Sententiae viri ex temporibus duobus

The Stunning Brilliance That Was Sir Isaac Newton


“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”
– Alexander Pope

A recent Wikipedia article of the day sent along notice that the anniversary of the publication of Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” had just past. I thought I would take a look at the original text and see what my substantial investment in Latin education seine me of it. Google Books has a fine scan with the Le Seur commentaries.

I was taking a look at De Mundi Systematae: Liber Tertius and saw several small postulates that were exceedingly brief and nowhere as complicated as the language in the rest of the text.

In philosophia experimentali, propositiones ex phaenomenis per inductionem collectae, non obstantibus contrariis hypothesibus, pro veris aut accurate aut quamproxime haberi debent, donec alia occurrerint phaenomena, per quae aut accuratiores reddantur aut exceptionibus obnoxiae.

My basic 4-semesters-of-Latin Translation

In experimental philosophy, propositions collected from phenomena through an observational process must be held either as true, or as close to it as possible – existing contrary hypotheses notwithstanding – until such time as other phenomena occur by which they [the propositions] may be more accurately given or be found erroneous.

Regula IV: Regulae Philosophandi: Isaac Newton

The modern might casually assert “No duh,” but this is to give too-short a shrift to the intellectual milieu of the era.

Consider that Newton’s fairly erudite audience – they could read Newtonian Latin, mind you, and that was a relatively small, educated population – lacked sufficient default orientation toward this foundation of scientific reasoning. They lacked it to the extent that Newton had to teach the reader to think scientifically before he could expect him to even consider the revolutionary theories of physics contained earlier in the book. It’s almost like when someone makes a highly contentious blog post and then, to head off the trolls, tries to help the trolls orient themselves so as to minimize unnecessary, follow-up correspondence.

Wikipedia has a translation of Newton’s propositions as well.

Newton was urging us to eschew magical thinking, at least in the realm of natural philosophy. We should have no allegiance to any model any longer than until the data contravenes the model’s existence. But as a deist, or perhaps a latent alchemist, Newton realized that his laws of motion left him open to procedural complaints from Galiean neo-Platonist critique as well as rationalist ontological complaints from the Scholastics. Curiously, he had to defy both ends of the spectrum and find a middle way that both required the non-visible and non-mechanistic, but which also embraced a neo-Platonic / Galilean model of law forming science.

On top of all that he had the humility to say he was a standing on the shoulders of giants!