‘The long-lost truth’: Sir Isaac Newton and the Newtonian pursuit of ancient knowledge

ArticleinStudies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 35(3):605-623 · September 2004with 64 Reads 
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In the 1720s the antiquary and Newtonian scholar Dr. William Stukeley (1687–1765) described his friend Isaac Newton as ‘the Great Restorer of True Philosophy’. Newton himself in his posthumously published Observations upon the prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) predicted that the imminent fulfilment of Scripture prophecy would see ‘a recovery and re-establishment of the long-lost truth’. In this paper I examine the background to Newton’s interest in ancient philosophy and theology, and how it related to modern natural philosophical discovery. I look at the way in which the idea of a ‘long-lost truth’ interested others within Newton’s immediate circle, and in particular how it was carried forward by Stukeley’s researches into ancient British antiquities. I show how an interest in and respect for ancient philosophical knowledge remained strong within the first half of the eighteenth century.

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  • ... the habitation of the deity[,] therefore round & open the best form, " and Newton concluded that " [t]emples were anciently contrived to represent the frame of the Universe as the true Temple of the great God " (Haycock 2004:611). All these men subscribed to the idea that the ancients possessed the prisca theologia, " original knowledge on the true nature of the world, knowledge passed directly from Adam, Noah and Moses " (Haycock 2004:615). ...
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    The impressive stone circle Stonehenge is understood by academic archaeologists to be a site of ritual significance to the prehistoric inhabitants of Wiltshire. It is constructed on cosmological principles based on a solar alignment, reflecting "a distinctive idea of time, which revolved around the cyclical movements of sun, moon, and stars across the heavens, as indicators of the passing seasons" (Fagan 1998:160). This article sketches mainstream archaeological interpretations of Stonehenge, then contrasts them with the popular narrative of its Druidic origin and purpose, which emerged in the seventeenth century. Modern Druids have negotiated the right to perform rituals at Stonehenge with English Heritage, the custodial body with responsibility for the monument, and Druidry has been recognised as a religion in the United Kingdom in 2010 (Beckford 2010). Modern Druidry, an "invented tradition," conflicts with academic archaeology in its claims regarding Stonehenge (Chippindale 1986:38–58). Postmodern archaeological theories, which privilege "popular folk archaeology" (Holtorf 2005b:11), are more open to vernacular interpretations of artifacts and sites. These perspectives are broadly compatible with the deregulated religio-spiritual marketplace of the twenty-first century, which is characterized by a plethora of new religions and a pluralistic model of religious truth.
  • ... ;Ducheyne (2005);;Feingold (2004);Fellmann (1988);Ferrone (1982); Forbes (1978);Force (1983);Force (1985);Force (2004);Force & Hutton (2004);Guicciardini (1989 et succ.);Hall (1978);Hankins (1990);Haycock (2004);Heimann and McGuire (1971);Hutton (2004a);Hutton (2004b);Jacob (1977);Jacob (1978);KingHele & Rupert Hall (1988);Mandelbrote (2004); Marcialis (1989); Pulte & Mandelbrote ...
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    Whiston, W. (1717). Astronomical principles of religion, natural and reveal'd. London: printed for J. Senex and W. Taylor.
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    Hearne, T. (1906). Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, Vol. 7 (edited under the superintendence of the committee of the Oxford Historical Society). Oxford Historical Society, 48. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Origines sacrae: Or, a rational account of the grounds of natural and reveal'd religion London: printed for Abury: A temple of the British Druids
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    London: printed by T. R., for J. Martyn at the Bell without Temple-bar and J. Allestry at the Rose and Crown in Duck-lane, printers to the Royal Society. Stillingfleet, E. (1709). Origines sacrae: Or, a rational account of the grounds of natural and reveal'd religion (8th ed.). London: printed for J. Heptinstall, for Henry and George Mortlock. Stukeley, W. (1743). Abury: A temple of the British Druids. London: printed for the author. Stukeley, W. (1753). An account of the eclipse predicted by Thales. Philosophical Transactions, 48, 221–226.
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    Iliffe, R. (1989). 'The idols of the temple': Isaac Newton and the private life of anti-idolatory. Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge.
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    Lukis, W. C. (Ed.). (1882–1887). The family memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D.: And the anti-quarian and other correspondence of William Stukeley, Roger and Samuel Gale, &c (3 vols.). Surtees Society, 73, 76, 80. Durham: Published for the Society by Andrews & Co.
  • The Scripture doctrine of the Trinity. In three parts. Wherein all the texts in the New Testament relating to that doctrine, and the principal passages of the Church of England, are collected, compared, and explained
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