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Pliny: it’s downright madness to concern ourselves with cosmology

February 14, 2021

Author and Background

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23-79), sometimes called Pliny the Elder but most often just Pliny, was a prolific Roman author. His book, Naturalis Historia, or Natural History, was a multi-volume encyclopedic compendium of his voluminous readings in the sciences, along with some of his own commentary and reactions to scientific claims. He published the first 10 Books of Natural History in AD 77 at the age of 53, but then died a few years later before putting out the rest of the Books, which totaled 37 in all. The latter 27 books were collected and finalized by his nephew (Pliny the Younger).


The world and this – whatever other name men have chosen to designate the sky whose vaulted roof encircles the universe, is fitly believed to be a deity, eternal, immeasurable, a being that never began to exist and never will perish. What is outside it does not concern men to explore and is not within the grasp of the human mind to guess. It is sacred, eternal, immeasurable, wholly within the whole, nay rather itself the whole, infinite and resembling the finite, certain of all things and resembling the uncertain, holding in its embrace all things that are without and within, at once the work of nature and nature itself.

That certain persons have studied, and have dared to publish, its dimensions, is mere madness; and again that others, taking or receiving occasion from the former, have taught the existence of a countless number of worlds, involving the belief in as many systems of nature, or, if a single nature embrace all the worlds, nevertheless the same number of suns, moons and other unmeasurable and innumerable heavenly bodies, as already in a single world; just as if owing to our craving for some End the same problem would not always encounter us at the termination of this process of thought, or as if, assuming it possible to attribute this infinity of nature to the artificer of the universe, that same property would not be easier to understand in a single world, especially one that is so vast a structure. It is madness, downright madness, to go out of that world, and to investigate what lies outside it just as if the whole of what is within it were already clearly known; as though, forsooth, the measure of anything could be taken by him that knows not the measure of himself, or as if the mind of man could see things that the world itself does not contain.

Source: Pliny. Natural History. Book II.I. (transl. by H. Rackham). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.


Pliny’s remarks here are somewhat convoluted. He mixes scientific claims with normative claims, and all of them are somewhat imprecise. Nevertheless, the overall message that he seems to want us to hear is this: do not waste your time on pursuing very remote things, when we have so much to learn right around us. And whatever is true here is likely to be what is true there, and since here is a lot closer than there, let’s stop speculating about what goes on there. And anyway, even if you do learn a thing or two about stuff far away, your questions will just keep going and you’ll never come to an end, so you might as well not start it.

But Pliny was wrong. Aggressive work to understand the workings of the heavens, in all its ways, was key to progress made in physics. Newton and others looked to the heavens, and in the process found useful laws for here on earth. To suppress intense curiosity and speculation about every aspect of the natural world in which we find ourselves is a prescription for a stagnate scientific society. And that’s exactly what Rome was at the time. For all the wealth and relative stability they created, they produced almost nothing of value in basic science. Few deep questions were moved along by the Romans. The ancient Greeks did much more. Even the most elegant of all Roman writings on science, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (circa 60 BC), was just an ode to Epicurus’s writings on atomism (circa 300 BC) whose earlier basis was in Democritus (circa 400 BC).

The Romans did almost nothing of value in science partly because they had too many Pliny’s in their society, who merely read the ancient Greeks, did no original work themselves, and then had the gall to make strong commentary on what is worthwhile and not worthwhile in science even when they didn’t really understand what they were saying. In other words, they substituted true scientific work with mere reporting laced with strong ignorant opinions.

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