By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Now, Pliny: August 24, 79 A.D., Shortly After 12 Noon

Vesuvius had erupted. Pliny the Younger survived; but his famous polymath uncle Pliny the Elder, who had set off toward the eruption, did not.

Pliny the Younger stayed at home reading and writing. As the approaching calamity became visible, he describes his initial reaction before he wisely decided to flee to safety:

I don't know whether I should call this courage or folly on my part (I was only seventeen at the time) but I called for a volume of Livy [a very famous Roman historian] and went on reading as if I had nothing else to do. 
I even went on with the extracts I had been making.

Up came a friend of my uncle's who had just arrived from Spain to join him. When he saw us sitting there and me actually reading, he scolded us both--me for my foolhardiness and my mother for allowing it.

Nevertheless, I remained absorbed in my book.

Pliny the Younger, Letter XX, to the historian Tacitus, section 5, Loeb Classical Library translation by Betty Radice (emphasis added).

To break the suspense, the younger Pliny eventually put the book aside and fled to safety with his mother. The Spanish friend had departed earlier in haste.

This account is fascinating for several reasons. First, it is fascinating to read the raw material of history from an eyewitness. In addition, the scene tells us something about human nature: how we deal with an imminent crisis by taking an initial dose of denial. I cannot help recalling a story told to me by a Loyola New Orleans professor concerning how some German bureaucrats went about their routine office duties even as the Third Reich was collapsing before their eyes.

In a similar way, the younger Pliny seeks refuge in his books as the disaster unfolds. Eventually, he reacts and escapes. But for some time, he retreated to routine.

So I ask: what is your Vesuvius?

There is some wisdom in at least a short and vigilant turn to routine while our mind works out the implications of a crisis. The danger is that we forget to be alert to the danger and remain paralyzed for too long.

An even bigger danger of denial lurks when we are faced with less dramatic sorts of crises--real challenges that we can ignore, not for minutes and hours but even for years and decades. The examples are legion. We stick to a useless and self-destructive routine even as we sense disaster, even as others warn us of disaster.

You see it with the sex abuse scandal in the Church that went on for too long with too many warnings ignored. You saw it in the reckless indifference of local and state government toward the foreseeable Katrina in New Orleans. You see it at a more mundane level when the girl next door simply moves on to the next in a long series of fruitless sexual relationships. Of course, you see it in the addict.

You also see it in personalities that do not mature or develop. You see it in personalities that need radical change from habitual cynicism, coldness, arrogance, or denial, but persist in stasis. You see it in individuals who remain associated with bad people.

Let's take a cue from the younger Pliny and eventually make our escape before it is too late.

(Image of Mt. Vesuvius from Pompeii under Creative Commons License)