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  • Petrarch’s Secularized Contemplation
  • Gabriel Haley

When Jacob Burkhardt famously asserted that Petrarch was “one of the first truly modern men,” and when Hans Blumenberg identified Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux as a moment of oscillation between premodern and modern, they laid the groundwork of an influential critical narrative that positioned Petrarch within the advent of modernity.1 For such narratives, a crucial feature has been to mark the modern as a departure from religious obligation towards a greater sense of individual autonomy, felt either as present or, increasingly, as absent. Indeed, for some recent scholars, Petrarch’s “modernity” has been framed not so much with a Burkhardtian assertion of a confident individualism, but instead with a postmodern sense of the self’s fragmentation. Gur Zak has argued, for example, that “Petrarch’s writings—both in Latin and the vernacular—represent an ongoing attempt to overcome his sense of diachronic and synchronic dismemberment, to find—just like members of the reform movements of the later Middle Ages—a solution to his ‘modern’ experience of self-in-time.”2 Yet whether the critical narrative is Burkhardtian or Foucauldian, the understanding of Petrarch’s influential “modernity” has nevertheless continued to rely on a common assumption, that of a secularization defined as a replacement of, or a departure from, an “Augustinian-monastic tradition” that orients the self within the resources of religious obligation.3 In contrast, various periodizing studies by Charles Taylor, Eamon Duffy, Regina Schwartz, and Brad Gregory, among others, offer a fuller apprehension of the relationship of our historical designations of medieval and renaissance, premodern and modern, religious and secular.4 The assumed narrative of replacement, whether characterized by a modernist autonomy or a postmodernist “care of the self,” gives way to a more nuanced position, one that sees secularization not as the totalizing conversion of a society from belief to disbelief; rather secularization is [End Page 115] characterized by the movement of a society into pluralism, or further into hyper-pluralism.

What these recent attempts at periodization share is the idea that secularization is best understood as a theological development made possible from within Christian theology itself, rather than a usurpation from outside. Taylor’s account specifically describes a secularization influenced in part by the flattening of spiritual authority implied by Christianity’s radical “affirmation of ordinary life.”5 So while vocational distinction and hierarchical institutions remained in place, Taylor argues that post-Lateran Christianity shows increasingly “a profound dissatisfaction with the hierarchical equilibrium between lay life and the renunciative vocations.”6 This dissatisfaction rises out of Christianity’s “equilibrium in tension between two kinds of goals.” On the one hand, Christianity points towards “a self-transcendence” represented by the renunciative/contemplative vocations; on the other hand, it encourages “human flourishing” represented by the cultural institutions and practices of human society.7

Isolating certain moments in Petrarch’s writings, many have concluded that Petrarch’s humanism privileges (whether consciously or unconsciously) the pole of human flourishing over the pole of self-transcendence, a perceived preference that grounds older Burkhardtian readings and continues to be assumed in newer Foucauldian interpretations. Again, this privileging of human flourishing might be interpreted either as a presence or an absence, either as a reality achieved or an illusion conjured. So, if in the emancipatory narratives Petrarch’s distinction as the first modern man is fully fledged whenever he fashions himself as an autonomous subject, shedding the skin of religious obligation as it were, a postmodern narrative would emphasize the contingent and artificial nature of this fragile self-fashioning. Yet other moments from among Petrarch’s writings, like his De remediis, could just as well privilege the opposite, suggesting that Petrarch is thoroughly invested in the ascetical notions of self-transcendence. Nicholas Mann has, for instance, demonstrated that Petrarch’s earliest readers received him as first and foremost a Christian moralist of this kind.8

Taylor’s account of secularization, I am suggesting, is able to explain Petrarch’s simultaneous adherence to “two kinds of goals,” and it provides a way to avoid the critical tendency towards what Giuseppe Mazzotta has called “facile formulas concerning Petrarch’s inescapable doubleness or contradictoriness.”9 Petrarch’s modernity...