The Nature of Pliny’s World

Navel of the World
The World He Knew
We’re approaching the edge of the suburbs now. If you look out your windows on either side, you’ll see the modern world fading bit by bit. (Except for the tracks, of course. And the train.) We are invisible to the outside, so please do keep your hands and feet! Accidents can happen–we had a passenger once who left the train thinking he’d be worshipped as a god by the historicals we were viewing.

I believe they ate him to absorb his “powers.” Anyway, do stay inside the train!

The Natural History really gets underway with Pliny attempting to start at the ground floor in explaining the world. He begins with his conception of the world–“earth” is eternal, (“…eternal, immeasurable, a being that never began to exist and never will perish”, is the translation on p171) and Pliny scoffs at those who have broached the idea of atoms, a little rudely. He also scoffs at those who claim to have deduced the circumference (“dimensions”) of the earth. His assertion that we don’t even understand the “inside” of the Earth and so, cannot possibly hope to understand an outside which he doesn’t think even exists is one of the crankiest (and most hilarious) “YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN” moments I’ve read in a long while.

Nevertheless, he goes on to say, the world is round, it revolves–as the motion of the sun tells us, he states–every 24 hours, at “indescribable” velocity. His digression here, wondering if the sound of that revolution is so constant we don’t hear it anymore, or if it’s silent and if so, what that silence says about the revolution, is particularly fascinating. We may laugh at Pliny for not liking the idea of atoms or a measurable circumference of Earth, but he’s actively trying to understand with the best conceptual tools available to him.

Pliny moves from sky to earth, just like any creation myth he would have been familiar with (even if he doesn’t ascribe to a particular one so far) and he asserts that the earth is revolving in the centre of “space.”

This would seem to be a direct contradiction to his assertion that there’s nothing other than “the earth”: “…huis vi suspensamcum cum quarto aquarum elemento librari medio spatii telurum. (p176, line 11)” for which the translation given is “suspended by its force in the centre of space is poised the earth, and with it the fourth element, that of the waters.” I was initially unsure whether to read this as a kind of doublethink, a lacuna in his conceptualization, or if my reading of the translation and my (highly imperfect) Latin was missing a vital nuance. [1]mundum (the earth) with “…quocumque nomine alio caelum appellare libuit cuius circumplexu teguntur cuncta, which is “whatever other name men have chosen to designate the sky whose vaulted roof encircles the universe” (pp 170-171) So, upon going back to the beginning and thinking a bit, I decided he means his universe is limitless since it includes the sky and whatever the earth and sky are suspended in–or, the sky is space, and the universe is immeasurable, which means he may have been cranky old man but he was also right, and guilty of only a quite natural Ptolemaic geocentrism.

His view of the four elements–earth, air, fire, water–keeping the immensity of the world from collapsing is a pretty elegant one, drawn from what information he and his fellows had or could discern of the world. All the same, even as the earth revolves, he views it as the unmoving centre of a whirl of other forces–the stars and planets in their celestial courses move strangely, and their visible motion (as of a “wheel”) very much made the case for “earth” as the omphalos, revolving in place as everything else whirls around it. All in all, it’s the best effort for understanding the world he could have made, even if it might make for some funny business just around the bend, when he gets to the planets. He quite naturally next turns to “the seven stars which owing to their motion we call ‘planets’[2], although no stars wander less than they do”(p177), among which he counts the sun. It’s fascinating to remember that they had very little in the way of telescopes, so the lights that could be seen by the naked eye but didn’t behave like the rest of the stars–sun, moon, Venus and Mars, comets, etc.–were classified differently, and that the Greek upon which he heavily draws gave birth to the zodiac.

All in all, you can tell he thought long and hard about the right place to begin, and what he could assert. Next week we’ll be moving forward through the wanderers. Feel free to adjourn to the public dining car and discuss!

[1]Side note: I love the word “lacuna”. It is a buttercup yellow and tastes somewhere between strawberries and fresh, salted cream.
[2]For the Greek “wanderers”.