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Ne procaces manus rapiant: Stylistic Shifts as a Defensive Strategy in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia

Scheherazade J Khan

University of Pennsylvania

In this paper, I reinterpret the often-noted stylistic shifts that characterize Pliny the Elder’s prose in the Naturalis Historia as components of a defensive strategy the author employs in an effort to prevent his encyclopedic work from being exploited by the wrong sort of reader. This defensive strategy is a crucial component of the greater complex of rhetorical strategies that Pliny uses to guide his readers’ use of his text and which he explicitly models on strategies he observes Nature, herself, using to guide humans’ and animals’ use of the resources she provides. It is therefore simultaneously functional and mimetic—germane to Pliny’s commitment to the project of creating a work that both describes and imitates Nature.

Henderson (2011), Carey (2003) and Beagon (1995) have advanced our understanding of the ways that Pliny designs a text that seems to mimic its subject at every level—as Henderson puts it, a “cosmogram.” It is not surprising, given how often Pliny foregrounds his preference for art that faithfully reproduces the works of nature, that he should have modeled the structure of his own work on that of his subject. My contribution is to propose that Pliny’s frequent shifts in tone or style—most often, between what strike us as descriptive or “scientific” passages and moralizing digressions—have a key role to play in this larger strategy. The cornerstone of my argument is an important but curiously understudied passage at Naturalis Historia 22.7. In this passage, Pliny describes the strategies whereby Nature attempts to influence the ways her creatures use her works. Sometimes, as in the case of medicinal flowers, she uses aesthetic charms or coatings to draw our attention to beneficial things she has crafted for our use. She also, however, sometimes employs a different strategy, encasing useful things within structures that are thorny or otherwise repellant. These, Pliny explains, are protective measures Nature takes to prevent important resources either from being eaten by greedy animals (avida quadripes), exploited by people with wicked intentions (procaces manus) or harmed by the actions of careless individuals. The things we hate, then, in nature, have been engineered for the sake of humankind (hominum causa excogitatum est). It is important that this passage follows directly a passage in which Pliny had drawn a comparison between his work, the Naturalis Historia, and the works of nature—specifically, that they have both been criticized as trifling.

I suggest that, since Pliny began this passage by aligning himself and his work with Nature and hers, he invites his critics (which are the same as Nature’s) to accept this as an apology for the bittersweet style of both. I illustrate in a variety of examples, focusing on 9.102-5, that Pliny’s stylistic shifts are a consequence of his imitating Nature even on the level of style and didactic method, employing a pleasant, often exuberant stylistic mode in imitation of Natura ludens to entice the reader towards a proper appreciation of her works (and, concurrently, a proper use of his text) and a bitter, mocking rhetoric to shame and redirect the wrong-headed reader away from an unhealthy and exploitative relationship Nature (and his text). The latter strategy is particularly important, as Pliny is aware that the scope of his work means that readers will be likely to use his index to skip around. By interspersing within passages that inform the reader of facts that could be misused sudden, mocking diatribes on the detrimental effects they have had and continue to have on foolish people, Pliny prevents would-be magicians, for instance, or connoisseurs of pearls and silks from plundering his text to their own ruin without at least swallowing some bitter medicine first. Furthermore, besides catching the reader off-guard, the stark nature of the transitions between descriptive to mocking rhetorical modes has the effect of illustrating how greed and vanity hinders one’s ability to understand and appreciate Nature.

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Style and Stylistics

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