The Thought of a Thought – Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is best known as a literary figure, a writer of short stories and poetry, but a surprising amount of his thought was devoted to natural science, with which he seems to have had a love-hate relationship, as illustrated by his “Sonnet to Science”
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart…?
In this attitude Poe is somewhat reminiscent of Goethe (1749-1832), who spent so much time and effort on his own private theory of colors and the indivisibility of light, trying to overthrow the teachings of Newton (1642-1727). Indeed, Goethe himself is said to have valued his “scientific” work more highly than his literary creations (an opinion not shared by anyone else). Another artist who struggled with the emerging scientific culture was William Blake (1757-1827), who wrote
Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rouseau,
Mock on, Mock on, ‘t all in vain…
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the red sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
The fascination and ambivalence these men felt toward Newton, the personification of Science, is well illustrated by Blake’s famous painting “The Ancient of Days”, showing a kneeling God-like/Satanic figure spanning the darkness with a compass of light. Remarkably, Blake’s illustration of “Newton” is essentially the same figure, in the same pose, viewed from the side.
This gives some idea of how great, throughout the 19th century, was the prestige of Newton as the discoverer of the only true laws of nature, the indisputable confidant of God, especially among intellectuals, including poets and artists as well as scientists. It’s not surprising that many creative and independent men felt, as Blake put it, that
I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.
I will not reason and compare, my business is to create.
We may also remember Laplace’s remark that
Newton was the greated genius who ever existed and the luckiest, because we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish.
What does this leave for his successors? Since Newton associated every action with a re-action, it’s only fitting that there was a reaction against the scientific Enlightenment of the 18th century, leading to the Romanticism of the 19th century. One characteristic of those who rebelled against the Newtonian approach to knowledge and understanding was (and still is) an antipathy for mathematics. Prior to the scientific revolution, it was possible for scholastic philosophers and thinkers of all kinds to engage with the great questions of natural science in the verbal and teleological tradition, but Galileo and Newton effectively put an end to this. Among serious thinkers with little or no inclination toward mathematics, imagine how discouraging must be the famous words of Galileo:
Philosophy is written in this grand book – I mean the universe – which stands continuously open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics… without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it. Without these one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.