Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Coluccio Salutati, "On the World and Religious Life"

Coluccio Salutati: On the World and Religious Life. Translated by Tina Marshall. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 62. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674055148. xix + 391 pp.

Salutati was a 14th-century humanist and apparently also a fairly important person in the Florentine civil service, spending several decades as the chancellor of the Florentine republic. He wrote this book at the request of his friend Girolamo who had recently become a monk and then asked Salutati to write him a treatise that would encourage him to persist in his new vocation.

I was rather surprised by this — isn't it a bit late for that? Shouldn't Girolamo have thought this through before he became a monk? Perhaps gone on some sort of trial period first? If you become a monk and then decide that you need someone to write a book to convince you that this was the right decision to make, then perhaps it actually wasn't the right choice for you? And also, why would you ask a literary scholar and layperson (such as I'm guessing Salutati was) to write such a book, instead of a theologian or clergyman?

In the preface to his book, Salutati himself expresses some doubts about whether he is the right person to write it (pp. 5–7), but he persists anyway, as he had made a promise to his friend. As the title suggests, the book consists of two parts; the first part is a long series of short chapters arguing how terrible, sinful, etc. the world (and worldly life) is (and how wise it therefore is for someone, such as Girolamo, to withdraw from it by becoming a monk); the second part praises the religious life, with long chapters on the monastic vows (of chastity, poverty, and obedience), on prayer, humility, etc.


I guess this is not a bad book for the right sort of reader, and I hope that Girolamo got something useful out of it, but for me it was of the least enjoyable ITRL books in a long time. For starters, I found it incredibly soporific; when I tried to read it in the evenings, I would have a hard time staying awake after reading as little as two or three pages.

The only stylistic feature I really liked is Salutati's fondness for long lists of everything that is wrong with the world. As is often the case with such things, he makes the world sound much more wickedly cool than it really is: “For what is this world in which we so greatly delight but the devil's playing field, the palestra of temptations, the workshop of evils, and the factory of vices?” (1.1.2)

“This world, then, is the most unwholesome hold of turpitude, deceptive birdlime, baleful happiness, false joy, empty exultation” etc. etc. etc. (1.1.5; this is the start of a list of almost 30 items, which corresponds closely to the headings of the subsequent chapters of book 1). See also 1.5.8–9 for an even longer list of various crimes and sins that the world is full of (some of the odder entries: scandals, concern for temporal and future affairs, spells, casting of lots, irony, lawsuits :))).

And this is perhaps the best example of this type: “The world is indeed a factory of vices. [. . .] Here are committed acts of pleasurable fornication, deflowering debauchery, violent rapes, acts of incest corrupting reverence for blood ties, adulteries that plot against the nuptial bed, sacrilegious pollution of women dedicated to God, wicked sexual intercourse with contrived sterility, and whatever the monstrous poison of sex excites in us.” (1.5.1) What else can you say to most of that list than: hell yeah, sign me up? :))

Nor is he afraid to lash the excesses of the clergymen of his day: “Don't we see those whom we have as guardians of souls stained by all the offenses of the fetid flesh, shunning nothing base and nothing detestable in order to obtain the offices they desire?” (1.4.4; I love the phrase “fetid flesh” :)) — but the alliteration is a bonus in the translation, and does not appear in the original).


But more importantly, not being religious myself, I found it impossible to relate to Salutati's stiff religious zeal. Although he pays lip service to joy and the like from time to time, the prevailing tone struck me as relentlessly grim and dour. The world is completely sinful and worthless, the devil is preying on you at every step; nor is there anything cheerful about the way he portrays the monastic life, it's a straight and narrow path that you will struggle all the time to stay on. It's tragic that people ended up believing in such things instead of running away screaming the moment anyone came up with such an insane, joyless religion. (Admittedly, perhaps some of this stuff makes sense from the perspective of a monk; if you are supposed to renounce the world, it might be easier to do so if you really believed that it was bad.)

He has a particularly repulsive obsession with submission to god; for example, he keeps arguing that you gain more merit by making a vow and then fulfilling it, than by doing the same thing without having made a vow first, because by making a vow you restrict your future options more (you cannot change your mind later), so by doing this you have surrendered more than if you had not made the vow (and just done the thing the vow is about anyway); 2.6.11–16. On a similar note, he argues: “all who do some virtuous act short of obedience to the divine majesty not only do not earn merit, but even act wrongly; [. . .] all who, for example, accomplish frequent acts of fortitude and temperance only in order to be strong or temperate [. . .] are not even different from the pagan philosophers.” (2.10.18) A christian is no better than the pagans, he says, if “forgetting the God who commands him [. . .] acts not to please or obey God, but only to do something good [. . .] a person is all the worse, the more that [. . .] he does not act as he ought or employ virtues as is fitting, but rather strives against reason to enjoy virtues, which, in thus enjoying them, he may more truly be said to abuse them.” (2.10.20)

If we take Salutati's views at face value — he spends all this time arguing how bad the world is and how meritorious it is to renounce it and become a monk — we could say that the book is at its core a sort of extended advertisement promoting the religious life. But is it an effective one? Is anyone likely to have read it and thought ‘hm, he seems to be on to something, perhaps I should become a monk as well’?

I suspect that, as with many other forms of propaganda, it is likely to persuade only those who were already inclined to agree with it in the first place. Otherwise, I found it hard to imagine what sort of person could be persuaded by his arguments. It makes it harder rather than easier to relate to monks and their decision to renounce the world. In that respect, some of the other books I've read over the years did a much better job, e.g. the semi-autobiographical novels of J.-K. Huysmans, whose protagonist spends a good deal of time flitting around the edges of the monastic world and trying to find some sort of meaning in his life.

But no doubt I am missing the point spectacularly, as usual; the translator's introduction includes a very interesting quote from Filippo Villani, a contemporary of Salutati, who praised the book in the highest terms: “I do not doubt that anyone who listens to or reads the book . . . will retire to the solitary and monastic life” (p. xv).


He refers in passing (2.9.13) to the phrase that we now usually hear as “omnia mea mecum porto”, from which I learned about its origins. Now I see that its wikipedia page gives the same explanation as well.

In 1.17.3, he mentions estimates of the earth's circumference: “as the best geometers, Alphagranus and Campanus have claimed, the earth encompasses and marks out a little more than fifty-six thousand miles on its surface.” The word he uses, miliaria, apparently refers to Roman miles, which the wikipedia says were about 1.48 km long; this gives us a little under 83000 km, about double the true value.

Some interesting, and some dubious, claims about Carinthia from 1.35.13: “the poverty there is stupefying to our own decadence. There, the soil is devoid of vines, besieged by copious snow, and fertile in barney and oats more than corn. [. . .] infants are communally exposed, naked, on straw, as soon as they are born; they become accustomed to frost before they know what it is. So great is the force of custom that they rejoice in a kind of perpetual nudity; they spurn the winds, delight in snow, and in a way surpass poverty itself in harshness of life.”

A small complaint: page headers include just the book number but not the chapter, which makes it annoyingly difficult to find the chapter you're looking for.

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