Archive for May, 2021

Pliny: Natural History

May 30, 2021

Natural History
A Selection
Pliny the Elder
(Penguin Classics, 1991) [c.79]
450 p.

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia is one of the charming oddities of ancient literature: a vast compendium of knowledge, legend, and speculation about the natural world as seen by the Romans in the first century after Christ. Pliny was himself a successful statesman, but his avocation was as a man of apparently boundless curiosity. He did his duty during the day, and at night wrote his many books — sleep, he is reported to have said, is like death, and to be avoided as much as possible.

His Natural History was, he said, “written for the masses, for the horde of farmers and artisans”, rather than for scholars. It consists of 37 books, all of which, I believe, have survived, although the single volume under consideration here is but a sampling. Pliny himself claims to have consulted 2000 sources in compiling his book; modern scholars, I read, judge the number to have been higher still.

It is a well-organized but rather artlessly executed work. He is careful to keep his thoughts about birds or medicine separate from his remarks on metalwork or planets, but on any particular topic the subject matter ranges from lists of interesting facts to anecdotes to moral reflections. It’s the sort of book for which “hodge podge” seems the right designation — or, I suppose, hodgus podgus in this case.

He begins at the beginning: with astronomy and cosmology, which is of course quite interesting. The natural world, he tells us, is “a deity, everlasting, boundless, an entity without a beginning and one that will never end” (2.1). He knows that the earth is a sphere that rotates every 24 hours — it is interesting that one of the arguments he gives (1.164) is the same one given in St Thomas’ Summa; I think it possible that that example had by then become canonical, or perhaps it simply meant that Thomas had himself whiled away a few pleasant hours in Pliny’s company, which is a happy thought indeed. He has a basic understanding that if the earth is a sphere it relativizes our usual understandings of “up” and “down”:

Scholars assert that men are spread out all round the earth and stand with their feet pointing towards each other and that the top of the sky is alike for all of them and that their feet point down towards the centre of the earth from wherever they are. An ordinary person, however, inquires why men on the opposite side do not fall off – as if there is not an equally good reason for them wondering why we do not fall off. (1.161)

He gives the ancient estimates for the circumference of the earth; that of Eratosthenes was off by only about 15%.

About God Pliny does not have much of interest to say; he conceives of God as a super powerful being, as the Romans tended to do, of whose existence he is doubtful, and, even if God does exist, Pliny wonders why he would care for humanity.

Of mankind he has a jaundiced view. “This alone is certain, namely that there is no such thing as certainty, and that nothing is more wretched or more conceited than man” (2.25). “The only thing he knows instinctively is how to weep” (7.4). He does admire the great men of Roman history, notably Caesar and Pompey, but overall sees us as pitiful creatures cruelly subject to changes of fortune and sudden deaths, tormented by the knowledge that we will die.

He takes us on a whirlwind tour of the known world, hitting the geographical and cultural highlights of Italy, Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Judaea, Asia Minor, China, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and Ethiopia. In a long series of books he describes animal life, and these are among the most entertaining sections of the work: elephants (which “have qualities rarely apparent even in man, namely honesty, good sense, justice, and also respect for the stars, sun and moon” (8.1)), crocodiles, hippos, and apes, sharks, octopus (including a story about one that climbed a tree), and crabs. He takes time to rail against the “purple fish” which has fostered an unbecoming appetite for luxury among Romans (who used it to dye cloths purple). We read of eagles, ostriches, ravens, and parrots. Of insects he is most fascinated by bees, about which the Romans knew a great deal. He notes that most animals have bad breath.

On and on it goes: trees, shrubs, perfumes, metals, farming practices, making of pigments, and medicines all come up for discussion. He doesn’t think much of Roman medicine, and especially of Roman doctors (“Doctors learn by exposing us to risks, and conduct experiments at the expense of our lives. Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity” (29.18)). He does think highly of Greek artists, and makes particular note of the famous Laocoon sculpture, “a work superior to any painting or bronze”, which has survived to the present day in the Vatican collection.

Naturally not everything Pliny records is as accurate as Eratosthenes’ estimate of the circumference of the earth. He thinks earthquakes are caused by either lightning or wind. But even that speculation, wayward as it is, tells us that he’s trying to be careful — it’s either lightning or wind, he’s not sure which. And he does make an honest effort, throughout, to sift what is reliable from what is fabulous. (After noting reports of basilisks and werewolves, he says, “It is astonishing how far Greek gullibility will go. There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness” (8.82).)

There are several famous anecdotes in the book; I do not know if we know them principally through this book or not, but it is nice to read them in any case. Among my favourites is this one, about Cato and his fig:

Burning with a deadly hatred of Carthage and troubled with anxiety about the safety of his descendants, Cato used to shout at every meeting of the Senate: ‘Carthage must be destroyed!’ Now one day he brought into the Senate House an early ripe fig from Africa, showed it to his fellow senators and said: ‘I ask you, when do you think this fig was plucked from the tree?’

All agreed that it was fresh, so he said: ‘Know this, it was picked two days ago in Carthage; that’s how near the enemy are to our walls!’ Immediately they began the Third Punic War, in which Carthage was destroyed. (15.74-75)

It’s a fun book, then, though not one to read closely for long periods. It has been known and read throughout the centuries from Pliny’s day to ours. I am sure that for historians it is a gold mine of details that help them resolve questions about Roman engineering and the material conditions of life at the time. For the rest of us, it’s a cornucopia of trivia, good stories, and often amusingly refracted scientific ideas, written with a good deal of personality. It ends with this salutation:

Greetings, Nature, mother of all creation, show me your favour in that I alone of Rome’s citizens have praised you in all your aspects.

I hope that his wish was granted.

Even in the most favourable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life’; but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows. (14.142)

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

May 18, 2021

Trojan Horse in the City of God
Dietrich von Hildebrand
(Sophia Institute, 1993) [1967]
332 p.

Writing shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, von Hildebrand issues in this book a passionate critique of the changes being wrought in the Church’s life in the name of the Council. He must have been one of the earliest voices to point out the marked difference between the letter and the putative “spirit” of the Council:

It would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Hildebrand saw the Council as having the potential to enrich the Church’s life by correcting imbalances that had grown up over the years since Trent. He thought that an “ossification and legalism” had come to characterize the Church in her own life and in her relationship to the world, and that the Council was trying to correct this. He saw traditional Catholic teachings on certain subjects as needing rebalancing by complementary truths: the Church stressed the value of religious life, to the relative neglect of married life; she stressed love of God, to the relative neglect of love of neighbour; she valued supernatural goods but undervalued natural goods; she practiced certain forms of Scriptural interpretation but neglected others. There were partial truths in need of completion.

Yet a partial truth is a truth, not an error, and the proper response is to add to it, not to repudiate it. He wrote because he saw in what was then already called “progressivism” a rejection of what was true in tradition in favour of the opposite half-truth: preference for married over religious life, substitution of love of neighbour for love of God, an overemphasis on natural goods, and a neglect of sound, traditional Scriptural interpretation. Above all, he saw the Church, in the name of the Council, being captured by the secular spirit of the age:

Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, many Catholics no longer ask whether something is true, whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value. They ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to modern man and the technological age, challenging, dynamic, audacious, or progressive.

The bad fruit of this attitude was, already in 1967, beginning to become evident, and von Hildebrand surveys its many aspects. He saw traditional Catholic philosophy being abandoned in favour of philosophies, such as relativism and historicism, flatly incompatible with the Church’s teaching; he saw the evangelical imperative to present the Gospel in a manner suitable to our time and place being perversely interpreted as a requirement to change her teachings to suit the times; he saw the emphasis on religious pluralism and ecumenism betraying the Catholic commitment to religious truth; he noted a false, and characteristically modern, view of freedom disrupting the Catholic view of the moral life; he saw a turn from a transcendent to an immanent frame of reference for the Church’s life and activity; in the Church hierarchy he saw a reluctance to condemn heresies and errors as betraying either a lack of charity or a lack of faith, or both; and, perhaps above all, he saw the Church captured by a superficial optimism that the world was, somehow, bound to improve, such that whatever was happening must be good.

In 1967 the most obvious on-the-ground effect of the Council – the replacement of the Latin Mass by the new, vernacular Mass – was still in its nascent stages. Nonetheless von Hildebrand found reason enough to decry the loss of beauty and the disruption of the sacred atmosphere of the liturgy that was being pushed in parishes. He is not specific, so it is hard to know precisely what he was objecting to, but it is noteworthy, I think, that he already felt it was necessary to sound the alarm and defend the value and integrity of the Latin Mass. Little good it did us.

Against this “progressivism”, he argues, sensibly, that every age is a mixture of things better and things worse, that the newness of something has no bearing whatever on its truth, and that by denying the value of their tradition, progressives deprive themselves of the resources and advantages that those traditions provide.

He also rightly argues that “progressivism” in Catholicism, while it might, arguably, have a certain limited role to play, cannot be allowed free run of the house.

Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith because the Church’s faith, and any true reform, is founded on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of his Holy Church. It admits no possibility of change except … the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it… This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification.


The book is valuable not only because of when it was written – a dispatch from the front – but by whom. Von Hildebrand is normally associated with the reformers, not the embattled reactionaries. Yet here he lays out a sustained case against the principles and ambitions that have guided the “spirit of Vatican II” in the intervening decades.

Almost all of the problems he identifies are still with us. The young priests who came of age after the Council are now our senior churchmen, and, as is well known, many of them remain fond of this silly season. In some respects the battle has died down today, sometimes because issues faded in importance, and sometimes because trenches were dug and people got comfortable in them, but in other respects the conflict he describes remains timely, though the flashpoints have changed. But the book remains relevant. It would be great if the publisher would issue a new edition, because it is very hard to find.

Von Hildebrand knew Joseph Ratzinger in Germany when the latter was a young priest, and Ratzinger’s respect for him is on record. I’m not at all surprised to learn this, because the position von Hildebrand stakes out – openness to reform, love for tradition, and mistrust of sunny appraisals of modern habits of thought – reminds me in many respects of Ratzinger’s own.

Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy I

May 10, 2021

This post is the first in what I hope will be a series devoted to music inspired, in one way or another, by the poetry of Dante — principally, of course, by The Divine Comedy. There has been quite a lot of music written under his influence over the centuries, some of it fairly well-known, but most of it not, and I’m looking forward to exploring it.

I thought it would make sense to start with music inspired by the Comedy as a whole, and then later to focus on pieces written for particular panels of the triptych, and it probably also makes sense to start with the composer whom I most associate with Dante: Franz Liszt.

Liszt’s largest scale “Dante music” is the Dante Symphony, which premiered in 1857. It is a choral symphony written in two large movements; the first pertains to Inferno and the second to Purgatorio. (Perhaps at this stage in his life Liszt wasn’t much interested in Paradise.) The symphony doesn’t have a great reputation — but neither, for that matter, does any of Liszt’s orchestral music (or choral music!), most of which could be somewhat uncharitably described as lugubrious bombast. Still, it’s a big piece by a major composer, and it’s about Dante, so let’s have a listen. Here is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Peter Eotvos:


The Dante music by Liszt with the best reputation is his Dante Sonata for piano, also called by its full title, Après une lecture du Dante. I always thought Liszt must have written it after hearing a lecture about Dante, but apparently the French actually means “after reading Dante”. The sonata was inspired mainly by Inferno, though some of the music in the middle of the sonata may be attempting to evoke Beatrice. As with much nineteenth-century programme music, it’s pretty hard to say unless someone tells you. But it’s a wonderful sonata. Here is Arcadi Volodos performing the piece live: