Hope Greenberg
History 300
Daily Question: July 15, 1993

1) Humanism has been characterized as "not the revival of antiquity, but rather a new way of looking at antiquity." In what way does Petrarch's "Letter to Cicero" illustrate this "new way of looking at antiquity?"

While Thomas Aquinas expended great effort reconciling Aristotelian thought with Christianity, and while William of Occam argued that reason and theology are totally separate, both would have thought it an odd waste of time to address a letter directly to Aristotle. Each would probably have met such a suggestion with amaze,emt followed by an explanation of why it was more important to consult not the original works but the later commentaries on them. Indeed, each would have probably pointed out that these commentaries were of equal importance to‹or of even greater importance than‹the original because they helped make sense of the great and unchanging truths so represented.

Petrarch's letter to Cicero is not simply a stylistic difference from the work of his predecessors. It represents a new way of thinking about history and the characters that people it. One writes letters to individuals. By writing a letter to Cicero, Petrarch proclaimed him as an individual, a real person, alive in a real time. Nor does he in any way idealize Cicero. Quite the contrary. He expresses his disappointment in Cicero, even chastises him, saying "the wise counsel that you gave your brother....you forgot." The knowledge that his idol has feet of clay is all the more poignant when one considers how he had "sought for long and diligently....with the utmost eagerness" these original letters of Cicero.

While Petrarch has "long known how excellent a guide you have proved for others" he is eager to hear Cicero's own words to "learn what sort of guidance you gave yourself." This, again, is a departure from the accepted practice. Petrarch is not interested in some disembodied or extrapolated truth of Cicero but in his own words, his own speech and expression. He considers the actual language used to be of utmost importance in discovering the truth of Cicero.

How difficult it must be, then, to find that Cicero has betrayed this faith in the importance of words. If, as has been suggested, Petrarch equated eloquence with goodness, proficiency in expression with morality, then the discovery that Cicero was only "prating...about virtue, in high-sounding words" but did not "give heed to his own instructions" must have come as quite a shock. Yet it was perhaps this very shock that, according to Wilcox, led Petrarch to the "idea that the ancients could be approached as fellow human beings." (p. 63)

Wilcox also points out that the closing paragraph demonstrates Petrarch's acknowledgement of Cicero's place in a historical context. This might also be seen in the close of the letter. "Farewell, forever, my Cicero." Petrarch is not only saying good-bye to Cicero, he is saying good-bye to his previous perception of Cicero ("my Cicero"). But more importantly, like the Virgil that later appears in the Divine Comedy, he acknowledges that this Cicero has no place in the hereafter, the word "forever" having quite a different connotation for Petrarch than our 20th century notions.

2) Take any two letters of Petrarch and describe what they reveal about Petrarch as an individual and/or his intellectual convictions.

Petrarch's letter to "Posterity" and his letter to "Logicians" appear to show opposing sides of this multi-faceted man. However, his statement to Boccaccio that it is "important to know for whom we are writing, and a difference in the character's of one's listeners justifies a difference in style" (Thompson, p. 233), does much to explain this contrast in tone.

Despite the gently self-deprecating humour that permeates his autobiographical letter, Petrarch does not hide his contentment or even pride in his life. He does not neglect to mention his "ancient family" or his relations with the "greatest kings of this age." He expresses a disregard for wealth and fame proper in a cleric and scholar. While he ascribes to youth the "indulgent judge of his own work" that led to his "elation" at receiving the laurel, there is no little pride evinced in this reflection of his later years.

On education he cannot hide his low opinion of the study of law, despite attempts to explain this dislike as a shortcoming of his own. He certainly does not attempt to disguise his contempt for "how little" it is "customary to teach in school." This contempt is even more acerbic in his letter on logicians. He decries what he sees as their practice of using verbosity to cover their paucity of knowledge. He claims that they are too "ill-armed" to marshall any real intellectual or "honest discussion," relying instead on so much wind and fury. While he conjures up an image of incompetents croaking "Aristotle! Aristotle!" as some kind of shield while they "vomit forth syllogisms," he counters by displaying a thorough understanding of the classics by quoting from a multitude of classical scholars.

Compare this with his letter to Posterity in which he does not attempt to display the fruits of his study but rather portrays himself (and effectively so) as a modest and moderate-tempered man of understanding. Gracious but not overly obsequious in his praise for those who have supported him, he only comes close to immoderation when referring to the town of Avignon and the residence of the Popes therein (for which he instantly apologizes with "But such laments are somewhat remote for my subject.").

The letter to Posterity is consciously designed to present his "best side" and so should not be viewed as the final revelation on Petrarch. But how much does the letter to the logicians, with its biting sarcasm, reveal? Which reflects the "real" Petrarch? While it is impossible to tell it seems safe to say that even though the latter was originally sent to a specific individual, given Petrarch's obvious devotion to words as the expression of truth and self, neither letter, different as they are, was the result of carelessness or thoughtlessness.

This file is part of Hope Greenberg's Graduate Portfolio for the course History 300. Created 15 October 1996.