By James Calvin Taylor, Assistant Professor at Colby College

Environmental approaches to antiquity can arouse scepticism. Some worry about anachronistically forcing contemporary concerns onto ancient texts, while others question the relevance of antiquity to the climate crisis. Such anxieties, however, assume that environmental teaching and research insist upon some absolute parallelism between antiquity and modernity. In fact, studying ancient texts is often valuable because the confrontation with radically different ways of processing the natural world allows us to perceive and critique our own cultural assumptions with greater clarity. 

This fact has been impressed upon me repeatedly in the past few years by teaching Pliny the Younger’s account of the violent eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE that buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In two letters written to the historian Tacitus, Pliny the Younger recounts the death of his uncle, the famous naturalist Pliny the Elder, on the eastern side of the Bay of Naples, and his own experiences of the eruption from the safer western side. Despite this safer vantage point, most of my classes have gravitated towards the intensity of the younger Pliny’s experience and to the analysis of one particular sentence, where he contrasts his own muted reactions with the panic of others: “I could boast that not a groan, not even an utterance lacking in bravery, had escaped my lips, if I had not believed that I was dying with everything and everything was dying with me –a wretched, but considerable, consolation for my own mortality” (Letters 6.20.17).

The fascination with this sentence stems partially from an impulse to explain the counterintuitive idea that the end of the world could be a source of comfort rather than despair. On some level, the end of the world serves as the most potent reminder that all things must die and so may reconcile us to our mortality: it is hard to mourn our own death as some peculiar misfortune in the wake of such universal destruction. Beyond this general point, perhaps there is some sense of narrative satisfaction or closure: the end of the world removes any fear of missing out on what comes next. Perhaps there is even some relief in the liberation from responsibility, since Pliny could have done absolutely nothing to avoid such an all-embracing disaster. 

More puzzling is the question of why Pliny is so ashamed of this false belief that he refuses even to take credit for his own restraint. Many of us in a similar situation would emit more than a groan. In essence, Pliny is accusing himself of getting things out-of-proportion by imagining that this local disaster was engulfing the entire cosmos. This accusation plays into a philosophical tradition that stressed the limited significance of such disasters from a cosmic perspective. The Epicurean poet Lucretius, for instance, mentions how an eruption of Mount Etna convinced those witnessing it that Nature was undergoing some fundamental revolution (On the Nature of Things 6.638–646). In response to such extensive worries, Lucretius encourages us to see how small even Mount Etna is within the universe (On the Nature of Things 6.647–654). His subsequent point that, just as there are particles that disturb the human body there are those that disrupt the earth, suggests that Etna’s eruption may be no more than a swollen foot or toothache to the world (On the Nature of Things 6.655–672).

In the context of this tradition, Pliny was reproaching himself for making the eruption of Vesuvius into a cosmic mountain when, in the grand scheme of things, it remained a mere molehill. Whatever philosophical training Pliny had that was aimed at keeping things in proportion had failed him in this moment; instead, he succumbed to the same habit of cosmic catastrophizing that afflicted the majority of those around him: “more people… interpreted it as an eternal and final night for the cosmos” (Letters 6.20.15).

Pliny’s self-accusation may provide support for Amitav Ghosh’s suspicion “that human beings were generally catastrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism” (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,University of Chicago Press, 2016, pg. 25.) In a culture in which “catastrophizing” is a dirty word, perhaps we have undergone a paradigm shift from a belief in an unpredictable world to a confidence that we live within a fundamentally stable system shaped by gradual processes. To some extent, an enduring trust in this imagining of the earth-system has repeatedly disguised the urgency of the climate crisis by reassuring us that the world is a resilient system to which change only comes slowly and with great difficulty. Our self-accusation might be that we have grown so adept at keeping things in proportion that we have ended up diminishing them; that we have been catastrophizing too little.