"Men are most apt to believe what they least understand." -a quote by Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD
Or was it?
This quote came up today on cryptograms.org, where I can frequently be found. I love it when the quotes are classical, not so much when the quotes are by Jack Handey, Justin Bieber or Homer Simpson. In fact, because I'm weird this way, I have taken it on myself to be a bit of a quote detective for any quotes that come up as English translations of Latin authors. I will google and try to find the Latin source quote, and then paste it into the "comments" box that the site provides for the entertainment of its users. In this way I feel I am contributing a bit to the sum total of human knowledge, and not just wasting hours trying to once again reclaim my position on the top 100 solvers of all time (get distracted for a month or two, and the world passes you by. Story of my life).
So I opened another few tabs on my browser and started googling. The English came up quite easily, but many quote sites are inaccurate and just paste other quote sites... you really have to verify. (Quote research is on my mind lately because the Kindle First book I chose this month was on just this subject). This quote was a little more interesting than many I've done because it is also attributed to Michel de Montaigne. I tried translating through Google and did a search for Pliny and words like "aptissimi intelligere minime credere." I googled Naturalis Historia (Pliny the Elder's magnum opus) and some of these keywords and still found nothing. Eventually I found a fuller version of the original: "Men are most apt to believe what they least understand, and through the lust of human wit obscure things are credited." However this traced more likely to Michel de Montaigne, and eventually I found HIS Latin version: Majorem fidem homines adhibent iis quae non intelligunt. Cupidine humani ingenii libentius obscura creduntur.
At this point I figured I was home free and would soon find the quote and its source in Pliny. I assumed Montaigne had borrowed the quote verbatim from Pliny, so I searched those Latin words. It was quite confusing, but turns out that the second half came not from Pliny but from Tacitus, the Histories. And the first half, the one that cryptograms had as Pliny? Well, I finally found the original Pliny, not exactly as Montaigne had given it: "minus credunt, quae ad salutem suam pertinent, si intelligunt." Or, people believe less, in things that pertain to their health, if they understand them. This turned up in several treatises on ancient medicine written in the last hundred years. Montaigne had crafted his take on it himself, not using Pliny's Latin words at all and with the sentiment turned around.
So, armed with this fruit of over an hour of painstaking research, I clicked on the tab of my browser for the Cryptograms quote that started it all... and I missed it by that much. In other words, I ended up collapsing that tab altogether. I was going to note the original Latin by Montaigne and suggest that it should be credited to him rather than Pliny, and also give Pliny's Latin for comparison. But once you collapse a Cryptogram solve screen, it's gone forever, or at least until the next time you get that exact quote out of the randomized umpty-thousand quotes on that site. So here I am, pouring out my Randomday woes to the blog. Such is my life: I am drawn to arcane disciplines that require inordinate amounts of time and painstaking attention to detail, and that nobody else really cares that much about.
What would Donald Trump say? "Sad!"
Maybe I'll just go knit something.