Petrarch on Reading Great Books


Francesco Petrarch (fourteenth century) was an Italian scholar in Renaissance Italy and is often referred to as the Father of Humanism. He rediscovered the writings of Cicero, which was heralded as the beginning of the Renaissance. He also coined the concept of the “Dark Ages” (Middle Ages) because of the decline of intellectual pursuits following the fall of the Roman Empire.

Petrarch displayed an effect that reading the Great Books might have upon one who aspires to the highest things. He permitted the writings he admired to instruct and rebuke him. In his letter To Lapo da Castiglionchio, 1355, he recounted how—while producing a copy of Cicero—he was overcome with a weariness of his task. However, after reading of Cicero’s fortitude in copying, he “grew hot with shame, like a modest young soldier who hears the voice of his beloved leader rebuking him.” While a minor flaw, Petrarch was humble enough to receive the rebuke and reform his attitude and practice.

Mere reading was not the cause of Petrarch’s cultivation of virtue. Rather, Petrarch set himself to study those men whom he wrote that—in To Francesco Nelli, September 18, probably 1360—garnered his affection. His study of such persons instilled in him the duty to preserve their writings so that they might be accessible to others. Alongside the classical writers, Petrarch held “those counselors and guides to salvation.” Why is it that he felt so compelled to consider pagan literature alongside spiritual literature? He, like others before him, believed that wherever the truth was, it originated with God. However, not all permitted this same effect.

Petrarch wrote of those who, in their ignorance, scorned what they failed to comprehend inTo Boccaccio, May 28, 1362. In another letter To Boccaccio, August 28, 1364, Petrarch identified those who disdained the great works—and even the canon—as the “new theologians.” It has often been the position of those who claim to pursue the sublime to dismiss works which were not explicitly grounded in God’s Word. Those in Petrarch’s day even disdained some of the doctors of the church (e.g., Ambrose, Jerome) and the Apostles. The self-contradiction of these philosophers was evident when one quoted Holy Writ to Petrarch while denying the very sacred writer’s inspiration who wrote the words he quoted.

How it was that great works can be so instructive to one, while to another so quickly dismissed, resulted from the latter’s ignorance. “To desert our studies shows want of self-confidence rather than wisdom, for letters do not hinder but aid the properly constituted mind which possesses them; they facilitate our life, they do not retard it” (Boccaccio, May 28).  The point is best illustrated in that one person may read and be led to salvation by their reading the Scriptures while another reads it with a critical eye seeking only to disprove it. The words are the same, but the mindset with which one evaluates literature determines the outcome of their reading.

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the adversary utilized the Scriptures in a manipulative way. However, the Lord used the Scriptures in the proper way—for instruction in godliness. The former’s motive was evil while the latter’s was pure. When reading great works, one may permit the work to purify them of vices thus instilling virtue, or they may read with Satan’s lust for vice.

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