Biography 26.3 (2003) 471-473
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As Patricia Fara explains at the outset, this is not yet another biography of Newton. Instead, it is an account of the way in which he has been viewed since his period, and the way in which he has come to be acclaimed as a "scientific genius." In a series of chapters with one-word titles such as "Sanctity," "Icons," "Genius," "Myths," and "Inheritors," each arranged partly chronologically but partly thematically, we traverse the period from Newton's time to our own. Thus we hear how Newton was idolized in the eighteenth century, not only in Britain but also in France, which receives a whole chapter in its own right. There is a lengthy discussion of his iconography, in which the significance is stressed of mass-produced objects, as against originals, in propagating his image. There are chapters on his early disciples, and on such [End Page 471] enemies as George Berkeley, Georg Wilhelm Leibniz, and the followers of John Hutchinson. A chapter on "Genius" seeks at once to understand how the modern conception of genius emerged, and how it was associated with Newton. Finally, three chapters deal with Newton's image in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing particularly on the stories—true or apocryphal—which circulated about him and the places with which he was associated, before surveying the impact of Einstein and the conflicting images of Newton presented by such figures as Boris Hessen, Maynard Keynes, and even Michael White.
On many topics, the book has interesting things to say, often deriving from an existing secondary literature on the subject in hand. Thus the chapter on "Disciples" evokes such eccentric Newtonians of the first generation as William Whiston and George Cheyne. Fara also has a good deal to say about the way in which poets responded to Newton, echoing Marjorie Hope Nicolson's classic Newton Demands the Muse (1946). On developments in France, her exposition of the way in which Newton here became an icon of a kind of abstract rationality is good, as is her account of the architectural projects of Boullée and others. In her treatment of nineteenth-century views of Newton, she illustrates how certain slightly unlikely aspects of the mythology of the great man were picked up and propagated—particularly the apocryphal story of his equanimity at the destruction of his manuscripts by his dog, Diamond. Equally striking is the great play that his Victorian devotees made of the humility encapsulated in Newton's famous comment in which he likened himself to a boy playing on the seashore, picking out pebbles that took his fancy whilst the ocean of truth lay undiscovered. Then, Fara amusingly retails the rivalry between Cambridge and Lincolnshire in celebrating this famous son in the nineteenth century.
The best chapters of the book succeed in giving a lucid account of a complex topic: that on eighteenth-century France is a case in point. Others, however, are confused and confusing. For instance, the chapter on "Genius" is ultimately rather inconclusive, with the author declaring herself unable to discern a clear pattern in the developments that she outlines. Similarly, the chapter on "Myths" is meandering and poorly focused: the reader would have benefited from a clear chronological account of the emergence of the various myths about the great man prior to their analysis, rather than having the two mixed together in a slightly idiosyncratic manner. Other chapters show a lack of real understanding of the topics broached in them. Part of the problem with the "Genius" chapter is that the author seems not to have a proper "feel" for the history of ideas, and this lack of grasp for a subject is particularly marked in the chapter on iconography, where, although [End Page 472] quick to criticize others, she has a less clear understanding of the interrelationship of different types of images produced for different audiences than many of those she takes to task. This leads...