Petrarch's Humanism and the Care of the Self by Gur Zak (Cambridge University Press) Petrarch was one of the founding fathers of Renaissance humanism, yet the nature and significance of his ideas are still widely debated. In this book, Gur Zak examines two central issues in Petrarch's works - his humanist philosophy and his concept of the self. Zak argues that both are defined by Petrarch's idea of care for the self. Overcome by a strong sense of fragmentation, Petrarch turned to the ancient idea that philosophy can bring harmony and wholeness to the soul through the use of spiritual exercises in the form of writing. Examining his vernacular poetry and his Latin works from both literary and historical perspectives, Zak explores Petrarch's attempts to use writing as a spiritual exercise, how his spiritual techniques absorbed and transformed ancient and medieval traditions of writing, and the tensions that arose from his efforts to care for the self through writing.
The present study, although granting that the notion of fragmentation dominated Petrarch's representation and experience of self, will nevertheless strive to show that Petrarch's writings — both in Latin and the vernacular — represent an ongoing attempt to overcome his sense of diachronic and synchronic dismemberment, to find — just like members of the reform movements of the later Middle Ages — a solution to his "modern" experience of self-in-time. In Petrarch's attempt to cope with his experience of fragmentation, this book argues, he developed a new ethical program, a new philosophy of self — based primarily on a return to the ancient spiritual tradition — at the center of which is the assertion that "self" is not a given presence but a state of mind from which we are exiled, or absent, and which we need to attain through constant cultivation and care, and particularly through the use of writing as a spiritual technique (which for him is always intertwined with that of reading).
Petrarch's awareness of the flux of time had a crucial impact on his conception of philosophy. Emphasizing that all things — including his own self— are subject to change, Petrarch rejects the possibility of acquiring certain knowledge: for him, the fact that both the perceiving subject and the perceived object are changing renders any such attempt both impossible and futile.3' The true goal of philosophy, he therefore argues, is not to provide one with knowledge but to affect and transform the self, to take care of it: animi curs — the care of the soul — as he states in the opening of Fam. 1.9, is the true goal of the philosopher. Petrarch's concept of philosophy thus closely echoes Pierre Hadot's definition of ancient philosophy as "spiritual exercises" — "an art of living ... which engages the whole of existence ... a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better." To fulfill the task of philosophy, to truly philosophize, therefore, we need to perform certain actions upon the self—"spiritual exercises" in Hadot's terms — and for Petrarch it is achieved mainly by writing. Petrarch's ethics of care of the self, as a result, are in a fundamental way an ethics of writing.
A brief look at the two letters following Fam.6.2 with which I have started this introduction — written to the same correspondent and no doubt forming a thematic group together with it — provides us with an ample demonstration of the centrality of writing to Petrarch's moral program. In letter 6.3, Petrarch attempts to alleviate his addressee's anxieties and concerns over old age, poverty, and the gout, by documenting in writing a long list of examples taken from both ancient history and his own experience, examples that are to lead his addressee to the stronghold of virtue, to stop "excusing himself and accusing fortune" (excusare to ipsum, accusare fortunam). In the following letter, Fam.6.4, Petrarch provides a theoretical justification to his practice in the previous letter, defending his use of an abundance of ancient exempla in his writings. He declares, "besides experience itself which is the best teacher of things, I would wager there is no better way for the reader to learn than by being moved by my admonition to emulate these greats as closely as possible." The recording of exempla in writing, he goes on to state a little later, is not only aimed at others but also at himself: "I hope that it will profit others as I know for certain it has profited me as a reader and writer." Writing about the great men of the past therefore fills Petrarch with the desire to imitate "these greats" and shape himself in their image.
At the same time, this act of writing, as Petrarch further declares, is useful not only for leading him to virtue but also as a meditative exercise that allows him to forget his present circumstances and go back in his mind to the Rome he admires: "while I write I become eagerly engaged with our greatest writers in whatever way I can and willingly forget those among whom my unlucky star destined me to live; and to flee from these I concentrate all my strength following the ancients instead."
The attempt to overcome his own — and his readers' — experience of exile and flux in these letters is thus dominated by the practice of writing. Through writing, Petrarch leads himself and his addressee to the pursuit of virtue — the only state, as we have seen in Fam.24.1, in which the incessant passage of time is checked, and in which, as we shall see, every other form of fragmentation is overcome. In addition, it is through this practice that he can overcome his sense of exile and return in his mind to his beloved Rome. Both uses, in turn, complement the assertion we encountered in Fam.6.2 that the ability to write what he wishes serves for Petrarch as a source of presence, makes him feel that he "belongs to himself" (mews sum [Fam.6.2.2 1 ]). Writing therefore emerges in this group of letters as a spiritual exercise or, in the words of Michel Foucault, a technology of the self, that allows him to take care of and cultivate the self, to shape and transform it so as to overcome the experience of exile and fragmentation.
Yet although asserting the crucial role of writing in caring for the self, Petrarch's uses of writing as a spiritual exercise, as Fam.6.4 demonstrates, are far from one-dimensional. In seeking to make the writer virtuous, his use of writing emulates Roman Stoicism and particularly Seneca. In seeking to bring back memories of Rome and flee from his present condition, it corresponds with Ovid's uses of writing in his Poems of Exile and largely contradicts the pursuit of virtue — which is above all the attempt to become indifferent to outer circumstances.
This flexibility in his use of writing in this letter is in turn
reflected in Petrarch's entire corpus: throughout his works Petrarch uses
in a variety of ways — aimed at attaining different types of "ports" — that are often at odds with each other. These uses, in turn, are dominated by different assertions regarding the relation between writing and self — assertions that are based on both Petrarch's meticulous examination of his own experiences as a writer and the different traditions of writing that he follows. These different uses and assertions regarding the impact of writing on the self in his works, I argue, can be divided into three main categories, or types — "Stoic," "Ovidian," and "Augustinian" (with Dante's uses also playing a significant role, particularly in the vernacular poems).
Despite this recent scholarly attention to the role of the practices of reading and writing in Petrarch's humanism and his overall moral program, we do not yet have a close examination of Petrarch's uses of the practice of writing in his voluminous works as a part of his overall philosophical project of taking care of the self, a project that forms the very heart of his humanism. These studies, moreover, do not provide an account of the ways in which Petrarch's uses of writing as a spiritual exercise both draw on and transform previous traditions and authors — from the ancient writings of Seneca, Ovid, and Augustine, to the more recent influences and challenges of Dante and the monastic reform movements of the later Middle Ages. Such an examination is therefore the goal of the following chapters. As mentioned, Petrarch's uses of writing as a spiritual exercise dominate both his vernacular and Latin texts, and a comprehensive investigation of his ethics of writing will therefore require us to bridge the disciplinary gap that all too often divides Petrarchan scholarship between historians who concentrate on his "humanistic," or Latin, texts and literary critics who are engaged mostly with the vernacular poetry and to look at his uses of writing in both languages. One of the main contentions of this book is that the two bodies of work represent two largely contradictory efforts to overcome fragmentation through writing and that Petrarch established his use of writing in the Latin works to a large extent in direct opposition to the vernacular ones. However, as we shall see, even though Petrarch laboriously strived to keep the uses of writing in both corpora distinctly apart, unsettling overlaps proved both unavoidable and revealing.
In the first chapter of the book, then, I focus on Petrarch's uses of writing in his collection of vernacular poetry, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. In the poems, writing emerges as the steadfast and unchanging aspect of the poet's existence, as well as a personal ritual and a meditative exercise that allow him to return over and over again to the beginning, to his golden age, the time "before time," thus abolishing time's constant passage. At the same time, Petrarch also introduces in the poems the notion — advanced as well by the figure of Franciscus in the Secretum —that by writing about his object of desire — both Laura and the laurel —he is transformed into it, becoming virtuous and steadfast just like it. The transcendence of time, and of his sense of exile in time, is therefore dependent from this perspective on a desire for (and writing about) an outside object functioning like an ideal mirror reflection of the self.
And yet, this attempt in the poems to transcend the poet's sense of fragmentation and exile in time through writing is undermined by the realization that writing — because of its intricate association with desire —is in fact also the source of the poet's fall into the exile of fluctuation and change, leading him away from the citadel of reason and virtue. The impact of writing on the self thus emerges in the poems as essentially ambiguous, fashioning a self that is both within and beyond time, both in exile and at home. In emphasizing this ambiguity, Petrarch was rejecting both Dante's claim that desire and writing can lead to the full transcendence of the self over time's flow and the Augustinian assertion that their impact is essentially negative and hence that the two must be renounced.
The second chapter examines, mainly through an analysis of canzone 23, Petrarch's rejection of the solution of both Dante in the Vita nuova and Augustine to the problem of temporality and the experience of exile in time — the reconstruction in writing of the narrative underlying the flux and constant change. It is particularly through his use of Ovidian mythology, the chapter shows, that Petrarch emphasizes his inability to reach the authorial point from which he might fashion such a healing narrative, demonstrating that the attempt to reconstruct his past in writing can only reveal the ambiguity dominating his experience because of the impact of writing and desire.
In the third chapter, I turn to discuss Petrarch's return in his Latin writings to the Stoic notion of "care of the self," focusing on the Stoic nature of his hermeneutics of self and uses of writing in these texts —particularly the collections of letters and the Secretum. This chapter, in addition, also shows the medieval — Augustinian and monastic — roots of Petrarch's focus on the "care of the soul" through the practices of reading and writing, highlighting at the same time the ways in which Petrarch's uses of writing, as well as of reading, depart from the medieval tradition. By drawing on Augustinian and monastic spiritual techniques, and yet transforming them in accordance with his Stoic understanding of the self, this chapter argues, Petrarch established humanism as a spiritual alternative to the monastic traditions of care of the soul of the later Middle Ages.
The fourth and final chapter discusses the inherent tensions that undermine Petrarch's use of writing as a spiritual exercise in the collections of letters and the Secretum. Although Petrarch attempts to establish his use of writing in these works in direct opposition to the "feminine," "weak," "Ovidian" uses in the vernacular poetry, the Latin texts themselves are plagued by the tension between "Stoic" and "Ovidian" uses of writing, particularly because writing, as the letters show, is always dominated for Petrarch by desire and emotions. The impact of writing on the self thus emerges in the Latin works — just as in the vernacular ones — as essentially ambiguous, and it is the realization of this ambiguity that is to a large extent responsible for the Augustinian-religious backlash in Petrarch's texts against the value of the practice of writing for the purpose of care of the self. The tensions among the "Stoic," "Ovidian," and "Augustinian" uses of writing thus come to dominate Petrarch's Latin works. In the final section of the chapter, I address the synthesis that Petrarch attempted to attain later in life between these streams and the implications that it had on his humanist project of caring for the self through writing. Although admitting the insurmountable limitations of his own project, Petrarch nevertheless argues that the cultivation of self through writing (which is always intertwined for him with reading) is the best means available to cope with the experience of exile and fragmentation that inevitably accompanies life in the world.
This book contends that Petrarch's humanist philosophy and concept of self are defined above all by his efforts to care for and cultivate the self through spiritual exercises, and particularly through the literary practice of writing. Plagued by a strong sense of fragmentation and inner exile due to his acute awareness of the flux of time and the scattering impact of society, Petrarch returned to the ancient idea that self, or soul, is not a given presence but a state of mind from which we are exiled and that we need to attain through constant practice. The goal of philosophy, he therefore argues, is not to provide us with systematic knowledge but to shape and cultivate the self through spiritual techniques, which for him consist mainly of writing. To demonstrate these claims and examine his humanist philosophy, this book has explored Petrarch's various attempts to use writing as a spiritual technique, the ways in which these uses absorbed and transformed ancient and medieval traditions of writing, and the tensions that ultimately arose from his efforts to cultivate the self through writing.
Petrarch's attempts to care for the self through the practice of writing are a dominant feature of both his vernacular poetry and Latin works, with each corpus displaying different uses of writing and diverse type of goals that he strived to attain. In his collection of vernacular poems Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, the incessant passage of time is presented as the main source of the poet's experience of fragmentation and exile. The constant slippage of time, as the poems show, challenges the very substantiality of the self, while also leading the poet away from what he claims to have been the time of full bliss he enjoyed in his youth. Nevertheless, although demonstrating the poet's sense of exile and fragmentation, the poems also persistently bring to the fore his attempt to overcome this experience through the writing of poetry about his desire. Both desire and the act of writing poetry emerge in the poems as the steadfast and unchanging aspects of the poet's existence, challenging the constant flux of time and also providing him with the hope of overcoming time through the promise of eternal and changeless poetic glory. Moreover, the writing of poetry serves for Petrarch as a personal ritual and a meditative technique that allow him both to endow the incessant flux of time with meaning and to return in his mind over and over again to a mythical time of wholeness he enjoyed in the past — the birth of his desire. Finally, Petrarch also advances in the poems the notion that by writing poetry about his virtuous object of desire — both Laura and the laurel — he is transformed into them, becomes virtuous and steadfast just like them. The overcoming of time and the attainment of a coherent and unchanging self depends, from this perspective in the collection, on identification with an outside object of desire functioning like an ideal mirror reflection of the self.
Yet, as the poems show, the attempt to overcome the passage of time through writing and desire is bound to lead to ambiguous results, given that the entry into desire — which is also the entry into writing as the ultimate object of desire — is also that which leads to the poet's subjection to temporality and change in the first place, submitting him to a longing that cannot be put to rest, and hence to a process of constant fluctuation and becoming. The impact of writing and desire on the self emerges as essentially ambiguous, making the poet both beyond time and subjected to time, both in exile and at home. By emphasizing this ambiguity, Petrarch was rejecting both Dante's assertion in the Commedia that writing and desire can lead the self to the full transcendence of the flux of time and the Augustinian claim that the impact of desire and writing on the self is essentially negative, and hence the two must be discarded.
Alongside the portrayal of the poet's effort to abolish time completely through the mutual effect of writing and desire, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta also present an alternative solution to the malaise of temporality—the reconstruction in writing of the narrative of the poet's vicissitudes and fluctuations in time. Rather than defying time completely, this alternative solution — corresponding with both Augustine's Confessions and Dante's Vita nuova — claims that it is the realization of the meaning of the constant change that allows one to overcome the experience of exile and fragmentation that inevitably accompanies the flux of time. Nonetheless, this attempt too, as Petrarch shows especially in canzone 23, is bound to fail. In direct opposition to Dante's claims in the Vita nuova, Petrarch demonstrates through his use of the Ovidian language of myth that his experience of desire in time is essentially ambiguous, essentially meaningless, and hence that he has no way to discern and portray the narrative of his past. At the same time, unwilling to part from this desire altogether, Petrarch also cannot attain the right Augustinian disposition of will that would allow him to realize the thread that binds the scattered fragments of his past. Under such circumstances, as the collection ultimately shows, all that the poet can do is place the fragments of his past — the poems he wrote through the years — together in a sequence that only highlights the contradictions and fluctuations that govern his experience in time.
In parallel to these attempts to overcome fragmentation and attain unity through his vernacular writings, Petrarch was engaged throughout his life in the often contradictory effort to transcend his experience of flux and fragmentation through his writings in Latin. In works such as his collections of letters, the Familiares and the Seniles, and the Secretum, Petrarch returns to the Stoic notion that the source of his experience of fragmentation and flux is ultimately his exile from reason and virtue — his "true self" — and submission to the rule of desire and the passions. To overcome this subjection and "return to himself," Petrarch revives the Stoic, and particularly Senecan, emphasis on the need to care for the self — to cultivate virtue — by means of spiritual exercises, which in his case consist of, above all, again the practice of writing (which is always intertwined for him with that of reading). As a result, whereas in the vernacular poetry the aim of writing was to allow him to care for the self by means of reviving and intensifying desire, now its aim is the complete opposite one: curbing desire altogether.
Several uses of writing as a technology of the self, a means to cultivate his inner virtue, emerge from Petrarch's collections of letters and the Secretum: the writing down of meticulous notes on salutary precepts contained in his readings, which allow Petrarch to inscribe such precepts on his memory and shape his inner self accordingly; the composing of letters of consolation to friends with the aim of training both himself and his readers to withstand steadfastly the blows of fortune; the documentation of ancient exempla of virtue, which fill Petrarch with the desire to imitate them and lead him to examine his state in their mirror; the writing down of the lessons he learns from his own experience, by which Petrarch provides both himself and his readers with an ample demonstration of the fickleness of fortune; and finally, the conducting of an internal examination of conscience through the act of writing, for which purpose Petrarch revives the Senecan practice of conducting examination of conscience in letters to friends and also enacts an inner examination through the writing of an internal dialogue such as the Secretum.
Petrarch's efforts to cultivate the self by means of the practices of reading and writing in his Latin works draw on not only the ancient model of Seneca but also the Augustinian-monastic tradition of the Middle Ages, which often emphasized the spiritual value of the practices of reading and writing. His self-examination in the Secretum, which focuses on his susceptibility to sin, particularly echoes the written examination conducted by Augustine and late medieval monastic authors. However, although drawing on this medieval tradition, Petrarch also departs from it in several crucial aspects, a departure that further demonstrates the humanistic nature of his philosophy of care of the self. In opposition to the Augustinian-monastic assertion that the goal of the techniques of reading and writing is to discover the divine truth within — the image of God printed on the soul — Petrarch stresses the need to shape the inner self by assimilating the precepts of conduct phrased by pagan authors and attained from the outside. In addition, whereas the aim of the written self-examination in the Augustinian-monastic tradition is mainly the excavation of guilt and the abolition of one's attachment to self, Petrarch uses this technique as a vehicle for self-training, the goal of which is establishing his authority over himself, over desire and the passions. In these departures from the monastic tradition, Petrarch fashions his humanism as a new form of spirituality in the period, an alternative to the monastic movements of the later Middle Ages.
However, while stressing the value of writing for the purpose of the cultivation of virtue, Petrarch's use of writing in his Latin works is plagued by the realization that writing is inevitably tainted by carnality, by earthly desire and emotions, and that as a result it is bound to lead the author away from virtue even while directing him toward it. As the letters reveal, to be able to write at all, Petrarch must be dominated by emotions. Moreover, in writing about his misfortunes, Petrarch cannot help but use writing — in a similar fashion to Ovid — as a form of therapy, the goal of which is to allow him to forget his grief for a while, rather than to eradicate it virtuously. Above all, the practice of writing — in Latin just as in the vernacular — is inevitably governed for Petrarch by the insatiable desire for glory. Dominated in this fashion by desire and emotions, the impact of the practice of writing on the self emerges in the Latin works —just as in the vernacular ones — as essentially ambiguous, serving as a source of transcendence just as of exile. The Ovidian emphasis on the duality inherent in the impact of the act of writing thus becomes a central feature of Petrarch's Latin works as well.
It is this Ovidian realization of the ambiguous impact of writing on the self that leads to a large extent to the Augustinian-religious critique in the Secretum of the value of writing, as well as of the reading of ancient texts, for the purpose of self-cultivation. Thus, although on one hand the figure of Augustinus serves to affirm in the Secretum the value of writing and of reading secular letters for the purpose of caring for the self, on the other hand he argues on several occasions that these practices are part of the problem rather than the solution. From this Augustinian perspective in the work, the only true solution to the experience of fragmentation is the complete disavowal of writing and of reading secular letters and the adoption of sacred letters and techniques. The tension between the "Stoic" assertion that writing and the reading of secular letters can lead to virtue, the "Ovidian" claim that writing is always tainted by desire and emotions and hence its impact is bound to be ambiguous, and the "Augustinian" contention that only sacred letters and practices can save the self from submission to the body of the world thus becomes a defining feature of Petrarch's humanism.
The tensions among these different streams continued without a doubt to plague Petrarch's works until the end of his life, leading him to admit that the attempt to take care of the self through reading and writing cannot provide him with the full transcendence of his experience of exile and flux. Nevertheless, in his Letters of Old Age, he seems to have attained a certain harmony between these conflicting tendencies, asserting that the cultivation of the self through writing and the reading of secular letters —despite the insurmountable desire that is attached to them — is the best means available in this life to improve both himself and the world around him. The humanist tradition of care of the self— offering a new philosophy of life that is acutely aware of its own limitations — was thus ultimately born. How this philosophy was absorbed by the humanists that followed in Petrarch's footsteps, and what types of solutions they found to the tensions that dominated his humanistic project, remains to be examined.
insert content here