was newton an astrologer?

From time to time I've heard it suggested that Isaac Newton was an astrologer (most recently in the comments section here), usually by way of implying that, if Newton thought astrology was OK, then it must be. Now, Newton is viewed as being one of those thinkers responsible for sparking the Age of Enlightenment and a significant contributor to the 'Scientific Revolution', so it seems a bit unlikely that he'd be deeply into the rather unscientiific tenets of astrology – but not impossible. As the late Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, it's rather unfair to view thinkers who lived hundreds of years ago through lenses focused on today. So I looked a bit more deeply.

Fortunately it's fairly easy to check these claims out. For example, Cambridge University holds a very large collection of Newton's papers, available in digitisal format. The astronomical section, which might reasonably be expected to contain notes or commentary on matters astrological, doesn't appear to do so; nor does the section of 'notes' & copies of letters on general astronomical topics. (I hadn't realised Newton was into the chronology of 'ancient kingoms': Greeks, Medes & Persians, & so on.) Cosmography and astronomy =/= astrology.

In addition, Robert van Gent has looked into the issue rather carefully. He notes that

One of the foremost Newton scholars, the English historian of science Derek Thomas Whiteside, has stated that he never found any reference to astrology among the 50 million words which have been preserved from Newton's hand.

Newton had a sizeable library of at least 1752 books – but surprisingly, while we rightly remember him for his major contributions to mathematics, physics, and astronomy, van Gent found that there were just

126 (7.2%) on mathematics, 52 (3.0%) on physics and only 33 (1.9%) on astronomy.

There were also just four books about astrology, one of which was a rebuttal of its claims. It's also noteworthy that Newton himself apparently commented to his nephew, who was gathering material for a biography, that he

was "soon convinced of the vanity & emptiness of the pretended science of Judicial astrology" 

after his early studies in geometry and calculus.

Was Newton an astrologer? No.

6 thoughts on “was newton an astrologer?”

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Easy to claim all sorts of things once someone’s dead, isn’t it? The fib about Darwin’s ‘deathbed recantation’ springs to mind; also the anti-fluoride activists’ claim that 14 Nobel prizewinners opposed fluoride, therefore bad. When you look into it, most on the list of 14 are dead & 14 is a very small sample of the total (& we could assume that the rest were either in favour or offered no opinion).

    • Only if one’s impression is that the lead and the gold from and to which transmutation was sought have entries in the periodic table. I doubt that Newton took that view since he dismissed it as twaddle early on yet pursued the subject for the rest of his life.
      Per Wikipedia article “Hermeticism”:
      “Alchemy is not merely the changing of lead into gold. It is an investigation into the spiritual constitution, or life, of matter and material existence through an application of the mysteries of birth, death, and resurrection. The various stages of chemical distillation and fermentation, among other processes, are aspects of these mysteries that, when applied, quicken nature’s processes in order to bring a natural body to perfection. This perfection is the accomplishment of the magnum opus (Latin for “Great Work”).

      Astrology (the operation of the stars): Hermes claims that Zoroaster discovered this part of the wisdom of the whole universe, astrology, and taught it to man. In Hermetic thought, it is likely that the movements of the planets have meaning beyond the laws of physics and actually hold metaphorical value as symbols in the mind of The All, or God. Astrology has influences upon the Earth, but does not dictate our actions, and wisdom is gained when we know what these influences are and how to deal with them.”

      “In 1925, Einstein went on a walk with a young student named Esther Salaman. As they wandered, he shared his core guiding intellectual principle: “I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are just details.”

      As one says, the Devil is in the details…

  • Newton studied Music at University. Part of the Music program was astrology. Ergo, Newton knew all about astrology. By the time that Edmund Halley went to university astrology had been removed from the curricula on religious grounds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *