What is it about?

Isaac Newton is mostly known as a scientist - or natural philosopher, as it was called in the seventeenth century - and mathematician. Yet he spent most of his time studying theology, the prophecies in the Bible, the history of the church, ancient mythology, and alchemical literature. Most of this he never published, but today we still have nearly all the manuscripts he produced, full of draft writings for over twelve million words. Moreover, we also have an almost full list of the books Newton had in his own library, and even some thousand of these actual books, with all the reading traces they contain. From these we can piece together a story of Newton reading, taking notes, and writing, on all sorts of topics. Together, they tell us about what Newton was interested in, how it is that most of his drafts contain mainly texts and not images, and why Newton was so reluctant to publish.

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Why is it important?

Isaac Newton was as much a scholar as he was a scientist. Today, these two fields - the sciences and the humanities - are very far removed from each other regarding the topics they research and the methods they employ to do so. With Newton, science and scholarship were intrinsically connected, both in terms of topic and methodology, as this article shows.


From the late eighteenth century, Isaac Newton has been portrayed as a paragon of rationality. His non-scientific writings - that is, those that were known - were reasoned away as the product of his dotage, things we should not take seriously. Yet the manuscripts he left tell us a very different tale. Newton was a devout albeit heterodox Christian, and to him the study of the Bible, of the Church, and of the ancient past mattered as much to him as mechanics and gravity. My article is part of a wider movement in history of science and history of scholarship that seeks to present the Newton we never knew, yet Newton as he was, thereby also shedding a different light on his science.

Cornelis J. Schilt
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: “To Improve upon Hints of Things”, Nuncius, January 2016, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/18253911-03101004.
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