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.

Ignorance and Presumption Rebuked

[Page 279] I find it hard to tell you how much my ears, fatigued by the clamour of the multitude, have been refreshed by your letter, which I have read and reread several times over. You thought it verbose, as I learned at the end; but I found nothing to criticise in it except its brevity. Your threat at the close, that in the future you will be more concise, I did not like. I should prefer to have you more detailed. But that shall be as you please; you are my master; it is not for you to think of my preferences, but for me to try to adapt myself to yours.

This, however, does not necessarily mean that the game is to be entirely in your hands. Things often turn out, as you very well know, quite differently from what we expect. It is possible that you may once in a while hear something from me that would force even the most devoted lover of silence to speak out. Do you want me to show you, here and now, that I can live up to that threat ? Very well; I will do it. But first of all let me protest that I entertain the same opinion concerning you that Macrobius does of Aristotle; begotten perhaps by my love for you, perhaps by the truth,-I do not attempt to decide. I consider you scarcely capable of ignorance, upon any subject whatever. If any thing does escape you that seems contrary to fact, I conclude either that you have spoken a little hastily, or, as Macrobius says, that you were indulging in a playful jest. I am not thinking now of what you wrote concerning Jerome, that you place him above all the other fathers of the church. Your opinion upon that subject is of long standing and widely known, and not at all new to me. Although it really seems to me idle to contend thus from the comparative point of view about geniuses who are all superlative, still, on the other hand, you cannot be mistaken in what you say. Whatever wins your approval will be greatest and best. And yet I remember that I used to debate this matter a great deal with your friend of glorious memory, Giacomo, Bishop of Lombez, and that, while he followed in your footsteps and always and invariably preferred Jerome, I used to give the palm among all our Catholic writers to Augustine. And-well, I believe upon reflection that I will dismiss my fears of offending either the truth or your susceptibilities, my father, and say precisely what I think. There are many bright stars, of varying magnitude; one we may call Jupiter, another Arcturus, another Lucifer, but the great Sun of the Church is surely Augustine. This, however, as I have implied, is a matter on which I am not disposed to lay much stress. Freedom of choice can harm no one; freedom of judg ment must be respected. But the statement that follows, that among ethical writers you place Valerius highest, does amaze me; that is, if you were speaking seriously and will abide by what you say, and not jestingly, just for the sake of trying me. For if Valerius is first, where pray does Plato stand ? and Aristotle ? and Cicero ? and Annaeus Seneca, whom good judges have ranked as a moralist above them all ? Perhaps Plato and Tullius will have to be dropped from my list, however, on grounds that you have stated elsewhere in your letter. For, to my great astonishment-I really cannot conceive what you were thinking of-you declare that they are poets, and ought to be admitted to the poetic choir! If your saying so should make it so, you would accomplish more than you imagine. Apollo would smile upon you and the Muses applaud, when they found you introducing your distinguished new denizens to the hills and groves of Parnassus. What in the world induced you to think or say such a thing, when it is so plain that Tullius in his early works is the greatest of orators, and in his later an eminent philosopher ? Besides, while we feel everywhere that Virgil, for instance, is a poet, Tullius is nowhere so. What we read in the Declamations is certainly true, that Virgil's felicity deserted him when he wrote in prose, and Cicero's eloquence when he wrote in verse. And then what am I to say of Plato, who by the consensus of all the greatest judges is not a poet at all, but the prince of philosophers ? Turn to Cicero, to Augustine, to other writers who speak with authority, as many of them as you please, and you will find that wherever in their books they have exalted Aristotle above the rest of the philosophers they have always taken pains to declare that Plato is the one exception. What it is that makes Plato a poet I cannot imagine, unless it be a remark of Panaetius, quoted by Tullius, where he is denominated the Homer of philosophy. This means nothing more than chief of philosophers; as preeminent among them as Homer among the poets. If we do not explain it so, what are we to say of Tullius himself, when in a certain passage in the letters to Atticus he calls Plato his God ? They are both trying in every possible way to express their sense of the godlike nature of Plato's genius; hence the name of Homer, and, more explicit still, that of God. Next, prompted by this reference to Cicero and Plato, you discourse-with wonderful eloquence and charm for one who is speaking about things that he does not understand-upon the poets in general, entering into an enthusiastic discussion of the identity of one and another of them, the time when they were born, the characteristics of their style, the particular kind of poetry that they affected, and their place upon the roll of fame. To review all this in detail would be too long a task,-so numerous are the things which none of us had ever heard of before, but you have now disclosed to such of us as are eager to learn, in this eloquent epistle. And yet on second thought, if you will concede to me, or rather not to me but to my calling, the right to offer just one objection, I shall express my wonder at finding the names of Naevius and Plautus so entirely unknown to you that you think me guilty of a solecism in inserting them in my letter, and reprove me indirectly for daring, as Flaccus puts it, to invent characters before unheard of. You do not make this charge in so many words, but your doubts are such and so stated as to amount to nothing less than a condemnation of my temerity in bringing upon the stage names that are strange and foreign. It is true, you did in the end curb your longing to speak plainly, and with your usual courtesy and modesty chose to blame rather your own ignorance. And yet, unless I am greatly mistaken, it is one of those cases where a man's words say one thing but his real convictions loudly proclaim another. I wonder at this, for Terence you seem to know very well, and he, at the very beginning of his works, in the prologue of the Andria, makes definite mention of Naevius and Plautus, and, in the same verse, of Ennius too. Then in the Eunuchus Ire refers to them again, and in the Adelphi speaks of Plautus alone. Cicero, too, mentions them together, in Iris De Senectute, and Aulus Gellius in Iris Noctes Atticae, where Ire gives their epitaphs, in old-fashioned Latin. All this argument is needless, however, for who ever heard the name of poetry apart from the names of these two men ? Your amazement therefore fills me with amaze; and I beg you, ray father, - if you will let me speak freely,-not to allow these lucubrations of yours to pass into any hands but mine. The brighter one's renown, the more carefully should it be guarded. To me, indeed, you may say whatever you wish, as freely as to yourself. You may change and retract, as scholars have to do when they commune with their own past thoughts. But when your words have gone abroad all power of choice is taken away, and you must submit to whatever judgments the multitude may pronounce upon you. I send your letter back to you in safe custody, and send this with it, keeping a copy, though, simply that I may be able, if you should desire to continue the discussion, to place your arguments by the side of mine which called them forth, instead of having to tax my memory for what I had said. . . . In writing thus I do not for a moment forget that a letter of reproof addressed to a father by a son can scarcely fail to seem harsh and rude. But you must let my love for you excuse such boldness. My regard for your reputation compels me to speak, for if I keep silent you will be sure to hear these things from others, or, still worse, will be injured by severe judgments uttered behind your back. . . . Let me say, then, that I detect in your writings a constant effort to make a display. This, I take it, accounts for your tendency to roam through strange volumes, culling out fine passages to weave into your own discourses. Your pupils, amazed at such an array of names, applaud you and call you omni scient, just as if you really knew every author the titles of whose books your memory happens to retain. Scholars, however, find it easy to discriminate between a man's acquisitions and his borrowings; easy, too, to determine what portion of the latter he has a right to, what he holds by precarious tenure, and what he has simply stolen; when he has drunk deep, from a full fouintain, and when he has taken only a hasty sip. It is a childish thing to glory in a mere display of memory. As Seneca has said, it is unseemly for a grown man to go gathering nosegays; he should care for fruit rather than flowers. But you, in spite of your years and the venerableness that they have brought with them; in spite of the fact that you are of great eminence in your profession; indeed,-for this task of taking you down is a thankless one, and I am glad now and then to try smoothing you down instead, - are the very first man of your time in the department of literature to which you have devoted yourself, nevertheless, like a truant child, break bounds, and go wandering away into fields where you do not belong, and spend the evening of your days in picking pretty flowers. You seem to take delight in exploring new regions, where the paths are unknown to you and you are sure to go astray once in a while or fall into a pit. You like to follow the example of those who parade their know ledge before their doors, like so much merchandise, while their houses within are empty. Ah ! it is safer to be something than to be always trying to seem to be. Ostentation is difficult and dangerous. Moreover, just when you are most desirous of being deemed great, innumerable little things are sure to happen which not only reduce you to your true dimensions but bring you below them. No one intellect should ever strive for distinction in more than one pursuit. Those who boast of preeminence in many arts are either divinely endowed or utterly shameless or simply mad. Who ever heard of such presumption in olden times, on the part of either Greeks or men of our own race ? It is a new practice, a new kind of effrontery. To-day men write up over their doors inscriptions full of vainglory, containing claims which, if true, would make them, as Pliny puts it, superior even to the law of the land. But when one looks within-ye gods! what emptiness is there! So, in conclusion, I beg you, if my words have any weight, to be content within your own bounds. Do not imitate these men who are all promise and no performance; who, as the comic poet has said, know everything and yet know nothing. There is a certain wise old Greek proverb that bids everyone stick to the trade that he understands. Farewell.

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