BMCR 2007.03.25

The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Originally published as Le Voile d’Isis: Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature (Paris: Gallimard, 2004). Translation by Michael Chase

, The veil of Isis : an essay on the history of the idea of nature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. xii, 399 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0674023161. $29.95.

The Veil of Isis is the most recent publication in English translation of a work by Pierre Hadot, a long-time professor at the College de France, now retired, who held the chair of Hellenistic and Roman Studies. Five of his many books have now been translated into English. The focus of much of Hadot’s research and writing has been Neoplatonism. But he has become known outside classics for two closely related things. The first is his thesis that ancient Greek and Roman philosophy was, in the first place, a way of life, a practice, and not a matter of claims or theories about the cosmos or the good life – something that had a profound impact on the development of spiritual practices in early Christianity, but that has been lost, for the most part, in modernity. . He develops this thesis most directly in What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002) and Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995) (reviewed in BMCR 2002.09.21 by Lloyd Gerson). Secondly, he has become known outside the scholarly world of classics because of the influence of his work on Michel Foucault. In his later work Hadot’s influence is much in evidence — for example, in the second and third volumes of his history of sexuality and in the lectures from 1982: The Hermeneutics of the Subject.

The subtitle of this work, “An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature,” is somewhat misleading. This book is not a study of the idea of nature in the history of thought but rather a study of the idea of nature as hidden. In the conclusion Hadot refers to the work as a reception history of Heraclitus’ aphorism, “Nature loves to hide,” over twenty-five centuries, a history of “creative misunderstandings” (p. 316). In the Preface, Hadot tells the reader that the essay “traces the evolution of mankind’s attitudes toward nature solely from the perspective of the metaphor of unveiling” (p. ix). The exposition of this history has three guiding threads: 1) Heraclitus’ aphorism, “nature loves to hide”; 2) the notion of the secret(s) of nature; and 3) the veiled image of nature as Isis or Artemis.

The work covers an enormous range, not only of years (2500), but of genres: philosophy, theology, science, literature, and art. Though Hadot comments on every period of thought — he considers Pre-Socratic, Socratic and 4th century, Hellenistic, late antique, medieval, early modern, late modern, and 20th century thinkers— he devotes most of his attention to Plato and Neoplatonism and to the Renaissance and early modernity, where Neoplatonism plays an important role. In short, much of this book appears to be the history of secretive nature and esotericism in the Neoplatonist tradition, no doubt because it is in this tradition that metaphors of secrets and unveiling are so important. The book concludes with particular attention to Goethe, German romanticism, Schelling, and Nietzsche, followed by a brief commentary on the developments in the 20th century which abandons, for the most part, these metaphors and images. Here Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and Wittgenstein receive comment, and for his account of early modernity Hans Blumenberg and William Eamon are especially important.

According to Hadot, the aphorism “nature loves to hide” is first quoted and attributed to Heraclitus by Philo, approximately 500 years after its publication. He argues that, though it is taken by Philo and his successors to mean that nature hides, the aphorism originally most likely meant either: a) what causes things to appear tends to make them disappear, or b) form (or appearance) tends to disappear. He discusses the development of the concept of nature ( φύσις) in Homer, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. On his account, nature is a divine art for Plato, while Aristotle contrasts art and nature and the Stoics come to personify nature. This personification and deification of nature lives on until the 19th century. The further notion of a secret of nature, is, Hadot argues, primarily Latin and appears in the 1st century BCE in Cicero, Lucretius, Ovid, and Pliny the Elder.

Under the title, “The Genius of Paganism,” Hadot discusses the hermeneutics of Neoplatonism and the Neoplatonic defense of paganism against Christianity. He claims that Neoplatonism ensured the survival of paganism in the Christian world for centuries, “not as a religion but as a poetic language that enabled this world to talk about nature”(p.76). In the medieval world the gods of mythology were metaphors for material realities. In the Renaissance, the pagan gods were metaphors for the incorporeal forces that animate the universe.

Put simply, according to Hadot, there are two possible responses to the idea that nature hides: 1) to conclude that its secrets are impenetrable and therefore the study of nature is pointless or 2) to try to unveil the secret. Of the former option, Hadot has little to say, beyond claiming that Socrates and the ancient skeptics held this view. Of the latter option, he identifies two variants: 1) a voluntarist or Promethean and 2) a contemplative or Orphic physics. The Promethean approach through magic, technology, or mechanics forces nature to reveal her secrets. Sometimes the language of force and even torture is used, although another less violent version is to command nature by obeying her (Philo, F. Bacon). Hadot discusses Hippocrates, Philo, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Kant among others in this category. He documents the ambiguous boundary between magic and science in the early modern period. He makes the strong claim that “the Christian character of the mechanistic revolution cannot be overemphasized” (p. 129). Scientists were encouraged by their faith, not the institution of the Church: God’s artwork is the machine called nature, and humankind, through science and technology, can intervene to fix it. Thus Descartes explicitly rejects the Aristotelian art/nature distinction, while Voltaire writes: “I am called nature, yet I am all art” (cited on p. 127).

By way of contrast, the Orphic attitude to nature tries to understand her secrets through contemplation and aesthetic perception. The study of nature is a spiritual exercise that fosters magnanimity. Hadot finds this approach to nature in Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Simplicius, among other classical writers. Philo, for instance, considers nature as God’s poem. This notion resonates in the Renaissance metaphor of the book of nature, and takes a particularly important turn in the German mystic Boehme, for whom the book is not open but coded. Goethe takes this approach as do many of the German Romantics, e.g., Schelling, Novalis, Baader, and Hadot finds it in work of Klee, Van Gogh, and Cezanne as well.

Nature with her secrets comes to be depicted graphically as Artemis of Ephesus. Hadot asserts that the identification of the Egyptian Isis with the Greek Artemis (and Roman Diana) was used to personify nature after the end of antiquity. References to nature as Isis are common in modern thought, especially in the late18th century and early 19th, due in part to Karl Leonhard Reinhold and Viennese freemasonry. Hadot also provides a number of paintings, engravings, and frontispieces from the 16th to early 19th century which represent nature as the many-breasted Artemis. Many of these display Isis/Artemis as veiled or being unveiled. Some, like Schiller in an influential poem, “The Veiled Statue at Saïs,” suggest that we cannot bear to lift the veil. The truth is too much for us. Illusion, art, and poetry enable us to live. Others, e.g., Schlegel and Novalis, assert that it is time to rip away the veil.

Hadot’s history of this theme of nature with her secrets, the unveiling of Artemis, comes to a close with an account of the end of the 19th century and 20th century when, he claims, unveiling loses its meaning as the revelation of nature’s secrets. Nature loses its place as a fundamental phenomenon and concept. We move from the “secret of nature” to the “mystery of being.” Nietzsche is instrumental in this shift, as we can see from a posthumous fragment: “We are serious, we know the abyss. This is why we defend ourselves against all that is serious”(cited on p. 288). Nietzsche takes up veiled Isis as a metaphor for the truth, but “nature” drops out. In the 20th century Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein each provide an important place for the mystery of being. Hadot compares Heidegger’s Being to Plotinus’ One. Merleau-Ponty borrows on Marcel’s distinction between a “problem” and a “mystery”: philosophy ultimately addresses not problems but a mystery. For Wittgenstein, however, it is not how the world is but that it is that is mystical ( Tractatus 6.44). The book concludes with Hadot confessing that he has been seduced by one idea: that nature is art and art is nature.

This very learned book displays an enormous scholarship and yet is a fascinating read. I found the book engaging from its opening by way of a interpretation of a frontispiece engraving in a book by Alexander von Humboldt dedicated to Goethe, which depicts Apollo unveiling a many-breasted woman whose lower body is tightly sheathed — i.e. Artemis of Ephesus. Goethe (and much of the reading public of the day) understood the engraving immediately and saw how appropriate it was. Hadot suspects that most readers, like myself, would not understand it. If nothing else, his work provides a key to a set of common pictorial themes and poetic metaphors in the Western tradition. The book should be of interest to classicists, philosophers, historians of science, intellectual historians, art historians, and literary critics – especially those interested in German Romanticism. As I have noted, it has a very broad sweep. The analysis does not go very deep — how could it? Hadot argues by example. One may have reservations about some of his central theses, such as his claim that Christianity opened the way for the mechanization of nature. One is also left to wonder about other approaches to nature in the tradition that are not so hermetic and esoteric. Hadot is clearly attracted by the mystical in the Western tradition. What about the Aristotelian tradition with regard to nature? Yet, the book contributes a learned synthesis of a conceptual and visual theme of great significance in the history of Western thought.