Intellectual history

Our Duties to the Earth: Pliny the Elder as a Proto-Environmentalist

By Max Wade

By Max Wade

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) remarks that one of humanity’s great acts of ingratitude toward mother earth is our ignorance of her nature. This ignorance manifests in many ways; most clearly in our senseless plundering of her riches which are used not for our betterment but to wage war and kill our fellow living creatures. This attitude, Pliny says, is a kind of “rage” [furor], “madness” [insania], and “crime” [scelus], which his Natural History serves to remedy by drawing his reader’s attention back to the fascinating aspects of the natural world. An attentive attitude toward Nature, for Pliny, can view the world as miraculous – a world filled with celestial, animal, vegetable, and even mineral mirabilia that possess odd, unexpected and unique properties – which instills both respect and admiration, stemming from the order underlying the world in its entirety.

In Pliny’s worldview, the natural order is founded on the assumption that the world is a single divine being; all things are connected as parts within a whole and are expressions of a cosmic design. To this end, Pliny speaks of Nature as having a pervasive vital spirit [spiritus vitalis] present in all things. This divine spiritus (understood not as something immaterial or ghostly, but as the corporeal element of air), “penetrates all the universe” (HN 2.4) and is drawn from the Stoic theory of pneuma and serves a similar function. The spiritus vitalis (like the Stoic pneuma) is the soul of the universe that fills its body – the matter in the cosmos – and gives it life and activity and accounts for the unity of all its parts, much in the same way that an animal’s soul allows for its different body parts to all act in unison. This same vital spirit is present in animal and plant life (HN 12.1), accounting for growth and other life processes that allow them to function. But it is not just living beings that are filled with the spiritus vitalis; the earth is literally bursting at the seams with it, spilling forth in volcanic eruptions, medicinal springs, and other geological phenomena.

At the center of the cosmic body lies the earth (HN 2.69). While the stars and other heavenly bodies operate somewhat at a distance from ordinary human life, the earth is the most immediate and imminent source of the divine manifestations of Nature. Pliny writes that there is a constant “bubbling forth” of the divine power of Nature contained within the earth (HN 2.95), leading him to speak about the earth as a goddess in itself. In other words, the earth is not numerically distinct from the divine cosmos but a divine body infused with the many powers of Nature and worthy of a “maternal veneration” [maternae venerationis] by the human beings that live and die on its surface. This explicitly feminine imagery consistently crops up in Pliny’s account of the earth. In speaking about the generation of fungi, for example, Pliny describes the formation of the organism within the “womb” [vulva] of the earth itself (HN 22.46), which nourishes the mushroom like the yolk [luteum] of an egg, and “spring[ing] up spontaneously and [not] grown from seed[s]” (HN 19.11). The earth, like a mother, nourishes new life into existence, which is why Carolyn Merchant views Pliny as part of a broader tradition, along with other Roman writers such as Ovid and Seneca, that closely unites a deep respect for earth as a maternal figure with a prohibition on mining. After all, if the earth is supposed to be viewed as a nurturing mother, “digging into the matrices and pockets of earth for metals was like mining the female flesh for pleasure.”

The earth “receives us at birth” and “nurtures” us, giving us food, shelter, and all sorts of medicinal herbs for our benefit (HN 2.63). Pliny says that even poisonous plants serve the benefit of allowing us to commit suicide by means of a quick and (comparatively) painless death, highlighting the way in which all of mother Nature’s provisions relate to other creatures within the order of Nature (HN 2.63). The earth, far from a mere conglomerate of rocky and dense matter, is a living being constantly producing life and things for human use. The products of Nature all speak to its power as manifested in the diversity of the various creations, which all serve a purpose within the greater whole.

Everything, from miniscule insects and plants to sea monsters and entire mountains, is a microcosm of Nature, provided one is able to view them in light of the whole. Pliny notes that “the power and might of Nature lacks credibility at every point unless we comprehend her as a whole rather than as piecemeal” (HN 7.7) and that “in the contemplation of Nature nothing can be deemed superfluous” (HN 11.1). For example, the mosquito exhibits a “labyrinthine perfection” [inextricabilis perfectio] – one should marvel at Nature’s ingenuity in giving such a small and seemingly insignificant creature the ability to pierce human skin and drink our blood, despite being so tiny and frail in comparison to us. Nature’s ability to give life to even the mineral world – the paradigm case being the magnet’s ability to stir up the “legs” in iron, causing it to move toward the magnet – encourages us to view the entire world as bristling with the vital spirit of the divine.

Contrary to the anthropocentric views common to his time, Pliny singles out certain aspects of the terrestrial world as being produced by Nature for her own use and needs, indicating that these are not meant for human use. This is most clear when he speaks about things most closely tied to the earth itself, such as mountains. He writes, “Mountains…were made by Nature for herself to serve as a kind of framework for holding firmly together the inner parts of the earth, and at the same time to enable her to subdue the violence of rivers, to break the force of heavy seas and so to curb her most restless elements with the hardest material of which she is made” (HN 36.1 emphasis added). When Nature’s order is disrupted in instances of mining, where humans strip away mountains or threaten to destabilize the integrity of the earth by removing her mineral veins, the conditions that give rise to life are threatened. The sea, without the confinement imposed by its mountainous barriers, will forcefully overpower the flatter and less rocky terrain on land. Nature, however, seems to have built-in defense mechanisms. As Pliny notes, mines have become infested with poisonous snakes and other dangerous beasts to “protect her and keep off our sacrilegious hands” (HN 2.63).

It is this view of the earth as a living being that steers Pliny toward the anti-anthropomorphic aspects of what can be called his “ecological ethics”; a picture of duties towards Nature that are in place for the sake of Nature, not humanity (even if humanity benefits from following these same duties). These duties all evince a particular ethical attitude. Namely, the idea that human activity must take place within certain limits designated by Nature. It is in the crossing of these boundaries that harm is done – first to Nature and the earth and then, secondly, to ourselves.

Beginning with a particularly evocative example, Pliny bemoans the absence of laws prohibiting the mining and importation of marble. Humans quarry mountains and “haul them away on a mere whim” (HN 36.1), which should be met with a response of “blushing prodigiously with shame” (HN 36.2). The arbitrariness of these acts is particularly egregious for Pliny – the “mere whims” of humans should not take priority over the proper functions of natural entities. Mountains were created to serve a particular purpose within Nature and instead, are flattened out, dissolving the natural arrangement of the earth’s geographical boundaries. When this happens, the earth itself is destabilized, resulting in earthquakes and other catastrophic geological events: “we trace out all the fibers of the earth and live above the hollows we have made in her, marveling that occasionally she gapes open or begins to tremble—as if it were not possible that this may be an expression of the indignation of our holy parent!” (HN 33.1). So, harvesting these mountains comes at a great cost both environmentally and economically, while only producing the reward of a kind of superficial luxury.

Not only is this plundering taken to be unnecessary – after all, these ornamentations serve no real utilitarian function – but it produces a net-negative result. In contrast to the bounty of plant and animal life provided for us on the earth’s surface, the treasures hidden within the body of the earth are associated with death and are best left untouched; after, in humanity’s hubris “we penetrate her inner parts and seek for riches in the abode of the spirits of the departed, as though the part where we tread upon her were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile” (HN 33.1). Pliny encourages his reader to “think how much more happily many people live without [precious stones]” (HN 36.1) and the way in which this sets a “bad moral precedent” [malo exemplo moribus] (HN 36.2). But why such strong moral indignation? Viewed abstractly, we recognize that, for Pliny, this is a transgression of the boundaries Nature has laid down for humanity.

Beyond this abstraction, Pliny wants to ensure that there is a visceral emotional reaction against mining the earth. To this end, he employs some of his strongest language to evoke an explicitly bodily sense of horror. In exploiting the earth, he writes that we “torture” [cruciatur] her body and, in digging deep into the earth in search of luxuries, we “drag out her entrails [viscera] to seek a jewel merely to be worn upon a finger” (HN 2.63). The kind of person who delights in precious gems and other luxuries, therefore, is some sort of monster, gaining pleasure from the pain they inflict not just on other people, but on their mother.

Therefore, proper human activity operates with the ebbs and flows of Nature; by enhancing and promoting these flows, we can aid in the proliferation of life. Pliny’s ecological outlook has rightly been characterized as deeply agrarian in orientation: the proper human agent is like a farmer who, in tilling the fields and creating the proper conditions for Nature to flourish,  is able to work with Nature to turn uncultivated land into fertile soil lush with plant and animal life. To this end, Nature is most properly viewed as a craftsman [artifex]: the creative, productive producer of all things in the world. Nature’s wild products are more abundant than cultivars, as the variety of all life, both plant and animal, can be traced to the glory of Nature as artifex. Humans, as a microcosm of Nature itself, reproduce Nature by the agency of art (HN 36.68), but, in the words of Mary Beagon, “rather than seeking to improve on Nature, man is invited to stand back and admire the truly perfect.”

Actions contrary to this – particularly mining and the wanton pilfering of exotic flora – disrupt these Natural flows, causing pain and suffering. Likewise, magic is seen as a debauched and suspect art, given how it tries to subvert and manipulate natural systems for human ends. So, while Pliny is still nonetheless deeply anthropocentric compared to contemporary perspectives that challenge the assumption that humanity is the “pinnacle” of the natural world, he nonetheless can reconcile this with a form of ecological ethics that insists upon respect and careful consideration given toward Nature. Our place within the world is unique, as we are especially well positioned to engage in activities that enhance and multiply the innately generative power of Nature. But this comes with a great burden of responsibility, as this same human power is what allows us to inflict deep cuts within the earth itself, ripping open mountains and letting her entrails spill out so we can decorate our houses and bodies with her riches.

Max Wade is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College. His research primarily focuses on the history of natural philosophy in the ancient world, as well as its impact on medieval philosophy. His dissertation is on Plotinus’ ontology of artifacts, specifically in relation to his responses to Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic accounts of the composition of artificial objects.

Edited by Kelby Bibler

Featured Image: Anton Goubau Italian Landscape with a Shepherdess and Ruins (Creative Commons).