Isaac Newton’s Funeral

Throughout history, most societies have been based on status. King, noble, and peasant. Brahmin and untouchable. Mandarin and coolie. One of liberalism’s crowning achievements is tearing down those old status societies and replacing them with contract societies. In a liberal society, all people have equal rights, and must deal with each other as equals. No man is forced to grovel before a duke or a king. He may look him in the eye now.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are far richer than I am. But if one of them wrongs me, I get my day in court. They might have better lawyers with shinier suits than me. But we are still equals before the law.

This was a novel phenomenon in the 18th century, mainly confined to England and the Netherlands, and even far more imperfectly than today. Here’s how Isaac Newton’s funeral looked through French eyes:

Having come from a nation where aristocracy and clergy held a monopoly on power and privilege, Voltaire marveled at a society where a scientist was buried with the honors of a king.

Robert Zaresky and John T. Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding, location 877 in the Kindle version.

Isaac Newton’s life was a landmark event in the history of science. His funeral was, unknowingly, a landmark event in the history of human freedom.