Francis Petrarch
Familiar Letters

From James Harvey Robinson, ed. and trans.
Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters
(New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898)

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned by Jason Boley and Jacob Miller in August, 1995.
Proofread by Monica Banas, Stephanie Hammett, and Heather Haralson in April, 1996.
Proofread and pages inserted by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

His Aversion to Logicians
To Tomasso da Messina


[Page 217] It is hazardous to engage an enemy who longs rather for battle than for victory. You write to me of a certain old logician who has been greatly excited by my letter, as if I condemned his art. With a growl of rage, he loudly threatened to make war in turn upon our studies, in a letter for which, you say, you have waited many months in vain. Do not wait longer; believe me, it will never come. He retains some traces of decency, and this is a confession that he is ashamed of his style or an acknowledgment of his ignorance. The most implacable in contests with the tongue will not resort to the pen. They are reluctant to show how ill-armed they are, [Page 218] and so follow the Parthian system of warfare, carried on during a rapid retreat, by letting fly a shower of winged words and committing their shafts to the wind.

It is foolhardy, as I have said, to accept an engagement with these fellows upon their own terms. It is indeed from the fighting itself that they derive their chief pleasure; their object is not to discover the truth, but to prolong the argument. But you know Varro's proverb: "Through over-long contention the truth is lost.'' You need not fear, then, that these warriors will come out into the open fields of honest discussion, whether with tongue or pen. They belong to the class of whom Quintilian speaks in his Institutes of Oratory, whom one finds wonderfully warm in disputation, but once get them away from their cavilling, they are as helpless, in a serious juncture, as certain small animals which are active enough in a narrow space, but are easily captured in a field. Hence their reluctance to engage in an open contest. As Quintilian goes on to say, their tergiversations indicate their weakness; they seek, like an indifferent runner, to escape by dodging.

This is what I would impress upon you, my friend; if you are seeking virtue or truth, avoid persons of that stripe altogether. But how shall we escape from these maniacs, if even the isles of the sea are not free from them ? So neither Scylla nor Charybdis has prevented this pest from finding its way into Sicily ? Nay, this ill is now rather [Page 219] peculiar to islands, as we shall find if we add the logicians of Britain to the new Cyclopes about Aetna. Is this the ground of the striking similarity between Sicily and Britain, which I have seen mentioned in Pomponius Mela's Cosmographia? I had thought that the resemblance lay in the situation of the countries, the almost triangular appearance of both, and perhaps in the perpetual contact which each enjoys with the surrounding sea. I never thought of logicians; I had heard of the Cyclopes, and then of the tyrants, both savage inhabitants; but of the coming of this third race of monsters, armed with two-edged arguments, and fiercer than the burning shores of Taormina itself, I was unaware.

There is one thing which I myself long ago observed, and of which you now warn me anew. These logicians seek to cover their teachings with the splendour of Aristotle's name; they claim that Aristotle was wont to argue in the same way. They would have some excuse, I readily confess, if they followed in the steps of illustrious leaders, for even Cicero says that it would give him pleasure to err with Plato, if err he must. But they all deceive themselves. Aristotle was a man of the most exalted genius, who not only discussed but wrote upon themes of the very highest importance. How can we otherwise explain so vast an array of works, involving such prolonged labour, and prepared with supreme care amid such serious preoccupations-especially those connected with the guardianship of his fortunate pupil--and within the compass, too, of a life by no means long ?--for he died at about sixty-three, [Page 220] the age which all writers deem so unlucky. Now why should these fellows diverge so widely from the path of their leader ? Why is not the name of Aristotelians a source of shame to them rather than of satisfaction, for no one could be more utterly different from that great philosopher than a man who writes nothing, knows but little, and constantly indulges in much vain declamation ? Who does not laugh at their trivial conclusions, with which, although educated men, they weary both themselves and others? They waste their whole lives in such contentions. Not only are they good for nothing else, but their perverted activity renders them actually harmful. Disputations such as they delight in are made a subject of mirth by Cicero and Seneca, in several passages. We find an example in the case of Diogenes, whom a contentious logician addressed as follows: " What I am, you are not." Upon Diogenes conceding this, the logician added, "But I am a man." As this was not denied, the poor quibbler propounded the conclusion, "Therefore you are not a man." "The last statement is not true," Diogenes remarked, "but if you wish it to be true, begin with me in your major premise." Similar absurdities are common enough with them. What they hope to gain from their efforts, whether fame or amusement, or some light upon the way to live righteously and happily, they may know; to me, I [Page 221] confess, it is the greatest of mysteries. Money, certainly, does not appeal at least to noble minds as a worthy reward of study. It is for the mechanical trades to strive for lucre; the higher arts have a more generous end in view.

On hearing such things as these, those of whom we are speaking grow furious;--indeed the chatter of the disputatious man usually verges closely on anger. " So you set yourself up to condemn logic," they cry. Far from it; I know well in what esteem it was held by that sturdy and virile sect of philosophers, the Stoics, whom our Cicero frequently mentions, especially in his work De Finibus. I know that it is one of the liberal studies, a ladder for those who are striving upwards, and by no means a useless protection to those who are forcing their way through the thorny thickets of philosophy. It stimulates the intellect, points out the way of truth, shows us how to avoid fallacies, and finally, if it accomplishes nothing else, makes us ready and quick-witted.

All this I readily admit, but because a road is proper for us to traverse, it does not immediately follow that we should linger on it forever. No traveller, unless he be mad, will forget his destination on account of the pleasures of the way; his characteristic virtue lies, on the contrary, in reaching his goal as soon as possible, never halting on the road. And who of us is not a traveller? We all have our long and arduous journey to accomplish in a brief and untoward time,--on a short, tempestuous, wintry day as it were. Dialectics may form a [Page 222] portion of our road, but certainly not its end: it belongs to the morning of life, not to its evening. We may have done once with perfect propriety what it would be shameful to continue. If as mature men we cannot leave the schools of logic because we have found pleasure in them as boys, why should we blush to play odd and even, or prance upon a shaky reed, or be rocked again in the cradle of our childhood ? Nature, with cunning artifice, escapes from dull monotony by her wondrous change of seasons, with their varying aspects. Shall we look for these alternations in the circuit of the year, and not in the course of a long life? The spring brings flowers and the new leaves of the trees, the summer is rich in its harvest, autumn in fruit, and then comes winter with its snows. In this order the changes are not only tolerable but agreeable; but if the order were to be altered, against the laws of nature, they would become distasteful. No one would suffer with equanimity the cold of winter in summer time, or a raging sun during the months where it does not belong.

Who would not scorn and deride an old man who sported with children, or marvel at a grizzled and gouty stripling ? What is more necessary to our training than our first acquaintance with the alphabet itself, which serves as the foundation of all later studies; but, on the other hand, what could be more absurd than a grandfather still busy over his letters?

Use my arguments with the disciples of your ancient logician. Do not deter them from the study [Page 223] of logic; urge them rather to hasten through it to better things. Tell the old fellow himself that it is not the liberal arts which I condemn, but only hoary-headed children. Even as nothing is more disgraceful, as Seneca says, than an old man just beginning his alphabet, so there is no spectacle more unseemly than a person of mature years devoting himself to dialectics. But if your friend begins to vomit forth syllogisms, I advise you to take flight, bidding him argue with Enceladus. Farewell.

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