the Elder Pliny.

Pliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books online

. (page 3 of 60)
Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 3 of 60)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


seeming infinite : in all Motions, certain ; though in Appear-
ance uncertain : comprehending in itself all both without
and within : Nature's Work, and yet very Nature itself. It
is Madness that some have thought in their Mind to mea-
sure it ; yea, and durst in Writing set down the Dimensions
thereof: that others again, by Occasion hereupon taken,
or on this founded, have taught, That there are Worlds in-
to slip from the minds of learned Heathens, through their speculations
into occult causes, and the wrapping up of religion from the inquiries of
the vulgar, as being too high for their comprehension, they were led to
the conception of what, in fact, was no more than a mere abstraction, and
destitute of all proper personality : a simple, unconscious fatality, with
little volition : and, in truth, no better than a diffusive aether, or, as it
would now be denominated, galvanic influence. The philosophy of
Pythagoras was derived from the East; "But it was this," says Lord
Bacon (" Natural History," 10th century), " which did first plant a mon-
strous imagination, which afterwards was, by the school of Plato and
others, watered and nourished. It was, that the world was one, entire,
perfect, living creature ; insomuch as Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean
prophet, affirmed that the ebbing and flowing of the sea was the respira-
tion of the world, drawing in water as breath, and putting it forth again.
They went on, and inferred, that if the world were a living creature, it
had a soul and spirit ; which also they held, calling it ' spiritus mundij the
spirit or soul of the world. By which they did not intend God (for they
did admit of a deity besides), but only the soul, or essential form, of the
universe. This foundation being laid, they might build upon it what
they would; for in a living creature, though never so great (as, for
example, in a great whale), the sense and the effects of any one part of
the body instantly make a transcursion throughout the whole body. So
that by this they did insinuate, that no distance of place, nor want nor
indisposition of matter, could hinder magical operations ; but that, for
example, we mought here in Europe have sense and feeling of that which
was done in China ; and likewise we mought work any effect without and
against matter; and this not holden by the co-operation of angels or
spirits, but only by the unity and harmony of nature." This was the
occult cause, to which all the otherwise unaccountable operations of
nature might easily be referred. We have a curious instance of such a
method of explanation at the end of the ninety-third chapter of this book.
Wern.Club.



BOOK II.] History of Nature. 3 1

numerable : as if we are to believe so many Natures as there
are Heavens : or if all were reduced to one, yet there should
be so many Suns and Moons, with the Rest also of those
immeasurable and innumerable Stars in that one : as though
in this plurality of Worlds we should not always meet with
the same Question still at every Turn of our Thought, for
Want of some End to rest upon : or, if this infiniteness could
possibly be assigned to Nature, the Work-mistress of all ;
the same might not be understood more easily in that one
Heaven which we see ; so great a Work as it is. Now surely
it is more than Madness to quit this, and to keep seeking
without, as if all Things within were well and clearly known
already : as if any Man could take the Measure of another
Thing, who knoweth not his own : or the Mind of Man
might see those Things which the World itself may not
receive.

CHAPTER II.
Of the Figure of the World.

THAT the Form of the World is round 1 , in the Figure of
a perfect Globe, its Name in the first Place, and the Consent
of all Men agreeing to call it in Latin Orbis (a Globe), as
also many natural Reasons, evidently shew. For not only
because such a Figure every Way falleth and bendeth upon
itself, is able to uphold itself, includeth and containeth itself,
having need of no joints for this purpose, as finding in any
Part thereof no End or Beginning : or because this Form
agreeth best to that Motion, whereby continually it must
turn about (as hereafter will appear) : but also because the
Eyesight doth approve the same ; because, look which Way
soever you will, it appeareth convex, and even on all sides;
a Thing not incident to any other Figure.

1 That it was an oblate spheroid, flattened at the poles, was little
likely to be known by observers, however acute, whose opinion of the
uninhabitable nature of the frigid and torrid zones would lead them to
limit their practical inquiries to the temperate. The good sense of Pliny
induced him to prefer the opinion of the rotundity of the globe, to that of
Epicurus, that it was an extended plane. Wern. Club.



32 History oj Nature. [^ OOK **

CHAPTER III.
The Motion of the World.

THAT the World thus framed, in a continued Circuit,
with unspeakable Swiftness turneth round in the Space of
four-and-twenty Hours, the ordinary Rising and Setting of
the Sun leaves no Room to doubt. Whether it being in
Height exceedingly great, and therefore the Sound of so
huge a Frame, whilst it is whirled about unceasingly, cannot
be heard with our Ears, I cannot easily imagine : no more,
by Hercules ! than 1 may vouch the Ringing of the Stars that
are driven round therewith, and roll their own Spheres : or
determine, that as the Heaven movetb, it represents a plea-
sant and incredibly sweet Harmony : although to us within,
by Day and Night, it seemeth to roll on in Silence. That
there is imprinted on it the Figures of living Creatures, and
of all Kinds of Things besides without Number, as also that
the Body thereof is not all over smooth and slippery (as we
see in Birds' Eggs), which excellent Authors have termed
Tenerum, is shewn by Arguments ; for by the Fall of natural
Seeds of all Things from thence, and those for the most Part
mixed one with another, there are produced in the World,
and in the Sea especially, an immense Number of monstrous
Shapes. Besides this, our Sight testifieth the same ; for in
one Place there appeareth the Resemblance of a Chariot, in
another of a Bear, or a Bull, and of a Letter (A), and prin-
cipally the middle Circle over our Head, where it is more
white than the Rest.

CHAPTER IV.
Why the World is called Mundus.

FOR my own Part, I arn ruled by the general Consent of
all Nations. For, the World, which the Greeks, by the
Name of Ornament, called Ko<r/y,o$, we, for the perfect Neat-
ness and absolute Elegance thereof, have termed Mundus.
And we have named the Sky Calum, because it is engraven,



BOOK II.] History of Nature. 33

according as M. Varro interpreteth it. Arid the Order of
Things therein contributes to this, and especially the defined
Circle called Signifer, or the Zodiac, divided by the Forms
of Twelve living Creatures, through which is the Sun's Track ;
preserving the same Course for so many Ages.

CHAPTER V.
Of the four Elements l .

I SEE no doubt regarding the Number of the Elements,
that they are four. The highest, Fire : from whence are
those bright Eyes of so many shining Stars. The next,
Spirit, which the Greeks and our Countrymen by one Name
called Air : this Element is vital, and it soon passeth through
all, and is intrinsically mixed in the Whole : by the Power
whereof, the Earth hangeth suspended in the midst, together
with the fourth Element, of Water. Thus, by a mutual em-
bracing of each other, divers Natures are linked together :
and so the light Elements are restrained by the heavier, that
they do not fly off: and, on the contrary, the massier are
held up, that they fall not down, by means of the lighter,
which seek to mount aloft. So, through an equal Endeavour
to the Contrary, each of them holds its own, bound as it
were by the restless Circuit of the World itself: which, run-
ning evermore upon itself, the Earth falleth to be lowest,
and in the Middle of the Whole : and the same hanging
steadily by the Pole of the Universe, poiseth those Ele-
ments by which it hangeth. Thus it alone resteth un-
movable, whilst the whole Frame of the World turneth

1 The idea here conveyed of the existence of four elements, which
enclose each other, each heavier one in succession subsiding below the
other, is more fully expressed by Ovid, in his account of the creation
of the world at the beginning of the first book of his " Metamorphoses."
The opinion was generally entertained, of these elements being the con-
stituents of all things, until modern chemical analysis demonstrated that
themselves are compounded of other and more simple elements. Yet
the language of the ancient opinion has not altogether ceased from use,
even at the present time. Wern. Club.

C



34 History of Nature. [BoOK II.

about it : and as it is united by all, so all of them rest upon
the same.

CHAPTER VI.

Of the seven Planets.

BETWEEN the Earth and Sky, there hang in the Air above-
named, seven Stars, divided one from another at distinct
Distances ; and these, on account of their variable Motion,
we call Wandering Planets ; whereas, indeed, none wander
less than they. In the midst of them the Sun taketh his
Course, as being the greatest and most powerful of all : the
very Ruler, not of Times and Seasons only, and of the Earth,
but also of the Stars and Sky itself. We ought to believe
this Sun 1 to be the very Life and (to speak more plainly) the
Soul of the whole World, and the principal Governance of
Nature; and, considering his Operations, nothing less than a
divine Power. He it is that giveth Light to all Things, and
scatters their Darkness : he hideth the other Stars ; he or-
dereth the Seasons in their alternative Course ; he tempereth
the Year, which ariseth ever fresh again for the Good of the
World. He disperseth the Sadness of the Sky, and cleareth
the Cloudiness of the Mind of Man ; to other Stars, likewise,
he lendeth his own Light. Most excellent and glorious he
is, as seeing all, and hearing all ; as, I see, is the Opinion of
Homer* (the Prince of Learning) regarding him alone.

1 We find the ascription of Divinity to be the last resource in ex-
plaining the operation of a hidden cause in nature. A false divinity was,
therefore, the foundation of errors in philosophy ; and the latter again
reacted on the former. Wern. Club.

3 Pliny here refers to a passage in the eleventh hook of the " Odys-
sey," where Ulysses descends into Hell, and meets with Tiresias, who, in
recounting the future fortunes of the hero, says : " You shall find feeding
the oxen and fat sheep of the sun, who sees and hears all things:" or,
more diffusively, by Pope ; where

u Graze numerous herds along the verdant shores ;
Though hunger press, yet fly the dangerous prey ;
The herds are sacred to the god of day,
Who all surveys with his extensive eye,
Above, below, on earth and in the sky." Wern. Club.



BOOK II.] History of Nature. 35

CHAPTER VII.
Of God.

I SUPPOSE, therefore, that to seek after any Shape of God 1 ,
and to assign a Form and Image to him, is a Proof of Man's
Folly. For God, whosoever he be (if haply there be any other,
but the World itself), and in what Part soever resident, all
Sense He is, all Sight, all Hearing : He is the whole of the Life
and of the Soul, all of Himself. And to believe that there be
Gods innumerable, and those according to Men's Virtues and
Vices, as Chastity, Concord, Understanding, Hope, Honour,
Clemency, Faith ; or (as Democritus was of Opinion) that
there are two Gods only, that is, Punishment and Benefit :
these Conceits render Men's idle Negligence the greater. But
frail and wearisome mortal Men, remembering their own
Infirmity, have digested these Things apart, to the End that
each one might from thence choose to worship that whereof
he stood most in need. And hence it is, that in different
Nations we find the Gods named diversely : and in the same
Region there are innumerable Gods. The infernal Powers,
likewise, and Diseases, yea, and many Plagues, have been
ranged in Divisions, and reckoned for Gods ; which, with

1 In this chapter the author openly asserts his disbelief of the truth of
the established system of religion of his country ; and his manner of doing
this sufficiently shews the confidence he felt, of finding sympathy in his
scepticism among the learned and refined classes of society. This system
was, indeed, singularly destitute of evidence ; and the reasons he gives
for his disbelief shew it to have been as absurd to the eye of examination
as it was unsupported by argument. That the chief deities of the Hea-
then were no more than deceased men who had benefited the world in
their lives, or at least acquired human respect, is asserted by many other
ancient authors ; but it is to be regretted that the author should so far
join in the error as from it to find occasion for thereby mixing up with
it the flattery of a court. The treatise of Cicero, " On the Nature of the
Gods," and the remarks of Pliny, are proofs that the ancient Heathens
were not slow to discern the errors of the popular system of religion,
though they were incapable of discovering or appreciating the true.
Wern. Club.



36 History of Nature. [BooK II.

trembling Fear, we have desired to pacify. This Superstition
hath caused a Fane to be dedicated to Fever, in the Palatine
Mount, by Order of the State ; and likewise an Altar to
Orbona, near the Temple of the Lares: besides another
erected to Bad Fortune on the Esquiline. By this it may be
conceived that there are a greater Number of Gods in Hea-
ven than of Men upon Earth, since every one makes as many
Gods as he pleases, fitting himself with Junoes and Genii for
his Patrons. There are certain Nations that account Beasts,
and even some filthy Things, for Gods ; yea, and many other
Matters more shameful to be spoken : swearing by stinking
Meats, by Garlic, and such-like. But, surely, to believe
that Gods have contracted Marriage, and that in so long a
Time no Children should be born to them : also that some
are aged, and ever grey-headed : others, again, young and
always Children : that they be black of Complexion, winged,
lame, hatched of Eggs, living and dying on each alternate
Day ; are mere childish Fooleries. But it exceedeth all Im-
pudency to imagine Adulteries among them : and presently,
also, scolding, and Malice ; and more than that, how there
be Gods that are Patrons of Theft and Wickedness. He is
a God to a Man that helpeth Him : and this is the true Way
to everlasting Glory. In this Way went the Romans in old
Time : and in this Track, at this Day, goeth, with heavenly
Pace, Vespasian Augustus, with his Children ; the most
mighty Ruler of the whole World : relieving the afflicted
State of the Empire. And this is the most ancient Manner
of Requital to such Benefactors, that they should be enrolled
with the Gods. And hereof came the Names as well of all
other Gods, as of the Stars (which I have mentioned before),
in Recognisance of Men's good Deserts. As for Jupiter and
Mercury, and others ranged among the Gods, who doubteth
that they were called otherwise among themselves ? and who
confesseth not how these be celestial Denominations, to ex-
press and interpret their Nature ?

To suppose that the sovereign Power, whatsoever it is,
should exercise Care over Mankind, is ridiculous. For can
we choose but believe that the Godhead must be polluted



BOOK II.] History of Nature. 37

with so base and manifold a Ministry ? And hardly can it
be judged, whether it be better for Mankind to believe that
the Gods have Regard of us, or that they have none ; con-
sidering that some Men have no Respect and Reverence for
the Gods, and others so much that their Superstition is a
Shame to them. These are devoted to them by foreign Cere-
monies .- they wear their Gods upon their Fingers in Rings,
yea, they worship Monsters : they forbid some Meats ; and
yet they devise others. They impose upon them hard
Charges, riot suffering them to rest and sleep in quiet. They
choose neither Marriages, nor Children, nor any one Thing
else, but by the Allowance of sacred Rites. Others are so
godless, that in the very Capitol they use Deceit, and for-
swear themselves even by the Thunder of Jupiter. And as
some speed well with their Irreligion, so others suffer from
their own holy Ceremonies.

Between these Opinions, Men have found out a Medium
of Divine Power, to the End that there should be a still more
uncertain Conjecture regarding God. For throughout the
whole World, in every Place, at all Times, and in all Men's
Mouths, Fortune alone is called upon : she only is named ;
she alone is blamed and accused. None but she is thought
upon ; she only is praised, she only is rebuked ; yea, and
worshipped with railing : and even when she is taken to be
mutable : and of the most sort supposed also to be blind :
roving, inconstant, uncertain, variable, and favouring the
Unworthy : whatever is spent and lost, whatever is gotten : A
and in all Men's Accounts she makes up the Book. Even
the very Chance of Lots is taken for a God, by which God
himself is shewn to be uncertain.

There is another Sort that reject Fortune, but attribute
Events to their Stars, and the ascendant of their Nativity :
affirming that the same shall ever happen which once hath
been decreed by God : so that he for ever after may remain
at Rest. And this Opinion now takes deep Root, insomuch
as both the learned and the ignorant Multitude agree to it.

1 " Won and gotten," to balance " spent and lost."



38 History of Nature. [BooK II.

From hence proceed the Admonitions of Lightnings, the
Foreknowledge by Oracles, the Predictions of Aruspices,
yea, and other contemptible Things, as Auguries of Sneezing,
and stumbling with the Foot. Divus Augustus Ccesar hath
recorded that his left-foot Shoe was untowardly put on be-
fore the right, on that very Day when he had like to have
suffered in a Mutiny among his Soldiers.

Thus all these Things entangle silly Mortals, so that this
only point remaineth certain that Nothing is certain : nei-
ther is there any Thing more wretched and proud than
Man. For all living Creatures beside take Care only for
their Food : wherein Nature's Goodness of itself is sufficient :
which one Point is to be preferred before all good Things
whatsoever, inasmuch as they never think of Glory, Riches,
Ambition, nor, beyond all the rest, of Death. However, the
Belief that in these Matters the Gods have care of Men's
Estate, is profitable to the Course of Life : as also that the
Punishment of Malefactors will come, though late (whilst
God is busily occupied in so huge a Frame of the World),
but that it never misseth in the End : and that Man was not
made so near in Degree unto God, for this, that he should
be almost as base as the brute Beasts. Moreover, the chief
Comfort that Man hath, for his Imperfections in Nature, is
this, that even God himself cannot do all Things. For nei-
ther is He able to work his own Death, if even He desired it,
as He hath given to Man as his best Gift when he is weary
of the Miseries of his Life ; nor endow Mortals with ever-
lasting Life ; nor recall the Dead to Life again ; nor bring to
pass that one who lived did not live ; nor he that bore
honourable Offices, has not borne them. Nay, He hath no
Power over Things past, save only Oblivion : no more than
He is able to effect (to come with Arguments to prove our
Fellowship therein with God) that twice ten should not make
twenty : and many similar Things. Whereby is evidently
proved the Power of Nature, and how it is she only which we
call God. I thought it not impertinent thus to digress to
these Points, by Reason of ordinary Questions regarding the
Essence of God.



BOOK II.] History of Nature. 39



CHAPTER VIII.
Of the Nature of Planets, and their Circuit.

LET us return now to the Rest of Nature's Works. The
Stars, which we said were fixed in the World, are not (as the
common Sort thinketh) assigned to every one of us ; namely,
the bright for the rich ; the less for the poor : the dim for
the weak and feeble : neither shine they out more or less,
according to the Fortune of every one, nor arise they each
one together with that Person unto whom they are appro-
priated ; and die likewise with the same : nor yet as they set
and fall, do they signify that any Body is dead. There is
not so great a Society between Heaven and us, that, together
with the Necessity of our Death, the Light of the Stars
should fade. When they are thought to fall, they do but
shoot from them a Quantity of Fire out of that Abundance
of Nutriment which they have gotten by the Attraction of
Moisture unto them : like as we also observe in lighted
Lamps with the Liquor of Oil 1 . The celestial Bodies, which
frame the World, and are compact together, have an im-
mortal Nature : and their Power extendeth much to the
Earth : which by their Operations, Light and Greatness,
might be known, though they are so subtle ; as we shall in
due Place make Demonstration. The Mariner likewise of the
heavenly Circles shall be shewn more fitly in our "Geogra-
phical Treatise of the Earth ;" forasmuch as the Consideration
thereof appertaineth wholly thereunto : only we will not put
off the Devisers of the Zodiac, wherein the Signs are placed.

The Obliquity of this, Anaximander the Milesian is
reported to have observed first, and thereby opened the Pas-
sage to Astronomy, and the Knowledge of these Things :
and this happened in the fifty-eighth Olympiad. Afterwards
Cleostratus marked the Signs therein ; and those first of
Aries and Sagittarius. As for the Sphere itself, Atlas devised
it long before. For the present we will leave the Body of

1 See note 2, p. 63.



40 History of Nature. [BooK II.

the starry Heaven, and treat of all the rest between it and
the Earth.

The Planet which they call Saturn* is the highest, and
therefore seemeth to be least : also he performeth his Revo-
lution in the greatest Circle of all : and it is certain, that in
thirty Years' Space he retnrneth again to the Point of his
first Place. Moreover, the Motion of all the Planets, and
also of the Sun and Moon, go a contrary Course to that of
the starry Heaven ; namely, to the left hand [i. e. eastward] ;
whereas the said Sky itself always hasteneth to the right
[i. e. westward]. And whereas in that continual turning
with exceeding Celerity, those Planets be lifted up aloft, and
hurried by it into the West, and there set : yet by a contrary
Motion of their own, they pass every one through their
several Ways eastward ; and this because that the Air, roll-
ing ever one Way> and to the same Part, by the continual
turning of the Heaven, should not grow stagnant whilst the
Globe thereof resteth idle ; but should be minutely divided
by the violent adverse Action of these Stars. The Planet
Saturn is of a cold and frozen Nature, but the Circle
of Jupiter is much lower than it, and therefore his Revo-
lution is performed with a more speedy Motion, in twelve
Years. The third, of Mars, which some call Hercules, is
fiery and ardent, by Reason of the Sun's Vicinity, and run-
neth his Race in about two Years. And it is by the exceed-
ing Heat of Mars, and the Cold of Saturn, that Jupiter, who
is placed betwixt, is well tempered of them both, and so be-
cometh salutary. Next to them is the Course of the Sun,
consisting of 360 Parts [or Degrees] : but that the Observa-
tion of the Shadows which he casteth may return again to
their former Marks, five Days be added to every Year, with
the fourth Part of a Day over and above. Whereupon, in
every fifth Year one odd Day is added to the Rest ; to the
End that the Reckoning of the Seasons may agree with the

1 The planets since discovered two of them, Herschel, or Uranus,
and the new, and as yet unnamed, star, still more remote than it, and the
others exceedingly small must have been beyond the reach of ancient
observation, from ignorance of the telescope. Wern. Club.



BOOK II.] History of Nature. 41

Course of the Sun. Beneath the Sun there is a large Star
called Venus, which wandereth this Way and that, by turns ;
and by her Names testifieth her Emulation of the Sun and
Moon. For while she anticipateth the Morning, and riseth
Orientally, she taketh the Name of Lucifer, as a second Sun
hastening the Day. Contrariwise, when she shineth from
the West, lengthening the Daylight, and supplying the Place
of the Moon, she is named Vesper. This Nature of hers,
Pythagoras of Samos first found out, about the 42nd
Olympiad ; which was the 142nd Year after the Foundation



Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 3 of 60)