In our new book –Learning, Environment and Sustainable Development: a history of ideas – that was published last week, Paul Vare and I wrote about Virgil's Georgics which were written between 37 and 29 BCE. The Georgics outward theme is farming and rural life presenting these as valuable and patriotic endeavours where agriculture and the natural world can be read as metaphors for life. Its political messages present idealised pictures of farmers living lightly on the Earth in harmony with the natural world. Through their hard work, rewards come to them resulting in peace and contentment; and all fully approved of by the gods.
We explored the background to the poem, its structure and contents, how the poem’s didactic style inspired 18th century English poets writing about the practicalities of country living, and its wide influence on Western art and culture. The chapter concludes with doubts about whether the Georgics has anything useful to say about how world agriculture today will have to change if it is to adequately feed a still-growing human population, or about how the population may have to adapt to a changing agriculture.
Neither of us were privileged enough to attend the sort of school where Virgil’s Georgics was on the curriculum and so we never got to study them. Nor did we study Pliny the Elder. Had we done so, we might have known that he wrote a 37 volume Natural History. However, miserably educated that I am, I only got to know about this from reading the Spectator's Ancient and Modern column on Natural Order. I'll let Peter Jones' words do the communicating:
"In his 37-volume Natural History, Pliny the Elder put a religious spin on Nature. Though it could cut up rough at times (poisonous plants, fierce animals, storms at sea), its eternal laws permeated a universe filled with mirabilia (‘wonderful things’), making it the equivalent of what men meant by God. But it was a power for good on one condition: that man treated it with respect. It was man’s propensity for mishandling and perverting it for his own selfish interests — wealth, power, idleness and luxury (Pliny felt that Nature had buried gold and silver under the ground for a purpose) — that led him [humans not Pliny] to work, disastrously, against Nature which, being ‘perfect’, should be interfered with as little as possible."
What a great basis for a 1500 word chapter that is. A pity we never got to write it; but if there's a second edition ...