Petrarch's The Life of Solitude
The reputation of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) or Petrarch rests on his lyric poetry in the great transition from Latin to vernacular that characterized the Italian Renaissance. So it may be surprising to discover that Petrarch also wrote De Vita Solitaria ("On the Life of Solitude" or "On the Solitary Life").
This long essay marshals forth ancient and medieval authorities recommending retirement from the world. What is noteworthy in this work is that Petrarch justifies a secular and humanist viewpoint in addressing the topic of active versus contemplative life, up to this point a theme dominated by religious authors.
For all that, De Vita Solitaria had little impact on contemporaries. Petrarch composed the work in 1346 but took twenty years to deliver it to the bishop of Cavaillon to whom it was dedicated. After favorable but modest circulation, the treatise was printed a few times but not widely translated, and thereafter largely ignored.
Indeed, modern readers will find Petrarch's argument unoriginal, even tedious. As his English translator says:
The De Vita Solitaria is an elaborate and redundant book. Its argument winds and wanders and sometimes forgets itself altogether. ... Petrarch's purpose in the De Vita Solitaria is to celebrate the beauty of a life of leisure, retired from crowded haunts and importunate cares and devoted to the enjoyment of reading, of literary creation, peaceful brooding, and the society of a few chosen friends. There is more in this attitude of Horace and Epicurus than of the moralist or Christian mystic.
Of course, it is the last point that is the reason why Petrarch's essay is important.
As to the structure and content of De Vita Solitaria, Petrarch admits:
I intended to write a letter and I have written a book. Moreover, I ought not to have divided it, since a book on the solitary life ought appropriately to be composed as an unbroken unit. But it occurred to me that I was writing in praise of the kind of solitude which, while it avoided crowds, was not averse to a limited companionship.
Petrarch rejects the medieval attempt to balance or reconcile the active and the contemplative. He rejects the active as moralist duty, and transforms the contemplative into a Greco-Roman-styled aesthetics. Solitude, he maintains , is not for the worship of God or the elimination of distractions as it would be for a monk but for a leisured retirement of a layperson. Solitude is not so much spiritual as introspective, with a nod to the Christian ascetics but in Petrarch's case with a country house and a servant.
We can see a direct line from Petrarch to Montaigne and Rousseau to Thoreau; there is no one else taking up this theme over the centuries. This is clearly indicated in the important fact that De Vita Solitaria affords Petrarch a forum for revealing his personality in a way that no one had before but the format is understood and used by his successors named above. While Petrarch had already composed similar confessional revelations through his poems, dialogues, and letters, they were not so direct as in De Vita Solitaria.
Petrarch brings classic writers -- Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Epicurus -- into the context of Christian tradition and Renaissance thinking as a representative humanist. Adding to this his personality and we find a new level of individuality in literature, a new sense of personal freedom from authority, a new stage in communication of self and self-analysis.
Petrarch has a keen sense of the natural world. He introduces melancholy in a form not expressed by medieval or ancient writers. He quietly champions a sense of self-realization and introspection that is psychological rather than religious or even philosophical. Thus, Petrarch's recommended solitude is a vindication of personal freedom.
There are no "rules for solitaries" in Petrarch's pursuit of artistic and personal freedom because it is a freedom necessary for any sensitive person, expressed differently in each person. De Vita Solitaria is a quiet anthem to the defense of solitude and personal autonomy.
What follows is a summary of each section of De Vita Solitaria. The work was divided into tractates and sections or chapters by an early editor, along with elaborate section titles, none of which was in the original, which was only divided into two large sections: books 1 and 2. For convenience sake, the editor's sections were retained in subsequent editions and translations. For similar convenience, they are kept here, too.
1. Petrarch introduces the subject of the book by indicating what is necessary to the life of solitude. Note in this first line the several options he presents.
I believe that a noble spirit will never find repose save in God, in whom is our end, or in himself and his private thoughts, or in some intellect united by a close sympathy with his own.
Regardless of how this repose is sought,
it behooves us to withdraw as far as may be from the haunts of men and crowded cities.
2. Petrarch's first criterion is to physically dwell away from cities in a rural setting. He contrasts the busy careworn urbanite with pious and care-free retired person who delights in the simple natural wonders of each day. These sections follow the two prototypes at the various hours of the day and night to contrast their lives and interests. Petrarch labels the urban dweller the "man of action" and his counterpart the "man of leisure."
3. The busy person is no different from the imprisoned, only that the latter's chain is gold while the prisoner's is iron. Pain and unhappiness is the busy person's only reward. The exceptional and noble may find service to others their calling but what the many do in the world cannot be called service. The majority of people never achieve a "sound mind" or inner peace because what they pursue in life cannot bring them that end. Even so, solitude does not guarantee this state of mind so much as promote it. Not only a serene environment but a clarity of mind are required for solitude, which can then be promoted by the new circumstances. Here quotations from Virgil, Juvenal, Cicero, Seneca, and Paul the Apostle mingle.
4. Cicero complains that solitude is a kind of death, but Petrarch maintains it is a death to the world and its busyness. Solitude can be embraced at any age, but older age is more likely and should not be despaired of as the right time.
My counsel to others to take account of their condition is precisely what I have employed in arriving at an understanding of my own. I heartily embrace and cling to solitude and leisure ... as if they were ladders to the level toward which the mind strives to ascend, and I dread crowds and busy cares as though they were bolts and bars to my freedom.
Petrarch uses the advice of Cicero and Quintilian to the student who must concentrate on study in a practical solitude not always available. "In the midst of crowds, on a journey, and even at festive meetings, let thought secure privacy for itself."
This chapter is a length paean to solitude, which Petrarch presents as the equivalent of Wisdom in the Old Testament wisdom books.
He also uses the four levels of virtue defined by Plotinus and Macrobius to place solitude in its hierarchy. Lowest is political virtue, pertaining to people who must spend their lives seeking their own welfare as functionaries. Next step above are the purgatorial virtues embraced by those who have renounced social desires and have physically withdrawn to become "followers of philosophy." The next higher stage is that of the virtues of perfection -- Petrarch notes that he does not know of any person at this stage -- exemplifying solitude. "The fourth and highest is the place of the exemplary virtues, which are above the reach of human beings and dwell, as it is said, in the mind of God alone." The hierarchy is relevant to the subject because it is necessary to persuade the active person of the practical value of solitude as a tool on this ascent.
But having attempted to reconcile the active life, Petrarch extends solitude to the traditional Christian virtues, indicating that there are enough resources in religion to not require the testimony of the ancients. Ultimately Petrarch folds the twin sources of ancient and Christian writings together as complimentary sources for the study of solitude.
5. This section considers arguments against solitude, beginning with Seneca, who argues that solitude is for the mournful, the fearful, and the lonely. Petrarch responds that solitude is the result of careful introspection. Seeking out a benign rural setting is not rude or savage. Nor does solitude oppose friendship. On this last point, Petrarch confesses:
It will never be my view that solitude is disturbed by the presence of a friend, but that it is enriched. If I had the choice of doing without one or the other, I should prefer to be deprived of solitude rather than of my friend.
He pleads that he wants merely to avoid the "wicked, the idle, and the ignorant." His solitude is not absolute but flexible. Petrarch's solitude is an aestheticism, not properly an eremiticism, but imminently reasonable.
6. Petrarch launches a polemic against busy city dwellers. They are boring and stupid, with "no other purpose than to serve their gullet or belly." They live in a stupor revolving around food, drink, copulation, and sleep, being of "bestial habit," vice and dissipation. This depiction is necessarily exaggerated in order to contrast it with the solitary, though these passages are rhetorical, if not petty and elitist. In his country house, far from the teeming urban masses, Petrarch may unfortunately project the image of a Pharisee as much as a solitary.
1-9. Petrarch now shifts from his own path to solitude to a presentation of famous predecessors who have addressed or represented solitude. In the first section he uses the familiar device of admitting that he cannot cover every possible example: "I shall not speak of .." or "I shall not dwell on .." to explain omissions. He wants to offer a different set of examples having to do more with personal disposition and strengthened character due to periods of solitude.
At the same time, Petrarch wants to rehabilitate a Christian path to solitude that is attainable by the lay person -- to balance his concentration on ancient Roman writers in Book One. Still, after visiting the religious figures in sections 2-5 -- with far-fetched arguments for the solitude of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, plus figures such as Pope Sylvester, Ambrose, Augustine, and Charlemagne -- Petrarch returns to a catalog of European pagans (Celtic and mythological figures like Hercules) (6), ancient Greek, Hindu, and Roman figures (7-8), and even Roman emperors (9).
10. This concluding section returns to addressing the bishop to whom the book is dedicated. It recapitulates the arguments against city life and for the fruits of a life of solitude. The section is redundant, but a more precise summary is welcome, as in these concluding passages.
Whether our desire is to serve God, which is the only freedom and the only felicity [hence including the bishop's vocation as priest], or by virtuous practices to develop our mind, which is the next best application of our labor, or through reflection and writing to leave our remembrance to posterity and so arrest the flight of the days and extend the all too brief duration of our life, or whether it is our aim to achieve all these things together, let us ... make our escape at length and spend in solitude what little time remains. ...
It is indeed not reasonable to induce all men to lead one kind of life, particularly the life of solitude, and so I do not speak of everybody, but for you and myself, and for those few with whose dispositions agree. ...
De Vita Solitaria is translated into English as "The Life of Solitude" by Francis Petrarch, translated with introduction and notes by Jacob Zeitlin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1924; reprinted Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1978.