from The Renaissance Philosophy of
Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer,Paul Oskar Kristeller and John Herman
Randall. Notes have been omitted.
For educational use only.
ON HIS OWN IGNORANCE AND THAT OF MANY OTHERS
by Francesco Petrarca
To the grammarian Donato the Apennine-born, With a little book dedicated to him
HERE at last, my friend, you have the little book long since expected and promised, a little book on a vast matter, namely, "On my own ignorance and that of many others." Had I been allowed to beat it out on the anvil of my inventive genius with the hammer of study, you may believe me, it would have grown into a camel's load. For can there be a wider field, a vaster ground for talking, than a treatise on ignorance and especially on mine? You shall read this book, as you are in the habit of listening to me when I tell tales at the fireside on winter nights, rambling along wherever the impulse takes me. I have called it a book, but it is a talk. It has nothing of a book besides the name: neither the bulk nor the disposition; it has not the style and, above all, not the gravity of a book, since it was written quickly on a hasty journey.
However, I have had the whim to call it a book, because I wanted to win your favor with a small present and a great name. I was convinced that whatever comes from me will please you. Nevertheless, I intended to cheat you. It is customary to cheat another in this manner even among friends. When we send them a few apples or some choice morsel of dainty food,we put these things into a silver vessel and wrap it in pure white linen. What is sent does not then become more. It does not become more valuable but is made more agreeable to him who receives it and more honorable for the sender. Thus I have made
a trifling thing more honorable by a beautiful wrapping when I call a book what I might have called a letter.
It will not be the less valuable to you because it is interspersed with countless obliterations and additions and completely crammed with marginals on the borders of itS pages. It has lost somewhat of its decorous appearance to the eye, but your mind will surely appreciate that just as much gracefulness has been added. You will realize all the more that you are nearest to my heart, since I write you in such a way that you will regard all these additions and erasures as signs of close friendship and affection.
Moreover, I did not want you to doubt that the book is I
work; I have written it in my hand, which has been so familiar to you for years. Almost by intention it comes to you deformed by so many wounds and will remind you that Suetonius Tranquillus has written something similar about the emperor Nero:"There came into my hands some little tablets and small notebooks, in which several well-known verses of his were entered in his own handwriting. It was easy to recognize that they were not copied from elsewhere or written upon dictation, but set down by their inventor or begetter. So much was crossed out, inserted, and written above the lines." So far Suetonius.
I will not write more at present. Farewell and remember me.
Padua, on the thirteenth of January, from the bed of
pains, in the eleventh hour of night.
FRANCESCO PETRARCA THE LAUREATE
ON HIS OWN IGNORANCE AND THAT OF MANY OTHERS
To the grammarian Donato the Apennine-born
SHALL we never have any respite? Must this pen always
needs fight? Shall we never have a holiday? Must we respond every day to praises from our friends, every day make reply to the insults of envious rivals? Will no hiding-place ever protect us from jealousy, will no length of time extinguish envy? Shall I never find quiet repose by fleeing almost everything for which mankind strives and fervently exerts itself? Will my declining and wearied age not at last procure me a release? Envy is a persistent poison. Long since my age would have freed me from duties toward the state; it does not free me from envy. The state, to which I owe so much, gives me a discharge from my obligations; envy, to which I owe nothing, disturbs me. Once, I must confess, the times encouraged a friendlier style. A more serene manner of speaking was always congenial to my nature and would befit my present age. Pardon me,my friends, and you, reader, pardon me, whoever you are. And you above all, my dearest Donato, to whom I tell all this, forgive me. I must speak, not because it is the best thing to do, but because it is so hard to refrain. Reason advises me to keep silent;an indignation which, if I am not mistaken, is proper and dignified, and a just grief extort words from me. Most avidly craving for peace, I am thrust into war. Again, you see, we are driven forward against our will; again we are dragged before a censorious tribunal--I do not know whether I ought to call it the tribunal of envious friendship or of friendly envy. What is impossible for you, malicious grudge, if you can inflame even the hearts of friends? Much 1 have had to experienced before; this kind of evil I have never yet experienced.
Now for the first time my fate throws into my path this gravest and worst of evils. Clashes with enemies have often a prosperous issue; wrath against an enemy is sweet, as some are pleased to say--sweet at any rate is victory over him. But if you are to fight with friends, it is equally miserable to win or to lose.However, I am at war neither with friends nor with enemies but with envy. It is not a new enemy, though its manner of fighting is new. With bow and quiver it comes to the battle-field; it attacks with arrows and strikes from afar. There is one advantage: it is blind. You can easily evade it if you see it in time. It shoots without aim and often wounds its own ranks.
This monster I must now pierce, while
friendship must remain unscathed. It is certainly a precarious
task to stab one of two persons while they are clinging closely
together without hurting the other. I believe you will remember
how Julius Caesar was once engulfed by an unexpected outbreak
of fighting in Alexandria. "Then he dragged King Ptolemy
with him into all the vicissitudes of battle," determined
not to perish without him. This is supposed to have been no small
reason for his escape, since those who hated him and loved Ptolemy
thought it would be difficult to kill the foe and at the same
time save their king. You will also not have forgotten, I guess,
how on the day, when the kingdom of Persia was freed from servile
tyranny by the shrewdness of the wise Hortanes and the bravery
of the seven valiant men, one of the conspirators, "Gophirus,
grasped one of the two tyrants in a dark place and bade his companions
strike at the man even through his own body, lest, if he himself
were spared, the tyrant might escape." Now sacred friendship
calls upon me to stab with the point of my pen, even through its
own breast, the impious grudge it is clutching gently in its bosom
in unequal embrace. It is hard to distinguish between two that
are clinging together so tightly in such darkness. However, I
will try to do so. Then the foe fell, while Gophirus remained
unhurt; now bitter envy is to be crushed and dispatched, while
sweet friendship is to be saved. If friendship is true friendship--and
this can only be accomplished by true virtues--it will rather
be hurt while envy is exterminated, if it cannot be done otherwise,
than remain unhurt while envy survives and dominates.
But let us now at last come to the matter. It will be known to you no less than to me, as soon as I begin to speak of it--and, if I am not mistaken, even before I begin. Perhaps it will be even better known to you, since a friend is more concerned for the reputation of a friend than for his own. We become more easily and more honorably annoyed when something is said against friends than when it happens to ourselves. Many a man has not minded insults against himself and has been praised for this attitude; nobody has yet been able calmly to witness or hear an affront against a friend. It does not require the same grade of magnanimity to remain unmoved by offenses against others as we must have when we ourselves are insulted. Besides, how can you fail to know what you yourself made known to me first and what you were grieved to see me treat scornfully and jokingly? I shall, therefore, speak of things known to you, not because I want them to become still better known to you. You shall know how I feel against envy and begin to feel like me and shall not bewail another's wound more vehemently than your own. you shall also learn what kind of weapon I use against it; how, by long practice and diligent application, I have grown deaf to the murmur of those who are barking at me, and how I have been hardened against their envious teeth.
And this is now the gist of the present story: As had come to be their custom, there called on me these four
friends whose names you need not be told, since you know them all. Moreover, an inviolable law of friendship forbids mentioning the names of friends when you are speaking against them, even if they do not behave like friends in a particular case. They came in pairs, as equality of character or some chance bound them together. Occasionally all four of them came, and came with astonishingly winning manners, with a gay expression on their faces, and started an agreeable conversation. I have no doubt they came with good and pious intentions. However, through some cracks an unfortunate grudge had crept into hearts that deserve a better guest. It is incredible, though it is true--if only it were not too true! The man whom they wish not only good health and happiness, whom they not only love but respect, honor by their visit and venerate, to whom they try with greatest effort to be not only kind but obedient and generous--this very same person is the object of their envy. So full of patent and hidden frailties is human nature.
What is it that they envy me? I do not know, I must admit, and I am amazed when I try to find out. Certainly it is not wealth, for every single one of them surpasses me as much in wealth as "the British whale is bigger than the dolphin," as that man has said. Moreover, they wish me even greater wealth. They know that what I have is moderate, not my own property but to be shared with others. It is not magnificent but very modest without haughtiness and pomp. They know that it really does not deserve any envy. They will not envy me my friends.
The greater part of them death has taken from me, and I have the habit of sharing them willingly, just like everything else with other friends. They cannot envy me the shapeliness of my body. If there was ever such a thing, it has vanished entirely in the course of the years that vanquish all. By God's overflowing and preserving grace it is still quite satisfactory for my present age, but it has certainly long since ceased to be enviable. And if it were still as it was once, could I forget or could I then have forgotten the poetic sentence I drank in as a small boy; "Shapeliness is a frail possession," or the words of Solomon in the book in which he teaches the young: "Gracefulness is deceitful and beauty is vain." How should they then envy me what I do not have, what I held in contempt while I had it, and what I would despise now to the utmost were it given back to me, having learned and experienced how unstable it is? They cannot even envy me learning and eloquence! Learning, they declare, I have absolutely none. Eloquence, if I has is any, they despise according to the modern philosophic fashion. They reject it as unworthy of a man of letters. Thus only "infantile inability to speak" and perplexed stammering, "wisdom"
trying hard to keep one eye open and "yawning drowsily," as Cicero calls it, is held in good repute nowadays. They do not call to mind "Plato, the most eloquent of all men," and--let me omit the others--"Aristotle sweet and mild," but whom they made trite. From Aristotle's ways they swerve, taking eloquence to be an obstacle and a disgrace to philosophy, while he considered it a mighty adornment and tried to combine it with philosophy, "prevailed upon," it is asserted, "by the fame of the Orator Isocrates."
Not even virtue can they envy me, though it is beyond doubt the best and most enviable of all things. To them it seems worthless--I believe because it is not inflated and puffed up with arrogance. I should wish to possess it, and, indeed, they grant it to me unanimously and willingly. Small things they have denied me, and this very greatest possession they lavish upon me as a small gift. They call me a good man, even the best of men. If only I were not bad, not the worst in God's judgment! However, at the same time they claim that I am altogether illiterate,that I am a plain uneducated fellow. This is just the opposite of what men of letters have stated when judging me, I do not care with how much truth. I do not make much of what these,friends deprive me of, if only what they concede me were true.
Most gladly should I divide between me and these brothers of mine the inheritance of Mother Nature and heavenly Grace, so that they would all be men of letters and I a good man. I should wish to know nothing of letters or just so much as would be expedient for the daily praise of God. But, alas, I fear I shall be disappointed in this my humble desire just as they will be in their arrogant opinion. At any rate, they assert that I have a good character and am very faithful in my friendship, and in this last assertion they are not mistaken, unless I am.
This, incidentally, is the reason why they count me among their friends. They are not prevailed upon to do so by my efforts in studying the honorable arts or the hope ever to hear and learn truth from me. Thus it comes plainly to what Augustine tells of his Ambrose, saying, "I began to love him, not as a teacher of truth, but as a man who was kind to me"; or what Cicero feels about Epicurus: Cicero approves of his character in many passages, while he everywhere condemns his intellect and
rejects his doctrine.
Since all this is the case, it may be doubtful what they envy me, though there is no doubt that they do envy me something. They do not well conceal it and do not curb their tongues, which are urged by an inward impulse. In men otherwise neither unbalanced nor foolish this is nothing but a clear sign of undisciplined passion. Provided that they are envious of me as they obviously are, and that there is no other object of their envy--the latent virus is expanding by itself at any rate. For there is one thing, one empty thing, that they envy me, however trifling it may be: my name and what fame I have already won within my lifetime--greater fame perhaps than would be due to my merits or in conformity with the common habit which but very rarely celebrates living men. It is upon this fame that they have fixed their envious eyes. If only I could have done without it both now and often before! I remember that it has done me harm more often than good, winning me quite a few friends but also countless enemies. It has happened to me as to those who go into battle in a conspicuous helmet though with but little strength: they gain nothing from the dazzling brightness of this chimera except to be struck by more adversaries. Such pesti-
lence was once but too familiar to me during my more flourishing years; never was there one so troublesome as that which has now blazed up. I am now an anvil too soft for young men's wars and for assuming such burdens, and this pestilence revives unexpectedly from a quarter from which I do not deserve it and did not suspect it either, at a moment when it should have been long since overcome by my moral conduct or consumed by the course of time.
But I will go on: They think they are great men, and they are certainly rich, all of them, which is the only mortal greatness nowadays. They feel, although many people deceive themselves in this respect, that they have not won a name and cannot hope ever to win one if their foreboding is right. Among such sorrows they languish anxiously; and so great is the power of evil that they stick out their tongues and sharpen their teeth like mad dogs even against friends and wound those whom they love. Is this not a strange kind of blindness, a strange kind of fury? In just this manner the frantic mother of Pentheus tears her son to pieces and the raving Hercules his infant children. They love me and all that is mine, with the single exception of my name--which I do not refuse to change. Let them call me Thersites or Choerilus, or whatever name they prefer, provided I thus obtain that this honest love suffers not the slightest restriction.They are all the more ablaze and aglow with a blind fire, since they are all such fervent scholars, working indefatigably all night long.
However, the first of them has no learning at all--I tell you only what you know--the second knows a little; the third not much; the fourth--I must admit--not a little but in such confused and undisciplined order and, as Cicero says, "with so much frivolity and vain boasting that it would perhaps be better to know nothing." For letters are instruments of insanity for many, of arrogance for almost everyone, if they do not meet with a good and well-trained mind. Therefore, he has much to tell about wild animals, about bird and fishes: how many hairs there are in the lion's mane; how many feathers in the hawk's tail; with how many arms the cuttlefish clasps a shipwrecked man; that elephants couple from behind and are pregnant for two years; that this docile and vigorous animal, the nearest to man by its intelligence, lives until the end of the second or third century of its life; that the phoenix is consumed by aromatic fire and revives after it has been burned; that the sea urchin stops a ship,however fast she is driving along, while it is unable to do anything once it is dragged out of the waves; how the hunter fools the tiger with a mirror; how the Arimasp attacks the griffin with his sword; how whales turn over on their backs and thus deceive the sailors; that the newborn of the bear has as yet no shape; that the mule rarely gives birth, the viper only once and then to its own disaster; that moles are blind and bees deaf; that alone among all living beings the crocodile moves its upper jaw.
All this is for the greater part wrong, as has become manifest in many similar cases when animals were brought into our part of the world. The facts have certainly not been investigated by those who are quoted as authorities for them; they have been all the more promptly believed or boldly invented, since the animals live so far from us. And even if they were true, they would not contribute anything whatsoever to the blessed life. What is the use--I beseech you--of knowing the nature of quadrupeds,fowls, fishes, and serpents and not knowing or even neglecting man's nature, the purpose for which we are born, and whence and whereto we travel?
These and like matters I have often discussed with these
"scribes" who are most learned, not in the Law of Moses and the Christian Law, but, as they flatter themselves, in the Aristotelian law. I did so more frankly than they were accustomed to hear and perhaps with less caution: talking with friends, I did not think of any harm that might derive from it. At first they were astonished, then they became angry, and, as they felt that my words were directed against their sect and the laws of their father, they set up a council among themselves to condemn for the crime of ignorance--not me whom they undoubtedly love-- out my fame which they hate. If only they had called others to this court! Then there would perhaps have been opposition to the sentence they intended to pronounce. However, to keep the verdict harmonious and unanimous, only these four convened.
They discussed many different matters concerning the absent and undefended defendant--not because they disagreed in their opinions, for they all felt the same way and intended to say the same thing, but they were arguing with each other and against their own sentence after the manner of expert judges. Thus they wanted to render a decision with more color by sifting and squeezing the truth through the narrow sieve of contradictions.
As the first point, they said that public renown supported me, but replied that it deserved little faith. So far they did not lie since the vulgar mass very rarely sees the truth. Then they said that friendship with the greatest and most learned men, which has adorned my life--as I shall boast before the Lord--stood against their verdict. For I have enjoyed close friendship with many kings, especially with King Robert of Sicily, who honored me in my younger years with frequent and clear testimonials of my knowledge and genius. They replied--and here I will not say their iniquity but their vanity evidently made them lie--that
the king himself enjoyed great fame in literary matters but had no knowledge of them; and the others, however learned they were, did not show a sufficiently perspicacious judgment concerning me, whether love of me or carelessness was the cause.
They then made another objection against themselves, saying that the last three Roman popes had vied with each other in inviting me--in vain, it is true--to a high rank in their intimate household; and that Urban himself, who is now at the head was wont to speak well of me and had already bestowed on me a most affable letter. Besides, it is known far and wide and doubted by no one that the present Roman emperor--for there has been no other legitimate emperor at this time--counts me among his dear familiars and has been wont to call me to him with the weight of daily requests and repeated messages and letters. In all this they feel that some people find some proof that I must have a certain value. However, they resolve this objection too, maintaining that the popes went astray together with the others, following the general opinion about me, or were induced to do so by my good moral behavior and not by my knowledge; and that the emperor was prevailed upon by my
studies of the past and my historical works, for in this field they do not deny me some knowledge.
Furthermore, they said, another objection against them was my eloquence. This I do not acknowledge altogether, by God not. They pretend that it is a rather effective means of persuasion. It might be the task of a rhetor or an orator to speak oppositely in order to persuade for a purpose, but many people without knowledge had succeeded in persuading by mere phrases. Thus they attribute to luck what is a matter of art and bring forth the widespread proverb: "Much eloquence, little wisdom." They do not take into account Cato's definition of the oratory which contradicts their false charge. Finally, it was said that the style of my writing is in opposition to their statement. They did not dare to blame my style, not even to praise it too reservedly, and confessed that it is rather elegant and well chosen but without any learning. I do not understand how this can be, and I trust they did not understand it either. If they regain control of themselves and think over again what they have said, they will be ashamed of their silly ineptitude. For if the first statement were true--which I for my part would neither assert nor make myself believe--I have no doubt that the second
is wrong. How could the style of a person who knows nothing at all be excellent, since theirs amounts to nothing, though there is nothing they do not know? Do we so far suspect everything to be fortuitous that we leave no room for reason? What else do you want? Or what do you believe? I think you expect to hear the verdict of the judges. Well, they examined each point. Then, fixing their eyes on I know not what god-- for there is no god who wants iniquity, no god of envy or ignorance, which I might call the twofold cloud-shrouding truth--they pronounced this short final sentence: I am a good man without learning. Even if they have never spoken the truth and never shall speak it, may they have spoken it at least this once!
O bounteous, O saving Jesus, true God and true Giver of alllearning and all intelligence, true "King of Glory" and "Lord of all powers of virtue," I now pray to Thee on the knees of my soul: If Thou dost not wish to grant me more, let it be my portion at least to be a good man. This I cannot be if I do not love Thee dearly and do not adore Thee piously. For this purpose I am born, not for learning. If learning happens to come along, it inflates, it tears down; it does not build up. It is a glittering shackle, a toilsome pursuit, and a resounding burden for the soul. Thou knowest, O Lord, before whom all my desire and all my sighs are expanded: Whenever I have made a sober use of learning, I have sought in it nothing but to become good. It was not that I was confident that learning can achieve this or that;anyone can achieve it beside Thee, although Aristotle and many others have promised just this. I believed that the road on which I made my way would become more honorable and more clearly marked, and at the same time more pleasant with the aid of literary erudition, under the guidance of Thee and no one else. "Thou who lookest into the hearts and reins," Thou knowest that it is as I say. I never was such a youth, never eager for fame to such a degree--though I do not deny I coveted occasionally--that I should not have wished to be good rather than learned. I desired to be both, I confess, since human longing is boundless and insatiable until it comes to rest in Thee above Whom there is no place to which it could still rise. I desired to be both good and learned. Now that the latter is wrenched from me or denied me, I am grateful to my judges for leaving me the better of the two, provided they have not lied on this point also and granted me what they are not, intending to rob me of what they wanted to have. I was to find a comfort for my loss, though an empty one. They dealt with me after the fashion of envious women. When a woman is asked whether the woman next door is beautiful, she says that she is good and has good and decent manners. All good qualities--just such as are
not true--she allows her, because she wants to spoil her of this single and perhaps even true title, beauty. But Thou, my God "Lord of Learning," "besides Whom there is no other god," Thou Whom I must and will prefer to Aristotle and all the philosophers and poets and all those who "boastingly make many haughty words," to learning and doctrines and to all things whatsoever: Thou canst grant me the true name of a good man which these four grant me untruly. I pray to Thee, grant it tome. I'd not ask so much for the good name which Solomon refers to "precious ointments"; I ask for the thing itself. I want to be good, to love Thee, and to deserve to be loved by Thee--for no one repays his lovers like Thee--to think of Thee, to be obedient to Thee, to set my hope in Thee, and to speak of Thee. "Let all that is obsolete, shrink back from my mouth; let all my thoughts be prepared unto Thee." For it is true: "The bow of the mighty man has been overcome and the weak have been girded with strength." Happier by far is one of these feeble ones who believe in Thee, than Plato, Aristotle, Varro, and Cicero, who with all their knowledge did not know Thee.
"Brought before Thee and put next to Thee Who art the Rock, their judges are overthrown and their learned ignorance has he come manifest." Therefore, let learning be the portion of those who take it sway from me, or since it cannot be their portion, unless I am mistaken, let it be the portion of those who may have it. Let them keep their exorbitant opinion of everything that regards them, and the naked name Aristotle which delights many ignorant people by its four syllables. Moreover, let them have the vain joy and the unfounded elation which is so near to ruin; in short, let them have all the profit people who are ignorant and
puffed up earn from their errors in vague and easy credulity. My portion shall be humility and ignorance, knowledge of my own weakness, and contempt for nothing except the world and myself and the insolence of those who are condemning me, and, furthermore, distrust in myself and hope in Thee. Finally, may God be my portion and what they do not envy me, illiterate virtue. They will burst into loud laughter when they hear this and will say that I speak piously without learning like any old woman. People of their kind, tumid as they are with the fever of literary erudition, know nothing so vile as piety; truly and soberly literate men love it above all things. For them it is written: "Piety is wisdom." However, my talking will confirm the others more and more in their opinion that I am "a good man without learning."