It’s telling that Pliny deals with the earth and sun first, and whatever gods there are next. It makes me want to set him down with a deist or two and listen to the conversation, though Pliny is definitely not a deist by any stretch of the imagination.
Instead, he takes aim at his contemporary gods:
To believe even in marriages taking place between gods, without anybody at all through the long ages of time being born as a result of them, and that some are always old and gray, others youths and boys, and gods with dusky complexions, winged, lame, born from eggs, living and dying on alternate days–this almost ranks with the fancies of children…For mortal to aid mortal–this is god; and this is the road to eternal glory. p181
He has some other choice words, which makes me wonder what he’d make of the various stories Christianity is built on. I can just see him tilting his gray Roman head and saying, “Really? A petty tribal god who requires such constant adoration and propitiation, and in whom you must profess love or suffer an eternity of torment? What a revolting notion.”
To Pliny, Nature is the only god, and the failure of a divine being, however imagined by man, to logically be able to commit suicide (the bit about living and dying on alternate days above is rather a large barrier to Pliny ever believing in Christianity, one can imagine) is one of the surest proofs that such a divine being as imagined by man is a folly not worth spending much time on.
The only other divinity Pliny considers worthwhile is Fortune herself, which is very Roman of him. One thinks Boethius and Marcus Aurelius would agree. Being Pliny, though, he’s a little ungracious about it.
Nevertheless mortality has rendered our guesses about God even more obscure by inventing for itself a deity intermediate between these two conceptions. Everywhere in the whole world at every hour by all men’s voices Fortune alone is invoked and named, alone accused, alone impeached, alone pondered, alone applauded, alone rebuked and visited with reproaches; deemed volatile and indeed by most men blind as well…p183
Still, after disposing of the gods thus, Pliny can’t shake a belief in Fortune or eventual justice.
“…punishment for wickedness, though sometimes tardy, as God is occupied in so vast a mass of things, yet is never frustrated.”p185
Which is altogether more optimistic than I expected of him. It reminds me of Stephen King’s IT, where the hero/authorial insertion of Bill Denbrough realizes, during the childhood version of the climactic battle, that things really do work out ridiculously well most of the time, and takes that as proof that he can believe and strike down the thing from Outside.
In short, Pliny is an intelligent man who scoffs at sacrifices, omens, and gods who obsess over anything humans do. Nature is the only thing worthy of the homage paid to divinity, and it is to Nature he returns after he makes one final jab, pointing out that even God can’t make twice ten to be other than twenty–Orwell notwithstanding, and I think dear old George was rather using his classical education in the service of a deeper pessimism than Pliny ever dreamed of.
Anyway, we shall return to Nature anon, starting with how the stars are attached in the firmament. To Pliny, the stars aren’t gods–they are flames he didn’t have the capacity to observe more closely but could make educated guesses about.