“And All Was Light”

Larry Stewert reviews The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture by Mordechai Feingold, in American Scientist:

NewtonThe exhibits of Newton’s works at Cambridge University Library in 2001 and at the New York Public Library from October 8, 2004, to February 5, 2005, were of note, among other reasons, for the attention they drew to a December 2004 auction of rare Newton manuscripts. Mordechai Feingold has, meanwhile, created a lavishly illustrated and immensely entertaining companion volume to the New York display of Newton’s great achievement. The book serves to demonstrate that the rationalism of the European Enlightenment, which was marked by upheaval in America and in France, was defined in such large measure by the conception and diffusion of Newton’s great works in mathematics and physics that the epoch could be viewed as the Newtonian Moment.

Here is a Newton deified, not only in a state funeral at Westminster Abbey (rare for a philosopher) but also by endless numbers of paintings and engravings of the great man—some of which Newton himself distributed. Gentlemanly experimental philosophers, even amateur ones, later took pains when having their own portraits painted to have apparatus and portraits of Newton and Bacon in the background. Thomas Jefferson was so smitten that he obtained one of the few copies of Newton’s death mask made in 1727. The colossus of Newton strode across the 18th century, subduing nature, even as Alexander Pope eulogized him with this couplet: “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night. / God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was Light.”

More here.