‘Ignorance and presumption rebuked’

books, history, literature, philosophy

Could it be that Petrarch had the same concerns seven hundred years ago without the advent of social media? Some things change, some things stay the same.  Considered to be the father of humanism, and to instigate the Renaissance, Petrarch embodied a new and vigorous way of thinking, disdaining the centuries preceding as a time he dubbed ‘ the Dark Ages’.  I would have wanted to have sat down and shared a meal with him.  His father chose for him the study of law, which he deplored and left.  He favoured contemplative study, and looking back to the classicism of Ancient Rome and Greece, creating a body of writing as fresh and as cogent today as when he wrote them.

Let me say, then, that I detect in your writings a constant effort to make a display…… As Seneca has said, it is unseemly for a grown man to go gathering nosegays; he should care for fruit rather than flowers. ….
You seem to take delight in exploring new regions, where the paths are unknown to you and you are sure to go astray once in a while or fall into a pit. You like to follow the example of those who parade their know ledge before their doors, like so much merchandise, while their houses within are empty. Ah ! it is safer to be something than to be always trying to seem to be. Ostentation is difficult and dangerous. Moreover, just when you are most desirous of being deemed great, innumerable little things are sure to happen which not only reduce you to your true dimensions but bring you below them. No one intellect should ever strive for distinction in more than one pursuit. Those who boast of preeminence in many arts are either divinely endowed or utterly shameless or simply mad. Who ever heard of such presumption in olden times, on the part of either Greeks or men of our own race ? It is a new practice, a new kind of effrontery. To-day men write up over their doors inscriptions full of vainglory, containing claims which, if true, would make them, as Pliny puts it, superior even to the law of the land. But when one looks within-ye gods! what emptiness is there! So, in conclusion, I beg you, if my words have any weight, to be content within your own bounds. Do not imitate these men who are all promise and no performance; who, as the comic poet has said, know everything and yet know nothing. There is a certain wise old Greek proverb that bids everyone stick to the trade that he understands. Farewell.

Francis Petrarch (1304 – 1374)
Familiar Letters
From James Harvey Robinson, ed. and trans.
Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters
(New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898)

PhisickAgainstFortune Petrarch254 dialogues attempt to explore the effects of good and bad fortune on the soul. This is Petrarch’s book of practical philosophy, completed in 1360, A German illustrated version was published in August 1532 and remained in circulation for two centuries having a significant cultural impact .

Griselda by Petrarch

Petrarch was very taken by a story told to him in the Italian vernacular by his friend Boccaccio and was so struck by it that he felt the need to retell it in Latin. this became the Story of Griselda, in turn admired by Chaucer who Petrarch may or may not have met. Chaucer related the story as part of his Canterbury Tales, known as the Clerk’s Tale.

One of the features of Petrarch that strikes me is his introspection.  This is not a popular character trait in modern times, where speed of response and immediate gratification is seemingly moulding a different sensibility to the human condition.  But I like him all the more for demonstrating that and for producing work of lasting importance.  During his life he chose to explore a mountain, and contemplated who to take with him, settling finally on his younger brother. This would not be an easy ascent, and at the summit he reputedly drew upon a book of St Augustine for inspiration or solace , and according to his record the book fell open at this point, 

And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.

Back to Petrarch;

“I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation […]”

Thanks go to http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/books.html for his insight into a fascinating member of the human race.


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