Today was a bit of an intellectual holiday. I spent a few hours sitting in the LBJ School of Foreign Affairs on the UT Campus and half-listened to students hold mock debates about hypothetical foreign policy calamities while I read the books in the building’s library.
Among other miscellany, I had the pleasure of reading an essay by John Maynard Keynes about the enigmatic Isaac Newton. The essay was titled ‘Newton, The Man’ and was originally written as a speech.
Newton, in Keynes eyes, was a tragic figure as much as he was a solitary genius, who was seduced by the apple of infinite knowledge: “This strange spirit, who was tempted by the Devil to believe, at the time when within these walls he was solving so much, that he could reach all the secrets of God and Nature by the pure power of mind—Copernicus and Faustus in one.”
I greatly enjoyed Keynes rousing summation of Sir Isaac Newton’s life.
“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”
“I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of concentrated introspection. A case can be made out, as it also can with Descartes, for regarding him as an accomplished experimentalist.”
“His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his preeminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that you are surveying a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary.”
“His experiments were always, I suspect, a means, not of discovery, but always of verifying what he knew already.”
“Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.“