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Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens

et des Modernes

Christoph Lehner, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
Helge Wendt, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Abstract: The debate about the superiority of ancient versus modern cul-
ture, known as the Querelle des anciens et des modernes, also found expression
in conflicting positions about the developing mathematical methods of natural
philosophy. Isaac Newton explicitly referred to the authority of Euclidean ge-
ometry as a justification for the conservative form of the proofs in his Principia
Mathematica, where he avoided the use of analytic geometry and infinitesimal
calculus, the central innovations of seventeenth-century mathematics, as much
as possible. Rather, he modeled his proofs, just like the overall structure of the
treatise, as closely as possible on Euclid’s geometry. A century later, however,
Joseph-Louis Lagrange announced in the introduction to his Mechanique Analy-
tique that no geometrical diagrams would be found there and that Newtonian
mechanics was presented exclusively in the form of analytic equations. This
essay analyzes the relationship of this radical change in the theoretical meth-
odology of mechanics to the actors’ ideas about ancient science and its author-
ity. It also discusses the consequent development of a conception of ancient
science as distinct from modern science and the relation of this conception to a
history of science in our contemporary sense.

“S ince the ancients (according to Pappus) considered mechanics to be of the greatest im-
portance in the investigation of nature and science and since the moderns—rejecting
substantial forms and occult qualities—have undertaken to reduce the phenomena of nature
to mathematical laws, it has seemed best in this treatise to concentrate on mathematics as it

Christoph Lehner is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and at the DFG Collab-
orative Research Center “Transformations of Antiquity” at Humboldt University, Berlin. He works on history and philosophy of
modern physics from classical mechanics to quantum theory. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany;
lehner@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.
Helge Wendt is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and at the DFG Collaborative
Research Center “Transformations of Antiquity.” He works on the analytic turn of mechanics in the eighteenth century. Max
Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany; hwendt@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.
Acknowledgments. Research for this essay was funded by the Collaborative Research Center 644 “Transformations of Antiquity.”
It is based on a talk given at the center’s conference “Allelopoiesis: Concepts for the Description of Cultural Transformation.”
We would like to thank an anonymous referee for Isis, H. Floris Cohen, Johannes Helmrath, Eva Marlene Hausteiner, Jürgen
Renn, and, especially, Niccolò Guicciardini for helpful comments on earlier versions of this text, and Anthony B. Heric and
Lindy Divarci for help with the translation from German.

Isis, volume 108, number 1. © 2017 by The History of Science Society.


All rights reserved. 0021-1753/2017/0108-0002$10.00.
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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    27

relates to natural philosophy.”1 This is the first sentence of Isaac Newton’s preface to his most
important work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687. It may
seem surprising that the revolution in mathematics and physics began with a borrowing from
the ancient mathematician Pappus of Alexandria. Newton’s contributions to pure and applied
mathematics, optics, and chemistry, and especially his mechanics and cosmology, were al-
ready perceived as revolutionary in his own time.2 In contrast to the expectation evoked by the
revolutionary metaphor of an all-encompassing innovation, which included subject, approach,
and form of presentation, Newton stressed two continuities with ancient predecessors in the
Principia: first, by way of the prominent opening reference to Pappus, he defined his work as
a continuation of ancient mathematics; second, he described his definitively groundbreaking
physical findings and insights in a formal language that he (and many others) defined and ide-
alized as ancient. In order to understand this reference to antiquity, this essay discusses the role
Newton’s perception and assessment of the ancient sciences played in his project for a new,
rational mathematics and for the formalism that he used in the Principia.
More specifically, the essay looks at the idea of ancient science as constructed by Newton
to justify his project of a rational mechanics, which differs fundamentally from the modern
image of the ancient sciences. This transformation of ancient culture (like many other forms
of appropriation) is not to be understood as mere reception; it is, rather, an active process of
construction that depends essentially on the interests and contexts of the recipient culture. The
concept of allelopoiesis has been advanced to describe this mutual process of construction,
which gives rise to a transformation both in the recipient culture, through its absorption of
elements of the reference culture, and in the reference culture, as constructed and under-
stood in the recipient culture.3 We will stress this constructive element in Newton’s use of
ancient mechanics and mathematics for his own work. The essay contrasts this idea with a
very different conception of ancient science that developed with the reception of the Prin-
cipia and its reinterpretation in the new formalism of differential calculus. The transforma-
tion of mechanics therefore implies a transformation of the conception of ancient science in
general in the age of Newton.
The context in which Newton connected his work to antiquity was the Querelle des anciens
et des modernes—or, as it was known later in the English context, the “Battle of the Books”—a

1
Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. and ed. I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whit-
man (Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1999), p. 381.
2
See, e.g., Alexis-Claude Clairaut, “Du système du monde: Dans les principes de la gravitation universelle,” Histoire de
l’Académie Royale des Sciences, Année MDCCXLV, 1749, pp. 329–364, on p. 329: “Le fameux livre des Principes mathémat­
iques de la Philosophie naturelle, a été l’époche d’une grande révolution dans la Physique [The famous book Mathematical
Principles of Natural Philosophy was the turning point of a great revolution in physics].” A detailed study of the use of the
concept of revolution in the sciences of the eighteenth century can be found in I. Bernard Cohen’s standard work about the his-
tory of Newton’s reception, The Newtonian Revolution: With Illustrations of the Transformation of Scientific Ideas (Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 3–51. This perception that the natural sciences are always progressive is also expressed by Hip-
polyte Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des anciens et des modernes (1856; New York: Franklin, 1963), p. 491. He, like many other
authors, failed to consider in depth the ongoing debates in the fields of mathematics and physics at the end of the seventeenth
century and the beginning of the eighteenth century. See Dietrich Harth, “Revolution und Mythos: Sieben Thesen zur Genesis
und Geltung zweier Grundbegriffe historischen Denkens,” in Revolution und Mythos, ed. Harth and Jan Assmann (Frankfurt
am Main: Fischer, 1992), pp. 9–35, for a discussion of how the term “revolution” in general evolved in the early modern era.
3
The notion of allelopoiesis as a cultural transformation involving a mutual construction of recipient culture and reference
culture has been a central conceptual tool of the Collaborative Research Center “Transformations of Antiquity.” See Hartmut
Böhme, “Einladung zur Transformation,” in Transformation: Ein Konzept zur Erforschung kulturellen Wandels, ed. Böhme et al.
(Munich: Fink, 2011), pp. 7–37, esp. pp. 9–15.

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28   Christoph Lehner and Helge Wendt Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

central topos of intellectual debate since the mid-seventeenth century.4 Today, the quarrel
about the cultural superiority of the ancient or modern era, which extended well into the fol-
lowing century, is seen mainly as a phenomenon in the history of literature; it concerned the
necessity—or not, as the case may be—of a realignment and reinvention of literary forms of
narration. This “battle” as to how the relations between the two epochs were to be evaluated
indeed involved two camps, but it would be simplistic to pigeonhole them into one group that
took a positive stance toward antiquity and a second that was dismissive of it. Dietrich Harth has
described a variety of “construction mechanisms” pertaining to this quarrel that were oriented
around two opposite poles:

In the following I would like to show by way of several historic examples which im-
ages of Antiquity and which construction mechanisms emerged from these quarrels in
the period of investigation between approximately 1650 and 1810, how they ultimately
transformed Antiquity into that otherness in which, on the one hand, the Modern era
could recognize its own open process character, continually progressing and perma-
nently changing, and, on the other hand, something like points of orientation in the flux
of permanent change.5

The quarrel was fundamental for the development of critical methodologies in the study of
literature. However, it also addressed the evolving mathematical methodologies in natural phi-
losophy.6 The extent to which ancient methods and forms of argumentation were compulsory
for modern science was controversial. Conversely, the debate also implied radically differing
notions of the scope and form of ancient science.
Newton’s construct of a substantive and formally superior ancient science that formed an
authoritative framework for modern endeavors, expressed in the quotation that opened this
essay, stands in stark contrast to the historical image held by his readers, the mathematical
physicists of the eighteenth century on the European continent, as will be seen in the con-
cluding part of the essay. In order to understand the historical context of this rift between
Newton’s ideals and his reception, it is precisely the context of the controversy between an-
tiquity and modernity around 1700 that must be examined. In earlier centuries similar ques-
tions had been raised about the validity of ancient teachings. These controversies, however,
were restricted in scope, and their context was not that of a historic break between antiquity
and modernity, which was a specific point of discussion in the Querelle des anciens et des
modernes.

4
James E. Force, “Newton, the ‘Ancients,’ and the ‘Moderns,’ ” in Newton and Religion: Context, Nature, and Influence, ed.
Force and Richard H. Popkin (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999), pp. 237–257, argues for Newton’s active participation in the “Battle of
the Books” and for the influence of historical sources on his theological and scientific convictions.
5
Dietrich Harth, “Über die Geburt der Antike aus dem Geist der Moderne,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition,
1994, 1:89–106, on p. 92 (trans. by Anthony B. Heric). On the “quarrel” as it pertained to history of literature see Barbara
Warnick, “The Old Rhetoric vs. the New Rhetoric: The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns,” Communication
Monographs, 1982, 49:263–276; and Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des anciens et des modernes (cit. n. 2). For a wider outlook
that resists a simplistic dichotomy see Joseph M. Levine, “Ancients and Moderns Reconsidered,” Eighteenth-Century Studies,
1981, 15:72–89.
6
See, e.g., Werner Krauss and Hans Kortum, Antike und Moderne in der Literaturdiskussion des 18. Jahrhunderts (Berlin:
Akademie-Verlag, 1966); and Alexis Tadié, “Peut-on traduire les querelles? De la Querelle des anciens et des modernes à la Battle
of the Books,” Littératures Classiques, 2013, 81:211–226.

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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    29

The Querelle des anciens et des modernes and the sciences


Two places—Paris on the one hand and London on the other—were the central stages for this
famous discussion, which cannot be treated here in any detail.7 At the Académie Française,
beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century, a long-lasting debate arose as to whether
the literary subjects and forms of ancient writers were superior to those of modern writers. This
exaltation of antique poetry—specifically meant as a criticism of rivals in the circus of litera-
ture and literary criticism—triggered various responses. One of these set a “Gallic antiquity”
against the Greco-Roman form, leading to a pluralization of antiquity. The relation of the two
antiquities itself became a matter of contention that lasted well into the eighteenth century.8
Another of these currents strove to defend literary forms and topics regarded as new, modern,
and progressive—possibly even superior. Other subjects, including science, were eventually
included in the debate as it spread to a wider public, including the Académie Royale des Sci-
ences and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. Over the long term, the Querelle
revealed what both sides were ultimately demanding from each other: a historic contextualiza-
tion of the subjects they defended.
In this historistic sense, a new focus of controversy arose, this time on the other side of the
Channel, in England. This second Querelle was a targeted provocation, initially launched by
William Temple in his Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. It developed in what
should be described as a rather local context of intellectual rivalry and scientific controversies. It
referred to the French writers, texts, and controversies but at the same time focused on different
topics and sought answers independently.9 Temple laid out his understanding of antiquity’s im-
portance to modernity differently than the majority of French writers had. He did not so much
argue for a study of ancient literature as a model for modern literature; rather, he observed that
the ancient works possessed an entirely autonomous value. Moreover, Temple expanded the
field of the Querelle—much as had already happened in France—and included in his observa-
tions the achievements of ancient writers in natural philosophy and mathematics.10 He argued
that the knowledge of the ancients originated in a “république de lettres” that was not limited
to a self-contained Greek-Roman cultural region but was built on Egyptian, Phoenician, Cre-
tan, and Babylonian-Chaldean predecessors. Temple claimed, in Pythagorean fashion, that
the knowledge of the ancients had “transmigrated” into the modern era and now challenged
philosophers and writers, such as René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, who toward the end of
the seventeenth century emphasized the novelty of their works. Temple indeed acknowledged
both writers’ specific explanatory ability in addressing humanity’s current situation. He noted,
however, that neither could extricate himself from the influence of the ancients, because they
too often referred to, quoted, or paraphrased and made use of ancient categories and concep-
tual systems. Nor did contemporary scientific works make Aristotle, Plato, or Epicurus obsolete

7
From the extensive secondary literature see, e.g., A. Owen Aldridge, “Ancients and Moderns,” in Dictionary of the History of
Ideas, Vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1968), pp. 76–87; Larry F. Norman, The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early
Modern France (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2011); and Joan DeJean, Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Mak-
ing of a Fin de Siècle (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1997).
8
On “Gallic antiquity” see Paul-Marie Duval, “La notion de Gaulois: Une longue confusion,” in Travaux sur la Gaule: 1946–
1986: Textes revus et mis à jour, ed. Duval, François-Charles Uginet, and Marcelle Hartmann (Rome: École Française, 1989),
pp. 177–185. On the contention regarding the relation of the two antiquities see Claude Nicolet, “Des Belles-Lettres à l’érudition:
L’Antiquité gréco-romaine à l’Académie au XVIIIe siècle,” Comptes Rendus des Séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-
Lettres, 2011, 145:1627–1637.
9
See Tadié, “Peut-on traduire les querelles?” (cit. n. 6).
10
Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press,
1991), p. 39, considers this a rather weak point in Temple’s argument.

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30   Christoph Lehner and Helge Wendt Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

for the teaching of various scientific fields; the essay’s title clearly indicates its pedagogic focus.
As to the achievements of modern science, Temple was utterly dismissive:

There is nothing new in Astronomy to vie with the Ancients, unless it be the Copernican
System; nor in Physic, unless Harvey’s circulation of the blood. But whether either of
these be modern discoveries, or derived from old fountains, is disputed: nay, it is so too,
whether they are true or no; for though reason may seem to favour them more than the
contrary opinions, yet sense can very hardly allow them; and to satisfy mankind, both
these must concur. But if they are true, yet these two great discoveries have made no
change in the conclusions of Astronomy, nor in the practice of Physic, and so have been
of little use to the world, though perhaps of much honour to the authors.11

In 1704, Temple’s secretary Jonathan Swift published An Account of a Battle between the
Antient and Modern Books, in which ancient philosophers and poets entered into combat with
modern philosophers.12 Swift’s battle metaphor escalated Temple’s confrontation of ancient
with modern works and shaped our present notion of a clear dichotomy. Temple’s comparison
relativizing his contemporaries’ achievements was something Swift conceptualized as a direct
battle, with the goal of portraying the achievements and persons of his own era as inferior.
This exaggeration was a reaction to the opposing camp, which in response to Temple pub-
lished long tracts about the independent meaning of new achievements in literature, philoso-
phy, physics, and natural philosophy. William Wotton had already meticulously commented
on Temple’s essay in 1694, four years after its publication and ten years before Swift entered the
fray. In Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, Wotton, an English vicar and theolo-
gian who also—among his many other activities—translated classical literature, defended the
importance of modernity.13 He attacked Temple directly, for instance, by asking whether it was
even possible to define “antiquity,” given that the Greek achievements in mathematics built
on even older and culturally different predecessors. Wotton emphasized that there had been
actual innovations and true advances made in fields such as natural philosophy and mathemat-
ics. With respect to geometry, for example, he demonstrated that modern analytical geometry
made entirely new methods of calculation possible.

But all this is nothing, in comparison of that boundless extent which the modern math-
ematicians have carried geometry on to: Which consists in their receiving into it all the
curve lines in nature, together with the areas and solids that result from them. . . . Add
to all this the general methods that have been invented of late for finding the proper-
ties of a great number of these curves, for the advancement of opticks, mechanicks, and
other parts of philosophy: And let any man of sense give the preference to the ancient
geometry if he can.

11
William Temple, “Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1690),” in The Works of Sir William Temple, 4 vols., Vol. 3
(London: F. C. and J. Rivington et al., 1814), pp. 444–486, on pp. 457, 468, 469 (quotation).
12
Jonathan Swift, Tale of a Tub: Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind: To which is added, an account of a battle
between the antient and modern books in St. James’s library (1704; London: James Bathurst, 1751), p. 179.
13
Wotton’s role in the “Battle of the Books” is highlighted by Levine, Battle of the Books (cit. n. 10), pp. 36–37; and Aldridge,
“Ancients and Moderns” (cit. n. 7), among others. For his defense of the importance of modernity see, e.g., R. F. Jones, Ancients
and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (St. Louis, Mo.: Washington Univ.
Press, 1961), p. 267.

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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    31

This connection of geometry and algebra, which will be dealt with in what follows, also in-
cluded calculations with infinitesimals that far exceeded the possibilities that were available,
for instance, to Archimedes.14
There was a whole series of writers at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the
eighteenth century who—unlike Swift—do not fit neatly into the simple dichotomy suggested
by the rhetoric of the Querelle. These figures blur the line between the invocation of ancient
models and the demand for innovation in modern thought, emphasizing a historically con-
textualizing line of argumentation. Representatives include Thomas Sprat, Bernard de Fon-
tenelle, Charles de Saint-Évremond, John Dryden, and John Dennis, referring to Renaissance
predecessors such as Jean Bodin and Francis Bacon to justify their position.15 This was also true
for science: the literary scholar and science historian Richard Foster Jones, writing about the
strident debates surrounding the Royal Society, has shown that, in the field of natural science,
individual writers often represented a broad spectrum of opinion. Here the quarrel focused
mainly on the question of whether (Aristotelian) classical philosophy or, rather, experimental
philosophy à la Francis Bacon could yield real knowledge. Jones presents nuances that can-
not be reduced to an old tradition of metaphysical philosophizing and a new hard-scientific
practice. He uses the seventeenth-century English philosopher and Platonist Henry More as
an example of a scientifically ambitious man who wished to attain better answers to traditional
metaphysical questions by means of his experimental scientific activity—which was why More
abandoned the Royal Society and continued conducting his experiments in Cambridge, which
was more hospitable to metaphysical pursuits.16
Around the turn of the century in 1700, it was therefore not a foregone conclusion that the
historicizing of antiquity would prevail, either methodologically or hermeneutically. In fact,
the permeation of the present by antiquity—and thus the immediate relevance of antiquity for
contemporary concerns—remained a topic in literature and science.

N e w t o n ’ s t r a n s f o r m at i o n o f a n t i q u i ty
The context of the Querelle helps in understanding the role ancient science played in New-
ton’s mechanics. The reference to Pappus quoted above sheds light on the degree to which he
himself participated in these debates about ancient and modern knowledge. Newton referred
to Pappus in drawing the distinction between rational mechanics and practical mechanics
and in the assertion that mechanics was fundamental to understanding nature. With this he
was also reacting to the scientific discourse of his era, to the subordinate role that applied
mathematics, including mechanics, had with respect to pure mathematics. We will show that
Newton’s participation in the Querelle and his studies of ancient writers provided fundamental
impulses to his scientific development and his attempt to legitimize his project of a rational
mechanics.17 Centrally, we will consider Newton’s claim that the formalism of his mechanics
more geometrico corresponded to ancient standards of clarity and exactness. Finally, the judg-
ments of scientists concerning Newton and his works show that the Querelle was still a live
issue in mechanics and other physical sciences during the eighteenth century.

14
William Wotton, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (London: Buck, 1694), pp. 162 (quotation), 164 ff.
15
Joel Elias Spingarn, Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, 3 vols., Vol. 1: 1605–1650 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1908),
p. cii. Fritz Wagner, “Entstehen der Geschichte als Wissenschaft,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 1978, 1:43–50, argued
similarly, placing his focus on William Temple.
16
Jones, Ancients and Moderns (cit. n. 13), p. 250.
17
This makes the Principia a striking example of a cultural transformation in the sense explicated earlier. See Lutz Bergemann
et al., “Transformation: Ein Konzept zur Erforschung kulturellen Wandels,” in Transformation, ed. Böhme et al. (cit. n. 3),
pp. 39–56.

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32   Christoph Lehner and Helge Wendt Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

Newton’s ancient authority Pappus, who probably lived in the first half of the fourth cen-
tury, was himself an ingenious mathematician. He worked in Alexandria, city of scholarship
par excellence in late antiquity and the crossroads where very different cultures of knowledge
and mathematical traditions met. Pappus’s Mathematical Collection was a compendium of and
commentary on the knowledge of late antiquity. The surviving parts were translated into Latin
by Federico Commandino and published posthumously in 1588 by Guidobaldo del Monte.
The late Hellenistic mathematician had a strong and lasting influence on Renaissance geom-
etry. Niccolò Guicciardini sees in this tradition an important backdrop for Newton’s concep-
tion of the role of geometry and the distinction between the synthetic and the analytic method,
which was central throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.18
The history of the conceptual pair analysis/synthesis is extremely complex, both in antiquity
and in later transformation processes, and can be considered here only in those aspects relevant
for Newtonian mechanics.19 In antiquity, “analysis” described among other things a conclu-
sion from the unknown to the known and thus the reduction of a thesis to be proven to known
principles. In the seventh book of the Mathematical Collection, Pappus offered some cryptic
remarks about a general method of analysis for the systematic finding of proofs for geometric
propositions. In the Renaissance, geometricians were preoccupied with these allusions be-
cause they saw them as a reference to a general methodology known to Pappus that was either
contained in the parts of the text that had been lost or deliberately kept concealed by him.
Representatives of the new algebra from the time of François Viète, who introduced the mod-
ern, compact symbolic notation to mathematics, explicitly invoked this tradition of an ancient
analytic method to justify their algebraic innovations. In contrast, in his Géométrie Descartes
emphasized the superiority of the modern analytical method, which he demonstrated with
the example of a general proof for a problem that Pappus could prove geometrically only in
specific cases.20
Newton’s first mathematical works made use of both Viète’s modern symbolic algebra and
Cartesian analytic geometry. For example, his method of fluxions, his seminal formulation of
infinitesimal calculus, was conceived within this formal framework. From the 1670s, however,
under the influence of his teacher and predecessor as the Lucasian Professor of Mathemat-
ics at Cambridge, Isaac Barrow, Newton adopted an increasingly critical stance toward the
symbolic methods of modern algebra and analytical geometry.21 Descartes was fundamentally
criticized by Newton after 1670, both for his natural philosophy and for his mathematics. The
central topos in his judgment of Descartes was the contrast between the clarity and brevity of
ancient geometrical methods and the obscurity and lengthiness of modern analytical methods.
Newton praised the superiority and elegance of style of the ancient methodology, as opposed
to Descartes’s solution to Pappus’s problem:

18
Pappus Alexandrinus, Pappi Alexandri Mathematicae Collectiones, trans. and ed. Federico Commandino (Pesaro: Concordia,
1588); and Niccolò Guicciardini, “Analysis and Synthesis in Newton’s Mathematical Work,” in The Cambridge Companion to
Newton, ed. I. Bernard Cohen and George E. Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 308–328.
19
Michael Otte and Marco Panza, (eds.), Analysis and Synthesis in Mathematics: History and Philosophy (Dordrecht: Kluwer,
1997), is a collection of historical and philosophical works about the meaning of this conceptual pair in the history of mathematics.
20
René Descartes, Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison & chercher la verité dans les sciences: Plus la diotrique, les
meteores, et la geometrie, qui sont des essais de cete méthode (1637), in Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery,
Vol. 6 (Paris: Vrin, 1982), pp. 1–78.
21
Guicciardini, “Analysis and Synthesis in Newton’s Mathematical Work” (cit. n. 18), pp. 311–315 (method of fluxions), 316 ff.
(influence of Barrow). Guicciardini sees a connection to Newton’s engagement with theology and biblical chronology beginning
in 1670; here Newton took the view that humanity’s primal and true religion had increasingly become corrupted over the course
of  history. See also Force, “Newton, the ‘Ancients,’ and the ‘Moderns’ ” (cit. n. 4); and Jed Z. Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold,
Newton and the Origin of Civilization (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).

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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    33

To be sure, their [the ancients’] method is more elegant by far than the Cartesian one.
For he achieved the result by an algebraic calculus, which, when transposed into words
(following the practice of the Ancients in their writings), would prove to be so tedious
and entangled as to provoke nausea, nor might it be understood. But they accomplished
it by certain simple propositions, judging that nothing written in a different style was
worthy to be read, and in consequence concealing the analysis by which they found
their constructions.22

Newton’s charge of obscurantism against Descartes imports the standard critique against
modernists expressed in the literary context of the Querelle into the field of mechanics. New-
ton admired an ideal in the formal language of a Pappus or a Euclid that was not achieved
by the symbolism of modern algebra. The goal of mathematics was not just to follow formal
rules of correctness but, rather, to enable a translation from symbolic into natural language
that would be distinguished by its clarity and intuitiveness. Newton was convinced that the
ancients had presented their mathematical texts in exactly this manner, without showing the
complex pathways they took to arrive at their conclusions. This capacity to be translated was
something that Newton did not find in Descartes’s notational method, which he reproached as
incomprehensible and arcane.
Newton attempted to transform the method of fluxions so that it corresponded with these
ideals of ancient geometry and to this end developed the formalism of “first and last ratios,”
which is an understanding of differential quotients as limits of geometric proportions. This
was the only form in which differential quotients appeared in the Principia. Newton explicitly
referred to the authority of Euclidean geometry as justification for the form of the proofs in
Principia Mathematica, in which he avoided drawing on analytic geometry and infinitesimal
calculus as much as possible. In his later years, Newton vehemently criticized Leibniz’s form
of infinitesimal calculus as a corruption of classic geometry. In this regard, then, the famous
dispute about priority in the discovery of the infinitesimal calculus and about its correct for-
mulation also became a continuation of the Querelle. Newton and his adherents claimed not
only that Leibniz had plagiarized the idea of infinitesimal calculus from Newton but also that
his representation, based on the explicit use of infinitely small values, the differentials, was
inconsistent and led to false results.23
However, the priority dispute obscured the substance of Newton’s critique of infinitesimal
calculus: that it was methodologically unsound. On this point Newton was vindicated by devel-
opments in the nineteenth century, when Augustin-Louis Cauchy and Karl Weierstraß adopted
his notion of differential quotients as limits of proportions in the attempt to give solid and
consistent theoretical foundations to the infinitesimal calculus. We see, then, that Newton’s
rather idiosyncratic construction of ancient science played an important methodological role
in his work. Euclidean geometry served as a model in accordance with which he attempted to
construct a consistent and formally sound “mathematics of change,” as opposed to the calculus
of infinitesimals, which operated with unclear notions of the infinitely small.24
The brief allusion to antiquity in the preface to the Principia’s inaugural edition was in ac-
tuality just the tip of the iceberg of Newton’s long-running contemplation on ancient science.

22
Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton, ed. D. T. Whiteside, 8 vols., Vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Press, 1971), p. 276 ff., quoted from Guicciardini, “Analysis and Synthesis in Newton’s Mathematical Work,” p. 317.
23
A. Rupert Hall, “Newton versus Leibniz: From Geometry to Metaphysics,” in Cambridge Companion to Newton, ed. Cohen
and Smith (cit. n. 18), pp. 431–  454, esp. pp. 446 – 447.
24
Newton characterized his fluxional calculus as a mathematical theory of any quantities that change continuously.

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34   Christoph Lehner and Helge Wendt Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

Newton took the role of ancient science as a model and justification of his work seriously
enough to plan for the second edition of the Principia a detailed description of the ancient
foundations of contemporary astronomy, mathematics, and physics. In a private communica-
tion, he told his colleague David Gregory that he wanted to show how much the mathematics
and physics of the Principia corresponded to the original natural philosophy, of which nothing
but the last remnants of a much older tradition had survived in Thales and Pythagoras.

By far the greatest changes will be made to Book III. . . . He will show that the most
ancient philosophy is in agreement with this hypothesis of his [universal gravitation]
as much because the Egyptians and others taught the Copernican system, as he shows
from their religion and hieroglyphics and images of the Gods, as because Plato and oth-
ers—Plutarch and Galileo refer to it—observed the gravitation of all bodies towards all.25

Newton adopted and enlarged one of the central topics of the Ancients to construct an ideal
antiquity of superior knowledge and form.26 Nevertheless, this work of adaptation of ancient
knowledge implied a good deal of transformation, alteration, or “modernization.” Paolo Casini
notes Newton’s often very creative handling of ancient writers’ physical assumptions, particu-
larly in the drafts for the scholia of the third book intended for a revision of the Principia.27 Cas-
ini asserts that Newton’s objective was to represent his findings—for instance, in the theories of
gravity—as a rediscovery of  knowledge that already existed in antiquity in a prescientific form.28
For example, in Scholium IV Newton cited Plutarch and Diogenes Laërtius when writing about
the moon’s gravity and orbit. He drew on ancient authorities to substantiate his inverse-square
law, referring to Diogenes Laërtius’s description of Thales, Aristotle’s account of Pythagoras’s
position, and Macrobius. Newton’s scientific works, both in form and in content, were thus pre-
sented as a direct continuation of ancient mathematics and mechanics. Moreover, he attempted
to justify even his innovations as elements of an ancient culture of knowledge. He adjusted his
image of antiquity to accommodate his more radical new thoughts like universal gravitation.
Among contemporary mathematicians, Newton’s emphasis on antiquity’s authority could be
considered an extreme case, probably explained by his theological and historical-philosophical
beliefs rather than by his mathematical or natural-philosophical convictions. In contrast to
Newton, for instance, Leibniz criticized Euclid’s axiomatic method: “Euclid had no distinctly
expressed idea of a straight line, i.e. no definition of it (for the one he offers provisionally is
unclear, and useless to him in his demonstrations), so he had to resort to two axioms that served
him in place of a definition and that he uses in his demonstrations.”29 Unlike Newton, Leibniz
in no way viewed Euclid as an incontestable authority. In fact, he worked for years to create
new foundations for a theory of space in his analysis situs because he considered Euclidean
geometry inadequate to the task.

25
Memorandum from David Gregory, 1694, trans. in Isaac Newton, The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 7 vols., ed. Herbert
Turnbull et al., Vol. 3: 1688–1694 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961), p. 384, quoted from James E. McGuire and Piyo
M. Rattansi, “Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan,’ ” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 1996, 21:108–143, on p. 110.
26
For comparable idealizations in debates regarding literature see Krauss and Kortum, Antike und Moderne in der Literaturdis-
kussion des 18. Jahrhunderts (cit. n. 6), pp. xxx–xxxvi.
27
Paolo Casini, “Newton: The Classical Scholia,” History of Science, 1984, 22:1–58, esp. p. 7. See also Tessa Morrison, Isaac
Newton’s Temple of Solomon and His Reconstruction of Sacred Architecture (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2011), p. 22 ff.
28
As Guicciardini points out (private correspondence), this should not be taken to mean that Newton was unaware that in many
places he went beyond the knowledge of ancient mechanics and mathematics.
29
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, Bk. 4: Knowledge, trans. Jonathan Bennett, 2008, http://
www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/leibniz1705book4.pdf, p. 228.

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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    35

However, as is true of many of the participants in the Querelle discussed in the preceding
section, Newton’s position can neither be reduced to nor defined by his veneration of antiquity.
Within the antiquarian form, he was a decidedly innovative thinker. He should therefore be
seen as a proponent of a third way, freely mixing ancient models and novel ideas. The recep-
tion of his work among his contemporaries and direct successors reflects this flexibility.

T h e t r a n s f o r m at i o n o f t h e P r i n c i p i a
The Querelle retained its place in English intellectual circles even after Newton’s death. In the
milieu of the royalist and absolutist High Church movement, influenced by the Anglican bishop
Francis Atterbury, a group of scholars from Christ Church College in Oxford took the view
that a superior morality could be learned from ancient writings.30 Mathematicians from this
group, including John Keill and John Colson, and physicians such as John Friend valued
Newton as a contemporary who exhibited this worldview in his writings. Yet they ignored how
complex and contradictory Newton’s life and work were. The mathematicians composed tracts
meant to implement the ideal of exalting antiquity in emulation of Newton. Thus, Keill pub-
lished a commentary, apparently inspired by Newton, on Euclid’s Elements, the classic work
on geometry. Therein he denounced those who considered Euclidean geometry obsolete and
advocated its intensive study for all students. Keill contended that, contrary to the widespread
assumption about advances in geometry in recent times, there were no fewer errors to be found
in the new works than the disciples of the new geometry accused Euclid’s works of containing:
“Nay, I dare venture to say, there is not one of these New Systems, wherein there are not more
Faults, nay, grosser Paralogisms, than they have been able even to imagine in Euclid.”31
Keill’s perspective on the value of ancient mathematics, which might also be read as an
answer to Wotton’s views published forty years earlier, can be compared to Abbé Jean Gallois’s
opposition to modern infinitesimal methods. In his Éloge, after reporting that Gallois planned
to publish the original Greek text of Pappus, Bernard Fontenelle goes on to chide him for his
hostility to modern infinitesimal methods:

The same Tast for Antiquity which had tempted Mons. Gallois to this Undertak-
ing . . . made him not very favourable to the Geometry of the Infinites, espoused by all
the Moderns. . . . [However,] the Geometry of the Infinite . . . cannot be esteem’d en-
tirely novel; and the zealous Partisans of Antiquity would much better find their Account
in maintaining that the ancient Geometricians knew and practised the first Foundations
of it, rather than to oppose it upon the Supposition that it was unknown to them.32

It is interesting that Fontenelle’s argument does not condemn Gallois’s antiquarianism but,
rather, turns that antiquarianism against Gallois’s condemnation of the infinitesimal calculus.
Again, this shows how flexible positions in the Querelle could be and how much the notion of
antiquity, once invoked, could be fitted to a preferred point of view.
Another interesting example of the Querelle in the field of natural philosophy was the
debate about Newtonian medicine in England in the early eighteenth century. Following Ar-
chibald Pitcairne, a Scottish physician and classical scholar, a countermovement to Cartesian
medicine formed that rejected its mechanistic hypotheses and invoked Newton’s mechanics

30
John Friesen, “Hutchinsonianism and the Newtonian Enlightenment,” Centaurus, 2006, 48:40– 49.
31
John Keill, Euclid’s Elements of Geometry (London: Thomas Woodward, 1733), p. A2 verso.
32
Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, The Lives of the French, Italian, and German Philosophers, Late Members of the Royal Acad-
emy of Sciences in Paris (London: W. Innys, 1717), pp. 103–104.

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36   Christoph Lehner and Helge Wendt Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

as the prototype for empirical science. Both Pitcairne and, especially, his adherent, the above-
mentioned John Friend, saw a return to ancient Hippocratic paragons in Newtonian medicine,
which they defended against the “modern” medicine of their adversaries.33
On the other hand, numerous eighteenth-century philosophers and natural scientists
viewed Newton as an innovator in physics and forerunner of the Age of Enlightenment. While
we cannot expand on Newton’s role as an intellectual authority for Enlightenment pioneers,
including Voltaire, we will focus on a relatively small number of mathematicians on the Eu-
ropean continent who reformulated mechanics on a rigorous mathematical foundation based
on Newton’s work.34 The last part of this essay deals with this transformation of Newtonian
mechanics into eighteenth-century analytical mechanics, which at the same time signified a
categorical reinterpretation of his work. We will begin this history of Newton’s reception with
the translations of and commentaries on the Principia that were written in early eighteenth-
century France.35 An extensively annotated Latin edition of the Principia was published be-
tween 1739 and 1742, the introduction of which states: “All who had heard even only the name
of the very famous author knew how secret and at the same time useful the doctrines exposed
in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica are. The dignity and the sharpness of the
subject, the more than geometric brevity of the reasoning are so conspicuous that that magnifi-
cent work looks written only for a very little number of expert geometers.”36
This edition, often—but incorrectly—called the Jesuit edition, was produced by two French
Minims, Thomas Le Seur and François Jacquier, with the involvement of the Genevan scholar
and patron Jean-Louis Calandrini.37 It systematically carried out the translation of Newton’s
work into the infinitesimal calculus of his adversary Leibniz, which in the meantime had be-
come established as the standard formulation of mathematical analysis.38 It thereby introduced
to the Principia the very analytical methods that Newton so meticulously eschewed. Newton’s
geometric proofs were juxtaposed, theorem by theorem, to derivations in Leibniz’s infinitesi-
mal calculus; his complex diagrammatic and geometric proofs were supplemented by com-
pact, analytical calculations. Similarly, when Émilie du Châtelet, a mathematically educated
philosopher in contact with leading mathematicians of the Académie, translated the Principia
into French in the 1740s, she did not limit herself to a mere translation between two languages.
She also amended Newton’s formal Euclidean geometrical language with computations in

33
Anita Guerrini, “The Tory Newtonians: Gregory, Pitcairne, and Their Circle,” Journal of British Studies, 1986, 25:288–311,
counts both among a circle of royalist Newtonians, to which David Gregory and other members of the Christ Church group also
belonged. See also John Friesen, “Archibald Pitcairne, David Gregory, and the Scottish Origins of English Tory Newtonianism,
1688–1715,” Hist. Sci., 2003, 41:163–191.
34
Newton’s influence is evident in François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton: Mis à la portée de
tout le monde (Amsterdam: Desbordes, 1738).
35
This is not to say that the reception of Newton began with these translations; rather, they were based on previous work of
British and Continental mathematicians. Niccolò Guicciardini, Reading the Principia: The Debate on Newton’s Mathematical
Methods for Natural Philosophy from 1687 to 1736 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), p. 248, discusses in detail the
works the “Jesuit edition” relied on—e.g., the writings of David Gregory, John Keill, Pierre de Varignon, Johann and Jakob
Bernoulli, and Leonhard Euler.
36
Thomas Le Seur and François Jacquier, eds., Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Geneva: Barrilot, 1739), p. vii,
trans. in Paolo Bussotti and Raffaele Pisano, “On the Jesuit Edition of Newton’s Principia: Science and Advanced Researches in
the Western Civilization,” Scientific Research, 2014, 3:33–55, on p. 35.
37
See Niccolò Guicciardini, “Editing Newton in Geneva and Rome: The Annotated Edition of the Principia by Calandrini, Le
Seur, and Jacquier,” Annals of Science, 2015, 72:337–380, for the authors and the genesis of the edition; see Bussotti and Pisano,
“On the Jesuit Edition of Newton’s Principia,” for remarks about the structure of the work and the analysis of specific passages.
38
Guicciardini points out (personal correspondence) that the edition was soon superseded in mathematical methods. For ex-
ample, no partial differential equations are used. These had been recently introduced in Leonhard Euler, Mechanica Sive Motvs
Scientia Analytice Exposita, 2 vols. (Saint Petersburg: Ex Typographia Academiae Scientiarvm, 1736).

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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    37

infinitesimal calculus.39 These two editions of the Principia represent the foundation of analyti-
cal mechanics, which Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Leonhard Euler, and Joseph-Louis Lagrange
subsequently developed into a comprehensive formalism. This new formulation of mechanics
manifests three characteristic features:

1. The utilization of new mathematical tools, including, for instance, differential equa-
tions, calculus of variations, and an abstract concept of function. This new formalism
consistently built on Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus, mostly disregarding Newton’s
criticism of the problems with its fundamental principles—which was not without
merit, although these problems were not seriously addressed until the nineteenth
century with the foundation of analysis on exact concepts of continuity and limits.
2. The methodological goal of a universally applicable method to solve mechani-
cal problems that did not depend on a geometrician’s special intuition in the way
that the synthetic-geometric method did. A striking example is the programmatic
preface of Lagrange’s Mechanique Analytique, in which he extolled the merits of a
universal analytical method with the famous statement: “No figures will be found
in this work. The methods I present require neither constructions nor geometrical
or mechanical arguments, but solely algebraic operations subject to a regular and
uniform procedure.”40 Newton’s ideals of intuitiveness and elegance are replaced by
universality and regularity.
3. The epistemological restriction of a description of mechanical systems that is as
phenomenological as possible while avoiding Newton’s problematic concept of
force, a concept criticized by various parties as metaphysically impermissible and
empirically unfounded.41

This momentous and productive connection of Newtonian mechanics with Leibniz’s infini-
tesimal calculus was to serve as the foundation of physics for the next 150 years and shaped the
English genius’s fame. Newton’s Principia can be considered the origin of the classical physics
we are familiar with today only because its European reception modernized its formal language.

The end of the Querelle


How did the Querelle des anciens et des modernes persist in this European reception of Newto-
nian mechanics in the mid-eighteenth century? For a start, it is clear that Newton’s prominent
references to the authority of ancient science are absent from the texts of d’Alembert, Euler,
and Lagrange. Instead, Lagrange began his Mechanique Analytique with a programmatic pref-
ace emphasizing the innovative elements of his mechanics: the formulation of mechanics
in the language of analytic infinitesimal calculus and the quest for the universal principles
that underlie mechanics. Antiquity interested Lagrange only in those instances when it had
presented problems that were solved by the new physics and mathematics in a language more
easily understood. Antiquity was no longer a standard for formal language and mathematical
methodology, as it was in Newton’s preface to Principia.

39
Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier Bréteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle, 2 vols.,
Vol. 1 (Paris: Dessaint & Saillant, Lambert, 1759).
40
Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Analytical Mechanics (1811), trans. Auguste Boissonnade and Victor N. Vagliente (Dordrecht: Kluwer
Academic, 1997), p. 7.
41
The critique of the Newtonian concept of force in the eighteenth century cannot be dealt with further here; however, it is
treated extensively in the literature. See, e.g., J. Christiaan Boudri, What Was Mechanical about Mechanics: The Concept of
Force between Metaphysics and Mechanics from Newton to Lagrange (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2002).

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38   Christoph Lehner and Helge Wendt Mechanics in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

This is only one example of a general phenomenon: in the historical commentaries of writ-
ers including Châtelet, d’Alembert, and Lagrange, the question of the superiority of modern
mechanics was not even raised. Instead, ancient mechanics was absorbed into a historical nar-
rative of the progress of scientific knowledge now presupposed as self-evident. This was one
of the more astounding features of Newton’s reception on the European continent: Newton
himself became the chief witness to the European Enlightenment paradigm of progress that re-
placed his own conviction as to the corruption of humanity’s original knowledge. This shift in
the historical-epistemological master narrative was possibly the most decisive paradigm change
in the transition from the science of the late Renaissance to that of the Enlightenment. This,
however, is not the place to argue for such a general thesis, as our interest is focused on the
fundamental change in the role of ancient science in contemporary discourse.
Ancient mechanics was for the Renaissance an auctoritas that was always understood to
be contemporary knowledge as well, whether used as a justification for a person’s own argu-
ments or as a point of attack for critique. It represented the nature that it described just as well
as the experimental phenomenon or the theoretical concept did. The Archimedean machine
was the machine of the building site, the mine, and the workshop. This corresponds to an
understanding of ancient science as something that could directly solve problems of practical
relevance when liberated from the distortions of its protracted history of transmission. Newton
carried this tradition to extremes: just as he was convinced that the true religion was mangled
beyond recognition by millennia of falsification and misrepresentation, he held that the true
science of antiquity was also almost entirely hidden from posterity. Just like the true religion, it
had to be reconstructed through meticulous inferences and conclusions drawn from scattered
clues. Thus his conception of ancient science was more strikingly allelopoietic than that of his
predecessors, a construct based on his cultural and methodological ideals. Although Newton’s
image of antiquity was radically different from ours, it was modern in emphasizing the other-
ness of antiquity.
Nothing of this belief in antiquity’s superiority can be found in the historical surveys of
Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Joseph-Louis Lagrange. The vestiges of ancient mechanics ap-
pear there only as isolated theorems that were indeed historically located: for example, the
principle of the lever is attributed to Archimedes. Yet they were always accompanied by the
question of how they could be more universally justified than they had been by the scholars of
antiquity. Lagrange described the reception of Archimedes’ lever principle by Simon Stevin,
Galileo Galilei, and Christiaan Huygens almost exclusively from the perspective of how they
attempted to improve the Archimedean proof and criticized these attempts. Lagrange was now
able to utilize this history of reception for his own purpose: that of presenting his foundation
and mathematical representation of mechanics as an improved solution.42 What remained of
the traditional knowledge of mechanics was formulated in a new language, that of analytical
infinitesimal calculus, and integrated into a completely novel context of justification, the quest
for universal fundamental principles. In the terminology of Lutz Bergemann and his coau-
thors, this transformation is therefore both a disjunction, a dressing of the traditional empirical
substance of practical mechanics in the garb of a new formalism, and a reinterpretation of

42
Lagrange, Analytical Mechanics (1811), trans. Boissonnade and Vagliente (cit. n. 40), pp. 11–17. Note that the English transla-
tion is based on the Lagrange edition of 1811, which in this passage differs substantially from the first edition of 1788. H. Floris
Cohen has pointed out to us that Tabitta van Nouhuys, The Age of Two-Faced Janus: The Comets of 1577 and 1618 and the De-
cline of the Aristotelian World View in the Netherlands (Leiden: Brill, 1998), has made a very similar point about the “Cessation
of  Dialogue” in the science of the eighteenth century in the context of the theory of comets; he quotes her in H. Floris Cohen,
How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One Seventeenth-Century Breakthrough (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
Univ. Press, 2010).

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Isis—Volume 108, Number 1, March 2017    39

traditional fundamental physical concepts in the context of a new mathematical structure.43


For Lagrange, these two forms of transformation were substantially interlinked with one an-
other because in his view the unity of the analytical formalism was a necessary prerequisite for
the unity of the analytical method for solving mechanical problems.
Hence, for the first time a historical distance arose with respect to ancient science, which
was no longer simply science per se but, rather, a historical phenomenon, clearly distinct from
modern knowledge about nature. Just as an idea of classical physics first arose in the reflections
about the theories of relativity and quantum theories, the conception of ancient mechanics
was a product of the formalization and canonization of Newtonian mechanics. This is also
a process of allelopoiesis that at least laid the foundation for perceiving ancient science as a
historical cultural phenomenon. One can definitively draw a parallel to the emergence of an
awareness of the special nature of ancient art made possible by the onset of scientific excava-
tion campaigns in the eighteenth century. However, in the eighteenth century the ancient
natural sciences were not yet objects of scientific historical description in the way other ancient
cultural phenomena were. This distinguishes the outcome of the Querelle about mechanics
from that in the study of literature and classical studies: the first rigorous historical description
of the natural sciences would not occur until the work of William Whewell in the following
century.44 Until that time, interest in ancient science was largely limited to attributing indi-
vidual phenomena or theorems to certain discoverers—as in Lagrange’s preface to Analytical
Mechanics or in d’Alembert’s Discours preliminaire to the Encyclopédie. Whereas the bodies
of knowledge of preclassical and ancient mechanics continued to exist in a transformed form
in analytical mechanics, they lost their precise historic and local characteristics in this set-
ting. Ancient science was thus embedded in a universal history of progress in which antiquity
went from paragon to precursor. This is in stark contrast to the constitutive role that ancient
science played for Newton as a methodological ideal, as a justification of his project of a math-
ematical mechanics, and as a polemical weapon against competing positions such as those of
Descartes and Leibniz. Newton’s idiosyncratic construct of a superior ancient science shows
how malleable the antiquity that he invoked was—and thus how much this transformation was
allelopoietic. However, this does not mean that antiquity played a merely accessory role in his
thought; it represented for Newton a substantial methodological framework within which he
developed his innovative ideas. Newton thus was a participant in the Querelle and, despite the
revolutionary novelty of his work, saw himself as an Ancient.
Was the position of the Enlightenment mathematicians then simply a victory of the Mod-
erns over the Ancients? In a certain sense this is the case, as d’Alembert or Lagrange would
not have doubted the superiority of modern mechanics over its ancient predecessor. However,
a more fundamental shift had occurred since the days of Newton and Fontenelle. Even Fon-
tenelle, as a Modern, used the authority of antiquity in his argument against Gallois. In French
textbooks on analytical mechanics, the context of justification had been inverted: natural law
was the highest and immediate authority, and its timeless validity was certainly not subjected
to historical judgment. In that regard, the central question of the Querelle, which tied claims of
epistemic and methodological authority to a historical epoch, had become moot. And, rather
ironically, the crown witness for this timeless and universal authority of natural law was none
other than Isaac Newton.

43
Bergemann et al., “Transformation” (cit. n. 17). This paper describes programmatically the different types of transformation
considered in the DFG Collaborative Research Center “Transformations of Antiquity.”
44
William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences: From the Earliest to the Present Time, 3 vols., Vol. 1 (London: John W.
Parker, 1837).

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