By the middles of the 1680s, when he gave much of his energies over to alchemy and the decoding of apocalyptic prophecy, he had an even more remarkable idea. When mankind was still young, "before the first memory of things," Newton surmised, Noah and his sons had come up with a pure and pristine form of worship that subsequent prophets – Christ among them – had contrived only to debase.This fascinates me. Historians often assert that science began to progress when investigators stopped looking to the past for answers and began searching for their own. Scorning the "knowledge" of the past, it is said, became a key part of the scientific attitude. ("History is bunk.") But this was absolutely not true of Newton, who simultaneously pursued his own scientific researches and his ever more esoteric attempts to uncover the ancient, pristine wisdom he was sure was hidden in alchemy and prophecy.
The original religion had found its expression in holy flames surrounded by vestal temples such as Stonehenge and St. Bridget's fire. . . . These shrines, Newton wrote, stood allegorically for the place of the Sun at the centre of God's cosmos. Over time, the metaphors had gradually come to obscure the truths they depicted, and as the sacred learning was passed down by Moses and the ancient Egyptians, the prisca sapientia had degenerated into idolatry.
This sort of claim was unusual but not exceptional in Newton's time. What was extraordinary was his belief that the Noachian faith had embodies a better and truer conception of the universe than anything that came after it. Modern philosophers could only hope to unravel its insights from the tangle of esoteric riddles in which they were preserved.
This conviction led Newton down some strange byways. At one point he defended the account of Egyptian theology given in Aristophanes' The Birds, where Night is said to have spread her black wings over the chaotic void and laid an egg containing Love, which eventually hatched and created all the gods and living things. Night, Newton explained, was the unseen deity, and Love the spirit that had moved over the face of the waters in Genesis 2. He also thought that Plato had ultimately inherited an understanding of universal gravitation from the same source, and that before him Pythagoras had hit on the inverse-square law by hanging hammers of different weights from taut sheep intestines. . . .
When we think about the unfurling of the European Enlightenment, we tend to think of it as a great exploratory enterprise, advancing experiment by experiment, conjecture by conjecture, into the vast sphere of the unknown. For Newton, though, the words may plausibly have had a very different meaning. He was simply using the instruments of geometry and history to pare away the greasy crust and canker of forty misguided centuries.
Plus he really, really hated Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop who led the Council of Nicaea and did more than anyone else to make belief in the Trinity Christian orthodoxy. Newton hated the doctrine of the Trinity:
For Newton, this creed was nothing short of devilry. The worship of Christ as a face of the godhead was not just akin to the cult of the golden calf; it was far more insidious. As Iliffe shows, Newton threw himself into the prosecution of Athanasius with much the same urious zest and legalistic diligence that he brought to his academic disputes with Hooke and Leibniz. Athanasius and his followers were not simply wrong; they were a cabal of thuggish crooks who had hijacked an entire religion by falsifying texts, perverting holy Scripture and threatening to bring down the Roman Empire through violence. This incandescent hatred of a man who had been dead for 1,400 years formed perhaps the greatest passion of Newton's life.