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Modernity, alchemy and Keynes

2012 August 23

Occasionally I am authorized, by virtue of my studio’s name, to post something simply because it touches on the subject of alchemy. And along those lines, I feel like sharing this fascinating note from one of my current reads, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid.

I’ve known for several years at least that Sir Isaac Newton, best known today for his contributions to mathematics and physics and, by extension, to modern concepts of a rational, mechanistic universe, was in fact at least as interested in alchemical ideas which now seem decidedly metaphysical at best and outright crackpot-bunk at worst. And I suppose I mostly took it for granted that this dichotomy has been recognized for as long as there has been anything like the contemporary scientific thinking on which the very perception of that dichotomy rests, in the first place.

Apparently, however, this is a more recent portrait of Newton than I expected, but let Pollard and Reid take up the story:

Alchemy was largely scorned and dismissed by modern scientists until the great economist John Maynard Keynes bought a box full of papers in 1936 at an auction at Sotheby’s in London. The papers dismissed as of “no scientific value” when offered to Cambridge University fifty years earlier had been written by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. They were almost all concerned with his lifetime passion for alchemy, and they so amazed Keynes that he felt it necessary to entirely redraw the established view of who Newton was and how his mind worked. In 1942 Keynes addressed a distinguished group of members of the Royal Society:

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago…”

So, not only was the scientist Newton also an alchemist, but our knowledge of this fascinating additional side of the man is thanks to another famous thinker’s curious and unexpected interest; the economist John Maynard Keynes, it turns out, was a picker.

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