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Petrarch and the Genealogy of Asceticism

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 401-423 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0022

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.3 (2001) 401-423

The morality of thought lies in a procedure that is neither entrenched nor detached.

--Theodor Adorno

Perhaps no author within or outside of the canon of Western literature wrote as extensively on the topic of solitude as did Francesco Petrarch. While many of our modern associations with the term may find some of their origins traceable as far back as Petrarch's career, the term "solitude" carried with it much different associations in his century than it does for us today, influenced as we are by the Romantic tradition and especially by Wordsworth's absorption with the idea of solitude as an ideal state for self-conscious reflection on the individual's personal history and its meaning. No less than three of Petrarch's major prose works -- the De otio religioso, the De vita solitaria, and the Secretum--confront the topic of solitude directly, and we can also point to many letters, poems, and portions of his treatises that either directly or indirectly reflect Petrarch's virtual obsession with solitude. In Petrarch we are confronted with an author who was at once the most politically connected intellectual of his century -- we are even tempted to call him a "public intellectual"--and yet who constantly invoked his desire for solitude, for an escape from the many distractions and seductions that the cities and courts of his society offered. For Petrarch these were invariably places where desire lurked and power held sway, so that the life of solitude was often invoked as an alternative -- a counter-cultural locus, perhaps -- where freedom from temptation and subjection was imagined as an escape from the negotium of worldly life. There is much in Petrarch's writings on the solitary life that is wishful and that we might characterize as merely compensatory in a life that was otherwise quite active and engaged, but there is also a strain of thought in these works that indicates a certain intransigence beneath Petrarch's overdetermined attachment to the idea, if not the practice, of withdrawal and detachment. An inquiry into Petrarch's idealization of the solitary life may even yield a somewhat reactionary aspect of his complex mind, a conservative strain in an author who was in almost every other way the literary herald of a humanism that was at the center of the cultural avant-garde of the Trecento. Is the Petrarch that in so many accounts of his character is construed as the "first modern man" actually something else, a reluctant ascetic holdover from the Middle Ages? How did Petrarch use his unique understanding of the life of solitude, of ascesis, as a pose from which to construct his sense of himself as an author and intellectual? Or are we simply confronted in the figure of a worldly and an ascetic Petrarch with yet another set of contradictions so appropriate to the "immensely complex" author whose poetic signature was the oxymoron?

"Asceticism" and "solitude" are of course not synonymous terms, but any examination of a number of Petrarch's works as they fall within what might be called a genealogy of asceticism must recognize from the start that Petrarch's brand of asceticism was somewhat unique, especially insofar as it was deeply influenced by ancient Stoicism as well as by his reading in authors from the early Christian era. The most useful expression for our purposes may be the medieval concept of the "contemplative life," since much of the analysis in what follows will focus on how Petrarch often used his self-proclaimed pose of detachment and withdrawal as a technique for carrying on what were otherwise quite engaged dialogues with those worldly formations of power and authority that are normally conceived of as belonging to the "active" sphere of human existence. For despite Petrarch's participation in or association with a number of political and civic ventures during his long and productive career, he likely never would have freely chosen a fully "active" career. His refusal of both a teaching appointment in Florence and ecclesiastical positions in Avignon are clear evidence of this, and there is little doubt that Petrarch's ideal lifestyle would have...



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