Finding Eternity in the Individual

Francesco Petrarch
Florence, 1304-1374

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), an Italian scholar and poet, grew up in Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, and Petrarch was a leading force of this renaissance, this re-birth of humanity’s sense of itself — a kind of Christian humanism aimed at recovering, understanding, and assimilating the literature and values of ancient Greece and Rome. 

Petrarch believed that a Christian life required not merely faith and ceremonies but moral practice as well, and that such morality could only be achieved by a richer understanding of what it meant to be human that drew not merely on scripture but on the moral models of antiquity.  In sharp contrast to the asceticism of late medieval Christianity, he thus sought to revivify the love of honor and beauty as preeminent human motives.  While his thought remained generally Christian, he envisioned a new kind of man with new virtues, not a citizen of a city-state or a republic, but an autarchic individual being who was whole and complete in himself.  Petrarch recognized that such individuals might surround themselves with friends or join with others as citizens, but he was convinced that they could only do so effectively if they were autonomous individuals first.  It was this ideal of human individuality that inspired the humanist movement. [Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, pp. 30-31]

Marcus Tullius Cicero
106-43 BCE
[Louvre, Paris]

Petrarch’s two greatest influences were the great Roman orator and philosopher Marcus Cicero (106-43 BCE) and the early Christian church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE).  From Cicero, he learned Latin composition and philosophy; from Augustine, he developed his understanding of how human beings should relate to the divine.

Augustine of Hippo
354-430 CE
[Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris]

Petrarch’s study of the ancients turned him toward the human world (rather than toward God or nature), and his study of Augustine focussed his attention on the individual human as a self-sufficient, autonomous being.  Unlike the Greeks and Latins, Petrarch believed neither in a natural end for humans, nor that humans were essentially social.  Our greatest achievement was to be ourselves, and each of us can become whatever we choose to be, unconfined by any natural or pre-ordained end or fate.

Petrarch has been called the first “Modern Man,” in part because of a certain experience while climbing Mt. Ventoux in southern France — this was April 26, 1336 — a climb undertaken simply for pleasure, and an account of which was given in a letter Petrarch wrote to his spiritual advisor, an Augustinian monk by the name of Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro.  In Petrarch’s words...

Today 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. I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at last accomplished today. [...]

Mount Ventoux

At the time fixed we left the house, and by evening reached Malaucène, which lies at the foot of the mountain, to the north. Having rested there a day, we finally made the ascent this morning, with no companions except two servants; and a most difficult task it was. The mountain is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. But, as the poet has well said, “Remorseless toil conquers all.” It was a long day, the air fine. We enjoyed the advantages of vigor of mind and strength and agility of body, and everything else essential to those engaged in such an undertaking, and so had no other difficulties to face than those of the region itself.

Some scholars have questioned whether Petrarch ever made this climb, given the strong allegorical nature he places on this story:

While my brother chose a direct path straight up the ridge, I weakly took an easier one which really descended. When I was called back, and the right road was shown me, I replied that I hoped to find a better way round on the other side, and that I did not mind going farther if the path were only less steep. This was just an excuse for my laziness and when the others had already reached a considerable height I was still wandering in the valleys. I had failed to find an easier path, and had only increased the distance and difficulty of the ascent. [...] I was simply trying to avoid the exertion of the ascent; but no human ingenuity can alter the nature of things, or cause anything to reach a height by going down. [...] I finally sat down in a valley and transferred my winged thoughts from things corporeal to the immaterial, addressing myself as follows: “What thou hast repeatedly experienced today in the ascent of this mountain, happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life. But this is not so readily perceived by men, since the motions of the body are obvious and external while those of the soul are invisible and hidden.”

Sandro Botticelli, “Portrait of a Young Man” (c.1480-5), tempera and oil on wood
[>>National Gallery, London]

Once he reached the summit, Petrarch pulled out his copy of Augustine’s Confessions, opening it at random to the words: “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.” This Petrarch took as a personal chastisement:

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. [...] I thought in silence of the lack of good counsel in us mortals, who neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within. I wondered at the natural nobility of our soul, save when it debases itself of its own free will, and deserts its original estate, turning what God has given it for its honor into dishonor. 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, — when it is not immersed in the foul mire of earth? [Petrarch, Epistolae de Rebus Familiaribus et Variae, vol. 4]