Mythologies of scholarship, the role of imagination in the history of science

Curator's Note

Page 13r, from Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (draft c.1727) (MS Add.3988),


Newton, a name we associated with apples, gravity, and calculus was an avid writer on the occult and speculative history. His interest in the origins of nations and knowledge occupied his time while composing the Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, a manuscript he wrote and revised in 1700 and 1727, and that was printed posthumously the next year. The purpose of this text was to revise the standard chronologies collected from the historical works in Greek and Latin with the Biblical chronology. In the first chapter, Newton starts with the history of the Greek world, and I want to highlight the few last lines of the paragraph captured above:

"And the Chaldeans boasted further that they had observed the stars 473000 years. And there were others who made the kingdoms of Assyria, Media, and Damascus much older than the truth."

Newton was writing this line in 1727 (interestingly this paragraph does not appear in the 1700 draft) at time before the scientific discovery and excavation of the ancient cities of Nineveh and Babylon, and decipherment of the cuneiform script. Since then we have learned quite a bit about the antiquity and mythology of scholarship in Babylonia from the writings of cuneiform scribes themselves. Newton was not far off.

Old-Babylonian tablet preserving the square root of two, YBC 7289 (


The mythology of scholarship in Mesopotamia assigns the earliest knowledge to the gods and to mythical figures that rose from the watery depths to bring knowledge to humanity and teach them astronomy, astrology, mathematics and many other fields. For scribes in Assyria and Babylonia, ascribing authorship of an idea was a foreign concept. Clay tablets were "written" by scholars, but ideas were ancient. This tradition puzzles and frustrates modern scholars, as we would love to assign the novel invention of concepts like Pythagorean triples to their earliest exemplars (in this case an Old-Babylonian tablet from the early 2nd millennium B.C.E.), or the square root of two (also from the Old-Babylonian period). Or in a more relevant case to Newton himself, the discovery of early antecedents to calculus in Babylonian astronomical tablets (see Ossendrijver, M. in Science vol. 351, issue 6272, pp. 482-484, These amazing cases of the far reaching antiquity of ideas question our own mythology of scholarship and science.

Returning to Newton for now, we encounter another, more modern mythology. Sir Isaac Newton figures prominently in our modern mythology of science. From gravity to calculus, Newton's scientific mind has its place of origin in many of our modern ideas. However, this mythology is just that.  John Maynard Keynes famously remarked that:

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians..." (Keynes, J.M. "Newton, the Man", in The World of Mathematics ed. J. Newman, Simon and Schuster, 1956, pg. 277)

There are two main mythologies of scholarship present here.  One is the antiquity of all thought, the absence of discovery because knowledge is eternal. The other is the mythology of the singular scholar, the discoverer of an idea. From ancient Mesopotamia to our own conception of the origins of science, both mythologies are at play. They allow us to tell stories about ideas that are convenient and compelling. Where would we be without the apple falling from the tree, or divinely inspired knowledge guiding the passage of history? While mythologies are inherently a retelling of stories, they are productive in allowing us to conceive of periods of time as far back as 473,000 years ago.


First, I would like to express appreciation for this post in expanding "mythology" beyond consideration of specific narratives, as in my post, and toward the process of mythologization itself. 

While making no claims of my own here, I am tempted merely to draw attention to the two divergent trajectories of knowledge Monroe would appear to be alluding to here—those of materialist, physical science and spiritual, metaphysical science, between which Newton has been positioned as a "pivotal" figurehead. Following Newton on the trajectory of individual "discovery" through rational sense perception would be Bacon, Darwin, and ultimately modern science as we embrace it. Following Newton on the trajectory of eternal knowledge would be the much lesser celebrated Joachim Jungius, and then Shakespeare, Goethe, and ultimately Rudolph Steiner and his anthroposophy. And instead of citing his predecessors as "discoverers," Steiner preferred to trace a persistent "Rosicrucian impulse" conveying what he deemed as eternal knowledge through the millennia. Here, I see the notion of "impulse" as particularly indicative of an opposite and so marginalized mythology of scholarship branded thus as "esoteric" in the our scientific dedication to authorship—and our authorial dedication to science.

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