115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pliny's Cultured Nightingale

Ellen Finkelpearl, Scripps College

Are the arts the exclusive province of humans? Several Imperial Greek and Latin works feature animals creating and responding to music, dance, and visual art. The Elder Pliny’s description of the nightingale’s song at NH 10.81-84 tacitly challenges dominant philosophical paradigms, while corresponding with emerging contemporary concepts on animal musics.


Pliny’s Cultured Nightingale: NH 10.81-84


Amid the new interest in non-human animals in the ancient world, the question of whether the arts are exclusively human has received less attention than, e.g. philosophy. Yet several Imperial Greek and Latin works feature animals creating and responding to music, dance, and visual art. I argue that the Elder Pliny’s description of the nightingale’s song and her education of her young at NH 10.81-84 articulates an “alternative” relationship to music which tacitly challenges dominant philosophical paradigms of the animal, while corresponding with emerging contemporary concepts on animal musics.

Animals are generally denied artistic abilities in philosophical texts throughout the Classical period. Plato (Laws 653E) claims that only humans have rhythm and harmony; Aristotle denies them a sense of beauty or harmony (Eudemian Ethics 3.2= 1231a10). Cicero sees the aesthetic sense as a manifestation of Reason (ratio; Off. 1.4.14) and contends that human ears alone are attuned to musical pitch and key (De Nat. Deor II.58.145, 146). Seneca (Epl 121), articulating the Stoic point of view, distinguishes animal instinct from human art: Art is variable (121.24).

Imaginative prose and poetry allow for a closer encounter with the animal. Pliny’s nightingale is not merely communicating (Fogen 2007, 2014), nor wondrous (Beagon 2014), nor a measure to define Man (Beagon 1992, 139); she defies the constraints on animal music. First, she has a consummate knowledge (perfecta musicae scientia) and her song is anthropomorphically described in technical musical terms:

the sound is given out with modulations, and now is drawn out into a long note with one continuous breath, now made staccato . . .

(modulatus editur sonus, et nunc continuo spiritu trahitur in longum, nunc variatur inflexo...NH 10.81)


Clearly, Pliny does not regard the nightingale as deficient in auditory capacity. Second, birdsong is not merely instinctive, but variable and learned:


That there may remain no doubt that there is a certain degree of art (ars) in its performances, we may here remark that every bird has a number of notes peculiar to itself; for they do not, all of them, have the same, but each, certain melodies of its own. (NH 10.82-83)


Pliny then describes a human process of instruction: young birds pay attention, imitate, practice and make progress. Current  debates among biologists about “animal culture” revolve around just these terms—learned and variable (Laland and Galaf). The ancient texts also represent animals as appreciating beauty. Pliny’s nightingale competes, and the loser often dies singing, spiritu prius deficiente quam cantu (83).  Plutarch (Cleverness 973B.19 ) asserts that nightingales “cherish the beautiful (to kalon).”

            It is also worth putting Pliny’s nightingale in conversation with contemporary trends in critical animal studies and zoomusicology. Research has shown that pigeons can tell Bach from Tchaikovsky (Porter et al.), there is new interest in Mozart’s starling’s influence on piano concerto K453 (Passarello), and the zoomusicologist François-Bernard Mâche writes that his aim is “to begin to speak of animal musics other than with the quotation marks.” Pliny validates the nightingale as artist.