Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica is widely regarded as one of the most important publications in the history of science. His universal laws of motion and of gravity and his mathematical and empirical approach to physics would dominate scientific thinking for about two centuries. The reception of the first edition of the Principia (1687), especially on the Continent, was of crucial importance for the spread of Newtonianism beyond the British Isles. A new witness to this process is now being brought to light: a copy of the first edition of the Principia, annotated by the Amsterdam merchant, writer and amateur mathematician Adriaen Verwer. A man who deserves to be called the first continental Newtonian – although he did not always agree with the British scientist, and 'misused' him for his own purposes.
Together with Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is the most famous icon of modern science. Although he became a Cambridge professor in 1669 it was not until 1687, when he was almost 45 years of age, that his first book was published. His Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica ('Mathematic principles of the philosophy of the natural sciences') was based on his own research performed in the previous decades. This research was continued, which resulted in a second edition in 1713, containing several important corrections and revisions, and a third edition in 1726. Although Newton published other works, for instance his Opticks in 1704, he owes his fame especially to the Principia.
The manuscript of the Principia was presented to the Royal Society in London in April 1686. It was decided that it was fit for publication, and would be supervised and funded by Newton’s friend, the astronomer Edmund Halley. He added his ode to Newton to the edition. In the summer of 1687 between an estimated 250 to 400 copies were printed of the first edition of the Principia (Koyré & Cohen 1971-2, 138). Approximately 50 copies had the imprint Prostant Venales apud Sam. Smith and were meant for export to the Continent (Koyré & Cohen 1971-2, 852). Twelve of these were sent to the Leyden bookseller Pieter van der Aa, who only sold five copies over a two-year period (Jorink & Zuidervaart 2012, 21). Probably one of these five copies was bought by Adriaen Verwer, even as early as 1687 if we may rely on the ex libris on his copy.
There are several annotated copies of the first edition of the Principia, apart from Newton’s and Halley’s own copies. To some of these Newton himself had already added handwritten corrections (Koyré & Cohen 1971-2, 202-206). The annotated copy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) has been published in facsimile (Fellmann 1973). However, Verwer’s copy is exceptional in that it contains extensive annotations. The first edition of the Principia has 495 pages (besides the preliminary and closing pages), numbered 1-383 and 400-510 (384-399 are missing without loss of text). Of these pages, 190 are annotated, of which 35 only by underlining or arrows in the margin. The remaining 155 mostly contain one or two short annotations or references, but there are a few dozen pages to which Verwer had added substantial comments. At the end we find four handwritten pages with indices and some supplementary remarks.
Adriaen Verwer (1654/5-1717) was a man of some importance in the learned circles of the Netherlands in the decades around 1700. He was the son of a Rotterdam Anabaptist (Mennonite) merchant and grew up in a tolerant social environment. Adriaen and his father Pieter moved in circles that were in touch with philosophers such as Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), who lived and worked for a long time in Rotterdam, Jean le Clerc (1657-1736), who had settled in Amsterdam, and John Locke (1632-1704), who had lived in the Dutch Republic for five years (Van de Bilt 2009, 30-31, 34). In 1680 Verwer moved to Amsterdam and made a name for himself as a merchant, but also as a theologian, philosopher, linguist, mathematician and as an expert in the field of maritime law.
In the middle of the 17th century Utrecht and Leyden were the first universities in the world to teach the new philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650). They embraced (although not without meeting opposition) the modern philosophy that was based on rationalism and a geometrical and mathematical approach to natural phenomena. These ideas clashed with and undermined the prevailing Christian and Aristotelian world view. Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza (1632-1676) continued on the same line and contended that God himself was subject to the laws of nature which offered no room for the wonders that were so important in the Christian faith. The writings of the Bible were viewed skeptically. Many were worried that the rationalistic and mathematical approach to God’s creation would lead to a creation without God, and consequently to atheism. Also in Verwer’s head alarm bells started ringing when he read Spinoza’s writings in 1682, and he decided to write a book to refute his arguments.
In 1683 Verwer published his ’t Momaensicht der atheistery … een grondige wederlegging van de tegenstrijdige waen-gevoelens en in ’t bysonder van de geheele sede-konst van Benedictus Spinoza (‘The grim face of atheism… a thorough refutation of the contradictory delusions and especially of the complete ethics of Benedictus Spinoza’). He blamed Spinoza for using abstract, hypothetical mathematics, not the applied mathematics which relate to the existing world, such as astronomy does. He also regarded Spinoza’s ideas as an accumulation of previous opinions, starting with the beliefs of the Greek philosophers (Israel 2001, 309-12; 2006, 449). Although Verwer could not always escape the influence of Spinoza’s concepts, his point of view remained that true knowledge arises from empirical observations. This position had more supporters in the Netherlands during this period, and was also put into practice, for example in medical lectures at the University of Leyden. By observing and researching nature in all its aspects one was able to come to a better understanding of God’s creation. ’t Momaensicht became an influential book, and Verwer began to make his mark in intellectual circles (Jongeneelen 1996).
Outside the British Isles the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 caused little commotion. Newton sent a copy to Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), at that time probably Europe’s most famous scientist. Huygens admired Newton as a mathematician, but at the same time he did not agree with some of his most crucial findings. It was the same for the Leyden professor Burchard de Volder (1653-1709), who had already met Newton in 1674. De Volder was an Anabaptist friend of Spinoza’s who had graduated in Utrecht and Leyden. He was famous for his theatrum physicum designed for demonstrations of physical science (Vermij 2003, 186-7; Jorink & Zuidervaart 2012, 20-21). As said before, Verwer was one of the few people in the Dutch Republic who also owned a first edition of the Principia.
In 1691 Verwer received a letter from the Scottish mathematician David Gregory, asking him to bring him into contact with Dutch scholars. In his reply Verwer offers to introduce Gregory to the editor of Bibliothèque universelle et historique, the Jean le Clerc mentioned earlier. It was the only journal in the Dutch Republic that had published a review of the Principia, anonymously written by John Locke. Vewer also mentions the name of De Volder. During his visit to the Netherlands two years later Gregory met De Volder as well as Huygens. With both men Gregory exchanged letters. All these contacts show the close relations that existed between the Scottish Newtonians and Dutch scholars, contacts in which Verwer played an important part.
Besides Verwer, Gregory also visited the broker Jan Makreel, another member of the circle of amateur mathematicians with whom he would exchange letters in the years to come. Makreel also kept close contact with the German mathematician Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), had been to England and brought the works of Newton to the attention of a third member of the circle, Bernard Nieuwentijt (1654-1718) ) – someone whom Gregory must at least have known by name (Vermij 1991, 17-18). Nieuwentijt had graduated in Medicine in Utrecht in 1676, shortly after he had been banished from the University of Leyden. In Purmerend (to the north of Amsterdam) he was a physician and later a regent. In the years 1694-1696 he published three works on infinitesimal calculus in which he criticized Leibniz (who responded to this). He considered Newton to be the greatest mathematician alive (1696, 33).
In 1698 a new book by Verwer saw the light of day: Inleiding tot de Christelyke gods-geleertheid (‘Introduction to the Christian theology’), in which he examines the relation between theology and physical research, citing Ephesians 4:16 and Romans 1: 20 to prove his point. Also here his point of departure is the perceptible reality, and that one can understand God’s creation by a careful study of it (Van de Bilt 2009, 43-46, vgl. Jorink 2006). In his argumentation he refers to the elliptical orbit of the planets around the sun:
Namely, that the turnings of the Sun, the Moon and other Planets take place not in a Round, but rather an elliptical or oval round (on this question the most important astronomers absolutely agree: Johannes Kepler, Ismaël Bullialdis, Joan Dominico Cassini, Christiaen Huigens van Zuilichem, Johannes Flamsteed, Isaac Newton) and now man cannot possibly think that an elliptical turning can be executed and continued without intervention of a ruler who exists outside of these same things. And if someone wishes to know more about the elliptical turnings he’d better ponder upon the main contents of the Latin book by the mentioned Isaak Newton titled mathematical grounds of the Knowledge of Nature (1698, 13).
This is clearly Verwer’s interpretation of Newton. In the first edition of the Principa Newton only mentions God once on p. 415, in a passage of which the first part has been underlined by Verwer:
Collocavit igitur Deus planetas in diversis distantiis a sole, ut quilibet, pro gradu densitatis, calore solis majore vel minore fruatur (‘Therefore God placed the planets at different distances from the sun so that each one might, according to the degree of its density, enjoy a greater or smaller amount of heat from the sun’; Cohen & Whitman 1999, 230-231).
In his ode to Newton at the beginning of the Principia Edmund Halley, however, is very convinced of his deduction that Newton has revealed the divine laws of the universe (cf. Cohen & Whitman 1999, 379-380). But nowhere does he mention Verwer’s elliptical orbits.
To Verwer Newton is especially important because he lays the scientific foundation for the empirical method he brought forward in ’t Momaensicht (Vermij 2003, 193). Now it is clear in which way God’s creation – the ‘Book of Nature’, as it is called elsewhere – must be read; a method that effectively settles the score with the theoretical constructions of Descartes and Spinoza. Also without the Bible in hand the design of God’s creation can be unraveled. Verwer is one of the first on the Continent to realize this, and this makes him ‘an early representative of the theological physics of the 18th century, the theology based on physical data, and the physical sciences that are being practiced with explicit theological preoccupations’ (Van de Bilt 2009, 48).
At the end of his Inleiding Verwer gives another formula about God’s grace, worded in a Newtonian notation (dialecta Newtoniana). Fortunately, Verwer explains the formula in his letter to David Gregory from 1703 (Rigaud 1841, I, 248-253; Vermij 2003, 193-194). Verwer writes that he was inspired by the Solutio problematis de inventoribus by the Scottish Newtonian and a friend of Gregory’s, Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713), with whom Verwer also maintained a correspondence. Even though the formula seems awkward, it shows that Verwer tried to put theology and physics in a Newtonian frame. In his letter to Gregory Verwer also mentions that Newton’s work is met with great enthusiasm in Amsterdam, and this is also true for Verwer himself: ‘I spend each free hour on the book by Newton, and with each day I am more in awe of that man’s mind’ (Noordegraaf 2002, 2). Verwer even writes that he has given two copies of his Introduction to Guilielmus Moncrief, one to be given to Newton, the other to the bishop of Salisbury.
Besides Newton, there is another subject that has Verwer’s interest: linguistics. In 1707 he published his Linguae Belgicae idea, grammatica, poetica, rhetorica; deprompta ex adversariis Anonymi Batavi: in usum proximi amici ('Understanding of the Belgian [i.e. Dutch] language, grammar, poetry, rethoric; culled from the annotations of an anonymous Batavian [i.e. Dutchman], for the use of a close friend'). He did so anonymously, because he did not think of himself as a prominent author. In this work he criticizes the grammar of Arnold Moonen (Nederduitsche spraakkunst, 'Dutch grammar', from 1706), which was mainly based on the works of great names such as Joost van den Vondel. Also in drawing up linguistic laws, Verwer based his assumptions on what is perceptible, in this case usage of speech, in order to deduct underlying systematic rules – completely in line with his earlier publications.
Moonen’s reaction causes Verwer to write two open letters on the question, one to David van Hoogstraten, the text editor of Linguae Belgicae idea, and in 1709 one to Adriaan Reland (1676-1718), professor of Eastern languages in Utrecht (Jongeneelen 1996, 17; Van de Bilt, 2002). In the latter he stresses once again: ‘I do not like fabricated rules which leave us with exceptions as many as they are enormous’ (32, cf. Van de Bilt & Noordegraaf 2000, xiv). It is as if we hear an echo of Newton’s famous words hypotheses non fingo (‘I feign no hypotheses’)
Verwer’s work from the period 1707-1709 was of great influence on the two major Dutch linguists of the 18th century, Lambert ten Kate (1674-1731) and Balthazar Huydecoper (1695-1778) (Van de Bilt & Noordegraaf 2000, xiii; Van de Bilt 2009, 34). The former was, just like his friend Verwer, an Anabaptist merchant, who wrote at Verwer’s urgent request Gemeenschap tussen de Gottische spraeke en de Nederduytsche, 'Relationship between the Gothic and Dutch languages', (1710). The first part consists of a letter to A.V., or Adriaen Verwer. The supplement is a summary in French by Jean le Clerc. In 1716 Ten Kate published a translation of the natural religious work Philosophical principles of natural religion (1705; 2nd edition 1715) by the Scotsman George Cheyne (1671-1743), one of the men with whom Verwer exchanged letters.
The subject of Verwer’s last publication takes him the furthest away from his natural philosophical and theological interests. In 1711 Nederlants see-rechten, avaryen en bodemeryen (‘Dutch maritime law, damages and money loans’) was published. In this book Verwer examines the legality of a number of maritime laws from a historical perspective. Rather than choosing a legal and theoretical approach, he focusses on the practice of the law – so also here his point of departure is the perceptible world. He also makes a number of linguistic observations. It became Verwer’s greatest success, as the reprints from 1716, 1730 and 1764 show (Hermersdorf 1967; Van de Bilt 2009, 37).
From 1711 until his death in 1717 no more works of Verwer were published, but this does not mean that he had disappeared from the scene. It is obvious that he had built an impressive international network by which he kept in touch, directly or indirectly, with a whole series of prominent scientists and interested followers. His notes in the Principia show that after 1711 he returned to his first love: mathematics.
Who loosely inspects Verwer’s notes cannot but notice that he is familiar with quite a number of prominent mathematicians and astronomers. In chronological order from Euclid and Archimedes to Verwer’s contemporaries, for instance Spinoza and Huygens. The most frequently cited author is David Gregory. The most recent publication he quotes (on p. 251) is Charles Hayes, Treatise on Fluxions (Londen, 1704), in which Newton’s infinitesimal calculus is explained. All notes are in Latin, sometimes something is scribbled in Greek, a few times a note or word is in Dutch.
When exactly Verwer added his notes is not clear, and viewing from the ink and the writing it could have taken place at different points in time. But there are important clues which suggest that the last stage must have been in or after 1713. On p. 237 we find a number of notes in the margin: Correctiora haec nobis sunt in Adversariis mechanicis. 1713 ('These corrections of ours are in Notes on mechanics, 1713'). We find a similar remark at the bottom of p. 251. Incidentally, it appears that Verwer refers to corrections on Newton’s text, but this needs further analysis. Verwer refers to this notebook more often, for instance on p. 374 vide adversaria nostra ('see our notes'), or on p. 375 inspice adversaria 1713 ('consult the notes, 1713'). It may be that he did not write down his more extensive comments and corrections in the margin of the Principia, but collected them in a more general notebook about mechanics which most probably is lost. We have seen before that he took the contents of his linguistic Linguae Belgicae idea from notes (ex adversariis).
We find another kind of clue on p. 250: vide adnotata nostra ad D. Gregorii exercitationum geometricam ('see our notes on/at D(avid) Gregory, Excercitatio geometrica (from 1684)'), and on p. 28: uti in Adversariis ad SLUSII miscellanae ('as in the Notes on/at (René-Francois de Sluse or) Slusius, Miscellanea (from1668)'). The terms adnotata and adversaria can both refer to notebooks or notes that have been added to a book, like Verwer did in the Principia. Did he also add such notes to his copies of the works by Slusius and Gregory? Or are we also dealing with separate notebooks here?
The nature of Verwer’s notes show that he made them before he got hold of a copy of the second edition of the Principia, published in 1713. There are references to the second and third edition (from 1726), for instance on pp. 39-41, but these have been written by an unknown hand after Verwer’s death. This is important information because in this way we get a picture of how the amateur mathematician Verwer processed the contents of the first edition of the Principia, a unique opportunity. For a better picture of this, Verwer’s notes are transcribed on Annotated Books Online (ABO)
The annotated copy of the Principia now has call number R qu 291, but on the flyleaf there is a sticker with Bibliotheek Theologische Hogeschool Amsterdam (‘Library of the Amsterdam Theological Academy’) and written on it Depot N 3. A similar sticker on the inside of the cover has a date stamp of 27 Feb 1984. A part of the library of the Katholieke Theologische Hogeschool Amsterdam (KTHA) (‘Catholic Theological Academy Amsterdam) was obtained by the Utrecht University Library in 1999. The book with the old call number Depot N 4 was also obtained by the KTHA on 27 Feb 1984. It is Richard Simon’s Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (Rotterdam, 1685), in which we find a sticker with an ex libris: Bibliotheca Seminarii Warmondani, dono dedit Rev. Pl. Dom. Th. Borret, SS. Theol. Doctor, and a handwritten ex libris of Theodori Borret. Although Verwer’s copy of the Principia is probably from another library, they were almost certainly bought by the KTHA at the same sale. However, it is still unknown at which sale or auction. Verwer's library was auctioned in Amsterdam from 13 to 15 Oct. 1723. The advertisements speak of the sale of his books on law and mathematics in various languages. No auction catalogue was produced on this occasion.
It is generally known that Newton’s victory march on the Continent started with the publication of the second edition of the Principia in 1713. A year later illegal copies were produced in Amsterdam, and around 1715 Newton is the topic of so much discussion in the Dutch Republic, and there are so many books published about him, that Eric Jorink and Huib Zuidervaart (2012) suggest a joint action by Dutch scientists (such as Willem Jacob ’s Gravesande and Herman Boerhaave), printers, editors (such as Jean le Clerc) and amateur mathematicians (such as Bernard Nieuwentijt) to put Newton on the map once and for all. The history of the spread of Newtonianism in the Netherlands can be read in their article ‘“The miracle of our time”. How Isaac Newton was fashioned in the Netherlands’, the first chapter in E. Jorink & A. Maas (ed.), Newton and the Netherlands. How Isaac Newton was fashioned in the Dutch Republic (Leyden, 2012). Together with Jean le Clerc and Bernard Nieuwentijt, Verwer provided a fertile breeding ground for Newton’s ideas, even though they used him primarily as a defence against the new philosophies by Descartes and Spinoza. The central and inspiring role of Verwer through his versatility and network of scientists and researchers played a major part in this process. Therefore he may be regarded as the first continental Newtonian. Not bad for an amateur!
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