Tuesday, October 04, 2005

BOOK: Francesco Petrarca, "Invectives"

Francesco Petrarca: Invectives. Edited and translated by David Marsh. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 11. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674011546. xx + 539 pp.

Of all dust, the ashes of dead controversies afford the driest.

Arthur Quiller-Couch

As the dictionary says, invectives are denunciatory or abusive writings (or expressions, etc.). The four pieces in this book fit this definition very well. Unfortunately, most of the time they are also quite boring to read. Petrarca is basically pouring out his bile by the bucketload, and while his fists are busy hammering away at the opponent's face (or his good name), he doesn't always take the trouble to be witty or clever or interesting. The usenet and various web forums produce gigabyte upon gigabyte of this stuff nowadays, only without Petrarca's learning and heaps of classical allusions.

Apparently (see the editor's introduction, pp. xi–xiv), the invective was practically a minor literary genre of its own in the ancient times, and perhaps in the renaissance as well. I guess that some people might find this book interesting from a technical point of view, to see what rhetorical or stylistic devices the author is using to lambast his opponents.

Otherwise, from the point of view of content this writing is not particularly inspiring; it is mostly on the level of “Mr Smith is a fool and a cad, and he has smelly feet, and by profession he is a plumber, and as we know all plumbers are inveterate drunkards, and he comes from the village of Nether Bristlebridge, which gave the world two notorious highwaymen three hundred years ago, and where the inhabitants are widely known for sodomizing their sheep on a regular basis.” I can understand that Petrarch may have simply wanted to vent his spleen; I can also see how those who wished to see a particular person get abused would have enjoyed reading these writings; but otherwise, a neutral reader who hasn't taken sides yet will find hardly anything appealing here. There is little of genuine arguments against his opponents; mostly it's just rhetoric, vigorous gesticulation and pure unmitigated abuse that really feels like it is coming from the bottom of his heart. Sure you can claim that Mr Smith is a fool and has smelly feet, but what have you really proven by this? Saying is easy, but that's no argument and no proof. You have only proven that you are willing to descend to the level of writing such things in public. And sure, you can also claim that Mr Smith's native country gave birth to such-and-such bad people, and you can pretend that this somehow implies that Mr Smith is also a bad person, but come on, you aren't fooling anybody — we all know that it doesn't really work that way. You are offending the reader's intelligence by writing things like that. This is the sort of writing we would expect from some scumbag demagogue politician, not from a decent writer and an intellectual.

If I had a bone to pick with the same people that he is vituperating here, I guess the reading could have a cathartic effect; but as I don't, it was the very excess of vigor and violence in his style that made it impossible for me to empathize with him and thus to appreciate or enjoy his invectives.

Several of these invectives were written in response to things that other people have written against Petrarca; it would be interesting if the book included these writings as well, because we would then be able to see both sides of the story. Now we mostly see Petrarca's side, and what little he shows of his opponents' arguments. From this little that we see, I get the impression that his opponents weren't necessarily any more decent or honest at arguing than he was.

As an example, consider the first invective, Against a Physician. Here, although Petrarch at some point says that his quarrel is only with this particular physician, and not with the medical profession as a whole, he nevertheless enjoys repeating, over and over again, things which cannot be taken as otherwise than ridiculing and shaming all physicians, rather than just his particular opponent. I don't mean to say that I'm a big fan of physicians, but much of Petrarca's invective against them is simply silly. He keeps on mentioning how often physicians are involved in dirty, sordid tasks such as inspecting the patients' urine (§31). Even if this is true, this doesn't mean that there's anything shameful or morally wrong in it. On the contrary, insofar as the practice of medicine is beneficial to humankind, we should be thankful that the physicians are willing to do it despite these sordid tasks it involves. Admittedly, Petrarca might disagree that medicine is really useful, and given the state of medicine in his time it's hard to blame him for that.

The fourth invective, Against a Detractor of Italy, is more interesting, although still silly. The context here involves the seat of the papacy, which was in Avignon at that time, and Petrarch wrote to the pope to encourage him to move the seat back to Rome. This resulted in a quarrel with a certain Frenchman, who naturally defended Avignon, and Petrarch wrote his invective in response. He constantly calls his opponent a Gaul rather than a Frenchman, and uses mostly examples from ancient history to prove that Italy and particularly Rome are much more illustrious places than Gaul (i.e. France). I am very annoyed with the practice, apparently not at all uncommon among the Italian renaissance authors, of saying “we” when talking about the ancient Rome. There is something grating, something arrogant and pompous in it; the Italians are not the ancient Romans, Italy is not the Roman Empire — the very thought is obviously and absurdly ridiculous. On the other hand, I do admit that in Petrarch's time and from his point of view, Italy didn't look quite as ridiculous as now. At that time it was, in many ways, more advanced than most other European countries, and had maintained a better contact with its own classical past than other European countries did. And, admittedly, I cannot honestly claim that there is something inherently preposterous in the fact that a 14th-century Italian felt a continuity between him and the people who lived in the same area 1300 years earlier, and from whom both he, his language, and his culture were largely descended. After all, I feel the same kind of continuity with the people who inhabited my country 1300 years ago; the only difference is that they were uncivilized barbarians while Petrarch's ancestors of 1300 years were members of a famous ancient civilization.

Anyway, this invective is nevertheless fairly interesting to read, at least as an example how national rivalry is the same and equally silly in all parts of the world and in all time periods. “You may judge the truth of his other arguments by the fact that he begins by citing the Gauls' moderation in eating” (§9). “Grandiloquence is associated with the Greeks. And I add the Gauls to the Greeks: for while inferior in wit, they are superior in boasting and loquacity” (§55). “For what is all of history but the praise of Rome?” (§60; but I think Gibbon's definition is closer to the truth.) “In Italy, Rome was founded by Trojans; but who founded Troy? In fact, it was an Italian from Tuscany” (§104; reference? why, Virgil, that paragon of Augustan ass-kissing reliable historic reportage, who else). In §78 he lists a number of people that had supposedly been exiled to the Rhone region, including Herod and Pontius Pilate; but I wonder if his authorities are particularly reliable.

The sheer nerve of these passages from §59 is simply astounding: “we see the truth of what is written in genuine histories: ‘All nations should know that the Roman people start and end just wars’ ”. Later in the same paragraph he quotes somebody saying that the Romans rule other people with wisdom and prudence because they are so used to it, whereas “when people's good fortune is new to them, its novelty makes them lose control and go mad in their elation”. Ah, these imperialists. They are the same in all ages of the world. I don't know whether I should laugh or cry.

As happens too often in these invectives, Petrarca again resorts to silly rhetoric to support his opinions. For example, there's the ridiculous tinkering with words to ‘prove’ why Rome should be considered a ‘holy city’ (§24): “the stipulation of the civil law that wherever a body is buried [...] that place is considered ‘religious’. How religious, then, the city of Rome must appear! In it repose the integral remains of so many valorous and illustrious men and rulers!” What complete and utter balderdash! How could anybody take this sort of ‘argument’ seriously? Heck, was it even meant to be taken seriously?

The most interesting of these invectives is the third one, On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others. Four friends of Petrarca have become envious of his fame (§14) and have accused him of being ignorant (they “pronounced this concise verdict: I am a good man without learning”, §24). (Partly the reason seems to be that Petrarca did not have the habit of flaunting his learning and eloquence in everyday conversations with his friends; §45, 47.) I very much admire and respect Petrarca's response here: being good and being humble is much more important than being learned (§24, 27, 41–2). Then, after admitting his own ignorance, he accuses his detractors of being ignorant as well. He is more measured here than in the other invectives, with more reasoning and arguing, and hardly any blind rage and mindless insults; as a result, this invective is much more pleasant to read. In fact his attitude to the four friends remains remarkably tolerant and friendly, as does theirs to him (§137, 151). Ignorance is in fact a very widespread thing, even among those renowned for wisdom (§144–5).

In this invective, Petrarca turns out to be quite a pious and religious person, much more so than I expected. In fact this occasionally annoyed me. His four friends seem to have had an exaggerated respect for the ancient philosophers and their authority, particularly for Aristotle. Petrarca's skepticism towards such blind acceptance of a philosopher's authority (§48) is very reasonable, but then immediately afterwards his main complaint about Aristotle seems to be that the man was not a Christian and consequently his ideas aren't sufficiently closely compatible with Christian beliefs (§49–50; he “failed to understand, or understood but ignored, the two things that are absolutely essential to happines, namely, faith and immortality”, §50; his lack of monotheism, §55). To Petrarch, Christianity is far more important than any philosophy (§52). He praises Cicero for certain passages in his works which appear to anticipate Christian ideas (§60–7; in §62 he quotes a particularly interesting passage from Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, 2.34–5, which shows that ‘intelligent design’ is by no means a new idea!). However, Cicero of course did not go quite so far as to become a monotheist; a failure that earns him Petrarca's stern fulminations in §75–6. Later he criticises other philosophers, again chiefly because of their polytheism (§79–82); nor do Pythagoras' metempsychosis (§84) or Democritus' atoms (§86) fare any better. Anyway, I am somewhat saddened by this stiff, dull, self-righteous orthodoxy on Petrarca's part. He quotes the skeptical questions posed by a certain Epicurean named Velleius, mentioned in one of Cicero's works, and comments: “This is the question of an unbelieving and irreligious mind. He sounds as if he is asking about a carpenter of blacksmith, rather than the One of whom it is written: ‘He spoke, and it was done.’ ” (§96.) This, then, is all his defence of Christianity: it's a faith, and you're supposed to believe blindly in it, because, well, just because, that's it, period (§95–7). On the one hand, this attitude is of course entirely reasonable: Christianity is, after all, a religion; it's a matter of faith. If it could be proven by arguments, there wouldn't be any point in believing in it; it would simply be a matter of fact. But it isn't, and thus it's entirely reasonable that Petrarca says it loud and clear that it's just something that you have to believe in despite having no proofs and no reasons for it. However, on the other hand, this state of affairs is of course terribly deplorable. Taking such a religious stance is a complete abdication of responsibility; it's making up an answer when one doesn't know the right answer; it's taking refuge in blind faith rather than trying to understand the world around one and make sense of it, and face candidly the fact that there are many things that one simply doesn't know and doesn't understand, and that this is no excuse to go and make up fictitious answers when we don't know the right ones. It has been truly observed that religion is often like a seal on a person's mind, making them unable to consider things from a different point of view and unwilling to consider the possibility that somebody may validly try to believe in slightly different fairy tales than the ones they believe in. Just look at this stiff-necked statement of faith from §103: “But I have someone else whom I worship. He does not promise me empty and frivolous conjectures about fallacious things, which serve no purpose and rest on no solid basis. He promises the knowledge of Himself. And if He grants this, it will appear superfluous to concern myself with the things He has created.” This passage is full of phrases which criticise the ancient pagan philosophers (see also §133 for more along these lines), but hasn't it ever occured to him how perfectly well the very same phrases could be used against his own beliefs? What does the whole of Christianity seem to an atheist but an empty and frivolous conjecture about fallacious things, something which rests on no solid basis? Knowledge of “Himself”, i.e. of something that doesn't even exist — how much more superfluous can something get? If you can disbelieve in n –1 gods, why not in the n-th one as well? But all these arguments are of course terribly, dreadfully tired. They have probably been flogged out millions of times since at least Voltaire's age, and probably since well before that as well. I have absolutely no ambition to argue with religious people; it's too unlikely that any of them would change their minds. I'm just terribly bored with these sad, sorry delusions of theirs, and I wish they finally abandoned them, as they should have done a long time ago.

Another criticism that Petrarca has of Aristotle is that, although he has written many fine things about ethics, his writings aren't very effective in encouraging people to act ethically; Petrarca suggests that various Latin authors, particularly Cicero, are much better from this point of view. This is quite possible; I haven't read Aristotle's ethics myself but I heard that many of his writings are basically school textbooks and correspondingly rather boring. Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (book I, part 2, ch. XX) certainly puts down Aristotle's Ethics in a few very nice phrases (“The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it is likely to be repulsive.”). Petrarca says of Aristotle (§108): “For it is one thing to know, and another to love; one thing to understand, and another to will. I don't deny that he teaches us the nature of virtue. But reading him offers us none of those exhortations, or only a very few, that goad and inflame our minds to love virtue and hate vice.” I'm particularly impressed with the first sentence here; it is applicable in many situations. Alas, how often we know what would be good for us, but cannot summon the resolution to actually do it! Petrarca continues in §111: “It is more prudent to strive for a good and devout will than a capacious and clear intellect. As wise men tell us, the object of the will is goodness, while the object of the intellect is truth. But it is better to will what is good than to know what is true.”

Here is another very good observation, from §92: “[C]larity is the supreme proof of one's understanding and knowledge. Whatever is clearly understood can be clearly expressed [...]”.

In §113 Petrarca stresses that his complaints are not so much against Aristotle himself, whom he actually respects greatly, but against the later Aristotelians, people who seemed to imply that Aristotle has the answers to all questions and that he is the fount of all authority and wisdom. Of course I cannot help but agree that excessive reliance on any individual philosopher or authority is ridiculous and counterproductive.

Of all ancient philosophers, the ones receiving most praise from Petrarca are the Platonists, because their conceptions are the most similar to Christian beliefs (§119–20); had they been born in a later time, philosophers such as Plato and Cicero would undoubtedly have become Christians (§128). Petrarca says he doesn't regret reading Cicero's works (§126, 128).

A nice observation about commentators: “There are people who dare not write anything of their own. In their desire to write, they turn to expounding the works of others.” (§115.) But Petrarca is a little unjust to say merely “dare not”; it isn't only a matter of daring, but also of having the ability and talent to write. I for example am quite clearly aware that I lack these qualities. But fortunately I have no aspirations to become a writer.

In conclusion, I wouldn't really recommend anyone to read this book, except perhaps if you are interested in the rhetorical technicalities of invective. Of all the ITRL books I've read so far, this is perhaps the most boring one. It would have been better to read his sonnets again rather than waste time on his invectives. The most interesting invective was the third one, On His Own Ignorance, and even this was rather marred by his Christian zeal. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of these invectives as a whole was the abundance of quotations from ancient authors, many of which are quite interesting. If, however, you just want to read rants, personal abuse, and pointless bickering, this book is fine, but surely the usenet is even finer. Or maybe adequacy.org.


Blogger Rich said...

Thank you for this, it was very helpful. I happen to think you are quite a good writer.

Sunday, September 06, 2009 7:17:00 AM  
Blogger denachtwacht said...

"I'm just terribly bored with these sad, sorry delusions of theirs, and I wish they finally abandoned them, as they should have done a long time ago."


Friday, March 11, 2011 12:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In conclusion, I wouldn't really recommend anyone to read this book, except perhaps if you are interested in the rhetorical technicalities of invective.

Short shrift for Petrarch!

Monday, August 27, 2012 5:59:00 PM  

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