Were Newton and Pythagoras Geniuses, or Mad?
This is a response to an article by Grant Piper entitled ‘5 Geniuses Who Were a Little Mad’, the subtitle being ‘Brilliance and insanity are just a step apart’. Two of his choices — Isaac Newton and Pythagoras — especially attracted my attention, and a third one, Francis Crick, was also of passing interest. The main evidence for Newton’s madness was said to be his obsession with alchemy, and for Pythagoras it was his belief in numerology. I imagine that many readers in our modern ‘scientific’ age will readily agree with Piper, believing that belief in alchemy and numerology are surely ridiculous, and may hint at mental derangement.
The case of Crick was somewhat different. He was a typical modern scientist, an ardent materialist, atheist and humanist¹. Piper, I’m guessing from what he says, would therefore admire him. His reason for thinking Crick slightly mad was his theory of Directed Panspermia, which “is the idea that the so-called ‘building blocks of life’ did not occur naturally in Earth’s ancient past but were rather seeded here by intelligent spacefaring aliens”. Crick’s reasoning for this suggestion was his belief that life on Earth was so complex that it could not possibly have evolved naturally in the time available. According to Piper, “he continued to hold these beliefs for many decades and never came back around to the accepted way of thinking”. Clearly mad then!
On the other hand, one could argue that, rather than a sign of madness, this was actually one brilliant insight which stands out from an otherwise deluded worldview. As a devoted materialist, he could not entertain any suggestion of supernatural Intelligent Design, or teleology in life. Since, in his view, life as we know it could not have happened naturally without an intelligent input, he ascribed this to aliens. It would perhaps have been simpler, and more accurate, to attribute it a supernatural cause. His insight may have led him to a bizarre conclusion, but one can readily agree with his reasoning.
Turning now to Pythagoras, these are Piper’s complaints:
- he was “obsessed with numerology” — he “believed that everything was made up of numbers, from music to the origins of the universe”
- he “only studied mathematics and geometry in the pursuit of mystical goals”
- the lives of his students “were carefully regulated” in relation to diet etc.
- “new recruits could not meet Pythagoras until they had been involved in the ‘school’ for at least five years”.
He therefore concludes that today “Pythagoreanism has all of the telltale signs of a (mystical math) cult”.
Piper’s complaint about his chosen figures is obviously that they do not subscribe to the modern ‘scientific’ philosophy, based on ‘reason’, of materialism, physicalism, naturalism — whichever term you prefer. They therefore think outside the box. What exactly, we might ask, is wrong with mysticism? He doesn’t say.
Despite the negative slant that he puts upon it, Pythagoras’ school can easily be recognised as an ancient Mystery tradition, what would in modern times be called an esoteric secret society. Obvious evidence is that those admitted to the school took an oath, forbidding them to reveal what they learned upon pain of death, which was also true of the Mystery schools. This is because the knowledge imparted was perceived to be dangerous, and not to be revealed to those who might abuse it. This may seem outrageous and extraordinary today, but was considered appropriate at the time. The reasoning behind this idea will also be relevant in the discussion about Newton below.
Rather than indulge in these ad hominem attacks, ridiculing these acknowledged geniuses, Piper’s time would have been better spent demonstrating that numerology and alchemy are not true, if he is so convinced. He is obviously assuming that his readers will readily agree with him — and of course many will — so that a refutation would be a needless waste of his time.
He gives the impression that Pythagoreanism was a weird and wacky ancient cult, which could not possibly be believed in modern times. This is far from the truth. The belief that numbers are archetypal ideas which structure our reality is still alive and well. By coincidence, before reading Piper, in a recent article I discussed some issues related to numerology, and mentioned some believers. I’ll repeat that material here with some adaptations.
The dominant modern view of numbers is that: “Mathematics is…only another language, constructed to explain the reality of the physical world. In other words, another social construction by man”². To many people this will seem self-evident; of course humanity invented numbers, how else could it be? This way of thinking, however, depends upon the truth of a premise, the worldview of ‘scientific’ materialism, which includes the belief that all life, including humans, emerged from inorganic matter, where no mathematics could have existed. This is an unproven hypothesis, and there is an alternative, more spiritual, viewpoint, as expressed by the following modern thinkers:
- Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, biologist and Professor of Natural History, thus a highly respected scientist, was a pioneer of mathematical biology. In his groundbreaking book On Growth and Form³, he clearly demonstrated that mathematical laws are at work in all the forms of nature.
- Carl Jung, in my opinion a genius, and not mad, ‘mystical’ psychologist: “It is generally believed that numbers were invented or thought out by man, and are therefore nothing but concepts of quantities, containing nothing that was not previously put into them by human intellect. But it is equally possible that numbers were found or discovered (his italics). In that case they are not only concepts but something more — autonomous entities which somehow contain more than just quantities… I incline to the view that numbers were as much found as invented, and that in consequence they possess a relative autonomy analogous to that of the archetypes’⁴.
- Physicist Freeman Dyson wonders “why the electron pays attention to our mathematics. (This) is a mystery that even Einstein could not fathom”⁵. Perhaps the problem is that he sees mathematics as “ours”.
- Marie-Louise von Franz, leading follower of Jung: “Nowadays, in this time of so-called enlightenment where everything irrational and the word God anyhow is thrown out of human science, a real attempt has been made in formalistic mathematics to define number in a form which would exclude all irrational elements, with the definition of numbers as a series of marks and a creation of the human mind. Now the spirit is seemingly owned by the ego complex, the mathematician’s ego owns and created numbers! That is what Weyl believed, and that is why he said: ‘I cannot understand that something completely simple which the human mind has created suddenly contains something abysmal’. He should only have asked whether the human mind had really created them. He feels as if he were now manipulating the phenomenon completely, but that is not true”⁶.
- Advocates of astrology J. A. West and J. G. Toonder: “The division of the zodiac into… sectors is based fundamentally upon the belief that the universe is coherent and that numbers are not mere inventions of man allowing him to make purely quantitative distinctions but rather the symbolic keys to qualitative laws that govern the coherent universe. All esoteric traditions have always sought to express the multiplicity within unity, and this has always involved the use of numbers, and the use of symbols…”⁷.
- Astrologer John Addey, (in relation to numbers): “There are those who believe that distinctions of this sort are merely arbitrary conceptions of the human mind which have no reality other than that given to them by our own thoughts. This is a heresy(!) which has arisen as a by-product of an era of scientific materialism which cannot conceive of inner realities except in these terms”. “Since the remotest times men have used numbers to express meaningful coincidences, that is, those that can be interpreted… They have never been entirely robbed of their numinous aura”⁸.
In case you think that these are merely examples of unqualified thinkers who are carrying on in the ‘mad’ Pythagorean tradition, Jung adds: “That numbers have an archetypal foundation is not… conjecture of mine but of certain mathematicians. Hence it is not such an audacious conclusion after all if we define number psychologically as an archetype of order which has become conscious”⁹.
The astrologer Addey is a metaphysical descendant of Pythagoras, so it is not surprising that we find similar views. By including astrologers in the discussion, I accept that this will seem madness to many, just as Piper considers numerology mad. The two disciplines indeed have strong parallels, in that an apparently unlikely external principle is claimed to be responsible for structuring human affairs. However, since materialist philosophy is incapable of explaining so much, perhaps we should pay more attention to astrologers and numerologists, instead of dismissing them as mad.
I’ll turn now to Newton and his ‘obsession’ with alchemy. I intend to discuss this, and alchemy in general, in much more detail in a future article, so this will be just a brief taster.
Since this is alleged to be an indication of madness, Piper presumably thinks that Newton must have failed in his endeavours. There is reason, however, to believe that he might have succeeded. In a letter to another alchemist Robert Boyle, he urged him to keep “high silence” about knowledge “that is not to be communicated without immense damage to the world”. Why would he say this, and how would he know, if he did not have access to this knowledge? This letter led B. J. T. Dobbs to conclude: “The fact that Newton never published a work on alchemy cannot be taken to mean that he knew he had failed… On the contrary, it probably means that he had enough success to think that he might be on the track of something of fundamental importance”¹⁰.
Piper says that Newton “was so paranoid about his work that many of his papers were hidden away and never read by anyone but himself. Many were even written in code”. Again this is supposed to be evidence of him being somewhat mad. If, however, he was indeed writing about highly dangerous knowledge, this would make perfect sense. He would be acting in the tradition of the ancient Mystery traditions, the only difference being that he seemed to be a secret society consisting of one private individual.
Perhaps Newton was devoted to alchemy because he was a genius — knowing much more than ordinary humans — not because this was a sign of madness. Is it not somewhat arrogant of Piper to think that he knows better than the genius Newton? Perhaps he needs to liberate himself from his limited, over-rational worldview.
As I said, in a future article I’ll discuss the subject of alchemy in more detail. Outrageous and controversial though the suggestion may seem, and even if Piper thinks I’m mad, I’ll discuss whether it may be possible to transform lead into gold.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. In Of Molecules and Men he proposed that a separable soul likely does not exist, and that mind is a product of evolution. In The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The Soul, he called himself an agnostic with “a strong inclination towards atheism”. (https://www.celebatheists.com/wiki/Francis_Crick)
2. Martin Cochrane, as quoted by Ken Anderson, The Coincidence File, Blandford, 1999, p 56
3. originally published over a hundred years ago. I have the Canto edition, 1992.
4. Synchronicity, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, pp 58–59
5. Disturbing the Universe, Harper & Row, 1979, p 50
6. On Divination and Synchronicity, Inner City, 1980, p 22
7. The Case for Astrology, Macdonald & Co., 1970, p 30
8. in The Future of Astrology, A. T. Mann (editor), Unwin Hyman, 1987, p 50, p57
9. as 4, p58
10. The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, Cambridge University Press, 1984. The source for that paragraph is http://www.alchemylab.com/isaac_newton.htm