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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Apocalypse Now and Then Seminar - Eschatological languages: Newton's 'Principia Mathematica' and the End of the World

7th February 2011, 17:30 to 18:30, IAS Seminar Room, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green, Professor Robert Iliffe, University of Sussex

Every historian of early modern science knows that Newton's Principia Mathematica was composed between the famous meeting with Edmond Halley in the summer of 1684, and the dispatch of Book Three in the spring of 1687. Various versions of the great work are found in the hand of Humphrey Newton, Isaac's (unrelated) amanuensis between 1683 and 1688. Although most of Newton's unpublished writings are not precisely datable, material in Humphrey's hand shows that during the same period he wrote his masterwork, he was writing monumental and original treatises on both pre-Christian religion and on the Apocalypse.

In early versions of the Principia, Newton aimed to show that the Ancients had been Newtonians, and that this religion had become corrupted by the Greeks and their descendants. The Principia thus served simultaneously as a rediscovery of original truths and also as a way of decoding the veiled references to the true philosophy found in the writings of the Ancients. His overtly anti-Catholic tract on Revelation was almost certainly composed during the fraught period in English history when James II was attempting to insert large numbers of Catholics into colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. As a radical protestant, Newton envisaged that the demise of Catholicism and the Second Coming were near at hand, though not so imminent as some of his more enthusiastic contemporaries believed.

This paper considers various similarities and differences between the Principia and his treatise on Revelation. Major elements within each project are in striking contrast: for example, the epistemological presuppositions, language and visual features of these texts are evidently alien to each other. However each work contains within it a chronological account that posits both a beginning and end to history. In both cases, Newton situated himself at the end of history, firstly as someone who had been specially chosen to reveal the truth about Christianity, and secondly as someone who, at last, had restored the lost science that had been known to the Ancients.

Depictions of apocalypse - understood as revelation and/or the end of the world, in both religious and secular discourses - serve a variety of functions, ranging from the political to the scientific, and the theological to the anthropological. They can reinforce or subvert power structures, interrogate what it is to be human, and figure the future in order to reflect on the present. This interdisciplinary seminar series brings together experts from a number of disciplines to reflect on two intertwined themes. The first explores the functions served by end-of-world narratives and pictures, that is, it focuses on why apocalyptic stories are told rather than on what particular stories are told. The second analyses the ways in which the apocalyptic is characterized by a relationship with particular sorts of form, language and image, for example, metaphors and fictions, pictures, performances, and poems.

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