Monday, April 21, 2008

Christopher Hitchens, with whose writing I have a bit of a love-hate relationship, has offered up a review in Vanity Fair of Peter Ackroyd’s new ‘biography’ of Isaac Newton. I put ‘biography’ in quotes, because Ackroyd does not here aspire to pen anything new – either analytically or synthetically – about the life of Newton. Ackroyd has a little project he has created for himself called ‘Ackroyd’s Brief Lives’ in which he gives his readers nutshell biographies. Ackroyd is a good writer who fancies himself great. Ironically, if he did not fancy himself great, he actually would be. Unfortunately, his constant and all too transparent attempts at crafting a witty turn of phrase undo his efforts. Sometimes, Mr. Ackroyd, less is more.

I am not here going to review Mr. Ackroyd’s passably good book. At the Amazon price, the book is worth the expenditure. However, for the reader who has the will to expend more effort (and a little more money), I rather recommend the combination of two studies of Newton, which together make a complete picture of the man. First is Richard S. Westfall’s Never at Rest, a brilliant and scholarly account of Newton qua natural philosopher. This should be read, however, along with Betty-Jo Teeter Dobbs’s The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought. Dobbs introduced the world to Newton’s mystical side, an aspect which had been nearly sanitized from accounts of Newton from immediately after his death up until the second half of the twentieth century. Dobbs shows us Newton the biblical exegete, Newton the prophet, and Newton the alchemist. These aspects of Newton, according to Hitchens (if my ‘reading-between-the-lines’ spectacles have not deceived me), would have been better off ignored or lost entirely to the dust of history.

Hitchens's review is, in fact, not a review at all. It is yet another of his diatribes against any and all religious belief. By my count, Hitchens spends only 40% of his allotted word count actually discussing the book. A not-insignificant portion of the remainder of the piece comprises puerile autobiographical ramblings about his boyhood in Cambridge. But for the most part, the rest of the review is spent coloring his readers’ impressions of Newton, by way of that most-wonderful of fallacies: poisoning the well.

The book review, as a literary object, has as its purpose the analysis and estimation of the contents of the book it purports to be reviewing. It is not the job of the reviewer to spew forth opinions about (in this case) the subject of the book, Isaac Newton. Hitchens’s subject is Ackroyd’s book about Newton, not Newton himself. But Hitchens quite ably manages to color Ackroyd’s future reader’s impressions by calling Newton a bigot, a misogynist, and a number of other epithets. Such a manner of seeing Newton belies an attitude towards history which historians themselves have all but done away with, an attitude which Herbert Butterfield (another Cambridge alumnus with whom Hitchens is apparently shamefully unfamiliar) labeled “the whig interpretation of history.”

“Whigishness” in history is that tendency to assume that the only important parts of history worth discussing are those events which led to the situation in which we now live. In the history of science, this led (in the 19th and early 20th centuries) historians to ignore such things as alchemy, which had been thrown into the dustbin of history. Newton’s biographies, as I mentioned above, all glossed over or entirely ignored any reference to alchemy or any other “dead end” subjects such as religion. However, since the publication in 1966 of an article titled “Newton and the Pipes of Pan,” historians of science have become far more interested in the more mystical side of Newton (and Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, and many, many more such figures). They have come to understand that Newton cannot be understood apart from these aspects.

In Hitchens’s distorted and ahistorical view, Newton was brilliant in spite of his religious, alchemical or mystical tendencies. In reality, Newton likely would not have made his numerous discoveries without those tendencies. We might be able to separate Francis Crick’s boorishness from his science, but Newton’s mysticism cannot be separated from his natural philosophy. Newton's misogyny and anti-Catholic views are nothing unusual for the the time period in question. Newton supported the Glorious Revolution, a decidedly anti-Catholic turn of events. The fact that the Glorious Revolution succeeded suggests that many, many more people supoorted it as well. Newton does not seem so strange given the circumstances. Furthermore, given his abndonment by his mother, and his hatred for her, his views towards women are not so strange either. Someone with a better grasp of history than Hitchens would know these things.