The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature

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Overview

Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago the Greek thinker Heraclitus supposedly uttered the cryptic words "Phusis kruptesthai philei." How the aphorism, usually translated as "Nature loves to hide," has haunted Western culture ever since is the subject of this engaging study by Pierre Hadot. Taking the allegorical figure of the veiled goddess Isis as a guide, and drawing on the work of both the ancients and later thinkers such as Goethe, Rilke, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, Hadot traces successive interpretations of Heraclitus' words. Over time, Hadot finds, "Nature loves to hide" has meant that all that lives tends to die; that Nature wraps herself in myths; and (for Heidegger) that Being unveils as it veils itself. Meanwhile the pronouncement has been used to explain everything from the opacity of the natural world to our modern angst.

From these kaleidoscopic exegeses and usages emerge two contradictory approaches to nature: the Promethean, or experimental-questing, approach, which embraces technology as a means of tearing the veil from Nature and revealing her secrets; and the Orphic, or contemplative-poetic, approach, according to which such a denuding of Nature is a grave trespass. In place of these two attitudes Hadot proposes one suggested by the Romantic vision of Rousseau, Goethe, and Schelling, who saw in the veiled Isis an allegorical expression of the sublime. "Nature is art and art is nature," Hadot writes, inviting us to embrace Isis and all she represents: art makes us intensely aware of how completely we ourselves are not merely surrounded by nature but also part of nature.

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Editorial Reviews

British Journal for the History of Science

Pierre Hadot, professor emeritus of the Collège de France, has written a remarkably insightful book on the theme of secrets of nature and their significance for the history of science and ideas about nature. First published in 2004 by Editions Gallimard, it is now available in English through Michael Chase’s adept and eloquent translation...Of particular interest to historians of science will be Hadot’s conception of the Promethean attitude and the mechanization of nature...The Veil of Isis is a rewarding voyage through a multitude of texts, illustrations and historical figures that brings a set of complex and often contradictory ideas into a clear and compelling argument.
— Carolyn Merchant

Brian Stock
The Veil of Isis is profoundly original in design. Pierre Hadot is both an eminent historian of philosophy and a philosopher himself. Both sides of his interest are evident in this outstanding study, in which the argument develops historically and analytically.
G. W. Bowersock
In The Veil of Isis Pierre Hadot, an eminent authority on Neoplatonic philosophy, addresses the exploration of nature in Western thought across more than two millennia. His mastery of a wide range of literature, philosophy, iconography, and technology from antiquity to the present reveals unsuspected links of thought and image throughout the long process of uncovering the secrets of nature. In a brilliant finale Hadot brings the whole evolution into conjunction with the many-breasted Artemis of Ephesus, the Egyptian goddess Isis, and the Freemasons. The book is a dizzying tour de force that would be the envy of a modern Plotinus.
Roger-Pol Droit le Monde Des Livres
Decidedly, with this new book of a rare richness and clarity, about which he says he has been thinking for more than forty years, the philosopher... gives evidence of an tireless spirit of exploration.
Michael Frede
Pierre Hadot's The Veil of Isis is an extremely ambitious work, giving us an account of the evolution of man's attitude towards, and understanding of, nature from antiquity down to the present day. It is a very significant contribution to our understanding of this important topic­-and it makes for good reading.
London Review of Books - Ian Hacking
[Hadot] is an extraordinary guide to the history of the idea of nature from Heraclitus to now. You will find yourself in the company of a wise Greek, a pagan, a philosopher who believes that a role of philosophy is to teach us how to live.
Providence Journal - Tom D'evelyn
Again and again sparks fly as Hadot reveals the enduring fascination of nature's mystery.
Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Robert J. Dostal
This very learned book displays an enormous scholarship and yet is a fascinating read.
British Journal for the History of Science - Carolyn Merchant
Pierre Hadot, professor emeritus of the Collège de France, has written a remarkably insightful book on the theme of secrets of nature and their significance for the history of science and ideas about nature. First published in 2004 by Editions Gallimard, it is now available in English through Michael Chase’s adept and eloquent translation...Of particular interest to historians of science will be Hadot’s conception of the Promethean attitude and the mechanization of nature...The Veil of Isis is a rewarding voyage through a multitude of texts, illustrations and historical figures that brings a set of complex and often contradictory ideas into a clear and compelling argument.
London Review of Books

[Hadot] is an extraordinary guide to the history of the idea of nature from Heraclitus to now. You will find yourself in the company of a wise Greek, a pagan, a philosopher who believes that a role of philosophy is to teach us how to live.
— Ian Hacking

Providence Journal

Again and again sparks fly as Hadot reveals the enduring fascination of nature's mystery.
— Tom D'Evelyn

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

This very learned book displays an enormous scholarship and yet is a fascinating read.
— Robert J. Dostal

Library Journal
Hadot (emeritus, College de France; What Is Ancient Philosophy?), a distinguished historian of Greek philosophy, traces from early Greek times to the 20th century the notion that nature is mysterious. Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, "Nature loves to hide"; for those in what Hadot calls the Promethean tradition, this saying expressed a challenge to be overcome. English statesman, essayist, and philosopher Francis Bacon, for one, proposed that scientists might learn nature's secrets through experimentation and use their discoveries to benefit humanity. But not everyone accepted this view. Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and German scientist and man of letters Johann Wolfgang von Goethe feared that uncovering too many of nature's secrets would be disastrous. Hadot calls this the Orphic attitude and carefully analyzes Goethe's efforts "to discover the Form-types of Nature." He also discerns a third attitude toward nature, based on the symbol of the veiled goddess Isis, which "no longer signifies [uncovering] the secrets of nature but rather the mystery of existence." Comparing favorably with Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature, this book is highly recommended for all collections.-David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674030497
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 797,445
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Pierre Hadot was Professor Emeritus, Collège de France. His books include Philosophy as a Way of Life and Plotinus.
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Table of Contents

Prologue at Ephesus : an enigmatic saying 1
1 Heraclitus' aphorism : "what is born tends to disappear" 7
2 From Phusis to nature 17
3 Secrets of the gods and secrets of nature 29
4 Heraclitus' aphorism and allegorical exegesis 39
5 "Nature loves to wrap herself up" : mythical forms and corporeal forms 50
6 Calypso, or "imagination with the flowing veil" 58
7 The genius of paganism 67
8 The "gods of Greece" : pagan myths in a Christian world 76
9 Prometheus and Orpheus 91
10 Mechanics and magic from antiquity to the Renaissance 101
11 Experimental science and the mechanization of nature 118
12 Criticism of the Promethean attitude 138
13 Physics as a conjectural science 155
14 Truth as the daughter of time 166
15 The study of nature as a spiritual exercise 182
16 Nature's behavior : thrifty, joyful, or spendthrift? 190
17 The poetic model 201
18 Aesthetic perception and the genesis of forms 211
19 Artemis and Isis 233
20 Isis has no veils 247
21 The sacred shudder 262
22 Nature as sphinx 284
23 From the secret of nature to the mystery of being 309
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