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Last of the Magicians - Newton and Keynes and Chesterton

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Isaac Newton makes an appearance in the introduction of my book.

I have heard Newton described as the "last of the magicians" a number of times.

I also heard J.R.R. Tolkien described as the last of the medievalists.

Maybe you can see the start of a pattern here. To extend these ideas to more recent contributors to Western culture, I wondered what could be said about Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek and George Lucas of Star Wars.

I called Gene Roddenberry the "last of the optimistic futurists" - a lot of pessimism and dystopian stories seem to be coming out of imaginative storytelling after the hopeful 60s and the beginnings of Star Trek.

I called George Lucas the "last of the mythologists" - Lucas used the ideas of Joseph Campbell extensively. And as can be seen by the series of Star Wars movies, the more things change in the future, the more stories seem to stay the same.

I was glad to come across this article on "Maimonides, Stonehenge, and Newton’s Obsessions" a little while ago.

For one thing, it put a name to the source of this "last of..." phrase - the economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was a fan of Newton, and went through many of Newton's old notes and papers.

Here's a quote from Keynes:

“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 that 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.”

Newton was a weird guy, not afraid to chase ideas down rabbit-holes and through old scrolls.

Something else brought be back to the "last of..." phrase this week too. Someone suggested a G.K. Chesterton book to me - The Everlasting Man.

I was a fan of Chesterton, mostly because I had run across so many intriguing quotes penned by Chesterton. He could turn a quip and summarize a barb most eloquently.

Unfortunately, as I read through this book from Chesterton, the level of my impression of the man fades, diminishes. He is such a good writer, and has some masterful control over the points he wishes to make. There is measured cadence in his style. And as an apologist, he might have been the last great one out there. But to my senses here in 2019, he sounds like a man desperately clinging to the last precious sentiments of "specialism" for his dear faith and well-worn traditions.

I will leave room for him, and for his work. He deserves so much. But I fear G.K. Chesterton may be called the last of the idolaters.

He may have called for humility towards his God, but I would have appreciated more honest questioning of his own tradition. The fixed view from his own comfortable pew makes me distrust his perspective on the changes of the 20th Century. A good quote is an invitation to go further and test out the writing around it. Context may crease the value of the quote.

Perhaps more to read, and more to let go...


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