- Pliny and the Art of (In)offensive Self-Praise
If there is an art of praising the self inoffensively, then Pliny may be felt not to have mastered it. Few of his letters lack an element of self-praise.1 Entirely typical of the forthright manner of this self-praise are the remarks made to Maximus in Epistles 9.23.1-2:
frequenter agenti mihi evenit, ut centumviri cum diu se intra iudicum auctoritatem gravitatemque tenuissent, omnes repente quasi victi coactique consurgerent laudarentque; frequenter e senatu famam qualem maxime optaveram rettuli.
It has often happened to me when speaking in the Centumviral Court that my hearers have preserved their judicial dignity and impassivity for a while and then suddenly jumped to their feet with one accord to congratulate me as if driven by some compelling force. From the senate, too, I have often had all the applause my heart could desire.(trans B. Radice)
The manner can be even less disarming. In the course of Pliny's correspondence with a female relative Calvina (2.4), in which he informs her that he [End Page 235] has paid off the debts on her deceased father's estate so as to be sole creditor and is now relieving her of the whole subsequent debt to himself, Pliny not only reminds Calvina that he contributed HS 100,000 to her dowry during her father's lifetime, but incidentally reveals that the contribution her father made was, in fact, a loan from the present writer. Even the normally sympathetic A. N. Sherwin-White is moved to comment that "Pliny spares Calvina no detail" (1966.149). The author finishes the letter with an assurance that the addressee need not worry about the effect on his finances (2.4.3-4). For, although his "resources as a whole are not very great and my position is expensive to keep up," nevertheless Pliny can make-up the shortfall with modest living. More typically disarming, however, if no less self-approving, is Pliny's account of the worshipful silence which greeted him on his return to the lecture hall (2.18), or his retelling of the stories which the "over-generous" Artemidorus has been spreading of Pliny's many services to the former at a time of great peril under Domitian (3.11).2
Whatever the actual manner of its expression, modern readers may feel uncomfortable with Pliny's enthusiasm for lauding himself and his achievements. Standards and expectations in modern life-including modern academic life (to take an arena familiar to readers of this journal)-often appear to be rather different. Self-praise is legitimate in some contexts: when applying for promotion or a post in another institution, for example. But context and format are strongly determined, often to the extent that we may feel bound to write about ourselves "impersonally"; allowing our "achievements," as it were, "to speak for themselves" (however artfully we allow this to happen). Similarly, when composing autobiographical notes for the dust jacket of a book, one is required to write in the third person ("Dr. Gibson is the author of . . ."). Academic presses, if the texts accompanying Author Questionnaires are anything to go by, even assume (perhaps flatteringly) an inclination to modesty in their authors.3 Modesty in academic life, as in other professional or domestic contexts, will attract praise: witness the approval given by John Chadwick to the studious self-effacement of Michael [End Page 236]
Ventris following a rapturous reception at the conference which marked the turning point in the acceptance of his decipherment of Linear B:
In August 1954 Ventris' lecture to the International Classical Congress at Copenhagen was a triumph; when he showed the slide of the tripod tablet deciphered, the whole of the large audience burst into applause, before he said a word. After he had finished, a number of prominent Greek scholars publicly congratulated him and declared themselves convinced. I myself was not present, and it was only gradually that I learnt from others the extent of this success; Ventris himself was too modest to tell me more than that it "went off all right."4
Few academics, perhaps, get the opportunity for such...