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Amicus Plato, amicus Aristoteles, magis amica veritas
- Good friends are Aristotle and Plato, but a greater friend is truth.
- Isaac Newton
Newton was born to a family of mixed social status. On his father's side, he was part of an up-and-coming yeoman family (landed peasants, the forerunners of the 'middle classes'). His mother, on the other hand, was born to some impoverished minor nobles. Although his father died before he was born, his mother's servants ran the family farm and Newton was clearly expected to take it over himself some day. By the time he was a year old, Newton had an expectation of around £500 tied up in the family farm that would one day be his.
Newton's status would have been impacted by his mother remarrying which more than doubled the family assets. The improvement in their already comfortable financial situation was protected by a pre-marital agreement despite the increasing number of half-siblings that Newton had to share with, eventually reaching three in total. It was against this background of a constant struggle for social advancement, even at the expense of personal family relationships, that Newton's formative years were spent.
In 1661, Newton entered Cambridge University. His mother, although now wealthy in her own right, still did not entirely approve of this career choice, and gave him a rather miserly £10pa allowance. Even added to the £10-15pa fees she also would have paid for him, this was hardly a dent in her roughly £700pa income at the time, but left Newton uncomfortably short in his day-to-day living.
Quite how Newton gained admittance to Cambridge is something of a mystery, since his school exam results were fairly middling. It seems very likely that some strings were pulled behind the scenes. Throughout his life, Newton bolstered his genius with the backing of influential patrons. Newton's landlord in Grantham, Clark, had as a brother-in-law Humphrey Babington, a Senior Fellow of Trinity College1 in Cambridge. It seems likely that he was imposed upon to ensure Newton's entry into Trinity - an ironic choice, given Newton's personal religious beliefs.
The University Years
Cambridge in those days was an unusual place. The college was self-governing, with its own police force. The city was unpleasant and violent, with the students being seen as wealthy outsiders and prime targets. In principle, the students had little opportunity to mix with the townsfolk, since the college banned drinking and gambling. This was a widely ignored rule, however - even the abstemious Newton is known to have had a night out on at least one occasion.
Newton found himself right on the bottom rung of the college ladder. He was admitted as a sub-sizar (and quickly made up to a sizar) - he had to wait upon the other students in order to pay for his tuition. (It has been suggested that he may have been Babington's personal sizar, although there is no hard evidence for this. If true, that would mean that Newton was spared the worst of the usual sizar duties.)
Unlike modern universities, with their wide range of faculties, subjects and departments, 17th Century Cambridge University existed for one purpose only; it was a priest factory. The syllabus concentrated on the works of Aristotle - considered to be compatible with Christian doctrine - although European philosophy (notably that of Descartes, but also Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and Galileo) was already starting to chip at the edges of the ancient Greek system. It also covered rhetoric, classical history, geography, art, scripture and literature, plus Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
We know that Newton began to finance himself by lending money to his fellow students. This is the first clear sign we have that Newton was looking for material advantage in the world. We also know that he was putting practicalities above his religious beliefs, because around this time he also began to make a list of his sins; high among them are his usurious activities.
Newton's family life faded away, but never truly vanished. Despite his modern reputation as unfeeling with a poor relationship with his mother, he spent several months during 1679 nursing her through her final illness.
By 1685 he was well established in the University hierarchy. He now had his own sub-sizar, Humphrey Newton (no relation). He was continuing with his obligatory Lucasian lectures, often to empty halls; if no-one turned up to hear him, he might speak for a mere 15 minutes, rather than the full 30. Nevertheless, he continued to deposit notes from his lectures in the university library, paying at least lip service to the conditions of his Chair. It was in February that year that Charles II died. His successor, James II, was widely regarded as a closet Catholic, something that filled many - including the devout Newton - with horror. While James was prepared to sit out his reign in relative quiet without an heir, this was not a problem. But when he began to push for Catholic rights - modest by modern standards - the threat of renewed Civil War began to loom.
This was averted when the Dutch Stadtholder, William of Orange, landed and staged a coup that became known as the Glorious Revolution ending with William as William III of England.
By now, publication of the Principia had elevated Newton to fame, if not stardom in the academic world.
In 1689 he was, briefly, elected MP for Cambridge University. This parliament was convened with the express purpose of ratifying the Glorious Revolution, and Newton's only recorded utterance in his new role was to ask that a window be closed. It was also in this year, while recovering from pleurisy, that Newton met Charles Montagu, who would go on to be a pivotal sponsor in Newton's later life.
Newton was by now making enquiries about a more lucrative post outside academia. Sinecures - well-paid jobs-for-life where little actual work was required - were an accepted reward for public service at the time, and Newton felt he now clearly qualified. In 1691, he was offered the Mastership of Charterhouse school, but refused; the salary of £200pa was beneath him, and he had no wish to travel to London for such a paltry amount. Instead, he became Commissioner for Cambridge.
After the turmoil caused by his breakdown in 1693, Newton's social ascent took another sharp turn for the better in 1694, when Montagu became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the newly-elected government. By this stage, it was little secret that Newton was actively seeking a government post that would give him a more comfortable position, and in 1696 he duly became Warden of the Royal Mint, a post that guaranteed him an income of £500pa for life. After the death of the incumbent Master of the Mint in December 1699, Newton moved from Warden to Master on Christmas Day, 1699 - the only person ever to make that move directly. His £500 salary was now topped up by an average of £1,150 per year bonus, based on the weight of silver coined.
Finally, Newton moved among the top echelon of world society, meeting Peter the Great (Tsar of Russia) in 1698. His niece Catherine Barton moved in with him around 1696. As a social beauty, association with her greatly enhanced Newton's social status.
In 1701, Newton was again elected to Parliament, again representing Cambridge University. This resurrected political career was short-lived; in 1702 William III died and the anti-Whig Queen Anne succeeded to the throne. Sensing a change in the political wind, Newton did not stand for re-election. Now that he was safely installed as Master of the Mint, he resigned his Lucasian Professorship (and arranged for his protégé William Whiston to become his successor; after failing to heed Newton's advice to keep his own Arian views secret, he came to a bad end, being expelled from the University in 1710 and being refused entry to the Royal Society). After 1705, the year that he was knighted, Newton never again set foot in Cambridge.
By 1703, Barton was almost certainly in a sexual relationship with Newton's patron, Charles Montagu (now Baron Halifax). A scandal sheet called The Memoirs of Europe was a thinly-disguised public parody of Newton, Barton and Halifax. This ribbing continued until Montagu's death in 1715, when he left her a fortune in his will. Sniffing a whiff of scandal clinging to his rival Newton, John Flamsteed archly wrote that the large bequest must have been for her 'excellent conversation'. Despite legal battles by Newton, the bequest was never paid. Voltaire, one of Newton's early biographers, slightly confused about the dates, declared that when it came to earning the position of Master of the Mint, 'Fluxions and gravitation would have been of no use without a pretty niece.'
In 1717, Barton married John Conduitt, who would go on to be Newton's successor at the Mint, and who collected much of the material on Newton (all of it glowing) that the first generation of biographers would rely on.
By the time of Newton's death, he was on intimate terms with King George II, and his family had married into the aristocracy. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, an unprecedented honour for an academic and certainly no bad end for a lad who once looked like he might spend his days tending sheep.