Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by Edmund K. Chambers
Sir Isaac Newton (16421727)
[Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, on 25th December 1642. He was educated at Grantham and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his degree in 1665. He had already begun to make discoveries in mathematics, and it was in 1666 that the fall of the famous apple suggested to him a rudimentary theory of gravitation. This was not however finally worked out until the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687, and in the meantime he occupied himself largely with the phenomena of Light and Optics. He became a Fellow of Trinity in 1667, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1691, and its President in 1703. He always held his public duties higher than his scientific, championed his University against James II., sat in Parliament in 1689, and again for the University in 1701, and served as Master of the Mint from 1699. In 1703 he was knighted; died in 1727, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The best edition of the Principia is that by Sir W. Thomson and Professor Blackburn (1871). His Optics were published in a Latin translation in 1706, his Optical Lectures in 1728, and his Treatise on Fluxions in 1736. He also wrote several pamphlets on theological subjects. His collected Works were edited by Horsley in 17791785. The student may consult Sir David Brewsters Life of Newton (1855), and Prof. Augustus de Morgans Newton, his Friend, and his Niece (1885).]
IN the history of science, especially in its mathematical branches, the activity of Isaac Newton is one of the greatest epochs. A profundity of physical research, combined with a positive genius for the invention of new and fertile mathematical methods, enabled him to accomplish once for all the determination of that vast system of cosmic laws at which generations of explorersCopernicus, Galileo, Keplerhad been vaguely labouring. Subsequent investigation in the same field has been but the elaboration of principles which he laid down. With Aristotle and Darwin he stands in the front rank of the torch-bearers of luminous theory.
Newton has indeed but little direct claim to rank among the masters of English prose. With the exception of a few letters and theological pamphlets, his writings are all in Latin, academic instincts teaching him the inestimable value of that language as an instrument of definite and precise statement. Nor are the subjects such as to leave much room for beauty of form in their exposition. Order, lucidity, and a reverence for the syllogismyou can expect no more from a mathematician. And those same virtues of clear and cogent reasoning, are the chief qualities which Newton carries with him when he ventures into his mother tongue, and beyond the sphere of physics. Indirectly, however, he must have had a considerable influence upon the subsequent course of literature. The impulse of the scientific spirit is among the principal factors to be taken account of in examining the problem of the eighteenth-century mind; and no one had a greater share in the propagation of this impulse than Newton. Science came, as it were, to be a tonic to the exhausted energies of English literature: it strengthened the nerve, purged the brain of fantastic cobwebs, forced the eye to look at things in the broad commonplace light of day, refreshed and revitalised the whole organism, as the giant of old was refreshed and revitalised, by a healthy touch of earth. There followed a period of infertility, it is true; the manuring season is rarely rich in crops; but the harvest came in time, more swelling and more golden for the long delay. And but for the eighteenth century, with its want of poetic imagination, with its dominant scientific spirit, this rejuvenescence, this regeneration would have been impossible.