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Priest of Nature

Newton's unusual - or even downright heretical - religious opinions were well known to a number of his contemporaries. For over two centuries the exact nature of his religious beliefs was a matter of intense debate, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it was public knowledge that he had held highly unorthodox conceptions of the Trinity. Until the early 1970s, very few of Newton's private theological researches had been made publicly available, and scholars did not determine his views with any precision. However, in the last few years millions of words from his previously unpublished religious writings have become publicly available, making it possible to offer a considered account of their content, and to assess what they tell us about the man. In Priest of Nature, Newton scholar Rob Iliffe does just that. Tracing Newton's life from his birth though his years as a Cambridge don, his tenure as Warden and Master of the Mint, and his twenty-four years as President of the Royal Society, up to his death in 1727, Iliffe examines how Newton managed the complex boundaries between private and public professions of belief. While previous scholars and biographers have attempted to find coherence in his intellectual pursuits, Iliffe shows how wide-ranging and catholic Newton's views and interests in fact were, and in that takes issue with those who have attempted to underestimate their range and complexity. Arguing that there is no simplistic coherence between Newton's philosophical and religious views, Priest of Nature delves into the religious writings Newton produced during his life, from his account of the sexually depraved lives of the early monks to his views about the creation of the world and the Apocalypse, and his commitment to a simple (anti-Trinitarian) doctrine that he believed had been corrupted in the first centuries of Christianity. Iliffe argues that religious commitments lay at the heart of Newton's earliest scientific research, and shows how his analysis of the techniques he used to prosecute corrupters of Christian doctrine were identical to those he used when dealing with his scientific enemies. Ultimately, Priest of Nature asserts, Newton's ambitious engagement with a tradition central to Western thought displays the same creative energy visible in his mathematical and scientific work, and despite his reluctance to follow any specific sect, he should be seen as a devout layman who made independence of thought a core virtue. Offering novel insights into the spiritual life of Newton, Priest of Nature is both a scholarly work and a vibrant biography of one of the most influential scientists in history.
Product Details

Table of Contents

Introduction ; 1. A Divine Web ; 2. A Spiritual Ant ; 3. Imaginary Physics ; 4. The Corruption of Doctrine ; 5. Abominable Men ; 6. Prisca Newtoniana ; 7. The Structure of Prophecy ; 8. The Great Apostasy ; 9. The Ends of the World ; 10. A Litigious Man ; 11. The Veryest Knave ; 12. Inquisitive Men ; Conclusion

About the Author

Rob Iliffe is Professor of History of Science at Oxford, Co-Director of the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology, a General Editor of the online Newton Project, and the author of Newton: A Very Short Introduction.


Iliffe's fascinating study provides an absorbing glimpse into Newton's work and early modern culture. * Publisher's Weekly * This book is an enormous contribution to the Newton literature and the history of science in general. It examines huge numbers of sources that were, until now, essentially unknown and provides an unparalleled contextualization of the man and his work. * Matthew Stanley, Science * [Iliffe] completely recasts the relationship of Newton's scientific inquiry to his religious beliefs, tying the two together to an unparalleled degree... finely constructed and well-written narrative makes [this] a robust portrait with broad appeal. * Wall Street Journal * We are all hugely in Rob Iliffe's debt. Few of us would have the skill, in mathematics or philosophy or divinity, nor the patience, to do what he has done, which is read through the huge extent of Newton's obsessive theological writings... so that, as well as being a punctilious, painstaking historical work of the utmost density, this book also constitutes one of the most sensational 'scoops' of recent times... This is a book which will take you several weeks to read, but the journey is worth it. * A.N. Wilson, The Spectator * A lot of handsome book with beautiful plates, for a low price by OUP. * Richard Lofthouse, Oxford Today * Fascinating new book... Priest of Nature also gives a compelling account of Newtons intellectual journey... Each of the 401 pages of the book is a testimony to the depth, breadth and subtlety of Iliffe's scholarship. For readers who want the story in a nutshell, I recommend his 2007 contribution on Newton to Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series. * Graham Farmelo, Times Higher Education * Groundbreaking study... Scholars have long known that Newton combined his work in mathematics, astronomy and physics with a passionate interest in theology. Few have explained the connections more convincingly than Iliffe. * Tony Barber, Financial Times *

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