“Is it a dream? Is it a lie?
I think I’ll let you decide.
Just light a candle for the kids,
Jesus Christ, don’t keep it hid!
Cause nothing’s hid from us kids!
You ain’t foolin’ nobody with the lights out!
And the power’s out in the heart of man,
Take it from your heart, put it in your hand.
And there’s something wrong in the heart of man,
You take it from your heart and put it in your hand!
Where’d you go?”
Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, where I stayed over the summer! I was living in the foothills of a mountain that inspired Petrarch’s meditations and revelations!
“Again I wandered through the valleys [of Mount Ventoux], looking for the longer and easier path and stumbling only into longer difficulties. Thus I indeed put off the disagreeable strain of climbing. But nature is not ocvercome by man’s devices; a corporeal thing cannot reach the heights by descending….You must either ascend to the summit of the blessed life under the heavy burden of hard striving, ill deferred, or lie prostrate in your slothfulness in the valleys of your sins”
–Christian or not, religious or not, I think you can agree that this is a beautiful metaphor. You could make the argument that it’s cliche, I guess – you could sigh and mutter something about how many hundreds of philosophers and would-be intellectuals have compared man’s struggles to climbing a mountain. Before you do this, though, remember that Plutarch has eight-hundred years on us. Eight hundred years of philosophers that we know of today had not yet written when he was alive. To top that off, Plutarch’s generation was by no means aware of the vast body of writings by the far-East writers in China or Japan or India. He really only had to contend with the Greek and Roman philosophers he was aware of. But let’s get past the cliche issue. Plutarch’s metaphor is more complicated than it would appear at first glance. It’s not just about climbing the mountain, about seeing it in front of you – it’s about how you go about climbing the mountain. Do you take the easy paths that lead you back down into the valleys, or do you take the harder, straightforward, uphill paths that will eventually lead you to the summit? Ultimately, only one can lead you to the top – and we all know that, but oh, how much we wish to believe otherwise! Plutarch isn’t talking about overcoming obstacles, or great challenges in life – he’s talking about self-deception. After all, Mount Ventoux isn’t such a grand mountain, anyway. It’s only a day’s climb, without fear of ice or landslides or sheer cliffs. What’s at issue here is whether we climb directly upwards, toward the top, or whether we deceive ourselves into thinking that the path into the valleys will somehow lead to the summit.
“[Plutarch is old age is responding to his “friends'” claims that he is a good man without learning, despite his fame and repute precisely for his intelligence] My portion shall be humility and ignorance, knowledge of my own weakness….Finally, may God be my portion and what they do not envy me, illiterate virtue. They will burst into loud laughter when they hear this and say that I speak piously without learning like any old woman. People of their kind, tumid as they are with the fever of literary erudition, know nothing so vile as piety; truly and soberly literate men love it above all things.”
–This ties in to what he goes into in more detail towards the end of this particular essay – the ignorance of men, and the humility of the truly great philosophers. He notes that those who have always and truly been considered wise and great have always commented on their own ignorance. Here, it is obvious that he considers reason and rationality important, but actual knowledge (or perhaps it should be said, quantity of knowledge) is more of an illusion than a goal that can be attained. In place of false “knowledge” and “learning” he substitutes piety and humility… which, in the long run, isn’t such a bad substitution. Maybe all the “that kids” at UChicago could think about making that switch as well.
“Rarely ever was there a day I spent in idleness when I was well; rarely was there a day on which I was not reading or writing or meditating on scholarly matters or listening to people who read, or questioning them, if they were quiet. I went not only to learned men, but to learned cities too, anxious to return more learned and a better man.”
–Petrarch, can I BE you?
“[A great eruption shrouded a village in ash and darkness] so that for two days no man recognize an other. When on the third day the sun began to shine, they felt as if they had come to life again. If the same thing happened to us outsiders, that we suddenly saw the light, how beautiful would the aspect of the sky appear? By daily recurrence and by the adaptation of our eyes, our minds become accustomed to it and no longer wonder or require a reason for the things they see all the time. It is just as if the novelty of things more than their greatness had to rouse them to inquire into their causes.”
–I wonder if this has had something to do with the casual attitude with which we as humans destroy the “greatness” of the world around us. It isn’t the greatness itself that tames us and makes us hunble, but rather only novelty. Can’t you imagine a day several million years in the future, when humans marvel at the contours and delicate shape of a plant, because the wonder of life is only revealed in novelty? By the time we have become accustomed to it, the miracle has ceased to exist for us.
“[Expounding on the falsity and absurdity of some theories that scientists and philosophers have proposed] Who has not heard of the crowd of atoms and their chance combinations? Democritus and his follower Epicurus try to make us believe that heaven and earth, and all things in general consist of atoms which have gathered in one spot.”
–Whoops, Petrarch, you might want to try that one again…