

I’ve been on the admissions committee of my department’s graduate program for about half a decade.  Each year, we get over a hundred applicants, including many from China:  their transcripts, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and personal essays.  I’ve got a pretty good base of knowledge to compare Western, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern physics students.  Here is my take on the Chinese.

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The tribal Catholic on the value of loyal intellectuals

Professor Grisez, architect of the New Natural Law Theory, died on February 1st.  From a tribal Catholic point of view, the relative merits of this version of natural law theory are of less concern than Grisez’ clear and unwavering loyalty to the Church.  This particularly stands out in the affair over contraception, during which most of the Church’s intellectuals betrayed her and made common cause with the Enemy.  Because tribalism is a matter of will rather than intellect, it allows a great deal of intellectual diversity, and it is notable that some of the most distinguished defenders of the Church during these dark times have made creative departures from orthodox Thomism.  Dietrich von Hildebrand rejected the Thomist framework for ethics altogether but still became a hero to traditionalists.  Grisez was not nearly so radical, but he and the other New Natural Law theorists are addressing a real problem, that there is serious work to be done in getting moral duties from natural teleology–our version of the jump from “is” to “ought”.  A Catholic tribalist might not be convinced that splitting off human goods from an integrated teleology actually helps solve this problem, but he will always distinguish friends who are trying (with perhaps mixed success) to address a real intellectual challenge to the Faith from enemies whose goal is to dilute our religion and to subjugate us to some hostile ideology.  Just as a nation based on blood can allow more ideological diversity than one based on a sacred proposition, tribal Catholics can venture more safely into foreign philosophical waters.

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