The Veil of Isis and the Meaning of Withdrawal

“A good maxim,” writes Nietzsche,

is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment…(Human, All Too Human).

Pierre Hadot, in his essay on the history of the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis (2006), leads his reader through 2,500 years of Western philosophical discourse, all of which could be read as a creative (mis)reading of Heraclitus’ maxim: “Phusis kruptesthai philei.” What Heraclitus actually meant by this statement (which, literally translated, says “Nature loves to hide”) is difficult to uncover. Hadot speculates that the most faithful reading of the aphorism is something like: “that which causes birth tends to cause death,” or similarly, “that which causes things to appear tends to make them disappear.” Such statements are typical of the paradoxical style of Heraclitus, for whom nature is an ever-living fire. This cosmic fire is constituted by a strife of opposites, which find dynamic wholeness in the continual flow of all things.

For ancients and moderns alike, nature was thought to contain secrets, or hidden reasons, that, if uncovered through magical, mathematical, or mechanical means, could empower and ennoble humanity. During the Scientific Revolution, attempts were made to “save the appearance” of natural phenomena by devising hypothetical accounts of the underlying causes responsible for producing their visible effects. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was not initially interpreted by the Church as a threat, since it was understood to be a sort of useful fiction that in no way restricted the omnipotent intellect of God, whose actual cosmic design was beyond human comprehension. Even Descartes was careful to limit his mechanistic explanations of phenomena by saying that these explanations simply aimed to reproduce the visible effects of nature without necessarily achieving these effects in the same way as the Creator. The Greek word for mechanics, mēkhanē, signifies “trick” or “ruse”; initially, then, applying the practical art of mechanical engineering (and the ancients were not as ill equipped in this art as is often thought) to the phenomena of nature was considered to be a kind of “trick” that enabled humans a limited degree of prediction and control over her processes. Only later, as, following the great successes of Newtonian mechanics, God came to be imagined as a retired engineer, was the ancient notion of “saving the appearances” replaced by the more modern notion of explaining appearances through mechanical causes. Eventually, theological speculation no longer seemed relevant to scientists. Laplace could dismiss God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Rather than a useful analogy between artificial and natural processes, nature was explicitly identified with mechanism.

This identification was not complete, however. Machines are intelligently designed, even if by the finite intelligence of human beings. They therefore operate as a result of more than just material and efficient causes, but also due to formal and final causes. Even if an omnipotent divine will is no longer a compelling explanation for the existence and organized growth of nature, there is undoubtedly still something about the causality of natural beings that remains mysteriously withdrawn.

How are we to conceive of this withdrawal in our contemporary context? Religious and secular explanations both being unconvincing, where is philosophy to turn for an adequate account of the nature of nature?

At the end of the preface to The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes:

The world and reason do not present a problem; let us say, if you will, that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them, and there can be no question of dissipating it by some solution. It is beyond solutions.

“True philosophy,” he continues, “is relearning to see the world.” Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting that what is needed is a form of seeing as comfortable with obscurity as it is with clarity. Nature is not a big secret that one day, through technical trickery or prosaic definition, might be finally unveiled. The being of nature is dark and withdrawn, even while its essence shines forth in an infinitely diverse array of colors and forms.

Nature is an indefinite series of enveloping veils, that, if removed in step, would lead back to the ground of being, which, for Schelling, is the cosmic anguish of a divinity that cannot escape its own ipseity. All the order and beauty of the manifest cosmos emerges from the “sacred shudder” of this unconscious God in response to its own uncanny existence. Nature seeks, through the development of its envelopment,

to show the Eternal as if in a mirror the most concealed thoughts of what lies innermost within its own self, thoughts that it itself does not know (Ages of the World, 2nd draft).

Nature, then, is the withdrawal of God from itself, the Othering of Self such that selfhood can come to exist in relation to itself, to know itself, even if this knowing remains forever mysterious. For the logician, this is entirely irrational, since the Eternal cannot be other than itself without being contradictory. For the poet, this paradox is the light of Truth herself at play in time.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. michael- says:

    Beautiful post.

    The way I like to think this through is with an expanded notion of Flesh. Instead of “veils” what we find – or, rather, what finds us – are folds in the Flesh of the world that extend in all directions and times. The pulsating strata of a living cosmos simultaneously affords our continued existence with its nourishing intimately and envelopment, as well as motivates us within a horizon of possible deviations. The meaning of ‘withdrawal’, then, is in the negotiation of deviant singularities within a matrix ever-present sustenance. Gaia giving birth to strangers.

    1. I like that image, Micheal. Merleau-Ponty’s biotic “flesh” is perhaps a more evocative term considering our historical context than the mythic “veil.”

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