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Reading Newton

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Reading Newton

‘To avoid being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks… he designedly made his Principia abstruse; but yet so as to be understood by able Mathematicians’.

This quotation from a letter of Newton to William Derham (the author of Worth’s copy of Physico-theology: or, a demonstration of the being and attributes of God, from his works of creation (London, 1723)), amply summarises the initial difficulty facing readers of the Principia. It was not a reader-friendly book and nor was it designed to be. Many early readers (able mathematicians among them) complained that it was too difficult, even for them. As Newton’s correspondence demonstrates, Newton was aware of this and, while he emphasised the need of a good mathematical education to fully understand the Principia, he suggested the following shortcut to the main arguments: ‘When you have read the first 60 pages, pass on to ye 3d Book & when you see the design of that you may turn back to such Propositions as you shall have a desire to know, or peruse the whole in order if you think fit.’

1738 detail of man reading: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Different readers interpreted the Principia in different ways. David Gregory (1659-1708) provided one of the first introductions to the work for astronomers. His friend and colleague Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713) would attempt to interpret Newtonian ideas for physicians. Mathematicians such as James Stirling (1692-1770) and Colin MacLaurin (1698-1746) would provide evidence of how mathematicians read the Principia and above all William Whiston (1667-1752) would attempt to interpret Newton’s work for theologians. Worth’s collection includes contemporary guides to the Principia and Newton’s Opticks written not only for Cambridge undergraduates (as was initially the case with Whiston’s published lectures), but also the experimentally based textbooks emanating from the pens of Newtonians such as John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744) and Humphry Ditton (1675–1714), both of whom concentrated on providing summaries of Newtonian ideas for the scientifically interested public at London and beyond. Worth had books by all these authors but was, naturally, especially interested in how physicians appropriated the Principia for their own ends.


Voyage de la Louisiane… reflexions sur quelques points de sisteme de M. Newton. (Paris, 1728).
2012 May Book of the Month

Worth’s allegiance to Newton’s works and in particular to their explication by first generation Scottish and English Newtonians is clearly apparent in his library. Few continental dissenting voices are included and their inclusion is generally coincidental. An example of this is Père Antoine Laval’s (1664-1728) ‘Reflexions sur quelques points du Sisteme de M. Newton’, which is appended to Laval’s Voyage de la Louisiane (Paris, 1728), a work more probably bought because of Worth’s interest in travel literature than because of its critique of Newton. Laval, a French Jesuit, had theological reasons for questioning the Newtonian system. His lack of enthusiasm was typical of the reception of the Principia in France which is perhaps best exemplified by the relatively tardy inclusion of Newton among the Foreign Associates of the Académie des Sciences. It was Leibniz, not Newton, who was included among the three royal nominees of Louis XIV in 1699 and though Newton was elected by the Academicians themselves in the next election, it was a rather low-key affair. It was really only after Worth’s death that Newton’s theories were actively promoted in France by writers such as Voltaire.


Baillon, Jean François Baillon, (1994), ‘Aspects de l’impact culturel et idéologique de déscouvertes de Newton, Bulletin de la société d’études Anglo-Américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (38), 73-83.

Feingold, Mordechai (2004), The Newtonian Moment. Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture (New York and Oxford).

Guicciardini, Nicccolò (1999), Reading the Principia. The Debate on Newton’s Mathematical Methods for Natural Philosophy from 1687 to 1736 (Cambridge).

Hall, A. Rupert (1999), Isaac Newton. Eighteenth-Century Perspectives (Oxford).

Snobelen, Stephen D. (1998), ‘On reading Isaac Newton’s Principia in the 18th Century’, Endeavour 22 no. 4, pp 159-163.

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