Petrarch’s Three Lessons For A Better Society
1. Authority must not usurp the place of reason.
Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374, anglicized as Petrarch) was an Italian poet and scholar. He is most famous for having composed the Canzoniere, a collection of 366 lyrical poems that later served as a template for the creation of a standard Italian language.
Petrarch was a Christian, but his love for ancient wisdom made it hard to reconcile his faith with the irreligious wisdom he unearthed. Nonetheless, the scholar managed to reconcile the two, giving birth to what is now termed religious humanism.
He believed that knowledge is necessary to become a good human, and that studying and contemplating the world was the only way out of the Dark Ages, a concept that he developed after spending decades in indoctrinating schools and monasteries.
On that note, here are 3 of his lessons that, if practiced, would lead to a better society.
1. Authority must not usurp the place of reason.
In a letter titled The Old Grammarian of Vicenza, Petrarch recounts a witty exchange with a man named Pulice.
Like Petrarch, Pulice was a classical scholar. One night at a bar, the two entered a group conversation about the superb Roman literary hero Cicero. Someone had made a comment about Cicero’s “golden eloquence” and “heavenly genius”, with which Petrarch agreed.
To give his own, he pulled out two letters, one praising and one criticizing Cicero’s character with a long list of corroborated facts. Infuriated, Pulice stood up and started unloading his ire on Petrarch.
How dare he criticize Cicero. How dare he speak ill of a hero. How dare he speak of true things!
Sounds an awful lot like modern times, doesn’t it?
Most of us take it to heart when we hear accusations against people whom we already disliked, but tend to close an eye when faced with uncomfortable truths about people we praise.
It may be an impulsive reaction, a psychological mechanism to respond to perceived threats against one’s ideological allegiance, or a lazy response to an unforeseen intellectual challenge.
Whatever it is, Petrarch advises us that criticism must not be partial. We cannot cast judgments selectively simply because we have an emotional preference for the one being scrutinized. Unlike Pulice, we must critique everyone, including those with whom we agree, including ourselves.
In a bitter tone, Petrarch concludes:
“He was so blinded by love of his hero and by the brightness of his name that he preferred to praise him even when he was in the wrong; letting authority usurp the place of reason.”
2. “You see how trivial a thing is this wonderful fame which we mortals sigh for so windily.”
Van Gogh only sold a couple of paintings during his life. In 1990, his portrait of Dr Gachet sold for $82.5 million. And he is now revered as one of the most talented, genuine painters.
Emily Dickinson barely published any of her poems during her life. She was virtually unknown until her sister Lavina discovered over 1800 poems of hers and had them published years after her death. Dickinson is now regarded as one of the most important figures in American poetry.
At 66, Galileo Galilei was condemned to house arrest for the rest of his life for publishing a book supporting heliocentrism and questioning the bible’s authority on celestial matters. His theories were only accepted in the 19th century. Thanks to his tools and discoveries, many consider him the father of the scientific revolution.
Countless figures have made priceless contributions to humanity that were only understood and appreciated after they passed. What most have in common is that they chose lasting beauty, wisdom, knowledge, and truth over fame.
They could have copied everyone else. They could have chosen conventionality to become rich and famous. But they didn’t.
They elevated their passions above all else. They followed their heart and poured their soul into creating an original path that reflected truth more brightly than any pursuit of stardom ever could. And the rest is history.
Forget big checks, forget fame; because giving up your authenticity is too high a price to pay.
After all, how trivial a thing is this wonderful fame which we mortals sigh for?
3. The values we cherish determine the value of the world we inhabit.
A lover of writing and books, Petrarch understood the value of reading and internalizing knowledge. So much so that he devoted years to copying texts that no one knew existed. His awe of Greek and Roman authors even prompted him to write heartfelt letters to dead authors whose books he admired.
What’s worth noting is that Petrarch didn’t see knowledge as a means to an end. Rather, he valued it for the sake of knowledge itself — for the pleasure that reading gave him and the euphoria that knowing brought upon him.
Petrarch’s way of viewing knowledge and what it is for is rather different from how most of us seem to think about it. For many, knowledge comes as degrees and certificates ready to be bragged about on a resume. For many others, knowledge generates money and it becomes a tool to fool others into buying a product or subscribing to a channel. For others yet, knowledge is to be used as a weapon to obliterate those whom we dislike (Petrarch was not immune to this one).
But even though it seems so hard to imagine, a world where knowledge is valued for its sake — where there is no need to crush an opponent just because we can or to be all clever and trick others into handing us money — might just be a better world. An idealistic one, but don’t tell me it’s impossible.
With unparalleled elegance and a hint of corniness, Petrarch ends one of his letters:
“If you would win glory from your books you must know them, and not merely have them; must stow them away, not in your library but in your memory, not in your bookcases but in your brain.”
Until we craft a new set of values, a good society will be but a distant light in a shadowy ocean.