In 1687 AD, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Cambridge University published his treatise, called “The Principia”, or completely: Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, on various topics pertaining to mechanics, a branch of physics that deals with the motion of physical objects. In it, he talks about his laws of motion and another universal law that has a story attached to it that many of us may know. Legend has it that while he was sitting under an apple tree, the apple that fell on his head sparked his eureka moment that led to his “discovery” of gravity. It is by now no secret that the man I’m referring to is Isaac Newton. Although the laws that he discovered proved to be one of the most influential discoveries for his time and for centuries to come, he should be known to the public as more than an influential physicist. He was a polymath and a true renaissance man who was well versed in ethics and theology and is a living (even though he is long dead) proof that a master of a craft must be well versed in other disciplines in order to hone his critical thinking skills.
As a scholar and a high ranking member at Cambridge, he was not only bound by his duty as a professor, but he was also inspired by his own lust for knowledge and dialogue. What we now know as colleges and universities are not the same institutions that existed hundreds of years ago. During Newton’s time, going to a university was a luxury reserved only for the wealthy and those with a rich desire to learn; on the other hand, college today is absolutely a necessity if you care about your future. The old university environment nourished those who wanted to learn, so Newton did exactly that. In addition to Principia, he published another work that incorporated both natural physics and philosophy. Opticks was published in 1704 and tackled optics in an experimental manner. Newton also used natural philosophy to ponder the nature of light. He concluded his treatise with a quandary about moral philosophy and theology. In his closing statement, Newton talks about his assuredness of a monotheistic deity and how “the bounds of moral philosophy will be enlarged…”. This combination of subject matter goes to show that, in his time, the contents of one’s treatises were not restricted to one discipline. It also alluded to the importance of scholars and scientists at the time placed on interdisciplinary study, more precisely theology and ethics.
Newton was not the only scientist during the enlightenment era to expand his knowledge into different fields. In fact, it was commonplace. Many revolutionary thinkers, like John Locke, Pascal, and Descartes, were not only masters of science, but, like Newton, saw that dialogue in all matters was vital to nourishing the brains of scholars. It is too often that people disregard certain fields of study, and I maintain that all knowledge is good knowledge. Even if you may not find a practical effect for it, scholarly nourishment can only help to fortify your capabilities.
- Smith, George. “Isaac Newton.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 19 Dec. 2007, plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton/.
- John, Henry. “Enlarging the Bounds of Moral Philosophy: Why Did Isaac Newton Conclude the Opticks the Way He Did?” Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, Royal Society, 5 Oct. 2016, royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2016.0011#d3e311.