Almost Zero

Ian Hacking

  • The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase
    Harvard, 399 pp, £19.95, November 2006, ISBN 0 674 02316 1

‘The word “nature” is encountered everywhere,’ notably in the writing and talk of poets, scientists, ecologists and even politicians. ‘But though they frequently employ the word, they seem not to have much considered what notion ought to be framed of the thing, which they suppose and admire, and upon occasion celebrate, but do not call in question or discuss.’ Thus Robert Boyle, progenitor of English science, in A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, 1686.

Boyle found eight meanings for the word, and pretty much suggested we scrap the lot. No one paid him any heed. Nature is too deeply entrenched in our awareness of the world. Nature is awesome. Nature is gentle tranquillity itself. Nature is terrifying. Nature is the Lake District. Nature is female. Nature is how things ought to be. Nature is crueller even than Man, so that from its very beginning, the human race has had to shield itself from the forces of nature. Nature, above all, is other than us – except that we are part of nature.

And nature has secrets. Most metaphors die in the course of a lifetime; their play is forgotten, and they become literal or lost. How long can a metaphor live? Pierre Hadot’s absorbing book is written around a single phrase: ‘Nature loves to hide.’ That is a translation, or mistranslation, of a fragment that Heraclitus inscribed some 2500 years ago. It is alive and well. Here is a physicist, Steve Chu, in 1994: ‘I’m betting on nature to hide Bose condensation from us. The last 15 years she has been doing a great job.’ Bose condensation is a weird phenomenon that takes place when atoms of the right kind get very cold, ultracold, almost to absolute zero. Einstein foresaw it in 1925, but no one could produce it until 1995. (Chu lost his bet.) Chu himself shared a Nobel Prize in 1997 for one of the tricks needed to make this strange condensate (using laser light to cool atoms). The people who first made the stuff got another Nobel, in 2001.

And what is on the back of the gold medals for physics and chemistry that they received? An engraving of Nature, whom the Swedish Academy describes as a goddess resembling Isis. She is being unveiled by an unclothed youth, the genius of science. He is revealing her secrets, not to mention her breasts. Hadot’s book has 18 plates reproducing such images – often less chaste than the Nobel one – from throughout the history of modern science. They include engravings in books by the likes of Leeuwenhoek, the pioneer of the microscope. Hadot oddly does not mention the Nobel medal, even though he had several prizewinners as colleagues at the Collège de France. But then some, and possibly most, physics and chemistry laureates are astonished, or even appalled, when told to look at what is on the back of their medal. They seem never to have noticed the woman being undressed.

Hadot, who is now 85, is a great scholar of Neoplatonism. He is working on a definitive edition of Marcus Aurelius. He 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. (See, for example, the essays collected in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 1995.)

Pagan? Monotheism has been so triumphant that we have forgotten about pagans. Hadot recalls a pagan prefect, appalled that a Christian emperor wanted to remove the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate: ‘We contemplate the same stars, the Heavens are common to us all, and the same world surrounds us. What matters the path of wisdom by which each person seeks the truth?’ Hadot imagines a world in which these words are inscribed in gold on the doors of all ‘churches, synagogues, mosques and temples’. He uses other pagan texts of the same period to argue that Heraclitus’ aphorism underlies this gentle plea for tolerance: for a pagan, the truth that is sought is the hidden truth of nature and the gods.

The Veil of Isis is an amazing source of other sayings, which Hadot drops like ripe peaches from a tree. Heraclitus’ phrase exemplifies Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘a good maxim is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment; it is thereby the great paradox of literature: the imperishable in the midst of all that changes.’ Imperishable but not constant. This is a tale of mutation, of an inscrutable saying that is used to say many things. ‘To write the history of thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.’

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