Petrarchian Antithesis

Francesco Petrarch, in so many ways the father of the Renaissance, exhibits the not uncommon Medieval tendency to recognize both the goods and the limitations of the best pagan philosophers when set next to Christian revelation:

…in all these sects and in others if there are any, there is no or very rarely any mention of God, but when some come to pleasure, others to another goal, and those who aspire higher come to virtue, philosophic investigation fixes its course and as if it had reached the limit, stops. But we to whom, not by our own merit but by celestial gift, the light of truth more vividly appeared, where they stop we begin, for we strive not toward virtue as an end but towards God through virtues….Virtue is the road, and seeing God in Zion the goal, which is the sacred mountain as we have learned from the Scriptures, so that we know that for this beatific vision the ascent of the soul and sacred and deep meditations are needed. Thus when the illustrious pagan philosophers refer everything to virtue, the philosopher of Christ [Cristi philosophus] refers virtue itself to the author of virtue, God, and by using virtue enjoys God, nor ever stops with his mind before he has reached Him. For thus he will hear a certain great philosopher of Christ [Augustine] saying, ‘Thou hast established us for Thy sake, and thus our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.’:”(As cited by Charles Trinkaus in In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, Vol. 1 [The University of Chicago Press, 1970], pg. 45.)”:


What thence besides sin remains which, since it is voluntary nor derived from anywhere else than from the soul itself, certainly is established as the sole property of man? Therefore there is no matter of consolation or glory for him from what is in the power of others; in what is in one’s own power, moreover, there is much matter of shame and fear; no one is such a slave of sin that he does not know this. While therefore I may freely esteem the glory of Cicero when it is permitted, yet because it is not now permitted, I willingly accept the excuse of so great a man, or rather invent excuses, for certainly he was a man of sharp and strong, of agile and swift mind, worthy of praise suited to action, but swiftness for what, where you block the road? God, who gave him swiftness of mind shut off the road to truth to him which a little later He deemed suitable to open to us. And so where Cicero’s and his companions’ swift mind was stuck our slow mind gradually progresses thanks to Him by whom both the progress of mind and the plainness of the road are given.:”(Ibid., pp. 45-46.)”:

And again:

…what is the use in knowing virtue if it is not loved when known? What is the use of knowing sin if it is not abhorred when it is known? If the will is bad, it can, by God, drive the lazy wandering mind towards the worse side, when the rigidity of virtue and the alluring ease of vice become apparent. …However, everyone who has become familiar with our Latin authors knows that they stamp and drive deep into the heart the sharpest and most ardent stings of speech. …Then earthly things become vile; the aspect of vice stirs up an enormous hatred of vicious life….I know but too well that all this cannot be achieved outside the doctrine of Christ and without his help. …However, much is achieved also by the authors of whom I have just spoken [Cicero, Seneca, Horace]. They are a great help to those who are making their way to this goal. This is what many a man has thought of many of their writings, and Augustine professes such an opinion. …For though our ultimate goal does not lie in virtue, where the philosophers locate it, it is through the virtues that the direct way leads to the place where it does lie; and these virtues, I must add, must be not merely known but loved. Therefore the true moral philosophers and useful teachers of the virtues are those whose first and last intention is to make the hearer and reader good, those who do not merely teach what virtue and vice are and hammer into our ears the brilliant name of the one and the grim name of the other but sow in our hearts love of the best and eager desire for it and at the same time hatred of the worst and how to flee it. It is safer to strive for a good and pious will than for a capable and clear intellect. The object of the will, as it pleases the wise, is to be good; that of the intellect is truth. It is better to will the good than to know the truth.:”(Ibid., pg. 48.)”:

The last quote in particular is interesting, for in it Petrarch acknowledges both the goodness and the insufifiency of the best of the pagan authors to stir men up to seek God. On the one hand, “much is achieved” by reading these authors, but on the other hand, “all this cannot be acheived outside the doctrine of Christ and without his help.” Again, note the important theme that the antithesis between paganism and the Christianity is ethical, not intellectual. As may be shown from Petrarch and many other writers, this ethical antithesis was certainly recognized by the best Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. It was not “rediscovered” by the Reformation, because in fact it was never lost.

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