Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 19th, 2013

The last of the magicians

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Portrait of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage…

His peculiar gift was the power of continuously holding in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his preeminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentrating to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was preeminently extraordinary—”so happy in his conjectures,” said de Morgan, “as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving.” The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards—they were not the instrument of discovery.

John Maynard Keynes

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2013 at 9:00 am

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