The first of these radicals was, doubtless, Petrarch.  He sought for his compromise formula with all the daring of the pioneer and all the hesitancy of a man lost in uncharted territory.  His ambivalence was conscious and persistent: he desperately needed to please, and yet he espoused unpopular views.  He longed for fame and for solitude and, when he achieved fame, he remained restless, dissatisfied, and often depressed.  He was vain, egotistical, selfish, and filled with self-doubt.  He claimed the loyalty of others while freeing himself from all shackles of responsibility.  His moods, like his philosophy, were in tense disequilibrium.  The healthy alternations between action and leisure preached by Cicero and embodied in Scipio were distant, unachieved ideals for him.

Petrarch’s private suffering has more than private significance: very much like Rousseau, Petrarch was a world-historical neurotic whose anguish mirrored a cultural situation and whose writings confronted problems other men failed to recognize.  He idealized, almost idolized, pagan antiquity, but he remained a Catholic Christian.  He celebrated individualism but cherished tradition.  He read ancient poems as they had been read in antiquity, in all their sensual worldliness, but he inflicted allegorical interpretations on them.  He was a republican enthusiast, nostalgically hoping for the restoration of the Roman Republic, but he also played the courtier to tyrants and preached submission to authority in good medieval fashion.  His life abounds with events that dramatize this ambivalence: in 1341, he was crowned in Rome with the poet’s laurel but, nine years later, he went to the same city as a pious pilgrim to celebrate the Jubilee.  The same duality haunts his famous climb of Mont Ventoux, which he ascended in the spring of 1335 for the sake of the view.  The book in his pocket was St. Augustine’s “Confessions.”

This excursion later earned Petrarch the title of the first modern man, but there is something pathetic about his modernity: his masters were Cicero and Plato, but he could not wholly approve of Cicero’s philosophy of life and he could not read Plato in the original.  And yet, it is easier to belittle revolutions than the make them.  The humanists, and the philosophers, too, quite rightly hailed Petrarch as the father of a great cultural revival.  Gibbon called him “the eloquent Petrarch,” the “first harbinger of day” and, while he claimed to see little value in his writings, he professed gratitude to “the man who, by precept and example, revived the spirit and study of the Augustan Age” and to the student of Greek who, after hard labor, “began to reach the sense and to feel the spirit of poets and philosophers whose minds were congenial to his own” – words that recall, precisely, Gibbon’s own discovery of the Romans.  Even if we cannot applaud Gibbon’s taste, we may applaud his penetration.  With his customary keenness, he has gone to the heart of the matter.  However inconclusive and inconsistent his revolution, Petrarch placed many generations in his debt, and those who went beyond him merely continued what he had begun.

From: The Enlightenment: Volume 1: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), pp. 270-272.

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar and poet.  As a poet, he created the sonnet structure that bears his name.  As a scholar, he is usually credited with being one of the first post-medieval humanists and the spark of the Italian Renaissance.


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