Some Laws of Natural Philosophy and Sir Isaac Newton (1687) Part 4
December 27, 2015
‘Do not Allow what is Good and True to be Spoken of ill’ – St Paul – Romans
Indeed there were no other formats in which to preserve an anceient wisdom for ancient peoples, so as to lay it out in an explanatory fashion, but this is not to say that a great depth and breath of thought and experience from an ancient culture was not able to be captured and made transferable down the generations. I’ll say it again – our ancestors were not fools because of the facts that they had no computers, no cars, no spaceflight.
Newton himself supremely was no fool. He was known to be combative and cantankerous, to hold onto and cherish, and even to nurture grievances, rivalries, and hatreds; he was volatile and reclusive, greatly unsocial, and obnoxiously proud: but he was not a person who would spend the best part of his life investigating and expositing nonsense and old wives’ tales. So please do not dismiss his alchemical and numerological studies as being unfortunate and slightly embarrassing aberrations.
To be to the point; Newton saw the astounding felicitousness inherent in the natural laws he discovered at work around him. Do take note he discovered them; and did not in any way invent them. He was an observer of how things happen and drew those laws out and formulated them from observations and experiments, teased them from a hitherto obscurity in which they had been veiled to human beings. This is important. The evidence shows that human reasoning began in a dark place into which over the course of time light has been let in by our human probing for understanding of the place into which we find ourselves born.
The great and generous wet-nurse, who nurtures this light growing up in human minds, has been, first and foremost, nature. Shakespeare writes of his dramatic art that it is the art of one who is ‘holding up a mirror to nature’ and this figure of speech fits precisely with what appears to me to be indisputable. This is, that our human reasoning, is nothing other than a product of anxious human enquiry having formed the human mind in the image of nature, copying in its reasoning and understanding the imprint of that which nature has revealed to it.
The evolution of our levels of understanding and of our seeing the world have altered and sometimes gained ground (but with an accompanying loss of other good ground all too often) over the course of time, as if a curtain were being drawn back on new aspects we had not before seen. The post industrial age of the present is very big on science and gives the leading role to it in the continuing drama of human advancement. But the arts, Shakespeare’s drama and Beethoven’s music and such, are not to be put aside. They are not without epiphanies and apotheoses. Remember the stories about Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ and about the Ancient Hebrews and their authors’ prescient perspicacities.
Art in certain ways goes before science. Fifth century Greek tragedy reveals all there is to discover out of modern psychiatry and psychology. Has anyone surpassed Beethoven in his ‘Holy Song of Thanks’ of the Late Quartets, in any field of human endeavour? Yet art is not a competition or an exposition; it is a ‘hymn to creation’ as much as it is culture and tradition.
But for us nowadays for the most part whereabouts science goes and is leading us is considered the cutting edge of life, as we like to understand life. And so our reasoning faculties, being (a construct founded upon) a ‘mirror’ held up to nature, and the present angle of light hitting it being reflective (refractive?) of science most clearly, our biases and forms of thought and outlooks show up their scientific preferences.
Science then for us has achieved a standing - a little like that of the US dollar; as the currency of choice for the world - where human reasoning is concerned. Just as there are other currencies, some of them being strong and sound to invest in, so there are other lights than science by which to view the world and to base foundational useful valid understandings of the world upon.
Newton knew this, and his arcane studies, although to our modern understanding ‘a priori’ are considered unprofitable, were and are still to those who are able to enter into their complexities, able to yield up treasures and revelations we can only scoff at by a dismissal of the point of the whole exercise
Now let us stand halfway between alchemical occult studies and the clear definition of truth which science provides for most of us. The halfway point I propose as being a familiar use and a fluent understanding of figurative language. This halfway point has the beauty of being on just the right side of the fringes acceptability by our age, and at the same time it has one foot on the borders of the camp of magic and sorcery.
Indeed there have been many poets and dramatists whose claim was that figurative language is sometimes able to say things that flat description struggles to articulate.
Try this item for the mood it creates for instance:
‘Absent thee felicity awhile’
To capture the precise texture of that saying in plain flat language is so very difficult to do. Undoubtedly such a texture has a truth value within its context of the literature it comes from; and this contextual; appropriateness is what literary persons call its ‘verisimilitude’. (It is true that when a person reads or hears it said but is not well-versed in the background and language from which comes the phrase, then such an ambient texture is not created in their apprehensions, and its power as an imaginative evocation are lost to them.) Such imaginative evocations are the nearest thing to magical works being available to persons dwelling in many economically advanced societies of the world in the present day. They are evocations which remain generally just about plausible as ‘exceptions’ to the ruler and setsquare of scientific verisimilitude, which people call truth. Maybe this exceptional acceptability arises because most people retain at least a vestigial appreciation for a good turn of phrase which lights up the fancy?
Just as ‘Get by in Welsh’ is not a substitute for being a fluent Welsh speaker, just as an ‘English Phrase Book’ cannot supplant ‘The Oxford Dictionary’. In the same way persons not fluent in use and application of their imaginative understanding and intelligence is like them having no proficiency in a language. The deficit is very akin in many ways to a lack of facility in handling figurative tropes and excursive metaphors.
Neither knowing language and attaining a grasp of figurative tropes, are the natural state of men and women. Both can be and have to be learned from ones who are proficient in them. Both take considerable commitment – of time and persistence and diligence. There is also an ever-extending learning curve to both. Like Augustine’s humility, devoted study of any discipline is ‘endless’.
Now some persons are indifferent to imaginative use of language, say like a person who has turned away from it and depreciates it as being ‘too fancy’ and ‘not for me’, just like that earthy soap opera character who said of tipped cigarettes ‘They’re for women and vicars’.
For a person then, to dismiss occult studies like those Newton dedicated himself to, or for that matter, for them to rubbish poetry and to ridicule all astounding evocative eloquence; this is to set one’s face against a valid, life-enhancing and revelatory aspect of truth. This aspect of truth is as valid, life-enhancing and revelatory as the study of science is able to be – and perhaps even more so? As Professor Dumbledore says to an apparently deceased Harry Potter:
‘Just because it is happening inside your head doesn’t mean it isn’t real.’
Loss or rejection of such a faculty, or of the potential to grow such a faculty, is (to use an anatomical similitude) like allowing one’s leg to be cut off. A person is considerably less equipped to face life without it. The idiom goes: ‘It is a closed book’.