Newton and the origin of civilization. (English) Zbl 1267.01022

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (ISBN 978-0-691-15478-7/hbk; 978-1-400-84518-7/ebook). xi, 528 p. (2013).
In 1728, Isaac Newton’s book The chronology of ancient kingdoms amended. To which is prefix’d, a short chronicle from the first memory of things in Europe, to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great appeared posthumously. The book presented a “drastically revised timeline for ancient civilizations, contracting Greek history by five hundred years and Egypt’s by a millennium.” In other words, it developed a novel theory of the evaluation of civilization. The two authors of the monograph under review “reconcile Isaac Newton the rational scientist with Newton the natural philosopher, alchemist, theologian, and chronologist” of ancient history. To that end, they demonstrate that a single conception of the probing character of human knowledge bound together a Newtonian triad of history, theology, and science. The first two chapters examine Newton’s youthful engagement with problems of perception and measurement. He took averages of averages against sensual errors thus handling discordant data. Hence, by the early 1680s, Newton had stabilized a complex and unique approach to the production and use of experimental or observational knowledge. His expectation was that the duties of the mathematics lecturer should include the examination of chronological matters. Scripture and prophecy should be subjected for accuracy to the exact sciences because in his opinion prophecies had a verisimilitude. He aimed for certainty in his theological work. Moreover he investigated the origins of idolatry. In the early 1700s, Newton had developed complex methods for generating what he considered to be trustworthy knowledge from otherwise doubtful data. He combined astronomical computations with textual exegesis. Newton’s chronological ideas became part of the Enlightenment cultural landscape. An agenda to dismiss his chronology and his competence as a historian, characterized many continental critiques. His radical revision of chronology – radical both for its methods and for its results – generated much controversy at the time. The authors end by saying that Newton was the last great technical chronologer to attempt a system capable of determining with precision the temporal boundaries of ancient history in its entirety (cf. p. 435). The five appendices contain useful information about Newton’s computational, astronomical methods.


01A50 History of mathematics in the 18th century
01-02 Research exposition (monographs, survey articles) pertaining to history and biography
01A70 Biographies, obituaries, personalia, bibliographies
91F10 History, political science