Pliny’s Defense of Empire
Routledge – 2013 – 152 pages
Despite perennial interest in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the world’s first encyclopedia, as a record of the prodigious, the quotidian, and the useful in Rome in the first century AD, for centuries Pliny has been derided as little more than an inept compiler of facts and marvels intellectually incapable of formulating a cogent argument supported through the selective marshaling of his materials.
In Pliny’s Defense of Empire, Laehn offers a radical reinterpretation of the architecture of Pliny’s encyclopedia, exposing fundamental errors in the inherited understanding of the text traceable to its initial reception in ancient Rome. Recognition of the text’s true structure reveals that Pliny’s encyclopedia is in fact a first-rate work of political philosophy constituting an apology for Roman imperial expansionism grounded in a sophisticated account of human nature. Correcting the accreted errors and prejudices of nearly 2,000 years of faulty Plinian scholarship, Laehn critically examines one of the most persuasive apologies for the Roman Empire ever written and succeeds in rehabilitating the Elder Pliny as one of the world’s greatest political thinkers.
An excellent resource and a must read for scholars in political theory, philosophy, and classical studies.
"Pliny's Defense of Empire is the first study ever of the Natural History that approaches this "encyclopedia" of the ancient world as a work of political philosophy. Laehn shows persuasively that Pliny has been misinterpreted for two millennia and that he properly belongs in the company of Thucydides and Polybios, not to say Plato and Aristotle. Seldom does one encounter a fundamental reinterpretation of a well-known text; even rarer is to find such an account as exciting and intellectually stimulating as this one. It is simply a treat to read."
—Barry Cooper, University of Calgary
"Thomas Laehn’s trenchant analysis of Pliny marks a milestone. It revolutionizes our understanding of the man and his work by brilliantly demonstrating its philosophical purpose and coherence as an account of human nature and of the scope of the political in a reality experienced as being open to the theoretical quest for transcendent truth beyond the claims of temporal purpose and imperial grasp. Powerfully analytical and persuasively argued, this elegant study decisively breaks with all received interpretations. It establishes a new standard of critical comprehension, both of its subject and of its significance as work of first importance for political philosophy itself. Warmly recommended."
—Ellis Sandoz, Louisiana State University
Introduction. 1. The Structure of Pliny’s Natural History 2. Plinian Man 3. Pliny’s Defense of Empire. Conclusion: Pliny’s Redemption
Thomas Raymond Laehn is Assistant Professor of Government at McNeese State University. Prior to accepting his current position, he worked briefly as a public policy analyst and was a Visiting Research Fellow at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.