Newton and Greek

A few years ago Cambridge University put on line Newton’s notebooks. One ( Trinty College notebook) was interesting in that parts of it were written in Greek.

As it says in their site

“This is a notebook Newton acquired while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College and used from about 1661 to 1665 (see his inscription). It includes many notes from his studies and, increasingly, his own explorations into mathematics, physics and metaphysics. ”

At the beginning he has some definitions. For example the following.

De accidente

συμβεβηκὸς ἐστίν, ὃ γίνεται καὶ ἀπογίνεται, χωρὶς τῆς τοῦ ὑποκειμένου φθορᾶς

An accident is what a thing becomes or ceases to be without the destruction of its underlying essence.

An accident here means a property or attribute separate from its definition.

When I read this I thought what a clever chap Newton was to philosophise in Greek as well as lay the foundations for modern science. However a bit of research showed that this was not an original thought but he must have noted it as part of his studies. The definition is to be found in

In Porphyrii Isagogen et Aristotelis Categorias commentaria
By Elias (Philosophus)
From Elias the philosopher

Although not an original thought of Newton, I think this is of great interest as it shows that Newton’s education, as was all education then, based on the classics and that part of his scientific education was based on Aristotle and obscure (at least to me!) commentaries on Aristotle. Nowadays there is thought to be a gulf between the arts as exemplified by classics and science but this shows that classics provided the bedrock for modern day science.

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2 Responses to Newton and Greek

  1. palaiophron says:

    Newton was also friends with famed Classical scholar Richard Bentley, who himself was said to have conducted certain studies in mathematics, and to have appreciated the current research in the physical sciences. We commonly refer to such polymaths as “Renaissance men,” but it was a model of broad intellectual capability which lasted well beyond the Renaissance. (Indeed, it also predated it, since intellectuals of antiquity and even the Middle Ages had wide-ranging interests.)

    It is rare to find such polymaths today for two reasons. Education has become increasingly career-oriented and specialized; at the same time, certain studies (especially in the physical sciences) have become vastly more complex, and one can hardly expect to attain any proficiency in them without several years of concentrated, specialized study in each. Therefore, although there are certainly literary people who are scientifically literate, and scientists with interests in literature, it is exceedingly rare to find someone who could make a meaningful contribution to both.


    • platosparks says:

      Indeed you are right but when I went to university at Oxford it was a pre-requisite that you had to have previously passed an exam in Latin – unfortunately no longer the case. This applied to many British universities whatever degree you took so my friends who took physics or engineering or medicine all had a modicum of Latin. Moreover because of the collegiate system you were likely to mix with people taking all sorts of degrees. Mind you none of us were polymaths.


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