The Elder Pliny: One of the First Books on Natural History


There can be no science without data on everything we see around us: not just plants and animals, rivers and mountains on earth, but also planets and stars up above. All these are part of Nature which includes us too. In our own times, we need specialists to study all this, and the fruits of their efforts are part of the scientific knowledge we possess. This was so in ancient times too. Just as today we have encyclopedias that enshrine the latest knowledge we possess, there were a few such in times past also. In our own times, encyclopedias are compiled by editors with contributions from various specialists.

In the ancient world there was at least one writer who attempted to write an encyclopedia all by himself. His name was Caius Plinius Secundus (1st century C.E.), known as Pliny the Elder. He wrote a 37 volume encyclopedia  under the title Naturalis historia: Natural History. (Murphy, Trevor, 2004, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: the Empire in the Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press.)

The Elder Pliny deserves to be remembered, not so much for the impressive set of volumes he published, and certainly not for the accuracy of his reporting, but for his enthusiasm for human knowledge and for coining a term for the science of nature: natural history as a scientific epithet for the totality of our knowledge about the natural world.

His goal in this work was “to give a general description of everything that is known to exist throughout the earth.” Indeed his was the first encyclopedic work of that scope.

Pliny (as he came to be called) “would rise at midnight or at one, and never later than two in the morning, and begin his literary work….” He included in his compendium not only birds and animals, but also minerals and planets, medicines for particular ailments and human activities like mining. He reports, and also reflects here and there, on the intelligence of animals, the cruelty of laborious work, and such. Unfortunately, his book indiscriminately included and reported more on the  mistaken views and superstitions of the ancient world than on scientific facts or theories. This encyclopedic compendium of ancient errors discusses topics from anthropology to zoology. Pliny speaks out strongly against astrology which was (as in many circles in our own times) quite rampant in ancient Rome. Yet foretells events on the basis of solar and lunar positions. His work also talks about curative herbs and cosmology. And it gives a history of art.

Pliny had assistants who would gather bits and pieces of facts and fiction for him.  He was an atheist who stated that gods were simply personified natural phenomena. He noted that Nature, the only god, was utterly indifferent to the human condition.

He is said to have consulted hundreds of authors and refers to a couple of thousand books. Pliny was a versatile man of the world, soldier and traveler, and lawyer too.

Pliny was a prolific author who wrote on a very wide range of topics, numbering some 20,000 in all. According to his nephew, “he had a quick apprehension, incredible zeal, and an unequaled capacity to go without sleep.”

Pliny also philosophized on some matters. (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, 1972,  Simon and Schuster, 310). Like the attitude of some moderns to nuclear energy, he wished iron had never been found for it had rendered wars so much more terrible. Money served to impair human happiness because investments brought interest on which people could live without working. He felt animals were better off than humans because “they never think about glory, money, ambition, or death.”  He recommended sexual union for such ailments as impaired eyesight, hoarseness, and melancholia; and asked women not to sneeze after intercourse for this would abort the fetus. He had some nasty things to say about a woman who is menstruating.  In spite of all its absurdities, Pliny’s  book served as a major source of knowledge dur­ing the Middle Ages, and continues to provide us with a mine of information on how the ancients viewed the world, for much of what Pliny says is what many people of the time believed.  Modern writers who are eager to establish that the ancients knew all about modern science should peruse Pliny’s volume which is a treasure chest of ancient knowledge and ancient views.

March 2, 2011

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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