Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.12

Nicole Méthy, Les Lettres de Pline le Jeune. Un répresentation de l'homme.   Paris:  Presses de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2007.  Pp. 489.  ISBN 978-2-84050-518-1.  €31.00.  

Reviewed by Neil Bernstein, (Ohio University)
Word count: 1305 words

The goal of M.'s study is to discover the "conception de l'homme" (16) presented in Pliny's Letters. This monograph builds on recent examinations of Pliny's methods of self-presentation (such as those of Ludolph, Beutel, and Henderson)1 and the older tradition of study of Pliny's thought (exemplified by Bütler, Trisoglio, and André).2 Its virtues include the meticulous application of philological analysis and the incorporation of scholarship in a wide variety of European languages (including several 18th and 19th century studies of Pliny).3 The careful examination of Pliny's social, moral, and ethical vocabulary, buttressed by fully contextualized deployments of relevant philosophical comparanda, provides a valuable philological foundation for future research. The activities of human beings are the subject of almost all of the Letters and provide the collection with one of its few elements of unity. M. argues persuasively that, through his literary creation, Pliny has defined a new kind of man.

The first part examines Pliny's vision of the honnête homme, who reconciles his sense of the morally good with the socially acceptable. Honestas (honestum, etc.) in Pliny does not have the exclusively moral definition attributed to it by Stoic philosophers, but draws rather from multiple sources. It is not "la seule vertue," but "une action sociale accomplie vertueusement" (53), and the social and moral domains are tightly linked for Pliny. The main motivations for behavior in Pliny's aristocratic circle are the desire to hold on to one's social rank and to pursue gloria. Though those on the lower end of the social hierarchy may occasionally receive praise, the full expression of virtues is limited to members of the aristocracy. Thus though Pliny appears to present moral behavior as a universal, such behavior is in fact tightly bound by a series of culturally bound factors, including place, time, and tradition.

Part Two examines the accommodations made by the honnête homme to the exigencies of everyday life. The examples of suicide enacted (Corellius Rufus) and refused (Titius Aristo) show how men admired by Pliny confront extreme situations. M.'s examination of the interior life of the honnête homme form some of the most original passages of the book and a valuable contribution to the study of Roman emotion. The honnête homme is not a saint or superhero: to be human, in Pliny's view, is by definition to be imperfect. Pliny's rhetorical uses of exempla (such as the Elder Arria's self-inflicted suffering or Xerxes' tears) show his tendency to emphasize the personal qualities and emotions denigrated by the Stoics. The honnête homme does not only act by reference to generally accepted social norms: affective qualities such as humanitas and amor also inform his actions. Pliny's humanitas, however, should not be confused with a progressive or "modern" attitude. His references to slaves and provincials show that the maintenance of the social hierarchy takes precedence over the remedying of injustice. Pliny's perspectives on libertas are similarly nuanced, embracing actions as various as Silius Italicus' choice not to attend Trajan's accession and Corellius Rufus' freedom to die after outliving Domitian.

The final part examines the new valuations of otium and studia made by the honnête homme. Pliny's Rome is not the sink of corruption described in satire and epigram. As such, the motivations of his constantly expressed desire to abandon the city for his villas point rather to a desire to depart from social life. This desire in fact distinguishes the epistolographer from several of the other individuals depicted in his letters. He praises a wide variety of figures for their pursuit of studia, and once more his sense of the purpose of these activities differs from the tradition. The goal of studia is self-affirmation, not the pursuit of philosophical sapientia. Yet Pliny inevitably subordinates these pursuits to his social obligations, and the image of the life devoted entirely to studia remains an ideal. The admonitory image of the ceaselessly toiling Elder Pliny shows the dangers of subordinating a life entirely to studia, whilst the laudatory account of Spurinna's otium suggests that a distinguished public career must come first. The good life according to Pliny involves the pursuit of renown and adherence to moral obligation as well as otium.

M. regards Pliny as a success, with only minimal qualification, and observes that he has frequently been subjected to uncomprehending and undeserved criticism. In her view, Pliny is not to be condemned for his lack of philosophical system, but rather to be praised for his productive departure from the admonitions of rigorous philosophers (mainly the Stoics) in order to develop a flexible code of behavior for everyday life. He is Cova's "Stoico imperfetto"4 without a negative inflection: in his world it is a virtue not to be excessively sapiens (Ep. 5.1.13). While not crediting Pliny with more insight than he deserves, M. shows how he has developed a coherent pattern of thought adapted to the demands of his particular circumstances rather than subservient to any individual philosophical system. To observe that the epistolographer expresses his perspectives in terms of anthropology and axiology rather than philosophy and theory is a far more productive approach than the traditional condemnation of a vapid Pliny.

Pliny's cultivation of honestum otium, his discovery of the interior life through prolonged reflection assisted by self-reflective literary production, and his pursuit of fame through the writing of minor poetry are all cast as positive and fully justified choices. More attention might have been paid, however, to Pliny's awareness of the grimmer realities experienced by the aristocratic class, expressed directly by Seneca and Tacitus and (as Hoffer5 has most persuasively demonstrated) even by Pliny himself. Hoffer has shown that the "evil" Regulus' undeniable similarities to Pliny are what worry the epistolographer most. Domitian's policies continued to be implemented and his former administrators continued to thrive under successive emperors (including, of course, Pliny himself, praetor of 93 and prefect of the aerarium militare in 94-96). As M. indeed observes (pp. 141-151), Pliny does not bother to round out his portraits of these and other bogeymen; they are unqualifiedly evil. The honnête homme cannot hope, however, to ritually banish his opposites without casting doubt on his own motives and moral qualities in the process.

M. argues persuasively that Pliny's honnête homme is first and foremost a social man, and that the expression of his virtues depends on the maintenance of a robust social hierarchy. In his hysterical condemnation of the imperial freedman Pallas (Ep. 7.29, 8.6), for example, he sneers at the thought that his senatorial colleagues could apply the terms fides, pietas, and other typically recognized virtues to this transgressor of the social order. Once high position in the traditional hierarchy is recognized as a non-negotiable requirement for the honnête homme, there can be no downplaying the other real constraints on his freedom of action and forms of self-expression. Awareness of the reduction in access to real power for men of Pliny's class throughout a century of imperial rule inevitably inflects the epistolographer's discussion of his honestum otium. Yet the emphasis appears to be placed on Pliny's complaints about his putatively inescapable social obligations rather than on the consideration of their real significance. A fuller hearing might therefore have been given to the Pliny who wonders whether his political activity has any value, who needs to remind himself that Vergil was not a senator, who uses the rhetoric of merit deservedly rewarded to conceal the fundamentally inequitable operations of patronage, or whose attractive concern for those lower in the social hierarchy did not prevent him from ordering the execution of recalcitrant Christians. M. has accounted for much of this criticism, however, through her emphasis on the autonomy of Pliny's literary creation. Pliny's honnête homme is not a real individual so much as a literary ideal, one whom M. shows to be in many respects the product of a new synthesis of traditional conceptions.


1.   M. Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung. Untersuchungen zu den 'Paradenbriefen' Plinius der Jüngeren (Tübingen 1997); F. Beutel, Vergangenheit als Politik. Neue Aspekte im Werk des jüngeren Plinius (Frankfurt 2000); J. Henderson, Pliny's Statue. The Letters, Self-Portraiture and Classical Art (Exeter 2002).
2.   H.-P. Bütler, Die geistige Welt des jüngeren Plinius. Studien zur Thematik seiner Briefe (Heidelberg 1970); F. Trisoglio, La personalità di Plinio il Giovane nei suoi rapporti con la politica, la società e la letteratura (Torino 1972); J. M. André, "Pensée et philosophie dans les Lettres de Pline le Jeune," REL 53 (1975) 225-247.
3.   The volume is the product of a Habilitation, defended at the Sorbonne in 2003 (though taking full account of subsequently produced scholarship). It is generally well produced, and misprints are few and unimportant. The only errors of any significance are the subheading labelled B on p. 340, which ought to be labelled C (as also in the table of contents), and the fact that the title of a monograph on Thomas Mann has replaced the sidebar in the table of contents (pp. 485-489).
4.   P.V. Cova, Lo stoico imperfetto: un'immagine minore dell'uomo nella letteratura latina del Principato (Napoli 1978).
5.   S.E. Hoffer, The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger (Atlanta 1999).

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