As the title of his book, F. Freistetter, Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe (Prometheus, 2018) indicates, Isaac Newton was a genius and a jerk. People are complex and how we deal with them matters. Quakers have their jerks and geniuses as well. We all face the human challenge of dealing with both aspects in each of us.
As a jerk, Newton was a consistently abrasive, difficult, resentful, mean, secretive, antisocial, obnoxious, sneaky, and conniving person. Recognizing that Newton was a jerk, the story Freistetter relates is not one-sided. The Newton controversy with the great chemist Robert Hooke had two sides, neither completely wrong and both partly and importantly correct, but neither was generous. The controversy with mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz about the priority of inventing calculus was similarly two-sided.
As a genius, Newton revolutionized physics and our view of the universe. He defined the fields of light and optics, created the concept of gravity, and developed a new language with which to communicate, all of which is foundational for optics and physics today.
Despite the genius, Newton spent the majority of his lifetime in the study of Bible chronology, searching for secret, coded knowledge and in experimentation with alchemy in a search for understanding the universe.
Newton was recognized and rewarded for his genius as president of the Royal Society and Warden of the Royal Mint. He was tolerated for being a jerk during his lifetime, before being buried in Westminster Abbey in death.
The book’s endnotes are interesting and spicy. The index is satisfactory for navigating the text. The reader is aided with an appended chronology of Newton’s life. Notably, there is an excellent Books and Resources appendix as a guide to the vast literature on Newton.
In order to avoid dismissal of this book as unserious, due to its title, the author’s credentials need an inspection, which he passes. The author is a well-known author of several books on astronomy and a recognized astronomer. He is also a fine writer,
In addition to the story of a difficult and brilliant person, the author provides a clear, simple, non-technical explanation of Newton’s contributions to human understanding of the universe of the big (planets) and small (apples). The resulting internal story is worth reading for adults and children with inquiring minds.
Apparently, Newton had no contact with, or view about, Quakers, who were established and grew during Newton’s life. Newton and Quakers lived and responded to the same geography and time period as determined religious persons with strong views, but they were ships passing in the night. Despite no direct contact, positive or negative, they were parallel in their groping to understand their shared reality, emphasizing personal experience, veneration of the role of the Bible, dismissal of institutional traditions and social conventions, and respect for the application of reason in religious matters.
For comparison, George Fox was a consistently abrasive, difficult, obnoxious, and resentful person. While being a jerk, George Fox was a genius of a different kind in a different field of human exploration, and he developed a vocabulary with which to communicate it to others.
Few would ever give consent to either Fox or Newton to marry their granddaughter. Except for the guest’s prestige, few would invite them easily to dinner. Both were incapable of apology. There is no evidence or testimony that either did a kindness to anyone in their life. Yet both attracted supporters who appreciated their genius in the search for truth and communicating it.
- How do Quakers manage abrasive people in our lives?
- How does “that of God in all humans” inform our Quaker approach to abrasive persons?
- How do we distinguish difficult persons from their gifts?
Freistetter, Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe (2018)