the decay of science and the spread of avarice

3. Yet, in all conscience, people who know much of what has been published by earlier writers cannot be found. The research of men of former times was more productive, or their industry was more successful, a thousand years ago at the beginning of literature, when Hesiod began to expound his principles for farmers. His research was followed by several writers, and this has resulted in more work for us, since now we have to investigate not only subsequent discoveries but also those made by earlier authorities, because men’s laziness has brought about a complete destruction of records.

4. What cause for this shortcoming could there be other than the state of world affairs generally? The thing is that other customs have crept in; men’s minds are preoccupied with other matters and the only arts practised are those of greed. In earlier times people had their power limited to their own boundaries, and for that reason their talents were circumscribed; there was no scope for amassing a fortune, so they had to exercise the positive quality of respect for the arts. Accordingly they put the arts first, when displaying their resources, in the belief that the arts could bestow immortality. This was the reason why life’s rewards and achievements were so plentiful.

5. The expansion of the world and the growing extent of our resources proved harmful to subsequent generations. Senators and judges began to be chosen by wealth, and wealth was the only embellishment of magistrates and commanders; lack of children began to exert the highest influence and power, and legacy-hunting was the most profitable occupation. In such a climate the only pleasure consisted in possession, whereas the true prizes of life went to rack and run and all the arts that were called ‘liberal’ – from liberty the greatest good – became quite the opposite. Obsequiousness began to be the sole means of advancement. Different men worshipped greed in different ways and different contexts, although every man’s prayer had the same goal – namely, the acquisition of material possessions. Everywhere even distinguished people preferred to cultivate others’ vices rather than their own good qualities. The result is, I declare, that pleasure has begun to live, while life itself has come to an end.”

(Pliny the Elder in Book XIV (“Vines and Viticulture”) of Natural History; pp. 182–3 in John Healy’s Natural History: A Selection.)

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