The Dolphin Of Hippo

Pliny the Younger described in one of his letters a story noted both for its sadness and its revelatory quality on a characteristic of human nature.  The letter was written to the poet Caninius Rufus (IX.33), and in it Pliny recounts extraordinary interactions between a boy and a dolphin.  I am not quite sure whether the word “friendship” would be appropriate in this context, but one could say that the relations between the two looked very much like this.

The event occurred near the city if Hippo in North Africa, which is now located in Tunisia and known as Bizerte.  Pliny says that near Hippo was a small lagoon that led to the sea, and that the area was frequented by the local people as a place for swimming, fishing, and playing games.  Boys would often swim far out from shore to test their strength against the currents and waves.  One young swimmer once ventured our farther than usual, and was approached by a curious dolphin.  The dolphin began to circle him, rolling around in a playful manner as if trying to communicate something; it seemed fascinated by this terrestrial animal that was bold enough to explore the watery regions of the earth.  At some point the dolphin made physical contact with the boy, allowing him to straddle his back and ride him through the surf.  The mischievous animal carried the boy some way out to sea, then brought him safely back to shallow water.  People on shore watched all this with shocked fascination.

Soon the story had made its way around the town.  People imagined that the workings of some sea-god were in evidence, and they could not get enough of the tale.  The next day another group of boys swam off shore, among them the boy who had ridden the dolphin the previous day.  The dolphin promptly recognized his young companion from the previous day, and performed his usual water-frolics, as if demanding additional play time.  The dolphin grew tamer as its contacts with humans grew more frequent.  Other swimmers made contact with it and touched it.  As Pliny says,

Crescit audacia experimento,

Which means “their boldness increased with habit.”  Eventually the dolphin found the boy whom it had originally invited on its back, and carried him through the waves again; other boys would follow the pair through the water, yelling out words of surprise and motivation.  Now I suspect that some readers may think this story is without basis in fact.  But there are many documented cases of dolphins interacting in a highly intelligent manner with us humans.  Pliny’s uncle, the naturalist Pliny the Elder, records several instances of such contact (Hist. Nat. IX.8.26 et seq.).  He tells us of dolphins who allowed themselves to be petted, fed, even ridden.  One such dolphin, he says, carried a boy in Italy across a bay to school at the city of Pozzuoli. 

Other examples of human contact with dolphins include the many instances where dolphins helped fishermen direct schools of fish into their nets.  We can see from these stories that it is reasonable to assume a factual basis for the legend of Arion.  Those familiar with tales from mythology may recall that Arion was a skilled musician who was captured by pirates; and before the marauders killed him, he asked to play a song on his harp.  This he did; and the sonorous chords attracted a school of curious dolphins.  Arion then leaped into the sea, and was carried safely ashore at Cape Matapan in Greece, then called Taenarum or Ταίναρον.

But to return to our story.  These interactions with the dolphin at Hippo grew in frequency and intimacy.  It would even swim right up to shore and linger with the townspeople, allowing itself to be touched and stroked.  And then bad things began to happen.  Pliny tells us that the local governor, a man named Octavius Avitus, stupidly rubbed scented oil on the dolphin, perhaps as a way of asserting some misguided sense of authority.  Then as now, political figures love to grandstand and thrust themselves into situations where they can gain some personal benefit from it.  And their intercession never seems to do any good.  In this case, the dolphin was alarmed by the pouring of perfumed oil on its back, and left the area for a time; but it did eventually return.

All these bizarre occurrences made Hippo an object of fascination.  People from all over visited the town to see its uniquely tame dolphin.  Suddenly the town lost its quiet, sleepy character and became burdened with the annoyance of what we would today call “eco-tourists.”  Someone in the municipal government—Pliny does not say who it was—decided that the dolphin, this miracle of nature, should be killed as a way of “solving” the problem of unwanted visitors.  And so it was done.

Reading this denoument to the story filled me with an inexplicable anger and sadness.  For it points to something that no student of history can fail to notice as he casts his attention down the centuries:  man has a powerful dark side, a capacity for evil that is every bit as strong as his capacity for good. There is something irrationally bestial in man’s nature, we must admit, some warped sense of unreasonable ownership, that makes him think he is lord of the world, and may do as he pleases to it and every living thing within its borders.  Not content to dominate his fellows, he seeks to extend his sovereignty over every other form of life.  No one matters but him; everything in the world exists to serve his sense of convenience and comfort.  I am sure readers can recall their own stories of such callous cruelty on the part of humans towards our fellow inhabitants of this world.  What malicious ingredient is in our nature, what secret lust to control and dominate, compels us—as if we were animated with the blind assurance of a sleepwalker—to strive not just to be lord, but to be the dispenser of life and death over all?  The historian Edward Gibbon noted

There is nothing perhaps more adverse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest.  [Decline, Ch. XLIX]

But I am not so sure that this lust to conquer and control is so “adverse to nature and reason.”  If one looks at history and at current events now, one could just as easily remark that this sadistic desire to control is about as natural in man as is the instinct to procreate.  But we must never forget that just because some desire in us is natural, that does not mean the desire is right.  Moral goodness, as Cicero tells us in On Duties and On Moral Ends, can never have any connection to expediency.  And yet such tales as this one weigh heavily on the consciousness. 

It is easy to agree with the view of Themistocles, who, when he was approached by a man who promised to teach him secrets on how to improve his memory, said:  “I would sooner learn to forget, than how to remember. [Acad. II.2]”  Sometimes the pain of experience is too much to bear.  It is not for us to tamper with or destroy our fellow creatures as it may suit our convenience; we do not have this unrestricted freedom of action, nor may we presume to exercise it.  It is not for us to arrogate this judgmental authority to ourselves.  On these matters I find myself lately in alignment with the somber sentiments of Lord Tennyson expressed in these verses from his “Tears, Idle Tears”:

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,

That brings our friends up from the underworld,

Sad as the last which reddens over one

That sinks with all we love below the verge;

So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.


Read more in On Duties: