Quote of the Day: Voltaire on Newton

Every now and then, I dip into The Literary Guide to the Bible, which contains essays on every canonical book of the Bible. They range in quality, but some are excellent. Including Bernard McGinn's essay on Revelation, which includes this deathless Voltaireism:

The great age of English commentary on Revelation did not end with the Restoration, but there was little innovative thought….  Isaac Newton perfected the mathematical approach to prophetic calculations of world history with a monotony that led Voltaire to remark that "Sir Isaac Newton wrote his comment upon the Revelation to console mankind for the great superiority he had over them in other respects."

2 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Voltaire on Newton

  1. One wonders what the hyper-‘rationalist’ scientific leaders of the present day would have made of Issac Newton should he unaccountably pop up in the 20th century. Not only the greatest scientist of all time but arguably the greatest central banker of all time, the man who made the British pound into the soundest currency on earth.

    And a religious nutcase by present-day standards.

    Even more interesting is what Newton might have made of them.

    Yet there is fewer differences between Newton and present-day scientists than one might believe. Newton lived in an age of revelation and prophecy. So do we.

    Not overtly Christian prophecy (in the present day) but prophecy all the same. We prophesize global catastrophe much as Newton and his contemporaries did, only the mechanisms vary. In our case it is global warming, predicted upon the basis of rhter uncertain data (computer models). I’ve worked with computers for 30 years, and know that the accuracy of such models is limited by the accuracy of the data and of the algorithms one uses to analyze the data.

    Both are suspect, perhaps as suspect as the premises Sir Isaac used in his prophetic writings. Yet our modern prophets persist in their predictions of Armageddon even in the face of actual global cooling in recent years.

    Makes one wonder what the verdict will be about the present age in 2300. Will we look as nutty to our great-great-grandchildren as Newton and his contemporaries appear to us today?

    It’s possible – even likely…..


  2. I have a copy of Alter’s and Kermode’s Literary Guide to the Bible at home that I’ve used now and then, usually with pleasure because of its readability. Both religious and non-religious readers may find instruction in it. It sets several high goals, ranging from emulation of Auerbach’s Mimesis to freeing (I almost wrote “cleansing”) the Bible from “dangerous and atavistic” fundamentalism.

    The latter is partly McGinn’s intention, and with that in mind the reader may, indeed, find instruction in his chapter on Revelation.

    Regarding the Voltaire quote, note that the source may be questionable, as the author took it from Bishop Newton, who quoted it in his Dissertations on the Prophecies. Admittedly, it does sound Voltairean.

    I don’t agree with McGinn’s characterization of Newton as having “perfected the mathematical approach to prophetic calculations of world history with a monotony…” and so on.

    Of course, Newton greatly advanced natural science by his reliance on mathematics, but one shouldn’t forget his empiricism. While Galileo and Descartes saw the structure of reality as mathematical, Newton never made such an assumption. You can’t draw conclusions about reality from mathematical abstractions unless you find a way to verify them. You have to return to empirical phenomena and use experimental verification to test deductions about reality arrived at by mathematical means.

    So, Voltaire is off track, though entertaining as always.


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