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Newton Papers : Trinity College Notebook

Newton, Isaac, Sir, 1642-1727

Newton Papers

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Add. 3996 is a notebook that Newton used as a young student. Newton’s youthful interest in learning was encouraged by his uncle, William Ayscough, and by the schoolmaster at Grantham, John Stokes. Despite opposition from his mother, who wanted him to stay at home and farm, Newton was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, on 5 June 1661, and matriculated on 8 July. His uncle had been educated at Trinity and one of the fellows of the College, Humphrey Babington, was related to a family with whom Newton had lodged while at school in Grantham. Perhaps because of some reluctance of his mother’s to waste money on education, perhaps in order to assist Babington, Newton entered Trinity as a sub-sizar, that is a student who was to supplement his income by acting as a servant either for the fellows or for other wealthier students, and who was allowed to pay lower fees for attending lectures.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> Newton’s ‘Trinity College Notebook’ MS Add. 3996 was used by him as an undergraduate, from about 1661 to 1665. It includes his notes on books he was recommended to read for his studies, but it also shows him starting to read for himself and comment not only on classical sources, but also contemporary natural philosophical writing, such as the works of René Descartes or the Dutch mathematician Willebrord Snell. Newton also makes his own observations on a comet. In this notebook we see Newton, in his independent reading, reflection and observations of the world around him embarking on his career as a natural philosopher.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> Although this is not the earliest of Newton’s surviving notebooks, it may well be the one that he purchased, together with some ink, on his arrival in Cambridge. Undergraduate education at this time consisted largely of following courses of reading directed by a tutor, in Newton’s case Benjamin Pulleyn. These initially focussed on the traditional skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At Cambridge, it was also usual for undergraduates to study ethics, metaphysics, physics, and mathematics. Together with some books that he bought in the early 1660s, this notebook bears witness to Newton’s first steps in the Aristotelian curriculum of the early modern university. It is dated on the flyleaf, ‘Isaac Newton/ Trin: Coll Cant/ 1661’ [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(3);return false;'>fol 1r</a>] and contains notes and occasional exercises relating to Newton’s reading, compiled in the manner of summarising and glossing recommended by most tutors. Many of these notes are written in the rather crude form of secretary hand that the young Newton practised. They cover his study of Aristotle’s <i>Organon</i> and Porphyry’s <i>Isagoge</i>; the scholastic compendium, <i>Physiologiae peripateticae</i>, by Joannes Magirus; Aristotle’s <i>Ethics</i> and the <i>Ethica</i> of Eustachius of St. Paul; the <i>Axiomata</i> of Daniel Stahl, which introduced him to Aristotelian metaphysics, and, finally, a text-book of rhetoric by the great humanist scholar, Gerardus Joannes Vossius.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'> By about the beginning of 1664, Newton’s writing had matured into the neat, if slightly spindly, italic hand that he would continue to develop over the rest of his life. His reading and thinking had also taken a new course, albeit one that was promoted by many of the best tutors in contemporary Cambridge. Newton had begun to reflect for himself on the metaphysical and natural philosophical terms and concepts deployed by the scholastic authors that he had been studying. Prompted perhaps by the scholarship to which he was elected in April 1664, Newton had started to read for himself both in the classical sources and commentaries and in contemporary philosophical and scientific writing, notably the works of Walter Charleton and René Descartes. Within the confines of a traditional commonplace book, and deploying many of the categories of renaissance philosophy, Newton had thus embarked through reading on his career as a mechanical, and eventually experimental, philosopher. Quoting portentously from Charleton, he headed his remarks ‘Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas’ (Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth) [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(179);return false;'>fol 88r</a>]. This marks the beginning of a famous section of the manuscript where Newton organised his notetaking according to ‘Qu[a]estiones quaedam Philosophiae’ (certain philosophical questions) [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(179);return false;'>fols 88r-135r</a>], where he listed the subjects that interested him, and intended to study in greater depth – not only through the reading of Aristotelian and anti-Aristotelian texts, but also by means of experiments.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Niccolò Guicciardini, Università degli Studi di Milano, and Scott Mandelbrote, Peterhouse, Cambridge.</p>

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