I'm trying to understand this phrase that Sir Isaac Newton used in a passage of one of his writings called, "Irenicum, or Ecclesiastical Polyty tending to Peace."

The phrase is:

all men should...conciliate the friendship of the Gods by piety

And here is the context:

All nations were originally of the Religion comprehended in the Precepts of the sons of Noah, the chief of which were to have one God, & not to alienate his worship, nor prophane his name; to abstein from murder, theft, fornication, & all injuries; not to feed on the flesh or drink the blood of a living animal, but to be mercifull even to bruit beasts; & to set up Courts of justice in all cities & societies for putting these laws in execution. In the ancient cities the Iudges usually sat in the Gates of the city & were called the Elders of the city & judged of causes both sacred & civil & the father of every family was the elder of the family subordinate to the Elders of the city. This religion descended to Melchisedec & Iob & to Abraham Isaac Iacob Moses & the Israelites & to the proselites of the Gate. ffor so the Israelites called the strangers within their Gates who observed the precepts of the sons of Noah. But the Kings of the nations by degrees causing their dead ancestors to be celebrated with sacrifices praises & invocations, the religion of Noah & his sons passed into the worship of dead men & the laws of their courts of Iustice into the moral Philosophy of the heathens. . ffor Pythagoras one of the oldest Philosophers in Europe, after he had travelled among the eastern nations for the sake of knowledge & conversed with their Priests & Iudges & seen their manners, taught his scholars that all men should be friends to all men & even to bruit Beasts & should conciliate the friendship of the Gods by piety, & that a friend was another self, & his disciples were celebrated for loving one another. The religion of Noah & his sons was therefore the moral law of all nations put in execution by their courts of Iustice untill they corrupted themselves.

His use of this language seems at odds with my understanding of his monotheistic religious beliefs. A modern definition of the verb, "conciliate" means, "to overcome the hostility of; placate; win over." This treatise is one of unity and my best understanding of this phrase is:

People with differing religious beliefs should be at peace with each other by earnestly practicing their own religion while treating other sacred traditions with reverence.

However, the religion of Noah that he speaks about is monotheistic and although it seeks inclusion and peace, one of its only seven laws prohibits idolatry. So I don't understand the language Newton ("...friendship of the Gods...") is using in this context.

  • Wikipedia has an article on Pythagoras's religious beliefs
    – Stuart F
    Dec 18, 2023 at 9:39
  • A downvote? Why? Please offer feedback so I can improve the question.
    – user494626
    Mar 13 at 13:39

3 Answers 3


Newton isn't agreeing with the claim that "all men should...conciliate the friendship of the Gods by piety." That's a view he's attributing to the (pagan) philosopher Pythagoras, when characterizing "the moral Philosophy of the heathens." His last sentence is contrasting the monotheistic "religion of Noah" with the "corrupted" views of people like Pythagoras.

  • 2
    I somehow doubt Newton held it against Pythagoras that he was born c. 570 BC. And they both espoused vegetarianism. The plural here is just a distributed plural. Newton is talking about the rafts of ancient monotheistic civilizations and their gods - one each. See here for how Newton's ideas align with Pythagoras. royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2018.0025
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 17, 2023 at 23:51
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    @PhilSweet I don't think he's totally condemning Pythagoras here; he's praising Pythagoras's moral views while claiming that they were a "corrupted" version of an earlier purely monotheistic version.
    – alphabet
    Dec 18, 2023 at 3:51
  • 1
    (It was once common for Christians to posit that all of humanity had started out monotheistic, and that polytheism was a later, malign invention.)
    – alphabet
    Dec 18, 2023 at 3:56
  • 1
    We don't know the details of Pythagoras's personal religious beliefs, although Newton may have thought that he did. But the later Pythagoreans were monotheists in a pantheistic environment. They worshipped the Apollo Pythius. I believe Newton considers Pythagoras exemplary here. Today, we might use appease in this construction, but conciliate was more stative back then, as opposed to reconcile, which was the eventitive equivalent.
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 18, 2023 at 13:02
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    Conciliate - 2: to gain (something, such as goodwill) by pleasing acts (Collins). Newton was probably avoiding propitiate here because of it's strict application to Christianity at the time.
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 18, 2023 at 13:06

In this text from Newton (1642-1727) "Conciliate" shall be understood in the sense of propitiate defined by Oxford dictionnary as :

win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.
Example : "the pagans thought it was important to propitiate the gods with sacrifices"

  • Seems like 'propitiate' would take the gestures further and cause active participation than the more passive 'conciliate.'
    – user494626
    Dec 19, 2023 at 5:15

Conciliate used to mean “acquire” or “procure”. For example, in 1790 Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Frankneſs and openneſs conciliate confidence. We truſt the man who ſeems willing to truſt us.

What I don’t know is why the word would be used this way. It comes from same root as “council” and “reconcile”, and so “placate” makes sense in a way that “acquire” does not.

  • The word conciliate means "promote" or "encourage" or "establish" not "acquire" or "procure" in the example you cited.
    – TimR
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:48
  • @TimR — that is a very fine distinction you are drawing. When you cause a quality to exist in another that benefits you, such as confidence or friendship, did you “promote” that quality or “procure” that quality? In some literal-minded sense you don’t own the quality — but we routinely say that was “have” someone’s love, loyalty, admiration, or enmity. Dec 19, 2023 at 17:46
  • Isn't that which is procured always something tangible, some commodity, or something treated as if it were a commodity (e.g. the sex trade), and isn't there usually some sort of commercial transaction involved, even if it is only a barter? It sounds very odd to me to use the word with trust or confidence. But I am happy to change the downvote to an upvote if you can show an attestation of a similar use post 18th century :-)
    – TimR
    Dec 19, 2023 at 19:21
  • @TimR — I don’t think that conciliate has been used in the last quarter millenium, but you might consult [Wiktionary|en.wiktionary.org/wiki/conciliate#Verb] for “procure” as a synonym. Dec 20, 2023 at 1:49
  • I will accept that "procure" in an obsolete sense means "get" (in the sense of create for yourself, or to cause, as in "establish trust", get someone's trust) and can be used figuratively with intangible things like "woe". But nowadays procure has the sense "to manage to obtain something needed or wanted". Who would say nowadays "You will only procure a headache doing it that way"?
    – TimR
    Dec 20, 2023 at 12:06

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