Learning Restored: Francesco Petrarch

[Johnson] used to mention one curious instance of his casual reading, when but a boy. Having imagined that his brother had hid some apples behind a large folio upon an upper shelf in his father’s shop, he climbed up to search for them. There were no apples; but the large folio proved to be Petrarch, whom he had seen mentioned in some preface, as one of the restorers of learning. His curiosity having been thus excited, he sat down with avidity, and read a great part of the book. —James Boswell, The Life of Johnson

In keeping with studying moral philosophers like Seneca, Plutarch and Cicero I’ve been reading more of Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch), who lived from 1304 – 1374. Remembered mainly by literary academics for his poetry, he is also the great grandfather of the modern essay. One of the finer pieces that makes its way into anthologies (like The Renaissance Philosophy of Man) is Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mont Ventoux.” This philosophical travelogue exemplifies his sensitive, poetic approach to the fundamental questions of man’s existence.

Petrach is often seen as a Platonist and an anti-scholastic (and hence anti-Aristotelian). But, as Fr. Kenhelm Foster says in his excellent monograph, Petrach: Poet and Humanist (1984), he was really reacting to the Averroist skeptics and the scholastics in decline who divorced philosophy and theology from piety and human concerns. Petrarch returned to his faith in later life and consistently sought to bridge the gap between the noble pagans and the Church Fathers, like St. Augustine, whom he admired above all others. Says Foster

For him [Petrarch] the difference that Christianity made to morals would seem to have consisted rather in its pointing to the true motive of virtue than in defining it more accurately in se. Christ revealed what the good life was ultimately for; he not only revealed this ultimate good, but made it, for the first time, really accessible.

Petrarch wanted to be a practical moralist like Seneca the Stoic rather than a theoretical moralist like Aristotle. Of the latter, he says that “he knows so absolutely nothing of happiness that any pious old woman, any faithful fisherman, shepherd or peasant is – I will not say more subtle but happier in recognizing it.” I have, of course, been a fan of Aristotle since reading his Ethics in my first year of college in 1985. But Petrarch has a point. It may be that basic truths need different packaging for different people; or else Petrarch is reminding us that even the wisest mortals are imperfect and are not meant to be our ultimate model.

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