Newton’s General Scholium

General Scholium Cohen Whitman Firenze mostly horizontal round

Word Cloud of the General Scholium
Wordle Word Clouds of the 1713 Latin, 1726 Latin and 1999 English translations of the General Scholium PDF

The General Scholium, added to the Principia in 1713, is probably Newton’s most famous text. It is also one of the least understood of Newton’s writings. This is partly because Newton constructed it much like a Russian doll, with some of the more controversial aspects hidden within layers of more accessible meaning. The recent availability of Newton’s private manuscripts has helped scholars decipher elements of this document through the comparison of the oblique language of the General Scholium with the much less guarded wording of his private writings, but there is much work yet to be done.

In this text, Newton not only challenges the natural philosophy of Descartes, counters criticism levelled against him by Leibniz, mentions the possibility of the existence of extra-solar planets, rejects the reckless use of hypotheses, speculates about electricity and appeals for universal gravitation and an inductive method, but he articulates the argument from design, discusses the nature of God and embeds a subversive critique of the doctrine of the Trinity, which he believed was a fourth-century corruption of Christianity. The General Scholium is so tersely written and handles so many topics, that a complete list of its subject matter would be almost as long as the text itself.

In his General Scholium, Newton appeals for a humble and inductive approach both in natural philosophy and religion. In this powerful manifesto of his goals in natural philosophy and theology, Newton also reveals his commitments to a dual reformation in these two spheres — spheres Newton believed were thoroughly bound together.

Download a brief guide to the General Scholium: Letter | A4

Texts

Newton’s General Scholium in the English translation by Andrew Motte (1729): Letter | A4

  • This translation is from the first full English translation of the third edition of Newton’s Principia (1726); it is the first full English translation of the version of the General Scholium published in the third edition of Newton’s Principia

Newton’s General Scholium from the second (1713) edition of the Principia (Latin): Letter | A4

  • This is the original version of the General Scholium (1152 words in Latin)

Newton’s General Scholium from the third (1726) edition of the Principia (Latin): Letter | A4

  • This is version of the General Scholium that Newton revised and expanded for the third edition of the Principia (1442 words in Latin)

William Whiston’s translation from the theological portion of the General Scholium published in his Three Essays (1713): Letter | A4

  • This is the first translation into English of any portion of the General Scholium; Whiston translated it within mere days of receiving his copy of the second edition of the Principia and published it shortly thereafter

John Edwards’ commentary on the theology of the General Scholium (1714): Letter | A4

  • In this commentary, this Calvinist divine suggests that the theology of the General Scholium has affinities both to that of Samuel Clarke and the Socinians; his commentary also contains a short English translation from the General Scholium

John Maxwell’s translation of the General Scholium published in his A discourse concerning God (1715): Letter | A4

  • The first full translation into English of the General Scholium

William Whiston’s translation from the theological portion of the General Scholium as published in his Astronomical principles (1717): Letter |A4

  • Whiston’s Astronomical principles is a work of physico-theology

Henry Pemberton’s summary of the theology of the General Scholium in his A view of Newton’s philosophy (1728): Letter | A4

  • This short text also includes summaries of the theology in the Queries to Newton’s Opticks

William Whiston’s translation of the theological portion of the General Scholium from the third edition of Newton’s Principia as published in his Corollaries (1728, 1729): Letter | A4

  • Whiston’s Corollaries contains excerpts from the theological portions of the Queries to Newton’s Opticks, theological material from Roger Cotes’ preface to the second edition of the Principia, a selection of theology from Newton’s Chronology (1728), along with the material from the General Scholium

English translation of most of the theological portion of the General Scholium as published in the Grub-street Journal (1731): Letter | A4

  • the commentary around this text alludes to Pemberton’s A view of Newton’s philosophy (1728); the translation Whiston’s rendition of the 1726 edition of the General Scholium as published in his Corollaries (1728, 1729)

The Marquise du Châtelet’s French translation of the General Scholium, from her translation of  Newton’s Principia (1749, 1759): Letter | A4

  • Châtelet’s translation of the Principia was completed in the year of her death (1749) and fully published in 1759; this translation remains the standard French version of the Principia today

Resources

Biblical passages referenced in Newton’s General Scholium: Biblical passages referenced in Newton’s General Scholium: Letter | A4

  • The full texts of the biblical passages Newton refers to in both editions of his General Scholium

Biblical passages referenced in the drafts to Newton’s General Scholium: Letter size | A4

  • The full texts of the biblical passages Newton refers to in Drafts B-E of his General Scholium

Copyright note

Visitors to this site may use these documents freely for personal reading, research and educational purposes, but must seek permission from the Newton Project Canada before posting them online or publishing them in any format.

Discussion

Visitors to this site are encouraged to leave comments about the scientific, philosophical, metaphysical and theological content of Newton’s General Scholium below. New information and insights are welcome!

Have you seen the General Scholium quoted somewhere? Are you aware of translations of the General Scholium into any language? How significant are Newton’s treatments of scientific method therein? What does the General Scholium tell us about Newton’s cosmology? What about his allusion to extra-solar planets (one of the first ever)? Why does Newton spend so much time in the General Scholium on natural theology and theology proper? Are there really hints of heresy in the theological portions? And what about his speculations on the electric spirit near the end? More generally, just why did Newton add the General Scholium to the second (1713) edition of his Principia?

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