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Translated by HANS NACHOD
By HANS NACHOD
Petrarca's place in the evolution of the new philosophy which inaugurated the modern era of European civilization is as difficult to determine as is his astoundingly complex personality. We but rarely encounter a similar combination of a lyrical temperament of never slackening intensity with a mental constitution able to grasp reality in a perfectly detached attitude. No wonder that such a propitious blending of seemingly contradictory qualities yielded most fortunate results.
Petrarca's contribution to the forming of the mind of modern man can hardly be overestimated. However, we should not dare to call him a philosopher in the sense of one who conceives new and original philosophical ideas and is willing or at least attempts to organize them into a coherent and harmonious system of his own. He would have been astonished to find himself thus classified. What he thought of himself can be gathered from the charming self-portrait he once drew in a letter to his friend Francesco Bruni (p. 34). He never pretended to be more than an admirer and propagator of the moral teachings he found in the works of ancient philosophers, particularly in those of Latin thinkers who popularized Greek philosophy in the centuries shortly before and after the beginning of the Christian Era.
The great achievements of Scholastic philosophy-as far as they had not become the common property of everyone who received a higher education in Petrarca's time-had no noticeable influence on his thinking. Instinctively he felt a strong aversion for the late Scholastic schools, especially for those which tended toward Arabian Aristotelianism; and Aristotle himself was always more or less suspect to him, however hard he tried to appreciate the greatness of a man he found spoken of with so much reverence by his favorite classical authors.
Many problems which aroused the interest of Petrarca's con temporaries did not touch him at all. As a faithful son of the Church, he was fully satisfied with her teachings and did not need another guide in the labyrinth of this life, in this respect particularly under the spell of his great model Augustine. He used to laugh at vain efforts to penetrate the secrets of nature, and he ridiculed those who pretended to know the answers to problems he thought not worth investigating. Philosophy meant to him an exclusively practical discipline teaching the art of living well and happily, the ars bene beateque vivendi, as his be loved Cicero had put it. He did not aspire to be more than a moral philosopher, a man able to show his fellow-men how to learn and to practice this art. As such a philosopher he was willingly acknowledged by his contemporaries, and philosophus moralis-even the greatest living moral philosopher-is the predicate given to him in an official Venetian document, when he had declared his intention of leaving his rich library to the Re public of Venice.
There were in the wane of the Middle Ages not a few who endeavored with more or less success to stir up the conscience of their fellow-men. Petrarca's influence was so much greater and more lasting than that of his competitors because he could touch the hearts of his readers more powerfully than most of them. With his unfailing instinct for literary and artistic quality, he had formed his style after the best models of Latin prose and tried to free himself from medieval tradition. His eloquence was long admired by everyone because it was felt how much lie had advanced beyond his immediate predecessors in forging the language into an effective instrument for every purpose. When later generations of Humanists turned up their noses at his futile efforts to write an absolutely flawless Ciceronian Latin, they forgot too rashly that the revival of classical Latin prose in which they took so much pride was largely due to him. He had acquired his very personal style mostly by assiduous reading from his early youth on. A marvelous memory retained for him not only the facts he read, but, what counts more, the form in which they were presented stuck indelibly in his mind. Thus he assimilated the style of his favorites almost without knowing how he achieved it. A student of stylistic problems will easily observe how near he came to his models at times, though he was careful to avoid slavish imitation and shunned what we call plagiarism with an entirely unmedieval conscientiousness.
In another way also Petrarca was able to profit from having read more than any of his contemporaries. He read ancient and medieval literature with a hitherto unheard-of sense for historical interrelations, and his ability to interpret a text critically was just as new. Since he was such a keen observer of actual life and so lovingly devoted to the investigation of the human heart, all the records of the past became a living reality to him, and he felt himself sharing in the drama related as if he had an active part in the cast. It was not just a whim that he, the untiring letter-writer, started to "correspond" with characters of ancient times, as if they could answer him. When he read their works, he almost forgot that they were long since dead. By such intensive reading with a clear comprehension of chronological relations and the inner logic of historical evolution, he developed a conception of history that strikes us very often as thoroughly modern. With all necessary reserve it may be said that the modern way of dealing with historical sources begins with him.
In the fourteenth century quite a number of progressive men in different parts of Europe were trying to widen their knowledge of the glorious past by procuring for themselves and the attentively listening world of scholarly minded friends works of the classical period that had been lying dormant for centuries. Book-hunting became a fashion in many learned circles, and to have found a new manuscript was a feat to boast of. However, no one could make as good a use of what he was lucky enough to discover as Petrarca. He is credited with having been the first to decipher the old codex containing the most important portion of Cicero's letters, those to Atticus and Quintus Cicero. This manuscript was preserved but hardly looked at any longer in the library of the cathedral of Verona. Very probably it had been known to his Humanist friends in that city before him, but only to him did it open a new outlook on the events it touched on and on the character of the man whom he had adored since childhood as the master of Latin prose. He suddenly understood why Cicero had been doomed to fail as a political figure, and he learned that his hero was not free from very tangible blemishes.
The range of Petrarca's knowledge of Roman literature has been described in masterly fashion by Pierre de Nolhac in his classical work on Petrarca and Humanism. Few of the major Latin authors with whom a modern historian and philologist is familiar were unknown to him. Some famous names are still missing in this catalogue, and in several cases strange traditional misconceptions prevented Petrarca from arriving at the conclusions reached by the generations that came after him; but, in general, he was far ahead of the most respected classical scholars of his age. Boccaccio may have known some authors who had escaped the attention of his friend and master, but, lacking Petrarca's imagination, he remained satisfied with the factual knowledge to be derived from classical literature by dry though devoted application.
Since Petrarca's attempts to learn Greek stopped short before they could bear any fruit, his notion of ancient philosophy was almost entirely gathered from Latin writers, mainly from Seneca and Cicero, Lactantius and Augustine. Aristotle's Metaphysics and Ethics were in his library in thirteenth-century Latin versions, but he did not get more than meager facts and some sententious phrases out of them, because, fascinated as he was by the sonorous rhythm of Ciceronian speech, he disliked the unclassical style of the medieval translations. This instinctive horror kept him from understanding the intentions of the philosopher and the real aim of Greek philosophy. Occasionally he suspected that he would never arrive at a fruitful comprehension of it as long as he had no Greek. It is characteristic of his still medieval mental attitude that he lacked the energy to penetrate into the difficulties of a foreign language. Thus he could never fully realize what Plato had contributed to the widening of the mental horizon of mankind. The codex containing no less than sixteen of Plato's dialogues in the original language which he was so proud to possess (see p. 112) remained dumb to him, and the few works of Plato that were available in Latin at the time could not enlighten him much in their queer and incomplete translations.
It was therefore of the greatest importance for Petrarca's philosophical education that he came in contact with Augustine at a comparatively early age and was overwhelmingly impressed by Augustine's most stirring work, the Confessions, when he reached his maturity. From the moment he devoured Augustine's spiritual autobiography he was under the Father's guidance and became as much of an Augustinian as was possible for a man of the fourteenth century. Augustine appears as his severe but helpful confessor when he writes his Dialogues on the Contempt of the World, in which he tells the great Saint of all his inmost feelings and sorrows. His Augustinian thinking and his almost perfect imitation of Augustine's style are also manifest in his letter to the Augustinian hermit, Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro (see below).
The selections from Petrarca which are here chosen to represent him among the outstanding Humanist philosophers show him at different times of his life. Though it was his habit to re vise and remodel again and again whatever he had written on the spur of the moment, these pieces have retained their original charm almost unimpaired. They will reveal, even in their later revisions, that they were once written under the inexorable compulsion of actual experience.
The Ascent of Mont Ventoux has long been regarded as one of Petrarca's literary masterpieces and has been translated into English several times. There is no need to relate much of the circumstances which prompted him to write it when he came down from the mountain after a long day's journey. It may be sufficient to point out that Francesco Dionigi de'Roberti from Borgo San Sepolcro (ca. 1285-1342), a professor of theology in Paris and later a bishop in the Neapolitan kingdom, was the man who had led him to Augustine. The grateful pupil tells his master of his stirring experiences during a day on which he undertook to reach the top of an isolated and comparatively high peak in the neighborhood of Carpentras, not far from the places connected with the reminiscences of his boyhood. The colorful description of this enterprise has startled many readers who have been amazed to see a man of his epoch venturing to climb a mountain for a view "like a modern alpinist." For many of them this conception of Petrarca has overshadowed the real intentions of the writer, who had much more to tell than the story of a hazardous mountain climb. Throughout the Middle Ages writers and readers had become so familiar with the art of hiding a deeper sense in apparently matter-of-fact reports of actual events that men were accustomed to look for a deeper allegorical sense in almost every work of literature. In this particular case Petrarca has in a masterly way managed to blend together the literal and the allegorical sense. In every sentence of his story of what happened to him on the fateful twenty-sixth day of April, 1336, he records also the phases of the long struggle in his conscience that eventually led to a kind of conversion and elevation to a higher state of mind, suggestive of the tumultuous conversion of his patron saint to the Christian faith almost a thousand years before.
The letter can be regarded as a particularly instructive specimen of what an author trained in medieval tradition could accomplish by filling his writings with quotations from other writers and making them his own by putting them in the right place in his work. This delicate art is brought to a climax to ward the end of the letter, where Petrarca, "on the top of the mountain," remembers the crucial moments in the lives of great predecessors and weaves passages from their biographies into his report to indicate in a most solemn manner that the decisive moment in his own life, too, has been reached (p. 45).
The treatise On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others was composed some thirty years later, in a very different phase of Petrarca's career. To understand this work it is necessary to know certain details of Petrarca's life at the time. He was then the most renowned scholar and moral philosopher of his age in the entire Western world. It came therefore as a severe blow to him to learn of a disparaging comment upon his importance pronounced by persons he had believed to be his friends and admirers.
In 1366 four men belonging to the highest social set of Venice had dared to declare in the form of a regular legal sentence that Petrarca was "certainly a good man but a scholar of poor merit." It was, indeed, pronounced after a good dinner which the four had enjoyed in privacy, but it soon became the talk of the town in the literary circles of the city where Petrarca still lived as a much honored guest. It was doubtless discussed with more or less malice among the younger people who could not bear the boundless praise lavished upon the aging celebrity. From a marginal note to a passage in a manuscript copy of the De ignorantia in Venice (Codex Marcianus Latinus IV, 86) we know the names of the four "young" men, though young they were only in the eyes of Petrarca, who was then past sixty. They were Leonardo Dandolo (ca. 1330-1405), the son of the late doge Andrea, a patrician distinguished by the high title of knight, already proved in the military and diplomatic service of his city; Zaccaria Contarini, also the scion of a very noble house, not knighted and therefore, in the wording of the note "a simple nobleman" but already often employed in important diplomatic missions; Tommaso Talenti (d. 1403), a rich merchant, but compared with the two noblemen only "a simple tradesman"; and Guido da Bagnolo of Reggio-Emilia (ca. 1325-70), court physician and resident minister of the king of Cyprus in the metropolis of Levant trade.
The first to break the unpleasant news to Petrarca was his de voted friend, Donato degli Albanzani of Pratovecchio in the Florentine Apennine (ca. 1325-1411), who was indignant at the insult inflicted upon his venerated master, all the more since his own reputation as head of a flourishing school rested to some degree upon his intimacy with the great man. Later on, Petrarca believed quite sincerely that he had only laughed at the impudence of the young braggarts, but it is not impossible that the affront hastened his decision to leave "the only haven of liberty," as he had called Venice but a few years before. At first he was sufficiently occupied with moving to Pavia, where Galeazzo Visconti, his generous patron, was about to establish a magnificent court in his marvelous new castle. It took some time before Petrarca was willing to answer in the form of an elaborate refutation. According to what he wrote to Boccaccio some years later, he started the work, reluctantly yielding to the urgent demands of his friends, ultimately because he had nothing better to do on a boresome barge ride on the Po while traveling to Padua late in the year 1367.
It had always been Petrarca's habit to rid himself of annoying and distressing mental burdens by writing. His peculiar temperament as a lyric poet had helped him very effectively on many occasions. So he regained his balance by writing a treatise on human ignorance in the classical form of the invective, a literary genus in which every weapon had been allowed since ancient times. His way of treating his self-appointed judges may, therefore, sometimes look rather shabby and even mean to modern readers who believe in good manners. However, we must remember that such a profusion of direct and hidden insults-queer as it may seem to us-belongs to the invective style. Besides, we see the angry mood slowly evaporating and a certain good-natured humor becoming more and more dominant toward the end of the little book. In the closing passages Petrarca even declares his willingness to make peace with his former friends.
Excerpted from The Renaissance Philosophy of Man Copyright © 1948 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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