Posted tagged ‘gluttony’

Friday (Isaac) Newton Blogging: Newton — gourmand.

April 25, 2008

Apologies to all for the hiatus in this blog feature. The reason, beyond the normal clutter of late term stuff, is that I did, this week, finally ship the manuscript of my upcoming book, Newton and the Counterfeiter to my various publishers. Premature plug: look for it early next year, probably Feb., from Houghton/Harcourt (whatever they are calling that merged entity) of, for our British friends, from Faber.

So, that’s a relief. How much so can only be truly grasped by those of my fellow writers who have watched deadlines grow more elastic, while the lines around editors’ tightened lips grow less so. (My two editors, both magnificent, were delightfully and surprisingly humane when I decided I needed to rip apart the first two thirds of the book and rebuild.)

So, now, I will resume at least slightly less sporadically, these occasional detours into the marginalia of Isaac Newton’s life.

There is an icon-making quote in Newtonia, the question the Marquis d’ Hopital asked one of the great man’s acquaintances: “Is he like other men?”

That’s one of those questions that is supposed to answer itself: no, of course. And to be sure, there has been centuries of Newton hagiography to support the notion. Given the lack of much in the way of autobiographical writing by Newton himself, it has proved fairly easy to map onto Sir Isaac pretty much any desired iconography, whether Alexander Pope’s laconic “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night/God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was Light” or Frank Manuel’s Freud-influenced portrait of a soul twisted by a fatherless, loveless childhood.

But, it’s not just in the area of love — as I blogged here — that Newton was in fact a man like other men. He was not, no matter how often he has been portrayed as an asensual ascetic, without his ordinary pleasures.

How do we know — given the lack of self-revelation in all the millions of words the perhaps-graphomane Newton committed to paper?

Because if we do not have private glimpses of his feelings, we do have some of his accounts. As you might expect for someone of Newton’s deep (i.e., not like most other men and women) passion for precision, his personal books are models of detailed completeness. Two of his early notebooks, both available online, contain records of his expenditures down to the penny.

You find there that Newton liked to eat and he liked to drink, at least occasionally.

In 1666, he lists one pound against “At the Taverne severall other times &c;” early 2 shllings went to the Cambridge white lion; more for Whitewine; white wine & sugar; China Ale. (He also bought beer — but that was more of a staple than a luxury, given the quality of the water supply in towns of any size at all.)

He liked to eat, some delicacies: marmolet (marmolade), “cheries,” apples and pairs, “a chickin,” custard, cakes and bread.

And even though this is a fairly mundane list of extras for a hungry young scholar to add to the board he would have received at Trinity College, evidence from late and early in his life confirm that he took pleasure at his table.

Late – there are accounts for dinners he gave that show he was fully prepared to feed his guests well, and pour enough drink to ensure that they would be as unsteady as they wished to be on their way home from the house at 23 Jermyn Street.

And early: check out the list of confessions in one of his youthful notebooks. Among the desperate admissions of neglect of God: “Not loving Thee for Thy self;” “Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee” — and of his capacity for rage: “Punching my sister;” “Wishing death and hoping it to some;” and most terrifying, “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them;” you can find seven admissions of the overweening desire for something to eat: “Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar;” “Making pies on Sunday night;” and, twice, simple “Glutony.”

Newton was, of course, unlike others in any number of ways. Beyond his raw mental power, he could indeed completely ignore his body when occasions demanded. He told his niece once that his cat grew fat on meals he forgot to eat when he was deeply consumed by an idea. He was capable of sustained work and the self-enforced solitude required for his most intense efforts to a level that his contemporaries found extraordinary. He did not seem to need much in the way of physical companionship.

But the point is none of this makes him some celestial creature — not the nearer-to-the-gods-than-any-mortal-man of Edmund Halley’s introductor poem to the first edition of the Principia. Rather, he was in fact a man, an extraordinary one, but still, one of us. IfHe ate, drank, slept (sometimes) conversed (with selected companions) drank in taverns, and liked apples – to eat, even if not, perhaps, to ratiocinate upon

Image: Franciso de Goya y Lucientes, “Still Life with Hen and Fish,” 1808-1812. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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