Authors born between 1300 and 1450 CE
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Admiration of Mountains, and Mind
Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374 CE) was born at Aresso in Tuscanny. He was initially called Francesco di Petracco, after his father, a notary who a few years earlier had been expelled from Florence along with Dante. Subsequently the family moved to Incisa, where Petrarca mastered Tuscan in his early years, later using this to great effect in his poetry. In 1313 the family moved to Carpentras, near Avignon—a cosmopolitan city that had become the residence of the popes. At his new home, Petrarch accumulated a library of classic authors and was taught grammar and logic by Convennole da Prato, between 1315 and 1319. He also discovered the beauty of the countryside at nearby Vaucluse.
In deference to his father’s wishes, Petrarch studied law—first at Montpellier and later in Bologna, the center of juridical learning. However, Petrarch’s desire was to become a man of letters. When his father died leaving an insignificant inheritance, Petrarch had little choice but to become a priest. His fortune changed as a result of his friendship with Giacomo Colonna, a Roman nobleman and ecclesiastic, and Petrarch lived for some years under his patronage.
In 1327 the sight of a woman called Laura brought from him an outpouring of passion in Italian sonnets for over twenty years. Petrarch achieved in this poetry a perfect marriage of form and language. Its subject was a married women whose identity is obscure. Such information as we have about her emerged after a lapse of over 400 years, under questionable circumstances. It is possible that she and Petrarch never met. In fact, one gains the impression that the poems may not be addressed to an individual but to an abstract concept of women in general. Nevertheless, Petrarch’s consummate skill in the sonnet as a new form of poetry conquered Europe. So much so, that this became the preferred form for poets such as Ronsard, Gongora, Spenser and Shakespeare. By 1639, with circulation of his first large epic in Latin, Africa, Petrarch emerged as a celebrity.
Petrarch revived, after a lapse of 1,000 years, recognition that a poet and intellectual was an important member of society. At a public coronation in 1341, he received the poet’s laurel crown on the steps of the Capitol in Rome. From this time on he was highly regarded as a European poet and orator. He became an ambassador to royal courts and a guest of nobility. He adopted Parma, the residence of princes, as his home city but returned frequently to his residence in Vaucluse, where he could seek solitude and enjoy quiet rural surroundings. It was there that he fathered a son in 1337 and a daughter in 1343. The children were later legitimized by papal bulls.
While remaining a devout Catholic, Petrarch had perhaps his most enduring influence by his re-initiation of humanistic studies. Traveling widely as an ambassador and celebrity, he collected manuscripts that led to the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. The correspondence of Cicero was one of his most important discoveries. In his enthusiastic dissemination of an ancient culture that focused on the pre-Christian idea of man as the measure of all things, Petrarch became the first humanist of the Italian renaissance. As such, he instigated that process of change that gathered momentum in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution.
Petrarch was understandably outraged by the neglect and misuse of ancient manuscripts. As he remarked, "Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonor to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage."
Having a deep interest in all literature that provided an insight into the human spirit, Petrarch was an admirer of St. Augustine (who also fathered a son out of marriage). His admiration extended to emulation of Augustine’s Confessions in the book De contemptu mundi. Among contemporaries, his greatest friendship was with Boccaccio, established in 1350 when Petrarch was passing through Florence after a pilgrimage to Rome. Petrarch counseled the younger man in literary matters and provided moral support when things got tough. Their friendship continued until Petrarch’s death.
Some short extracts are given below from Petrarch’s letters and from his Life of Solitude, written to Philip de Cabassolles, Bishop of Cavaillon, Vaucluse, where Petrarch composed this work, mainly in Lent 1346, was in the Bishop's diocese. Translations from a few of his sonnets are also given. The contrast between his calm, intellectual discussion of death in his Latin Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul and the emotional turmoil expressed in the Italian sonnets over the death of Laura is poignant.
From the Letters
1 Cola di Rienzo has recently come, or rather
been brought, a prisoner to the papal curia. . . In this plight, as I
understand from the letters of friends, one hope is left him: a rumor has
spread among the people that he is an illustrious poet. . . I am delighted,
and rejoice more than words can tell, that such honor is now rendered to the
muses, and—what is more astonishing—by those who are unacquainted with
them; so that they are able to save by their name alone a man otherwise
hateful even to his very judges. . .What greater tribute, I ask, could be paid
to the power of the Muses than that they should be permitted to snatch from
death’s door a man certainly detested—with how much reason I will not
discuss—, a convicted and confessed criminal (even if not guilty of the
offence of which he is accused), about to be condemned by the unanimous vote
of his judges to capital punishment.
Yet if you asked my opinion I should say that Cola di Rienzo is very
eloquent, possessed of great powers of persuasion, and ready of speech; as a
writer also he is charming and elegant, his diction, if not very copious, is
graceful and brilliant. I believe, too, that he reads all the poets that are
generally known; but he is not a poet for all that, any more than one is a
weaver who dons a garment made by another's hands. Even the writing of verses
does not suffice by itself to earn the title of poet. As Horace most truly
not enough then merely to enclose
Plain sense in numbers, which if you transpose,
The words were such as any man might say.
I wished to tell you all this in order that you first might be moved by
the fate of one who was once a public benefactor, and then might rejoice in
his unexpected deliverance. You will, like me, be equally amused and disgusted
by the cause of his escape, and will wonder, if Cola—which God grant—can,
in such imminent peril, find shelter beneath the aegis of the poet, why Virgil
should not escape in the same way? Yet he would certainly have perished at
the hands of the same judges, because he is held to be not a poet but a
magician. But I will tell you something which will amuse you still more. I
myself, than whom no one has ever been more hostile to divination and magic,
have occasionally been pronounced a magician by quite as acute judges, on
account of my fondness for Virgil. How low indeed have our studies sunk!
From a Letter to Francesco Nelli
I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not
improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great
an elevation had to offer. . . One peak of the mountain, the highest of all,
the country people call “Sonny,” why, I do not know—unless by
antiphrasis, as I have sometimes suspected in other instances—for the peak
in question would seem to be the father of all the surrounding ones. On its
top is a little level place, and here we could at last rest our tired bodies.
. . . At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the
effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one
dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and
Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a
mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, where my heart most
inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although
they were really at a great distance . . .
I turned about and gazed toward the west. I was unable to discern the
summits of the Pyrenees—which form the barrier between France and Spain—not
because of any intervening obstacle that I know of but owing simply to the
insufficiency of our mortal vision. But I could see with the utmost clearness,
off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the
bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of Aigues Mortes,
although all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of
several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.
It occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustine's Confessions.
. . where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “And men go abroad to
admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides
of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass
over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”
From a Letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro
5 [To Boccaccio] I come back to that part of your letter which so affected me on first
reading. You say that a certain Peter, a native of Sienna, noted for his piety
and for the miracles which he performed, has recently died; that on his
deathbed, among many predictions relating to various persons, he had
something to say of both of us; and that, moreover, he sent a messenger to you
to communicate his last words. . .
were first informed that your life is approaching its end, and that but a few
years remain to you. Secondly, you were bidden to renounce the study of
poetry. Hence your consternation and sorrow, which I shared at first as I
read, but which a little reflection served to efface, as it will in your case
too, if you will but lend me your ears, or listen to the utterances of your
own better reason. You will see that, instead of being a source of grief, the
message ought to give you joy.
do not belittle the authority of prophecy. What comes to us from Christ must
indeed be true. Truth itself cannot lie. But I venture to question whether
Christ was the author of this particular prophecy, whether it may not be, as
often happens, a fabrication attributed to him in order to insure its
acceptance. For it is an old and much-used device to drape one's own lying
inventions with the veil of religion and sanctity, in order to give the
appearance of divine sanction to human fraud.
Suppose, though, that we do grant their trustworthiness, as well as
that of other similar prophecies which are reported to us, including the one
by which you have recently been terrified; what is there, after all, which
need fill you with such apprehension? We are usually indifferent to those
things with which we are familiar, and are excited and disturbed only by the
unexpected. Did you not know well enough, without hearing it from this man,
that you had but a short span of life before you ?
I might commend to you, in your perplexity, the reflections of Virgil,
as not only helpful but as the only advice to be followed at this juncture,
were it not that I wished to spare the ears of one to whom poetry is
absolutely forbidden. This prohibition filled me with much more astonishment
than the first part of the dying man's message. If it had been addressed to an
old man who was, so to speak, just learning his letters, I might have put up
with it, but I cannot understand why such advice should be given to an
educated person in the full possession of his faculties, one who realizes what
can be derived from such studies for the fuller understanding of natural
things, for the advancement of morals and of eloquence.
Believe me, many things are attributed to gravity and wisdom which are
really due to incapacity and sloth. Men often despise what they despair of
obtaining. It is in the very nature of ignorance to scorn what it cannot
understand, and to desire to keep others from attaining what it cannot reach.
Hence the false judgments upon matters of which we know nothing, by which we
evince our envy quite as clearly as our stupidity.
Neither exhortations to virtue nor the argument of approaching death
should divert us from literature; for in a good mind it excites the love of
virtue, and dissipates, or at least diminishes, the fear of death. To desert
our studies shows want of self-confidence rather than wisdom, for letters do
not hinder but aid the properly constituted mind which possesses them; they
facilitate our life, they do not retard it. Just as many kinds of food which
lie heavy on an enfeebled and nauseated stomach furnish excellent nourishment
for one who is well but famishing, so in our studies many things which are
deadly to the weak mind may prove most salutary to an acute and healthy
intellect, especially if in our use of both food and learning we exercise
proper discretion. If it were otherwise, surely the zeal of certain persons
who persevered to the end could not have roused such admiration. Cato, I never
forget, acquainted himself with Latin literature as he was growing old, and
Greek when he had really become an old man. Varro, who reached his hundredth
year still reading and writing, parted from life sooner than from his love of
If I may be allowed to speak for myself, it seems to me that, although
the path to virtue by the way of ignorance may be plain, it fosters sloth. The
goal of all good people is the same, but the ways of reaching it are many and
various. Some advance slowly, others with more spirit; some obscurely, others
again conspicuously. One takes a lower, another a higher path. Although all
alike are on the road to happiness, certainly the more elevated path is the
more glorious. Hence ignorance, however devout, is by no means to be put on a
plane with the enlightened devoutness of one familiar with literature.
From a Letter to Boccaccio
No wise man will regard as peculiar to himself a source of
dissatisfaction which is common to all. Each of us has quite enough to
complain of at home; a great deal too much, in fact. Do you think that no one
ever had your experience before? You are mistaken—it is the common fate of
all. Scarcely anyone ever did or wrote anything which was regarded with
admiration while he still lived. Death first gives rise to praise—and for a
very simple reason; jealousy lives and dies with the body. “But,”
you reply, “the writings of so many are lauded to the skies, that, if it
be permissible to boast, . . .” Here you stop, and, as is the habit of those
who are irritated, you leave your auditor in suspense by dropping your
sentence half finished. But I easily guess your half-expressed thought, and
know what you would say. Many productions are received with enthusiasm which,
compared with yours, deserve neither praise nor readers, and yet yours fail to
receive any attention. You will certainly recognize in my words your own
indignant reasoning, which would be quite justifiable if, instead of applying
it exclusively to yourself, you extended it to all those who have been, are,
or shall be, seized by this passionate and diseased craving to write.
Let us look for a moment at those whose writings have become famous.
Where are the writers themselves? They have turned to dust and ashes these
many years. And you long for praise? Then you, too, must die. The favor of
humanity begins with the author's decease; the end of life is the beginning of
glory. If it begins earlier, it is abnormal and untimely. Moreover, so long as
any of your contemporaries still live, although you may begin to get
possession of what you desire, you may not have its full enjoyment. Only when
the ashes of a whole generation have been consigned to the funeral urn do men
begin to pass an unbiased judgment, free from personal jealousy. Let the
present age harbor any opinion it will of us. If it be just, let us receive it
with equanimity; if unjust, we must appeal to unprejudiced judges—to
posterity, seeing that a fair-minded verdict can be obtained nowhere else.
From A Letter to Tommaso di Messina.
From The Sonnets
O you, who hears in scattered verse the sound
Of all those
sighs with which my heart I fed,
When I, by
youthful error was misled,
present self in passion drowned;
Who hears the
woes, the pleadings that abound
song, by hopes and vain griefs bred;
If ever true
love its influence over you shed,
Oh ! let your
pity be with pardon crowned.
But now full well I see how to the crowd
For a long time I proved a public jest:
E'ven by myself my folly is allowed:
And of my
vanity what's left is shame,
a knowledge deep impressed,
pleasure is a passing dream.
Sonnet 1 To Laura in Life
Translated by the Rev. Nott
Alone, and lost in thought, the desert glade
roam with lingering steps and slow;
And still a
watchful glance around me throw,
Anxious to shun
the print of human tread:
No other means
I find, no surer aid
world's prying eye to hide my woe:
So well my wild
disordered gestures show,
looks, the fire within me bred,
That well I
think each mountain, wood and plain,
knows, what I from man conceal,
hues my life's fool chances dim.
wild or savage paths I've taken,
wander, love attends me still,
to my soul, and I to him.
Sonnet 28 To Laura in Life
Translated by Anon. 1795
Friend, as we both in confidence complain
To see our
ill-placed hopes return in vain,
Let that chief
good which must for ever please
thought and fix our happiness.
This world as
some gay flowery field is spread,
Which hides a
serpent in its painted bed,
And most it
wounds when most it charms our eyes,
At once the
tempter and the paradise.
And would you,
then, sweet peace of mind restore,
And in fair calm expect your parting hour?—
Leave the mad
train, and court the happy few.
Well may it be
replied, “O friend, you show
path, from which so often you
and now stray farther than before.”
Sonnet 78 To Laura in Life
Translated by Basil Kennet
Those pious lines wherein are finely met
Proofs of high
genius and a spirit kind.
Had so much
influence on my grateful mind
in hand my pen I set
To tell you
that death's final blow—which yet
Shall me and
every mortal surely find—
I have not felt, though I too nearly join'd
The confines of his realm without regret;
But I turn'd back again because I read
Writ o'er the
threshold that the time to me
predestinate was not all fled,
Though its last
day and hour I could not see.
Then once more
let your sad heart comfort know,
And love the
living worth which dead it honored so.
Sonnet 96 To Laura in Life
Translated by MacGregor
The eyes, the face, the limbs of heavenly mold,
So long the theme of my impassioned lay,
Charms which so stole me from myself away,
That strange to other men the course I hold;
The crisped locks of pure and lucid gold,
The lightning of the angelic smile, whose ray
To earth could all of paradise convey,
A little dust are now —to feeling cold.
And yet I live—but that I live bewail,
Sunk the loved light that through the tempest led
My shattered bark, bereft of mast and sail:
Hushed be for aye the song that breathed love's fire!
Lost is the theme on which my fancy fed,
And turned to mourning my once tuneful lyre.
Sonnet 24 To Laura in Death
Translated by Lady Dacre
I might perhaps have persuaded people to spare themselves and me and my
good name, if it were not, as they say, that the mischief is already done and
it is no longer possible for me to seek concealment in silence. I am already
known and read and judged, already without hope of escaping the verdict of men
and of hiding my talent. Whether I go out into the open or remain sitting at
home, I must still be in the public gaze.
now do you expect of me other than what I have always had in my mouth and in
my heart, and what is preached by the very place I am now looking on—the
celebration of a life of solitude and leisure such as once you made frequent
trial of by yourself and recently tasted in my society for the brief space of
I am not unmindful of the sentence of Seneca: “Throw aside all
hindrances and give up your time to attaining a sound mind,” to which he
promptly adds, “No man can attain it who is engrossed in other
matters.” Now what I maintain is not that solitude develops such
a mind but that it is conducive to preserving and strengthening it, for I
have not forgotten another observation of the same writer to the effect that
the place in which one lives does not greatly contribute to one's tranquility.
Be it so, yet doubtless it contributes something. Otherwise why does he
say elsewhere that “we ought to select abodes which are wholesome not
only for the body but also for the character?” And in still
another place he exclaims, “I shall flee far from the very sight and
neighborhood of the Forum.” For as a severe climate puts to the
test even the sturdiest constitution, so there are some situations which are
very unwholesome for a well-disposed mind before it has come to full maturity.
From where comes, pray, the difference in the soundness of minds and
habits of conduct if there is nothing in places? There is something in
places, with Seneca's leave I would say a great deal, though not everything. I
quite agree with his view that “it is the mind which must
make everything agreeable to itself.”
It is without question the nature of the mind that when it is earnestly
applied to one interest it must neglect many others. Hence it is that those
who cultivate eloquence are often so inept for action, and that men engaged
in important affairs are less accomplished in expression. In the same way
those who aim at an ideal of sobriety avoid vulgar pleasures, while those who
place a value on pleasurable indulgence scorn the notion of sobriety. Men who
are possessed with a desire for augmenting their private wealth often make
small account of their friends and the state, and lead an ignoble kind of life;
while those who are magnanimously devoted to the public interest are
frequently seen to be neglectful of their domestic concerns. The same wind
cannot be equally favorable to mariners whose courses lie in opposite
directions. This I say that you may not be surprised at finding the same truth
applied to the matter under discussion. The busy life is fond of noise and
finds pleasure in talkativeness, while contemplation is the friend of silence
and retirement; and by the same token, the former hates silence, the latter
In this connection each man must seriously take into account the
disposition with which nature has endowed him and the bent which by habit or
training he has developed. For there are some for whom the life of solitude is
more grievous than death and seems calculated to result in death, and this
will happen particularly with persons who have no acquaintance with
literature. Such men, if they have no one to talk to, are destitute of any
resource for communion with themselves or with books, and necessarily remain
dumb. And indeed isolation without literature is exile, prison, and torture;
supply literature, and it becomes your country, freedom, and delight. “What
is sweeter than lettered ease?"
is a well known saying of Cicero. Not less familiar is Seneca's
sentence, “Leisure without study is death; it is a tomb for the living man.”
In every well-ordered plan for reforming one's life it is especially
important to keep in view that we are to be guided not by idle wishes but by
our character and predisposition, and that we are to follow not the road which
looks most attractive but the one which is best suited to our needs. In this
connection I require that a man shall be particularly honest and exacting in
passing judgment on himself and not prone to be led astray by the delusive
temptations of eye and ear. I know that it has happened to some men that in
their admiration for the qualities of others they have lost the consciousness
of their own limitations, and attempting actions that are remote from their
powers, they have provided matter of mirth to strangers. One admonition that I
have derived from the philosophers is that each man should note the relation
between his own character and habits and a given mode of life, whether it be
the retired life or life in the city or any other manner of life, and
understand which is best suited for himself. If this is advantageous to those
who are just entering upon life, how much more so must it be to those who have
advanced in it, since in addition to the trouble of choosing they are also
faced with the task of destroying old and firmly rooted notions.
23 But when some need compels me to dwell in the city, I have learned to create a solitude among people and a haven of refuge in the midst of a tempest, using a device, not generally known, of so controlling the senses that they do not perceive what they perceive. Long after I had developed it into a habit by my own experimentation, I discovered that it was also the advice of a very brilliant and learned writer, and I committed it to memory all the more eagerly because of my joy at finding that a practice of mine was supported by the authority of antiquity. It is Quintilian, in that book in which with great elegance he has put the finishing touches on the education of the orator, previously set forth with such beauty by Cicero, who says: “Study, by the lamp, when we come to it fresh and vigorous, is the best kind of retirement. But silence and seclusion, and entire freedom of mind, though in the highest degree desirable, cannot always fall to our lot; and therefore we must not, if any noise disturbs us, immediately throw aside our books, and deplore the day as lost, but we must strive against inconveniences, and acquire such habits, that our application may set all interruptions at defiance; for if we direct our attention, with our whole mental energy, to the work actually before us, nothing of all that strikes our eyes or ears will penetrate into the mind. Does a casual train of thought often cause us not to see persons in our way, and to wander from our path, and shall we not attain the same abstraction if we resolve to do so?”
I am not, however, so unreasonable in my attitude or so narrowly
attached to my view as to think all others foolish or to compel them to pledge
fealty to my doctrine. Many may be brought to profess, but no one can be
forced to believe. There is nothing more vital than independence of judgment;
as I claim it for myself I would not deny it to others. I grant you (for it is
possible) that every man's purpose is honorable and sacred; I would not
constitute myself the judge of the deep and hidden mysteries of the human
However, let me not pass over in silence the more obvious pleasures: to
devote oneself to reading and writing, alternately finding employment and
relief in each, to read what our forerunners have written and to write what
later generations may wish to read, to pay to posterity the debt which we
cannot pay to the dead for the gift of their writings, and yet not remain
altogether ungrateful to the dead but to make their names more popular if they
are little known, to restore them if they have been forgotten, to dig them out
if they have been buried in the ruins of time and to hand them down to our
grandchildren as objects of veneration, to carry them in the heart
and as something sweet in the mouth, and finally, by cherishing, remembering,
and celebrating their fame in every way, to pay them the homage that is due to
their genius even though it is not commensurate with their greatness.
I never persuaded those for whom I said solitude was advantageous that
in their desire for solitude they should despise the laws of friendship. I
bade them fly from crowds and not from friends. And if any one thinks that he
possesses crowds of friends, let him first see to it that he is not deluded.
Some sudden need or change of fortune is well calculated to reveal the truth,
and while this is not to be wished out of a mere craving for experience, yet
if it so befalls it contributes much to our enlightenment and to the
dissipation of our illusions. Moreover, if in his friendships as in other
things one man should be richer than another, I should not be
disturbed, nor should I admonish the solitary man so much to shun his friends
as to wish that they should come to visit him singly and not in throngs,
bringing comfort and encouragement to his leisure rather than annoyance. Let
his leisure be modest and gentle, not rude; let his solitude be tranquil,
not savage; in short, let it be solitude and not barbarism. Whoever invades
him in this retreat should have occasion to marvel that humanity, which is
exiled from the cities, inhabits the wilderness, and that while he has found
bears and lions in populous places, in solitude he has discovered angelic man.
Such is my feeling
in the matter, and this I hold to be the middle of the road between the two
extremes. The man at one extreme is not happy unless he is in a crowd: he is
deserving of pity rather than correction. The other says, “Avoid even the
individual:” to him I know not what reply to make.
[The Elder Scipio said that he was never less idle than when at
leisure, and never less lonely than when alone] The force
of this aphorism is to impress in
a few words what I have in mind. I mean a solitude that is not exclusive,
leisure that is neither idle nor profitless but productive of advantage to
many. For I agree that those who in their leisure are indolent, sluggish, and
aloof, are always melancholy and unhappy, and for them there can be no
performance of honorable actions, no absorption in dignified study, no
intercourse with distinguished personalities. This then is the sum. I do not
admit into our leisure employments that are more inconstant than the winds but
only such as have some fixity, whose result is not trouble and gain and
dishonor but satisfaction and virtue and fame. The holiday which I ordain is
for the body, not for the mind; I do not allow the intellect to lie fallow
except that it may revive and become more fertile by a period of rest. For a
rest benefits the brain just as it benefits the soil.
there are books of different kinds in whose substance and whose authors one
has pleasant, unfailing companions, ready at his bidding to go into public
or return to his house, always prepared to be silent or to speak, to stay at
home or to accompany him in the woods, to travel, to remain in the country, to
converse, to amuse, to cheer, to comfort, to advise, to dispute, to consult,
to teach the secrets of nature, the memorable deeds of history, the rule of
life and the contempt of death, moderation in prosperity, fortitude in adversity, equanimity and steadfastness in all our actions; cheerful
associates, learned, humble, and eloquent, free from annoyance and expense,
without complaint or grumbling, without envy or treachery. Add to all these
benefits that they do not ask for food or drink and are content with scant
raiment and a narrow portion of the house, though they afford their hosts
inestimable treasures of mind, spacious houses, brilliant attire, delightful
entertainment, and most savory food.
For behold, there will come persons who will show us the way to great
riches, which is nothing else than to teach avarice— truly a pernicious
school, and an exceedingly laborious and difficult doctrine, to be learned
only with great expense of vigils and toil, and destined either to miss its
goal or to do injury by its success. To a mind occupied in such thoughts let
us say, “Consider, rather, the way to avoid the desire of riches.” For
that is the more useful, and certainly the easier art, and if the mind is a
little slow and indisposed for this lesson, it should be stimulated with
additional incentives. Let us prove to it that, aside from the evils of riches
concerning which I have just been speaking and which are daily in the mouths
of many persons, this art is in our own hands while the other is in the power
of fortune. Any one may despise wealth, to gain it is not so easy. You know
that saying of our friend, “Why should I demand of fortune that she give,
rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?” And so I think it is
better to leave unattempted an undertaking which is difficult and of doubtful
issue and which, even if it were of assured utility, would be ill-timed and
too late. For look, shall we perspire and pant and torture ourselves for fear
of lacking sustenance in our short and perishable existence when, as I said,
we already have means heaped up to the extent of enviable luxury?
Cicero, you recall,
writing once to his brother said, "As for your frequent exhortations to me in
the past to ambition and work, I shall act on them, but when shall we live?" A
brief question but a pregnant one.
Similarly may not any one reply with sufficient point and seriousness to the
adviser I have just spoken of? “Your suggestion, my friend, is good, if only
it is practicable. But when shall we begin to live, I pray you, whose part it
clearly is not merely to begin to live but already to have lived?” For this
life of constant anxiety, directed toward the morrow, is not life at all, but
preparation for a life which may never come and which is well known to be
doubtful. Among many observations of the plebeian poet you may hold this one
as not spoken in an ignorant manner:
Trust me, it is not the nature of a wise man to say, “I shall
It is too late to
live tomorrow, you must live today.
Vengeance is provocative, appetite is tempting, ambition brings
anxiety, love inflames one to carry out what is difficult and to scorn what is
easy. Let us teach our mind that the way to the infliction of injury is
doubtful and dangerous and that while we seek revenge we often but add to the wrongs; that the service of the appetite is vile and the troublesome preparation issues in a disgraceful conclusion; that ambition is always
windy, calling for a humble appeal to the people,
which nothing is more distasteful; that love is impudent and domineering,
requiring service to silly women, than which nothing is more undignified for a
strong man, an occasion of idle mirth and of mourning, and often no less when
the outcome is happy than when it is sad, so great is the vanity of the thing.
For all these temptations there is a single rule. Since in satisfying these
desires thought is obstructed, and mortal griefs and causes of misfortune will
never be wanting, in order to escape from them and be happy and free, only
contempt will avail. Therefore we should rather consider how to avoid getting
into these difficulties than how to extricate ourselves from them.
Though I have always diligently sought for the truth, yet I fear that
the recesses in which it is hidden, or my own preoccupations, or a certain
dullness of mind may have sometimes stood in my way, so that often in my
search for the thing I may have been bewildered by false lights. Therefore I
have treated these matters not in the spirit of one who lays down the law but
as a student and investigator. For to define is the province of a wise man,
and I am neither wise nor neighbor to the wise, but in Cicero's words, “a
man fertile in conjectures.”
1-12 Petrarch translated by James Harvey Robinson, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York & London, 1898.
13-17 The Sonnets, Triumphs, and other Poems of Petrarch, Translated into English Verse by Various Hands. London, Henry G. Bohn, London, 1859. pp 1, 38, 95, 111, 253.
18-32 The Life of Solitude by Francis Petrarch, translated by Jaboc
Zeitlin. University of Illinois Press, Chicago.1924.
Introduction, adaptation and selection Copyright © Rex Pay 2004