Harold L. Axtell (essay date 1926)
SOURCE: Harold L. Axtell, "Some Human Traits of the Scholar Pliny," in Classical Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, November, 1926, pp. 104-13.
[In the following essay, Axtell attempts to illuminate the passages in Pliny's writings that offer insight to his personality, calling Pliny earnest, skeptical, and conceited.]
Sad is the present fate of Gaius Plinius Secundus. After all his tireless efforts to acquaint mankind with the wonders of the world, ungrateful posterity in the twentieth century, even the lovers of the veteres, has all but forgotten him. Nobody cares to contribute a volume on "Pliny and His Influence," or to annotate his work, or even to constitute a reliable text for it. No university offers a course in it and no classical reading circle includes it in its program. Except as an old worked-over mine to dig in at odd times for the extraction of curious information with which to complete the treatment of some special topic, the Naturalis Historia is not glanced at. And after students take a look at the man himself through the eyes of his nephew, they do not look again, despite the old scholar's heroism revealed at the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny to us is no longer a man, but a dust-covered tome.
The causes of this oblivion are not far to seek, of course. The portrait of this paragon of learning, this forerunner of the modern clipping bureau, whose motto seems to have been that of Life, "aut scissors aut nullus," who slept like Edison, who had books read to him while dressing from the bath, whose stenographer wore gloves in winter to take down his notes, who was impatient at losing ten lines when his reader was interrupted, may have been attractive in the cloisters of the Middle Ages, but not to moderns. We may be overwhelmed with awe by unparalleled erudition and industry, but we are not charmed.
Then, too, the historians of Latin literature have not urged any inquisitive soul to try him out. Confronted by their dicta that only the antiquarian is interested in him,1 that his work is at times dry and bald, at others enswathed in rhetoric to conceal the dryness of its subject,2 that it contains the wildest sentence in Latin literature,3 that the most famous phrase in the whole work is the remark that Greek sculpture ceased one year and was suddenly revived thirty-five Olympiads later,4 who would be so hardy as to open the book? And if one did so, the abrupt, apparently careless brevity in which he sometimes seems to challenge the reader to find his meaning, would be too forbidding to encourage a venturer to read much without an overpowering desire to collect the information therein contained. Indeed, through his own style, so typical of Silver Latinity, Pliny is the worst enemy of his own popularity—a popularity, to be sure, for which he would disclaim any desire.
Yet this writer does not deserve the absolute neglect he now receives. His book is not, and was not when he wrote, a "thriller" or a "best seller," but neither was it a scrap-basket, nor merely an encyclopaedia, though he calls it such; and he himself was far from an impersonal, machine-like compiler. One would never get the impression from his work of a board of contributors, nor of a mere general editor. His personality is conspicuous. Submerged it may be for pages in a bare catalog of names, a recitation of genera and species, of stars, winds, metals, lands, and peoples, yet it crops out here and there most unexpectedly. At times it seems lugged in to give variety and relief to the subject matter; at others it appears in a spontaneous outburst of interest in the special matter under discussion. Especially notable is it whenever there is an opportunity to express his pet predilections or aversions. Sometimes it talks to us in long continuous passages; sometimes it flashes in a cryptic or sly remark and at once vanishes behind the subject matter.
In short, the author of the Naturalis Historia is a real man and not merely a book-worm, and the sole raison d'etre of this brief paper is to instance some examples of his human qualities, likable and not likable, in order to set them in relief against the encyclopaedic dry-as-dustness of that work.
The first quality I wish to note in Pliny is his earnestness, a very human trait, although possibly not so common nowadays as in other generations. Yet even in these days of universal jest and badinage the life-is-real, life-is-earnest man is to be seen and heard. When a certain citizen saw in a barber-shop the members of a basket-ball team who had come from afar to play the final games for the championship of the Pacific Coast, he said to his barber, "Think of grown men traveling around to play games like children!" Pliny is serious-minded and knows it. It makes him so thorough, on the one hand, that he must set down every detail in order that those who wish it may find it ready for use!5 It makes him so practical, on the other hand, that he won't repeat long-established and unimportant facts6 nor will he speculate on useless questions.7 "Let now someone ask," he suddenly bursts out, "if there was but one Hercules or how many Father Tibers! … Behold in the case of an object which is tiny and close to our farmhouses, of which a constant supply is available, authorities are not agreed whether the king bee is armed merely by his majestic appearance or whether nature has given him a sting but denied him its use."
His capacity for serious work lies at the base of his contempt for credulous or careless writers and his hatred of falsifiers, whom he calls too lazy to hunt down the truth, but not too lazy to lie through shame of their ignorance. "There is no quicker loss of faith than when a distinguished man stands responsible for a falsehood."8 To him the veteres were reliable, but even Xenophon incurred his anger by saying a barbarian king lived 600 years and "to make a real good lie" his son lived 800.9 The romancing Greek writers especially provoke him. One of them, Euanthes, relates a story of a man's changing into a wer-wolf and becoming human again after nine years, on which Pliny comments:10 "And he even adds that the man received the same clothing he had laid aside. It's marvelous how far Greek credulity will go. No falsehood so brazen but it has its witness." Neither does he spare his own compatriots. He takes Cornelius Nepos to task for believing fairy tales about a little African colony, as, for example, that once it was larger than great Carthage.11
No foolish credulity for him! He's a sceptic. He disbelieves in werwolves, in pegasi, griffins, Sirens,12 in inhabitants of the nether regions,13 in prodigies from the motions of the stars.14 He is astonished that Aristotle taught that scattered teeth, very long fingers, a leaden complexion, and numerous wrinkles in the hand were signs of a short life.15 And as to immortality, he works himself into a page of excited denunciation of the vanity and folly of that childish belief. "Confound it, what madness to think that life is repeated in death! What rest would creatures ever have if the sensation of the soul remains above, and that of the shade remains among the lower regions. Surely such beguiling belief destroys the special boon of nature, which is death.16
Another truly human quality is nonchalant inconsistency, and in this...
(The entire section is 3104 words.)