One of the many disappointing features of contemporary classical scholarship is its guarded detachment from the modes of engagement that lead people to love Greek and Latin literature in the first place. The ancient Mediterranean world holds many and diverse attractions, but ordinary readers of great classical authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Vergil, Horace, or Tacitus tend to enjoy their works because they appeal to the heart and the mind in distinctively rewarding ways, presenting us with visions of human life and action that are worth taking seriously even when they venture so far into the land of myth that there can be no question of whether to believe them. They’re also just extremely entertaining, even if only to somewhat refined and dorky tastes. Scholarship, however, frequently approaches these works not as products of thought and expression intended to engage our emotions and our intellects on matters of serious human concern, nor even as high-brow entertainment meant to amuse us, but as exercises in the ideological manipulation of appearances, moves in a discursive game whereby power relations are negotiated, typically in the service of the status quo and those whose interests it promotes — or so it often goes when literature is not seen instead as an ultimately frivolous indulgence in rhetorical artistry wherein authors compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can cram into their works and scholars compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can convince other scholars to talk about. Very little scholarly work on Greek or Latin literature these days approaches these texts as sources of potential insight into human life, as offering some perspective that might well be, if not exactly true, at least good to think with. In fact, many scholars scoff at this kind of approach and seem somewhat embarrassed when someone in the room seriously articulates it. They describe it condescendingly as ‘humanism,’ where being a ‘humanist’ correlates with being a naive simpleton who probably wears tweed jackets with elbow patches, smokes a pipe, and would definitely be more at home in 1917 than in 2017.
It would be an unjust exaggeration to pretend that professional classicists these days have uniformly relegated old-fashioned humanistic approaches to literature to the early chapters of graduate student handbooks on theory, the chapters reserved for unsophisticated ideas that we need to understand but that none of us should ever espouse. Some other academic disciplines seem to have done so, but Classics, at least in North America, is decidedly more conservative than most other disciplines, and so traditional humanistic attitudes live on, often in combination with more sociological and cultural theoretical approaches. A great deal of undergraduate teaching by classicists probably continues to embody humanistic attitudes. My own undergraduate education might have been unusually oldschool, but in every department I’ve taught there have been at least a few professors who teach Greek and Latin literature as something we might learn from and not merely about. In scholarship, too, there are exceptions, but they are certainly exceptions. If you want to read a recent academic work that takes Greek or Latin literature and thought seriously on its own terms, your best bet is to avoid work by classicists and look instead to work written by philosophers or political theorists. Generalizations like this one always need qualification, but suffice to say that one of the reasons I ended up specializing in Greek philosophy instead of Greek literature is that scholars working on Greek philosophy standardly take the material they study seriously on its own terms.
One of the my earliest confrontations with this disheartening feature of contemporary classical scholarship came in an undergraduate class on Pliny the Younger. Pliny’s letters are fascinating documents that ought to be extremely enjoyable to read, but the secondary literature assigned for the class led me to despise Pliny almost as much as I despised the scholarship. The general interpretive strategy seemed to be: ah, Pliny wants us to think that these are just letters he wrote to people that he’s now thrown together for publication, but in fact these are all carefully crafted compositions, and their main raison d’être is to make Pliny look good, to parade his erudition and his skill and particularly his social connections; these are not charming portraits of Roman life, articulations of serious ideas, or expressions of genuine sentiment, but elaborate social posturing, subtle political machinations, partially concealed manifestations of a narcissistic obsession with managing and controlling Pliny’s public image. It is of course true that Pliny’s letters are meticulously crafted with a view to creating a particular impression of who he is. But that does not in principle conflict with supposing that in fact the letters are charming portraits of Roman life, articulations of serious ideas, and expressions of genuine sentiment. Yet the overwhelming drift of the scholarship we read in Latin 403 was that we cannot or at least should not take Pliny seriously once we have recognized this dimension of the letters; it is not simply an added dimension, it is their real purpose, and we scholars have peeled Pliny’s mask away to reveal the reality underneath, a bundle of anxiety and desperate efforts to negotiate conflicting power relations.
I like to think that it would have been easy to refute this kind of thing had Facebook already been around in my undergraduate days; in the age of social media, it now seems axiomatic that one can be intensely anxious about one’s public self-representation and sincere in one’s efforts to communicate serious ideas or sincere emotions. I tried to maintain that view at the time, but to no avail. Ultimately, even though I rejected the let’s-unmask-Pliny’s-anxieties-and-social-posturing approach, the whole experience made me incapable of enjoying Pliny’s letters for years. Still today, when I read them, I’m left with that unpleasant taste in my mouth, and one way or another Pliny and this sort of approach to him have become emblematic of everything that I dislike about contemporary scholarly approaches to classical literature. Well, not everything, but pretty close to everything.
For all that, it’s still possible to read Pliny as a human being. This morning I found myself reading Letter IX.33 and feeling disgusted with human cruelty to non-human animals and ashamed of my own complicity in it. Here’s the letter:
To Caninius: I HAVE met with a story, which, although authenticated by undoubted evidence, looks very like fable, and would afford a worthy field for the exercise of so exuberant, lofty, and truly poetical a genius as your own. It was related to me the other day over the dinner table, where the conversation happened to run upon various kinds of marvels. The person who told the story was a man of unsuspected veracity:—but what has a poet to do with truth? However, you might venture to rely upon his testimony, even though you had the character of a faithful historian to support. There is in Africa a town called Hippo, situated not far from the seacoast: it stands upon a navigable lake communicating with an estuary in the form of a river, which alternately flows into the lake, or into the ocean, according to the ebb and flow of the tide. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, or swimming; especially boys, whom love of play brings to the spot. With these it is a fine and manly achievement to be able to swim the farthest; and he that leaves the shore and his companions at the greatest distance gains the victory. It happened, in one of these trials of skill, that a certain boy, bolder than the rest, launched out towards the opposite shore. He was met by a dolphin, who sometimes swam before him, and sometimes behind him, then played round him, and at last took him upon his back, and set him down, and afterwards took him again; and thus he carried the poor frightened fellow out into the deepest part; when immediately he turns back again to the shore, and lands him among his companions. The fame of this remarkable accident spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked round the boy (whom they viewed as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him relate the story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all attentively watching the ocean, and (what indeed is almost itself an ocean) the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of went into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin appeared again and came to the boy, who, together with his companions, swam away with the utmost precipitation. The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dived up and down, in a series of circular movements. This he practised the next day, the day after, and for several days together, till the people (accustomed from their infancy to the sea) began to be ashamed of their timidity. They ventured, therefore, to advance nearer, playing with him and calling him to them, while he, in return, suffered himself to be touched and stroked. Use rendered them courageous. The boy, in particular, who first made the experiment, swam by the side of him, and leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards in that manner, and thought the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin. There seemed now, indeed, to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing; the rest of the boys, in the meanwhile surrounding and encouraging their companion. It is very remarkable that this dolphin was followed by a second, which seemed only as a spectator and attendant on the former; for he did not at all submit to the same familiarities as the first, but only escorted him backwards and forwards, as the boys did their comrade. But what is further surprising, and no less true than what I have already related, is that this dolphin, who thus played with the boys and carried them upon his back, would come upon the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea. It is a fact that Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, actuated by an absurd piece of superstition, poured some ointment over him as he lay on the shore: the novelty and smell of which made him retire into the ocean, and it was not till several days after that he was seen again, when he appeared dull and languid; however, he recovered his strength and continued his usual playful tricks. All the magistrates round flocked hither to view this sight, whose arrival and prolonged stay, was an additional expense, which the slender finances of this little community would ill afford; besides, the quiet and retirement of the place was utterly destroyed. It was thought proper, therefore, to remove the occasion of this concourse, by privately killing the poor dolphin. And now, with what a flow of tenderness will you describe this affecting catastrophe! and how will your genius adorn and heighten this moving story! Though, indeed the subject does not require any fictitious embellishments; it will be sufficient to describe the actual facts of the case without suppression or diminution. Farewell.
Naturally enough, there’s a lot we could say about this letter, and only some of it will have to do with human indifference to the welfare of other animals (some of it will have to do with the economic idiocy of paying for tourists’ entertainment rather than charging them for it). If we go the route of unmasking Pliny’s self-aggrandizing purposes, we might note that though the letter takes the form of a suggestion to Caninius to put this story into literary form, Pliny has himself just put it into literary form and thereby displayed his narrative skills, so that perhaps his suggestion to Caninius is disingenuous and the letter is something like a literary humble brag. Fair enough. But the story of these jackasses in Roman Africa and the poor friendly dolphin that they killed because they were too stupid to recognize the obvious solution to their economic difficulty is where the real action is in this letter.
Here was a genuine marvel, an animal so different from us and yet so intelligent and sociable, something to be seen and appreciated, something perhaps even calling for reverence and respect, and yet people — supposedly so elevated above other animals by our reason and intelligence — basely destroy it because it became economically inconvenient, though the inconvenience was solely the product of human foolishness (in this case, partially political foolishness; nobody thought to charge a fee for the entertainment because the people who wanted to be entertained were mostly Roman political officials, and, well, why should they have to pay to see a dolphin?). We might like to think that we are less cruel to animals, less willing to subordinate their lives and welfare to crass economic considerations. But that’s not true. We’ve invented whole new forms of cruelty and simply hide them from ourselves most of the time. These Romans killed one dolphin because it was costing them money; we torture millions of animals to save a little bit of cash.
Such, at any rate, were the thoughts I found myself with while reading Pliny’s letter this morning. They are, of course, not the stuff of scholarship. But even at my most charitable I cannot avoid concluding that too much contemporary classical scholarship obstructs this kind of non-scholarly, humanistic reading. Consider, by contrast, a footnote to the letter as printed in the Harvard Classics edition of 1914:
The overflowing humanity of Pliny’s temper breaks out upon all occasions, but he discovers it in nothing more strongly than by the impression which this little story appears to have made upon him. True benevolence, indeed, extends itself through the whole compass of existence, and sympathizes with the distress of every creature of sensation. Little minds may be apt to consider a compassion of this inferior kind as an instance of weakness; but it is undoubtedly the evidence of a noble nature. Homer thought it not unbecoming the character even of a hero to melt into tears at a distress of this sort, and has given us a most amiable and affecting picture of Ulysses weeping over his faithful dog Argus, when he expires at his feet:
“Soft pity touch’d the mighty master’s soul;
Adown his cheek the tear unbidden stole,
Stole unperceived; he turn’d his head and dry’d
The drop humane.”… (Odyss. xvii. Pope.)
Few prominent classical scholars today would write a footnote anything like that, even for a popular audience. It is not simply that they will object to talk of ‘humanity’ and of Pliny’s ‘temper’ on quasi-epistemological grounds, but that to approach literature with this kind of broadly ethical orientation is regarded as fundamentally unscholarly when not embarrassingly naive. Yet I, at least, do not know why else literature is worth reading if not because it offers engaging perspectives on human life that are worth taking seriously on their own terms.
The moral of the story, then: go read Pliny, but don’t bother with much recent scholarship on Pliny. Meanwhile, enjoy these dolphins playing with a cat: