Now let me tell a story. Asclepiodotus writes that a number of men were sent by Philip down an old mine that had long since been abandoned; they were to explore how rich its deposits were, what state it was in, whether past greed had left anything for future generations. They descended with plenty of lights, enough to last many days; then, when exhausted by the long journey, they saw enormous rivers and huge lakes of stagnant water, like our own, not cramped by the earth weighing down on them, but with plenty of open space—and they could not help shuddering at the sight. I read this with great pleasure. For I realized that our generation is struggling with vices that are not new but inherited from long ago; in our day it was not the first time that greed had rummaged in the veins of earth and rock and searched in the darkness for what was inadequately concealed. ose ancestors of ours whom we are con- stantly praising, whom we complain that we so little resemble, were led on by their hopes to hack into mountains, and stood on top of their gain, beneath their ruin. Before King Philip of Macedon there were people who would pursue money into the very deepest re- cesses,and,though endowed with upright, freespirits,would stoop to enter those caves where no contrast between night and day ever penetrated. What great hope made them leave the daylight behind? Human beings stand erect, facing the stars, so what great necessity made them bend down, buried them, and plunged them to the depths of the earth’s interior, to dig out gold that is no less dangerous to search for than to possess? For its sake they dug tunnels and crawled after their grubby, undependable plunder, forgetting the daylight, forgetting the better world on which they had turned their backs. Does the earth lie as heavy on any corpse as it did on those people, over whom great greed threw the weight of the earth,whom it robbed of the sky, whom it buried in the depths where that foul poison lurks? They were bold enough to descend to where they encountered a new natural order: earth suspended above them, winds blowing aimlessly in the darkness, grim springs of water owing for no one’s benefit, and deep, endless night. Then when they have done that, they are afraid of the underworld!
From “On Winds” in Naturales Quaestiones, this English translation by Hine. I hear this passage reverberate in language and theme throughout Tolkien and
“Middle-Earth.” He was, after all, an eminent Classics scholar before he wrote his bestsellers. It is striking just how clearly a short text can affect, color, and shape one’s imagination, and even one’s worldview.