Newton in the Letters to Serena

The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. Toland fully accepted Newton’s physics. In fact he was one of the first writers to bring word of Newton’s science into France. However, he argued that Newton’s interpretation of his own laws was not the only possible interpretation.

The acceptance of Newton’s physics in Letters to Serena by the most notorious freethinker of the time had the effect of making Newton somewhat suspect to orthodox Anglicans. The first edition of Opticks (1704) had only sixteen queries; Newton added seven more between 1704 and the 1706 Latin version. However, there is in existence an early draft of the twenty-third query which differs significantly from the later (published) version. Thus Newton wrote and rewrote this query between the publication of Serena, and the Latin edition of Opticks in 1706. Here he tried to grapple with the significance of Toland’s hylozoism [the doctrine that all matter has life]. The draft version of the twenty-third query states:

it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deity for its laws of motion as well as for its existence. These are passive laws and to affirm that there are no others is to speak against experience. …all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life.

This text does not appear in the final version of query twenty-three. As the person who had given the English ruling class its ideological justification, publicly stating that ‘all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life’ would have undermined the status quo and aligned Newton with Toland and the heretic Bruno! One suspects that Newton may have become a prisoner of his own ideology, trapped in the cul-de-sac of orthodoxy.

From Philip McGuinness (1996) ‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists, History Ireland, Issue 4.

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