Whenever I think of Isaac Newton, I’m always reminded of the winding stair.
Here’s a man who dedicated his whole life to learning:
An English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been “considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived.” (Burt, 2001)
Not only did Newton study the sciences of mathematics, astronomy and physics, but he also studied the arts of philosophy, theology and even alchemy.
As Freemasons, we learn that the winding stair represents the self-improvement of our intellect and moral or spiritual character:
The candidate, then, in the second degree of Masonry, represents a man starting forth on the journey of life, with the great task before him of self-improvement. For the faithful performance of this task, a reward is promised, which reward consists in the development of all his intellectual faculties, the moral and spiritual elevation of his character, and the acquisition of truth and knowledge. (Mackey, 1882)
Isaac the Freemason
Although it’s never been confirmed that Newton was indeed a Freemason, it has been established that like all masons, he focused on morality, progress, personal development, intellectual enlightenment, and communitarian values. And like Freemasons, he also drew inspiration from the wisdom of the ages and from thinkers and writings from many cultures, both sacred and secular:
Today, we tend to make a distinction between science and faith, but to Newton it was all part of the same world. He believed that careful study of holy texts was a type of science..
..So he learned how to read Hebrew, scrolled through the Bible and delved into the study of Jewish philosophy, the mysticism of Kabbalah and the Talmud – a compendium of Jewish oral law and stories about 1,500 years old. (Heller, 2012)
He could read Hebrew? Just what exactly was this man studying? Apparently Newton felt the ancients had a secret “truth” that he had to get in on. More precisely, the secrets of Mathematics and Architecture:
Newton felt that just as the writings of ancient philosophers, scholars, and Biblical figures contained within them unknown sacred wisdom, the same was true of their architecture. He believed that these men had hidden their knowledge in a complex code of symbolic and mathematical language that, when deciphered, would reveal an unknown knowledge of how nature works. (Christianson, 2005)
So, Newton studied the architectures of many ancient civilizations not excluding, of course, King Solomon’s Temple:
Newton believed that the temple was designed by King Solomon with privileged eyes and divine guidance. To Newton, the geometry of the temple represented more than a mathematical blueprint, it also provided a time-frame chronology of Hebrew history. (Gardner, 2007)
In 1728, the year after Newton’s death, his book “The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms” was published. In it, he dedicated an entire chapter describing King Solomon’s Temple. Here is an excerpt regarding the winding stair:
The upper rooms were treasure-chambers; they went up to the middle chamber by winding stairs in the southern shoulder of the House, and from the middle into the upper.
This man had studied the entire temple, top to bottom, in all its proportions – right down to the tiniest detail. Just a couple of months ago, Israel’s national library, an unlikely owner of a vast trove of Newton’s writings, digitized his theological collection – some 7,500 pages in Newton’s own handwriting – and put it online. I actually managed to dig up an editorial note he wrote about the winding stair and let me tell you, it sounds like he has it down to a science:
In 1675 Newton annotated a copy of “Manna – a disquisition of the nature of alchemy”, an anonymous treatise which had been given to him by his fellow scholar Ezekiel Foxcroft. In his annotation Newton reflected upon his reasons for examining Solomon’s Temple by writing:
This philosophy, both speculative and active, is not only to be found in the volume of nature, but also in the sacred scriptures, as in Genesis, Job, Psalms, Isaiah and others. In the knowledge of this philosophy, God made Solomon the greatest philosopher in the world.
Needless to say, Newton was trying to investigate the true meaning of the temple’s architecture. As Freemasons we are also taught, through general knowledge of architecture, to be investigators of truth:
In the investigation of the true meaning of every masonic symbol and allegory, we must be governed by the single principle that the whole design of Freemasonry as a speculative science is the investigation of divine truth. To this great object everything is subsidiary. The Mason is, from the moment of his initiation as an Entered Apprentice, to the time at which he receives the full fruition of masonic light, an investigator–a laborer in the quarry and the temple–whose reward is to be Truth. All the ceremonies and traditions of the order tend to this ultimate design.
Advancing in his progress, the candidate is invited to contemplate another series of instructions. The human senses, as the appropriate channels through which we receive all our ideas of perception, and which, therefore, constitute the most important sources of our knowledge, are here referred to as a symbol of intellectual cultivation. Architecture, as the most important of the arts which conduce to the comfort of mankind, is also alluded to here, not simply because it is so closely connected with the operative institution of Masonry, but also as the type of all the other useful arts. In his second pause, in the ascent of the Winding Stairs, the aspirant is therefore reminded of the necessity of cultivating practical knowledge. (Mackey, 1882)
And like Freemasons, Newton realized the great lesson of using all reason, will and emotion, all sense and matter, all art and science, as steps by which to ascend to the sanctuary of truth:
He indeed had a deep interest in esoteric truths of the ancient past and in enlightened individuals with the ability to gain insight into nature, the physical universe, and the spiritual realm. (White, 1999)
It first came to public attention when John Maynard Keynes purchased a large collection of Newton’s alchemical papers in 1936 and subsequently described Newton as “the last of the magicians . . . , 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.”
Not even Newton could do the impossible. He learned a great deal from alchemy about chemistry and experimental technique, but he never found the philosopher’s stone or turned base metals into gold. (Johnson, 1997)
As Freemasons, we are taught that the winding stair is wearied by toil and confronted with many difficulties, so Newton’s failure is no surprise. He came to the realization that divine truth, as we all know, cannot be obtained in this world or in this life:
Is there a loss of something that had been promised? That loss is typical of the failure of man, in the infirmity of his nature, to discover divine truth. Is there a substitute to be appointed for that loss? It is an allegory which teaches us that in this world man can only approximate to the full conception of truth. (Mackey, 1882)
Although Newton’s studies of alchemy were unsuccessful, the substitute for that failure was that his interest in the field led to some of his better known contributions to science:
Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. (Westfall, 1980)
Isaac the Philosopher
Newton is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he was also an influential theologian who applied a scientific approach to the study of scripture, Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. He saw God as the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation, and that the ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood, and must be understood, by an active reason:
I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity. Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice. For while comets move in very eccentric orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric, some inconsiderable irregularities excepted which may have arisen from the mutual actions of comets and planets on one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this system wants a reformation. (Newton, 1687)
Just as Newton pictured himself as a curious boy on a shore, discovering smoother pebbles and prettier shells, with an undiscovered ocean of truth before him, so too as Freemasons do we picture ourselves ascending the winding stair with inquiring minds, discovering new ideas, while the unseen reward of truth awaits us at the top:
Now, the attainment of this moral and intellectual condition supposes an elevation of character, an ascent from a lower to a higher life, and a passage of toil and difficulty, through rudimentary instruction, to the full fruition of wisdom. This is therefore beautifully symbolized by the Winding Stairs; at whose foot the aspirant stands ready to climb the toilsome steep, while at its top is placed “that hieroglyphic bright which none but Craftsmen ever saw,” as the emblem of divine truth. And hence a distinguished writer has said that “these steps, like all the masonic symbols, are illustrative of discipline and doctrine, as well as of natural, mathematical, and metaphysical science, and open to us an extensive range of moral and speculative inquiry.” (Mackey, 1882)
Through his research and theories, Newton was much rewarded in his later life. He was a member of Parliament, President of the Royal Society, Master of the Royal Mint, and most notably, obtained knighthood. These however, were nothing compared to the approximation of divine truth he spent an entire lifetime achieving. When he finally died, he was at peace with God and his epitaph read:
Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.
So too as Freemasons, are we rewarded for our achievements throughout life. But the greatest reward of all, through learning and understanding, is being just within reach of that knowledge of the nature of God and man’s relation to him. We cannot attain full understanding and “light” until we have passed from this world to the next:
It will be remembered that a reward was promised for all this toilsome ascent of the Winding Stairs. Now, what are the wages of a Speculative Mason? Not money, nor corn, nor wine, nor oil. All these are but symbols. His wages are TRUTH, or that approximation to it which will be most appropriate to the degree into which he has been initiated. It is one of the most beautiful, but at the same time most abstruse, doctrines of the science of masonic symbolism, that the Mason is ever to be in search of truth, but is never to find it. This divine truth, the object of all his labors, is symbolized by the WORD, for which we all know he can only obtain a substitute; and this is intended to teach the humiliating but necessary lesson that the knowledge of the nature of God and of man’s relation to him, which knowledge constitutes divine truth, can never be acquired in this life. It is only when the portals of the grave open to us, and give us an entrance into a more perfect life, that this knowledge is to be attained. “Happy is the man,” says the father of lyric poetry, “who descends beneath the hollow earth, having beheld these mysteries; he knows the end, he knows the origin of life.” (Mackey, 1882)
As Freemasons, we know that the winding stair has a dual interpretation, divine and human. The reason why Newton’s life is emblematic of that is because not only did he study the sciences, which constitutes human knowledge, but also philosophy and theology, constituting divine knowledge. And like the winding stair, his life also teaches the great lesson to use all reason, will and emotion, all sense and matter, all art and science, as steps by which to ascend to the sanctuary of truth:
The Middle Chamber is therefore symbolic of this life, where the symbol only of the word can be given, where the truth is to be reached by approximation only, and yet where we are to learn that that truth will consist in a perfect knowledge of the G.A.O.T.U. This is the reward of the inquiring Mason; in this consist the wages of a Fellow Craft; he is directed to the truth, but must travel farther and ascend still higher to attain it. (Mackey, 1882)
The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion on an intelligent and powerful Being.
—Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), Principia (1687)
Burt, Daniel S. (2001). The biography book: a reader’s guide to nonfiction, fictional, and film biographies of more than 500 of the most fascinating individuals of all time. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 315. ISBN 1-573-56256-4., Extract of page 315
Mackey, Albert G. (1882). The Symbolism of Freemasonry., XXVI. The Legend of the Winding Stairs.
Heller, Aron. (2012). “Israeli library uploads Newton’s theological texts.“, Jerusalem (Associated Press).
Gardner, Laurence (2007). written at USA. The Shadow of Solomon: The Lost Secret of the Freemasons Revealed. Originally published: London : HarperElement, 2005: Weiser. p. 146. ISBN 1-57863-404-0.
Johnson, Phillip E. (1997). What Would Newton Do?. Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998) 25-31.
Newton, Isaac. (1687). “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”.