The Principia for the Common-Reader: A New Trend in Newton Scholarship?
In the past 350 years, Isaac Newton’s Principia has defeated many readers. Partly, this was due to its style and structure. The reader finds herself confronted with
a baroque superstructure of propositions followed by abridged demonstrations conveyed in an unfamiliar language. Passages recognizable today as ‘mathematical’ or ‘physical’ are interspersed with metaphysical considerations and with theological and historical references. Often, demonstrations are entirely missing and the structure of propositions is difficult to grasp. In addition, one has the feeling of a book especially written to forbid the easy access. For reasons having to do with priority disputes and personal idiosyncrasies, Newton deliberately made Principia difficult to read by appealing to what he insisted to call his ‘mathematical way’,1 or mathematical manner of treating problems.2 The abstruse mathematical style of the Principia has been vividly described by William Wheewell, more than a century ago, thus:
The ponderous instrument of synthesis, so effective in Newton’s hands, has never since been grasped by one who could use it for such purposes; and we gaze at it with admiring curiosity, as one some gigantic implement of war, which stands idle among the memorials of ancient days, and makes us wonder what manner of man he was who could wield a weapon we can hardly lift as a burden.