Bibliotherapy

Pierre Hadot-About Ancient Mechanics

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‘The idea of trickery-and ultimately, of violence-appears in the word ‘mechanics’, since mekhane signifies ‘trick’. The introduction to the ‘Problemata Mechanica’, an anonymous work probably elaborated in the Peripatetic school at the end of the third or the beginning of the second century BCE, is perfectly clear on this point:

‘Everything that occurs with nature, but of whose cause we are unaware, provokes astonishment; as does everything that, when it occurs in a manner contrary to nature, is produced by technique (tekhne) in the interest of mankind.

For in many cases, nature produces effects that are contrary to our interests, for nature always acts in the same way, and simply, whereas what is useful to us often changes.

Therefore, when an effect contrary to nature must be produced, we are at a loss because of the difficulty of producing such an effect; and the cooperation of tekhne is required. This is why we call the part of tekhne intended to help us in such difficulties ‘trickery’ (mekhane). For the situation is, as the poet Antiphon says: ’Through tekhne, we master the things in which we are vanquished by nature’.

For so it is when what is lesser masters what is greater, or when what is light moves what is heavy, and all the rest of the problems we call problems of trickery (mekhanica). They are not completely identical to physical problems (i.e., concerning nature), nor are they fully separated from them, but they are common to mathematical research and to research on physics. For ‘how’ becomes clear through mathematical research, and the ‘about what’ through research on nature.’

Let us keep in mind four fundamental points here. First, mechanics is situated within the perspective of a struggle between man and nature, well expressed in the quotation from the tragedian Antiphon.

Technology allows us to regain the upper hand over nature. Next, the goal of mechanics is to serve mankind’s practical interests, and therefore to relieve human suffering, but also, it must be admitted, to satisfy the passions, particularly those of kings and the wealthy: hatred, pride, and the taste for pleasure and luxury. 

Moreover, mechanics is a technique that consists in tricking nature, by means of instruments fashioned by human beings: machines of all kinds that enable the production of effects apparently contrary to nature. The notion of ‘mechanics’ is thus situated within the perspective of the opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘art’ (tekhne), with ‘art’ being understood here in the sense of a human technique, as opposed to nature. Finally, mechanics is closely linked to mathematics, which allows one to determine how to produce a given effect.’

From Pierre Hadot’s groundbreaking and fascinating study, ‘The Veil of Isis – An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature’. Paris-Gallimard 2004 for the French edition and 2006 for the English translation by Michael Chase for Harvard University Press. Chapter 10, ‘Mechanics and Magic from Antiquity to the Renaissance’. Picture credits: Top: From Albert de Rochas, ‘Les origines de la Science’, Hero of Alexandria’s Eolipyle and the steam turnstile foreseeing the steam engine. Bottom: From the same book, an engraving after Kircher representing a Cybele statue in a temple with automatic watering system with candle heat starters.

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