Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?c.A.D. 113). Letters. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
LXXIX. To Celer
EVERY author has his particular reasons for reciting his works; mine, I have often said, are, in order, if any error should have escaped my own observation (as no doubt they do escape it sometimes), to have it pointed out to me. I cannot therefore but be surprised to find (what your letter assures me) that there are some who blame me for reciting my speeches: unless, perhaps, they are of opinion that this is the single species of composition that ought to be held exempt from any correction. If so, I would willingly ask them why they allow (if indeed they do allow) that history may be recited, since it is a work which ought to be devoted to truth, not ostentation? or why tragedy, as it is composed for action and the stage, not for being read to a private audience? or lyric poetry, as it is not a reader, but a chorus of voices and instruments that it requires? They will reply, perhaps, that in the instances referred to, custom has made the practice in question usual: I should be glad to know, then, if they think the person who first introduced this practice is to be condemned? Besides, the rehearsal of speeches is no unprecedented thing either with us or the Grecians. Still, perhaps, they will insist that it can answer no purpose to recite a speech which has already been delivered. True, if one were immediately to repeat the very same speech word for word, and to the very same audience; but if you make several additions and alterations; if your audience is composed partly of the same, and partly of different persons, and the recital is at some distance of time, why is there less propriety in rehearsing your speech than in publishing it? But it is difficult, the objectors urge, to give satisfaction to an audience by the mere recital of a speech; that is a consideration which concerns the particular skill and pains of the person who rehearses, but by no means holds good against recitation in general. The truth is, it is not whilst I am reading, but when I am read, that I aim at approbation; and upon this principle I omit no sort of correction. In the first place, I frequently go carefully over what I have written, by myself; after this I read it out to two or three friends, and then give it to others to make their remarks. If after this I have any doubt concerning the justness of their observations, I carefully weigh them again with a friend or two; and, last of all, I recite them to a larger audience; then is the time, believe me, when I correct most energetically and unsparingly; for my care and attention rise in proportion to my anxiety; as nothing renders the judgment so acute to detect error as that deference, modesty, and diffidence one feels upon those occasions. For tell me, would you not be infinitely less affected were you to speak before a single person only, though ever so learned, than before a numerous assembly, even though composed of none but illiterate people? When you rise up to plead, are you not at that juncture, above all others, most self-distrustful? and do you not wish, I will not say some particular parts only, but that the whole arrangement of your intended speech were altered? especially if the concourse should be large in which you are to speak? for there is something even in a low and vulgar audience that strikes one with awe. And if you suspect you are not well received at the first opening of your speech, do you not find all your energy relaxed, and feel yourself ready to give way? The reason I imagine to be that there is a certain weight of collective opinion in a multitude, and although each individual judgment is, perhaps, of little value, yet when united it becomes considerable. Accordingly, Pomponius Secundus, the famous tragic poet, whenever some very intimate friend and he differed about the retaining or rejecting anything in his writings, used to say, I appeal1 to the people; and thus, by their silence or applause, adopted either his own or his friends opinion; such was the deference he paid to the popular judgment! Whether justly or not, is no concern of mine, as I am not in the habit of reciting my works publicly, but only to a select circle, whose presence I respect, and whose judgment I value; in a word, whose opinions I attend to as if they were so many individuals I had separately consulted, at the same time that I stand in as much awe before them as I should before the most numerous assembly. What Cicero says of composing will, in my opinion, hold true of the dread we have of the public: Fear is the most rigid critic imaginable. The very thought of reciting, the very entrance into an assembly, and the agitated concern when one is there; each of these circumstances tends to improve and perfect an authors performance. Upon the whole, therefore, I cannot repent of a practice which I have found by experience so exceedingly useful; and am so far from being discouraged by the trifling objections of these censors that I request you would point out to me if there is yet any other kind of correction, that I may also adopt it; for nothing can sufficiently satisfy my anxiety to render my compositions perfect. I reflect what an undertaking it is, resigning any work into the hands of the public; and I cannot but be persuaded that frequent revisals, and many consultations, must go to the perfecting of a performance, which one desires should universally and for ever please. Farewell.
Note 1. There is a kind of witticism in this expression, which will be lost to the mere English reader, unless he be informed that the Romans had a privilege, confirmed to them by several laws which passed in the earlier ages of the republic, of appealing from the decisions of the magistrates to the general assembly of the people: and they did so in the form of words which Pomponius here applies to a different purpose. M. [back]