Review – Petrarch and St. Augustine by Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee. Petrarch and St. Augustine: Classical Scholarship, Christian Theology and the Origins of the Renaissance in Italy. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 210. Leiden: Brill. 2012. Pp. x + 382.  Hardcover.

A review of Lee’s Petrarch and St. Augustine could also be a definitio status quaestionis, both for Petrarch’s use of Augustine and for Petrarch’s relationship to later Italian humanists. This volume reviews the current scholarly consensus on these questions and directly challenges them on almost every point. The opening chapter is a critique of common methods used to interpret Petrarch. The following chapters vary between more textually oriented and more topically oriented investigations: Stoicism in Secretum, otium in De otio religioso, solitudo in De vita solitaria, amicitia in various works, and the relationship between eloquence and philosophy throughout Petrarch’s career. In each case, Lee concludes that classical influences have been overstated while Augustine’s has been underappreciated. Furthermore, Lee reads Petrarch’s moral thought as self-consistent and straightforwardly based on St. Augustine’s early moral theology. Petrarch uses classical authors selectively and creatively to create an Augustinian-classical synthesis in which Augustine’s theology is dominant. Finally, Lee argues that Petrarch’s grounding in Augustine’s early works sets him apart from later Italian humanists, making his “forerunner” status more symbolic than direct.

Lee sees his project as both continuous with and transcending earlier scholarship. Scholars from Burkhardt to the early twentieth century tended to view Petrarch as the founding father of a humanist school interested in recovering classical antiquity. From the 1920s onward, the Christian and specifically Augustinian components of his thought began to receive attention, but he was still being described as eclectic and inconsistent. This supposition of inconsistency received support when Kristeller’s characterization of humanism as a movement concerned primarily with rhetoric became dominant. Kristeller also continued to view Petrarch as a founding father of humanism. Charles Trinkaus took more interest in humanists as religious thinkers and also acknowledged Augustine as an inspiration, but continued to view Augustine more as an exemplar of subjectivity and bridge to the classical world rather than as the source of a coherent moral philosophy. Recent years have brought many works on the relationship of Petrarch to St. Augustine, but have not significantly altered the framework of the discussion. Until this one.

Lee believes that two erroneous assumptions have misled most scholars up to this point. The first is what he calls “a question of attribution.” Scholars have tended to assume that when Petrarch quotes from a classical author, he endorses that author’s thought, and perhaps also the philosophical system represented by that author. In short, citation implies agreement. The second, and related, error is assuming that Petrarch perceived himself to be navigating monolithic bodies of thought.  In particular, scholars have treaded “Augustinianism” as a hegemonic concept. Lee stresses the diversity of Augustine’s thought and argues that, depending on which books one reads, or how one reads some works in the light of others, very different Augustinianisms could result. Thus, it is wrong to evaluate Petrarch’s Augustinianism against any single modern reconstruction of Augustinianism.

As an antidote to these errors, Lee reminds readers that quotation does not signal affirmation. Petrarch read classical texts from his Christian perspective and had no problem quoting from texts, even when he disagreed sharply with some of the ideas contained therein. Petrarch practiced a creative style of authorial recombination, in which elements of earlier authors were remolded into an entirely new synthesis. He could borrow extensively from Cicero or Seneca without being in the least Stoic. Denying that quotations affirm the views of their authors, the modern interpreter is free to read Petrarch’s works as synthetic wholes rather than as collections of fragments.

These differences in method lead to strongly revisionist conclusions. Lee reads the Secretum as a straightforward piece of moral instruction. Contrary to most interpreters, Lee believes that intellect rather than will is primary for Petrarch. He points to how Augustinus tells Franciscus that no one who truly understood his misery would stay in it. Augustinus’ remedy, meditation on death, is drawn from Augustine’s De vera religione and Soliloquies. The purpose is to give self-knowledge, which will wean the soul away from the sensory and direct it toward the intellectual, so that reason can properly move the will. Lee reads the key assertion, “It is better to will the good than to know the truth,” not as affirming voluntarism but as censuring Aristotle’s failure to recognize that the proper end of knowledge is true happiness. Knowledge is primary, but only as directed properly to love of God and not to curiosity. Likewise, the seeming disagreement between Augustinus and Franciscus over grace and ability is resolved according to the interplay of grace, reason, and human action found in Augustine’s early treatises. If Lee’s reading of Petrarch stands, it could considerably distance Petrarch from later humanists such as Salutati, a clear voluntarist. It would also distance him from Salutati’s predestinarianism, drawn (Lee claims) from Augustine’s later works.

The next two chapters, on otium and solitudo, overlap considerably, since the concepts are similar. Lee stresses that where Petrarch departs noticeably from classical concepts, he does so in ways reminiscent of Augustine and of the later Christian tradition. Unlike classical authors, but like Augustine, Petrarch casts otium and solitudo in terms that refer primarily to the resolution of interior tension rather than to physical location. A city dweller may be virtuous, though with difficulty; likewise, a trouble man carries his cares with him to the wilderness. The purpose of otium and solitudo is to find the knowledge of God essential to salvation, a knowledge that includes corporeal mortality and the vanity of worldly things. The exposition reinforces Lee’s earlier argument for the priority of the intellect over the will. Lee finds significant verbal and conceptual parallels between Petrarch’s treatment of otium and Augustine’s in Enarrationes in Psalmos 45. Again, this distinctively Augustinian approach calls into question Petrarch’s relationship with later humanists, whose similarly titled treatises were concerned more with the classical debate over the active vs. the contemplative life.

The chapter on friendship, a comparatively unexplored field, is quite diffuse and acknowledges significant continuities between Petrarch’s and classical authors’ concepts. However, Lee highlights the importance of placing amicitia within the Christian moral context of amor, a context heavily influenced by Augustine’s view of love as orientation.

The chapter on the relationship between eloquence and philosophy is highly controversial. Lee notes that many scholars, such as Trinkaus and Siegel, read Petrarch as asserting the superiority of eloquence over philosophy. In contrast, Lee divides Petrarch’s thinking on the topic into three phases, in which his ideas remain essentially consistent but reach more systematic expression. In Petrarch’s mature phase, he viewed philosophy as the source of moral wisdom and described it as a tree with many branches. Eloquence was one of those branches, a τέχνη that employed various figural devices to communicate and instill the love of good found in moral philosophy. It is dialectic rather than philosophy itself that Petrarch censures. Petrarch’s use of eloquence as means rather than end echoes Augustine’s treatment of rhetoric in De doctrina christiana, as well as medieval commentary on it. Also, Petrarch’s relative lack of interest in the res publica distances him from certain classical authors. If Petrarch’s humanism is more Augustinian than classical, Kristeller’s characterization of Petrarch as the forerunner of Italian humanists needs reworking. This opens space between Petrarch and Salutati, who views eloquence less as an expression of moral philosophy and more as an aid to philosophical learning.

Petrarch and St. Augustine is a formidable piece of scholarship, quite long and audacious in scope. Yet, I am left with a few areas of nagging concern. First, though I agree with Lee’s methodological starting point regarding questions of attribution, I am not convinced that the scholars whom he criticizes are always so guilty of it. Especially more recent scholars operating with a more literary approach are keenly aware of Petrarch’s philosophy of authorial creativity. Carol Quillen discusses the issue at some length, yet still concludes that Augustine’s influence on Petrarch is deeply ambiguous. One might turn the issue back on Lee. If Petrarch values not strict repetition but creative recombination, how is it that Lee reads him as unequivocally restating Augustine?

A related concern is whether Lee is flattening Petrarch. One of the joys of reading the Ascent of Mt. Ventoux or Secretum is the ambiguity. In the Ascent, Petrarch’s awareness begins to dawn in the valley, and when the moment of enlightenment comes at the peak, the result is a subversion of expectations. The desire to ascend is rebuked rather than confirmed, and Petrarch’s “conversion” is disappointing compared to its literary archetype’s. Yet Lee describes this as “a Christian conversion drama.” Likewise, the reader of Secretum is captivated by the witty back-and-forth between Augustinus and Franciscus, and the conclusion certainly appears to be open-ended. Whereas more literary scholars have taken this as evidence of real struggle or uncertainty in Petrarch, Lee reads the text as a one-sided moral lesson. It is unfortunately too common that a great intellect’s work is simplified and flattened by later interpreters, but Lee would have us believe that a simple treatise has been universally complexified by scholars. I am not sure that Lee accounts for Petrarch’s playful polyvalence. Has the pendulum swung too far back from form to content?

Another concern regards Lee’s appeal to Augustine. He criticizes those who have a monolithic view of Augustinianism, suggesting instead that scholars respect the diversity of Augustine’s thought and the multiplicity of possible readings. Yet, Lee himself seems to be dependent on a particular kind of periodization, in which Augustine’s early moral and rational works form a consistent whole over against later, “fideistic” works. Lee does not explain what he means by calling Augustine’s later works fideistic, but it appears to entail a combination of voluntarism and predestinarianism. I acknowledge development in Augustine’s theology, but am skeptical that such a division of Augustine’s works is possible. However, because Lee stresses specific verbal and conceptual parallels between Petrarch and Augustine, his main points may hold even if some of his representations of Augustine are faulty.

Lee’s contribution is not easy to evaluate. The new interpretations are so numerous and so drastically revisionary that it will take time for the scholarly community to assess them. However, this work has become the new first word on Petrarch and Augustine, due primarily to its impressive synthetic reach.[1] In casting Petrarch as an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist, and in putting distance between Petrarch and subsequent humanists, Lee’s work has the potential to alter significantly the received story of Italian humanism. In suggesting that differences between Petrarch and later humanists could be caused by their different ways of appropriating Augustine, he opens the door to much more nuanced accounts of St. Augustine’s reception in the Renaissance. No longer can Augustine be viewed merely as a symbol of the humanists’ Christian attachment or as an exemplar of interiority. He merits attention as a true intellectual source alongside classical influences.


[1] Meredith Gill, Augustine in the Italian Renaissance, offers readings of Mt. Ventoux and Secretum, but devotes only about 30 pages to Petrarch. Carol Quillen, Rereading the Renaissance: Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism, provides a counterpoint to Lee’s work, but confines itself mainly to literary matters. Evelyn Luciani, Les confessions de saint Augustin dans les lettres de Pétrarque, provides extensive philological research within a narrow range, but little synthesis.

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Published in: on November 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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