Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2018 Issue

Sir Isaac Newton and the Philosopher's Stone

10e8b740-1190-47a6-847b-f8a069b6c811

Manuscript handwritten by Isaac Newton.

The University of Illinois reported that it had recently obtained an important late 17th century document for its Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It did not come cheaply. They paid $275,000 for it at an auction at Bonham's. It was funded by a gift of $500,000 from university graduates Jim and Lionelle Elsesser. It will not be put on display, other than at an unveiling ceremony later this summer, but will be made physically available to scholars and digitized for the rest of the world to see.

 

The document is a handwritten manuscript, eight pages in length, headed Opus Galli Anonymi. That's Latin for "Anonymous Work of the Gauls." It presents detailed instructions for creating the philosopher's stone, the miraculous substance that can turn lead to gold. Of course, it doesn't. If it actually told us how to prepare it, this would be worth a lot more than $275,000. For centuries, people sought this wondrous substance that would make them rich. It does not exist, though perhaps someday we will figure out how to split apart lead atoms and turn them to gold.

 

You may think this document was prepared by some 17th century alchemist, a pseudo-scientist kook fruitlessly seeking riches. It was not. It was created by one of the greatest scientific minds that ever lived. This manuscript was handwritten by that great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. As the heading suggests, it was not Newton's original work. He copied it from some French writer, quite possibly translated it as well. We don't know who the author was as no record of it has shown up anywhere else. It must not have been published. However, this does not mean that Newton contributed nothing more than a scribe. It has numerous deletions and replacements. Either he added something to it, or was such a poor scribe or translator that he had to constantly correct his work.

 

That still leaves us with the question, what was a legitimate scientist like Newton doing playing around with alchemy? Einstein didn't do that. I guess Newton was no Einstein? Well, actually he was, just in another time. We didn't have a completely separate field for science back then, let alone each separate type of science. There weren't chemists, physicists, astronomers, geologists, alchemists, theologians, and philosophers. They were all philosophers, sometimes with separate specialties, but all philosophers. That's why it was the philosopher's stone, not the alchemist's stone. Newton wrote about physics and chemistry and theology because he was a philosopher. They were all aspects of the same universe to him.

 

Newton dabbled in alchemy, not so much to get rich, as to make discoveries. He thought gravity might be related to some chemical reaction, and what is today chemistry and alchemy were particularly closely related. Besides which, it was thought the philosopher's stone could do other amazing things, such as granting the possessor immortality.

 

Newton was also deeply religious, at least by today's standards, though some of his views were sufficiently unorthodox in his day he feared for his life if he revealed them. Nevertheless, God figures prominently in the operation of his universe, making the various heavenly bodies move in a predictable manner. Gravity doesn't just happen without a thinking mind behind it. Scientists today would not speak of it this way, but in the age when all fields were combined into philosophy, one could readily move from one to another. Newton was a child of his time, a brilliant one, but still bound by his connection to the 17th century. One can only wonder what he would have come up with had he lived today.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions