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.

The Old Grammarian of Vicenza
To Pulice di Vicenza


[Page 243] On my way I stopped overnight in one of Vicenza's suburbs, and there I found something new to write about. It happened that I had left Padua not much before noon, and so did not reach the outskirts of your city until the sun was getting low. I tried to make up my mind whether I had better put up there or push on a little farther; for I was in a hurry, and the days are long now, and it would be light for a good while yet. I was still hesitating, when lo!---for who can remain hidden from the friends who love him?---all my doubts were happily resolved by your arrival, in company with several other men of mark, such as that little city has always produced in great abundance. My mind was tossing this way and that, but you and your companions, with your pleasant varied talk, furnished the cable that bound it fast. I planned to go, but still stayed on; and did not realise that the daylight was slipping away from me until night was actually at hand. So I discovered once again what I had observed often before, that there is nothing that filches time away from us, without our perceiving it, like converse with our friends. They are the greatest of all thieves of time. And yet we ought to deem no time less truly stolen from us, less truly lost out of our lives, than such as is expended (next to God) upon them.

[Page 244] Well, not to review the story at too great length, you remember that some one made mention of Cicero as will very often happen among men of literary tastes. This name at once brought our desultory conversation to an end. We all turned our thoughts toward him. Nothing but Cicero was discussed after that. As we sat and feasted together we vied with one another in singing his praises. Still, there is nothing in this world that is absolutely perfect; never has the man existed in whom the critic, were he ever so lenient, would see nothing at all to reprehend. So it chanced that while I expressed admiration for Cicero, almost without reservation, as a man whom I loved and honoured above all others, and amazement too at his golden eloquence and his heavenly genius, I found at the same time a little fault with his fickleness and inconsistency, traits that are revealed everywhere in his life and works. At once I saw that all who were present were astonished at so unusual an opinion, and one among them especially so. I refer to the old man, your fellow-citizen, whose name has gone from me, although his image is fresh in my memory, and I revere him, both for his years and for his scholarship.

Well, the circumstances seemed to demand that I fetch the manuscript of my correspondence with my friends, which I had with me in my chest. It was brought in, and added fuel to the flame. For among the letters that were written to my contemporaries there are a few, inserted with an eye to variety and for the sake of a little diversion [Page 245] in the midst of my more serious labours, that are addressed to some of the more illustrious men of ancient times. A reader who was not forewarned would be amazed at these, finding names so old and of such renown mingled with those of our own day. Two of them are to Cicero himself; one criticising his character, the other praising his genius. These two you read, while the others listened; and then the strife of words grew warmer. Some approved of what I had written, admitting that Cicero deserved my censure. But the old man stood his ground, more stubbornly even than before. He was so blinded by love of his hero and by the brightness of his name that he preferred to praise him even when he was in the wrong; to embrace faults and virtues together, rather than make any exceptions. He would not be thought to condemn anything at all in so great a man. So instead of answering our arguments he rang the changes again and again upon the splendour of Cicero's fame, letting authority usurp the place of reason. He would stretch out his hand and say imploringly, "Gently, I beg of you, gently with my Cicero." And when we asked him if he found it impossible to believe that Cicero had made mistakes, he would close his eyes and turn his face away and exclaim with a groan, as if he had been smitten, ''Alas! alas! Is my beloved Cicero accused of doing wrong?" just as if we were speaking not of a man but of some god. I asked him, accordingly, whether in his opinion Tullius was a god, or a man like others. "A god," he replied; and then, realising what he had said, he added, "a god of eloquence." [Page 246] "Oh, very well! " I answered; "if he is a god, he certainly could not have erred. However, I never heard him styled so before. And yet, if Cicero calls Plato his god, why should not you in turn speak of Cicero as yours?---except that it is not in harmony with our religious beliefs for men to fashion gods for themselves as they may fancy." "I am only jesting," said he; "I know that Tullius was a man, but he was a man of godlike genius." "That is better," I responded; "for when Quintilian called him heavenly he spoke no more than the truth. But then, if you admit that he was a man, it follows necessarily that he could make mistakes, and did so." As I spoke these words he shuddered and turned away, as if they were aimed not at another man's reputation but at his own life. What could I say, I who am myself so great an admirer of Cicero's genius? I felt that the old scholar was to be envied for his ardour and devotion, which had something of the Pythagorean savour. I was rejoiced at finding such reverence for even one great man; such almost religious regard, so fervent that to suspect any touch of human weakness in its object seemed like sacrilege. I was amazed, too, at having discovered a person who cherished a love greater than mine for the man whom I always had loved beyond all others; a person who in old age still held, deeply rooted in his heart, the opinions concerning him which I remember to have entertained in my boyhood; and who, notwithstanding his advanced years, was incapable of arguing that if Cicero was a man it followed that in some cases, in [Page 247] many indeed, he must have erred, a conclusion that I have been forced, by common sense and by knowledge of his life, to accept at this earlier stage of my development,---although this conviction does not alter the fact that the beauty of his work delights me still, beyond that of any other writer. Why, Tullius himself, the very man of whom we are speaking, took this view, for he often bewailed his errors, bitterly. If, in our eagerness to praise him, we deny that he thus understood himself, we deprive him of a large part of his renown as a philosopher, the praise, namely, that is due to self-knowledge and modesty.

To return, however, to that day; after a long discussion we were compelled by the lateness of the hour to desist, and separated with the question still unsettled. But as we parted you asked me to send you from my first resting-place, inasmuch as the shortness of the time would not let me attend to it just then, a copy of each of these letters of mine, in order that you might look into the matter a little more carefully, and be in a position to act as a mediator between the parties, or, possibly, as a champion of Cicero's steadfastness and consistency. I approve of your intention, and send the copies herewith. I do so, strange to say, with a fear that I may be victorious, and a hope that I may be vanquished. And one thing more: I must tell you that if you do prove the victor you have a larger task on your hands than you now imagine. For Annaeus Seneca, whom I criticise in my very next letter in a similar way, insists that you act as his champion too.

[Page 248] I have dealt familiarly with these great geniuses, and perhaps boldly, but lovingly, but sorrowfully, but truthfully, I think; with somewhat more of truthfulness, in fact, than I myself relish. There are many things in both of them that delight me, only a few that trouble me. Of these few I felt constrained to write; perhaps to-day I should feel otherwise. For, although I have grouped these letters together at the end, it is only because their subject-matter is so unlike the others; they came from the anvil long ago.

The fact is, I still grieve over the fate of these great men; but I do not lament their faults any the less because of that. Furthermore, I beg you to note that I say nothing against Seneca's private life, nor against Cicero's attitude toward the state. Do not confuse the two cases. It is Cicero alone whom we are discussing now; and I am not forgetting that he as consul was vigilant and patriotic, and cured the disease from which the republic was suffering; nor that as a private citizen he always loved his country faithfully. But what of his fickleness in friendship; and his bitter quarrels upon slight provocation,---quarrels that brought ruin upon himself and good to no one; and his inability to understand his own position and the condition of the republic, so unlike his usual acumen; and, finally, the spectacle of a philosopher, in his old age, childishly fond of useless wrangling? These things I cannot praise. And remember that they are things concerning [Page 249] which no unbiassed judgment can be formed, by you or anyone else, without a careful reading of the entire correspondence of Cicero, which suggested this controversy.

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