Petrarch’s Preface to his First Collection of Letters To his Friend “Socrates”
What now, brother? We have tried almost everything, and nowhere have we found peace. When may we hope for that, and where shall we seek it? Time, as the saying is, has slipped between our fingers. Our early hopes are buried with our friends. The year 1348 has left us solitary and bereaved; and has taken from us what all the wealth of Ormus and of Ind could never replace.
Such final losses are irreparable, and the wounds inflicted by death can never be healed. There is but one source of consolation; we shall soon follow those who have gone before. How long we must wait we know not. But this we do know, it cannot be for long; and the delay, however short, will not be without its trials. Yet let us, here at the outset at least, refrain from lamentation.
I do not know, brother, what anxieties are weighing upon you or what your present preoccupations may be. As for me, I am making up my bundles and, as those on the verge of departure are wont to do, I am trying to decide what to take with me, what to distribute among my friends, and what to throw into the fire. At any rate, I have nothing to sell. I possess, or rather am burdened by, more than I supposed. I found, for example, a vast store of scattered and neglected writings of different kinds in the house. I have laboriously exhumed boxes, buried in dust, and bundles of manuscript, half-destroyed by time. The importunate mouse as well as the insatiable bookworm, have plotted against me, and, a devotee of Pallas, I have been entangled in the toils of Pallas’s enemy, the spider. There is, however, no obstacle which may not be overcome by persistent effort. Surrounded by the confused masses of letters and manuscripts I began, following my first impulse, to consign everything to the flames, with a view to escaping from the inglorious task of assorting the papers. Then, as one thought springs from another, it occurred to me that, like a traveller weary by reason of the long road, I might well look back as from an eminence, and step by step review the history of my younger days.
This counsel prevailed. It seemed to me, if not an exalted undertaking, at least not a disagreeable one, to recall the shifting feelings and sentiments of earlier times. But, taking up the disordered papers at random, I was astonished to see how distorted and blurred the past appeared to me, not of course that it, but rather that my mental vision, had changed, so that I hardly recognised my former self. Still, some things that I happened upon called up pleasant reminiscences of long ago. Some of the productions moved with the free step of prose, some were held in check by Homeric reins (I have rarely used those of Isocrates), others, destined to charm the ear of the people, also obeyed their own appropriate laws. The last mentioned style of verse, revived, it is said, not many generations ago, among the Sicilians, spread in a short time throughout Italy, and even beyond. This kind of poetry was held in great repute by the earliest writers among the Greeks and Romans, and the common people of Rome and Athens are said to have been accustomed to the rhythmical lyrics only.
This chaotic medley kept me busy for several days, and, although I felt the potent charm and natural partiality which are associated with all one’s own productions, the love for my more important works finally got the upper hand. These had suffered a long interruption and were still uncompleted, although they were anxiously awaited by not a few. The shortness of life was borne in upon me. I feared, I must confess, its snares and pitfalls. What indeed is more transient than life, and what more certain than death? It occurred to me to ask what foundation I had laid, and what would remain to me for all my toil and vigils. It seemed a rash, an insane thing, to have undertaken such long and enduring labours in the course of so brief and uncertain an existence, and thus to scatter my talents, which would scarcely suffice for the successful accomplishment of a single undertaking. Moreover, as you well know, another task awaits me more glorious than these in proportion as actions merit more enduring praise than words.
But why dwell longer upon this matter? It will perhaps seem incredible to you, but it is none the less true, that I committed to Vulcan for correction a thousand or more scattered poems of all kinds and letters of friendly intercourse, not because I found nothing in them to my liking, but because they involved more work than pleasure. I did this, however, with a sigh, as I am not ashamed to confess. But with a mind so occupied it was necessary to resort even to somewhat harsh measures for relief, just as an overburdened ship must sometimes be lightened by the sacrifice of valuable cargo.
After disposing of these I noticed, lying in a corner, a few papers which had been preserved rather by accident than intention, or had, at some former time, been copied by my assistants, and so in one way or the other had escaped the perils of advancing age. I say a few—I fear they will seem a great many to the reader, and far too numerous to the copyist. I was more indulgent to these, and allowed them to live, not so much on account of their worthiness as of my convenience, for they did not involve any additional labour of my own. As I considered them with regard to the natural inclinations of two of my friends, the prose fell to you, while the verse I decided to dedicate to our friend Barbato. I recollected that this used to be your preference, and that I had promised to follow your wishes. My mood was such that I was on the point of destroying everything which I came across, not even sparing those writings just mentioned, when you both seemed to appear to me, one on my right and one on my left, and, grasping my hands, you admonished me in a friendly manner not to do violence at once to my good faith and your anticipations. This was the chief reason why these were spared, for otherwise, believe me, they would have gone up in smoke like the rest.
You will read your portion of what remains, such as it is, not only patiently, but even eagerly. I do not venture to repeat the boast of Apuleius of Madaura, “Reader, you have but to listen to be charmed”; for on what grounds could I venture to promise pleasure to the reader? But, you at least, will read the letters, my good Socrates, and, as you are very fond of your friends, you may discover some charm in them. Your partiality for the author will make his style pleasing (indeed what beauty of style is likely to be perceived by an unfriendly judge?); it is vain to adorn what already delights. If anything gratifies you in these letters of mine, I freely concede that it is not really mine but yours; that is to say, the credit is due not to my ability but to your good-will. You will find no great eloquence or vigour of expression in them. Indeed I do not possess these powers, and if I did, in ever so high a degree, there would be no place for them in this kind of composition. Even Cicero, who was renowned for these abilities, does not manifest them in his letters, nor even in his treatises, where, as he himself says, the language is characterised by a certain evenness and moderation. In his orations, on the other hand, he displayed extraordinary powers, pouring out a clear and rapid stream of eloquence. This oratorical style Cicero used frequently for his friends, and against his enemies and those of the republic. Cato resorted to it often on behalf of others, and for himself four and forty times. In this mode of composition I am wholly inexperienced, for I have been far away from the responsibilities of state. And while my reputation may sometimes have been assailed by slight murmurs, or secret whisperings, I have so far never suffered any attack in the courts which I must needs avenge or parry. Hence, as it is not my profession to use my weapons of speech for the defence of others, I do not frequent the tribunals, nor have I ever learned to loan my tongue. I have, indeed, a deep repugnance for such a life, for I am by nature a lover of silence and solitude, an enemy of the courts, and a contemner of wealth. It was fortunate for me that I was freed from the necessity of resorting to a weapon which I might not have been able to use if I had tried. I have therefore made no attempt to employ an oratorical style, which, even if it had been at my disposal, would have been uncalled for in this instance. But you will accept this homely and familiar language in the same friendly spirit as you do the rest, and take in good part a style well adapted to the sentiments we are accustomed to express in ordinary conversation.
All my critics, however, are not like you, for they do not all think the same, nor do they all love me as you do. But how can I hope to please everybody, when I have always striven to gratify a few only? There are three poisons which kill sound criticism, love, hate, and envy. Beware lest through too much love you should make public what might better be kept concealed. As you are guided by love, so others may be influenced by other passions. Between the blindness of love and that of jealousy there is indeed a great difference in origin, but not always in effect. Hate, to which I have assigned a middle place, I neither merit nor fear. Still it can easily be so arranged that you may keep and read my trifling productions for your own exclusive pleasure, thinking of nothing except the incidents in our lives and those of our friends which they recall. Should you do this, it would be most gratifying to me. In this way your request will have been satisfied and my reputation will be safe. Beyond this I do not deceive myself with the vain hope of favour. For how can we imagine even a friend, if he be not an alter ego, reading without weariness such a mass of miscellaneous and conflicting recollections? There is no unity in the themes or composition of the letters, and with the various matters treated went varying moods, which were rarely happy and usually despondent.
Epicurus, a philosopher held in disrepute among the vulgar but esteemed by those better able to judge, confined his correspondence to two or three persons—Idomeneus, Polyaenus, and Metrodorus. Cicero wrote to hardly more, to Brutus, Atticus, and the other two Ciceros, his brother and son. Seneca wrote to few except his friend Lucilius. It obviously renders felicitous letter-writing a simple matter if we know the character of our correspondent and get used to his particular mind, so that we can judge what he will be glad to hear and what we may properly communicate. But my lot has been a very different one, for heretofore almost my whole life has been passed in journeying from place to place. I might compare my wanderings with those of Ulysses; and certainly were we only on the same plane in reputation and in the fame of our adventures, I might claim that he had not wandered farther or been cast upon more distant shores than I. He was already well advanced in years when he left his native land, and, since nothing is long in our lives, the experiences of his old age were necessarily brief indeed: I, on the other hand, was conceived and born in exile, costing my mother such grievous pangs, and in such critical circumstances, that not only the midwives but the physicians long believed her to be dead. Thus I began to encounter dangers before I was born, and attained the threshold of life under the auspices of death. The event is commemorated by the no means insignificant city of Arezzo, whither my father, driven from his country, had taken refuge, together with many another worthy man. Thence I was taken in my seventh month and carried about all over Tuscany by a certain sturdy youth, who wrapped me up in a cloth, just as Metabus did Camilla, and bore me suspended from a knotty staff, so as not to injure my tender body by any rough contact. But once, in crossing the Arno (I delight to recall with you the beginnings of my tribulations), his horse stumbled and he fell into the water, and while striving to save the burden entrusted to him he nearly sacrificed his own life in the raging flood.
Our wanderings through Tuscany finally ended at Pisa. From here, however, I was dragged away again, in my seventh year, and in our journey to France by sea we were wrecked by winter storms, not far from Marseilles, and I was on the verge of being summoned away anew from the vestibule of life.—But I am straying from my subject. From then until now I have had little or no opportunity to stop and take breath. How many and how various the dangers and apprehension I have suffered in my migrations no one, after myself, better knows than you. Hence I have felt free to recall these events, that you may keep in mind that I was born among perils and among perils have grown old,—if old I am, and there are not worse trials ahead. Although similar vicissitudes may be common to everyone entering this life, since existence is a warfare—nay more, a battle,—each nevertheless has his peculiar experiences, and the fighting differs greatly in kind. Each has his own burdens to bear, but it still makes a great difference what these burdens are.
Well then, to return to the matter in hand,—since amid the tempests of life I have never for long cast anchor in any one port, I have naturally made innumerable acquaintances. How many true friends I know not, for friends are not only exceedingly few, but difficult to distinguish. It has fallen to my lot, in consequence, to write to a great many who differed so widely from one another in mind and condition that on re-reading my letters it sometimes seemed to me as if I had said in one precisely the opposite from what I had in another. Yet anyone who has been in a similar position will readily admit that I was almost forced into such contradictions. The first care indeed in writing is to consider to whom the letter is to be sent; then we may judge what to say and how to say it. We address a strong man in one way and a weak one in another. The inexperienced youth and the old man who has fulfilled the duties of life, he who is puffed up with prosperity and he who is stricken with adversity, the scholar distinguished in literature and the man incapable of grasping anything beyond commonplace, —each must be treated according to his character or position. There are infinite varieties among men; minds are no more alike than faces. And as the same stomach does not always relish the same kind of food, the same mind is not always to be fed upon the same kind of writing. So the task becomes a double one, for not only have we to consider the person to whom we propose to write, but how those things we are planning to say are likely to affect him when he reads them. Owing to these difficulties I have often been forced into apparent contradictions. And in order that unfavourable critics may not turn this against me, I have relied in a measure upon the kind aid of the flames for safety, and for the rest, upon your keeping the letters secret and suppressing my name.
But friends are lynx-eyed, and nothing is likely to escape them; so that if you cannot keep the letters from the few who still remain, be sure to urge them to destroy immediately any of my communications that they may possess, lest they be disturbed by any changes which I have made in the words or matter. These changes are due to the fact that, since it never occurred to me that you would ask or that I would consent to have the letters brought together in a single collection, I was accustomed, in order to avoid labour, to repeat now and then something I had said in a previous letter, using my own as my own, as Terence says. Now that letters sent off years ago to the most distant regions are brought together at once in a single place, it is easy to perceive deformities in the whole body which were not apparent in the separate parts. Phrases which pleased when they occurred but once in a letter, begin to annoy one when frequently repeated in the same collection; accordingly they must be retained in one and expunged from the others. Many things, too, which related to every-day cares and which deserved mention when I wrote, would now weary even the most eager reader, and were therefore omitted. I recollect that Seneca laughed at Cicero for including trivial matters in his letters, and yet I am much more prone in my epistles to follow Cicero’s example than Seneca’s. Seneca, indeed, gathered into his letters pretty much all the moral reflections which he had published in his various books: Cicero, on the other hand, treats philosophical subjects in his books, but fills his letters with miscellaneous news and the gossip of the day. Let Seneca think as he likes about this; as for me, I must confess that I find Cicero’s letters very agreeable reading. They relax the tension produced by weighty maters, which if long continued strains the mind, though if occasionally interrrupted it becomes a source of pleasure.
I cannot sufficiently wonder at the boldness of Sidonius, although I may be a bit rash myself in denouncing this boldness when I do not very well understand his sarcasms, either because of my slow wit or his obscure style, or, as is not impossible, by reason of some error in the text. One thing, however, is clear; Cicero is ridiculed, and by a Sidonius! What liberty!—effrontery I would say, did I not fear to exasperate those whom I have already offended by calling him bold. Here is one of the Latin people who finds it in his heart to attack Cicero. Nor does he speak of some single weakness, for if that were all I should have to ask pardon for both Seneca and myself; human frailty, indeed, can hardly escape criticism. But this Sidonius has dared to make sport of Cicero’s eloquence,—his whole style and his method in general. This Arvernian orator does not simply imagine himself, as he says, a brother of the Latin orator, which would be audacious enough, but he assumes the role of a rival, and, what is worse, of a scoffer. He would deprive him of the renown which all but a few of his contemporaries and fellow-citizens unanimously concede to him: even those few were doubtless warped in their judgment and goaded on by envy, the constant attendant upon contemporary fame. But neither time nor place afford any extenuation in the case of Sidonius. Consequently I wonder more and more what manner of person this was who thus attacked the undoubted prince of orators, although he was himself a disciple of oratory, and belonged to another age, and was born in another land. Upon turning the whole matter over in my mind, I find it impossible to accept in the case of so learned a man the excuse of ignorance, and to ascribe his perverted opinions to a weakeness of the head rather than of the heart. I may be mistaken in this matter, as in many others, but if I am I rejoice that I am mistaken in company with many, and those by far the most distinguished, judges in believing that Cicero leaves all fault-finders far behind, and that to him belongs the palm for prose eloquence. From this point of view the moral and intellectual perversity of those who deny him pre-eminence becomes as clear as day.
Sidonius brings forward, it is true, a certain Julius Titianus and certain Frontoniani, of whom I have never heard, as the authorities for his sarcasms. To these, and to all those holding such views, I make one a was right when he said, “Whatever strength or advantage Roman eloquence may have to oppose to the arrogance of Greece was developed by Cicero.” Moreover, Quintilian, among the many glorious things which he says of Cicero, well observes: “He was sent by the special gift of providence, with such extraordinary powers that in him eloquence might manifest all her resources.” And after many proofs of this, he continues: “It was therefore but right that his contemporaries should declare with one accord that he reigned supreme in the courts. With succeeding generations it has come to pass that Cicero is no longer regarded as the name of a man, but of eloquence itself. To him, therefore, let us look, placing him before us as our model. When a student comes to admire Cicero greatly, he may know that he is making progress.” I hold moreover that, conversely, it is quite true that one to whom Cicero’s style is displeasing either knows nothing of the highest eloquence or hates it.
Anxious as I was to hasten on, I could not pass over this calumny altogether. To return again to the letters, you will find many written in a familiar style to friends, including yourself; sometimes referring to matters of public or private interest, sometimes relating to bereavements, which form, alas! an ever recurring theme, or to other matters which circumstances brought into prominence. I have discussed almost nothing else, except as I have spoken of my state of mind, or have imparted some bit of news to my friends. I approve, you see, what Cicero says in his first letter to his brother, that it is the proper aim of a letter to inform the one to whom it is addressed of something of which he was ignorant. These considerations account for the title which I have selected. For, on thinking over the matter, although the simple rubric “epistles” was quite appropriate, I rejected it, both because many older writers had chosen it, and because I myself had applied it to the verses to my friends which I mentioned above, and consequently disliked to resort to it a second time. So I chose a new name, and entitled the volume Letters of Familiar Intercourse, letters, that is, in which there is little anxious regard to style, but where homely matters are treated in a homely manner. Sometimes, when it was not inappropriate, there may be a bit of simple narration or a few moral reflections, such as Cicero was accustomed to introduce into his letters.
To say so much about a small matter is justified by the fear of censorious critics, who, instead of producing work of their own to be judged, set themselves up as the judges of others’ talents—a most audacious and impudent set, whose only safety lies in holding their tongues. Sitting upon the shore with folded hands, we are safe in expressing any opinions we please upon the art of navigation. By keeping the letters secret you will at least shield these crude productions, that I have carelessly thrown off, from such impudence. If ever I put the last touches to this work, I will send you, not a Phidian Minerva, as Cicero says, but an image, in some sort, of my mind and character, hewn out with great labour. When it reaches you, place it in some safe niche.
So far, so good. The next matter I would gladly say nothing about, but a serious ailment is not easily concealed; its very symptoms betray it. I am ashamed of a life which has lapsed into weakness. As you wil see, and as the order of the letters testifies, the language of my earlier years was sober and strong, betokening a valiant heart. I not only stood firm myself, but often consoled others. The succeeding letters become day by day weaker and more dispirited, nor have the lamentations with which they are filled a sufficiently manly tone. It is these that I would ask you to guard with special care. For what would others say to sentiments which I myself cannot re-read without a blush? Was I indeed a man in my youthful days, only to become a child when I reached maturity?
With a disingenuousness which I reprehend and deplore, I conceived the plan of changing the order of the letters, or concealing from you entirely those that I condemn. Neither subterfuge would have deceived you, since you possess the originals of these melancholy missives, and are aware of the year and day upon which each was written. Consequently I must arm myself with excuses. I have grown weary in the long and arduous battle. While courage and valour stood by me, I made a stand myself and encouraged others to resist; but when, by reason of the strength of the enemy and the fierceness of his onset, I began to lose my footing, and my spirits began to droop, that fine, bold tone promptly deserted me, and I descended to those weak laments which are so displeasing. My affection for my friends may perhaps extenuate my offence, for while they remained unharmed I never groaned on account of any wound of fortune. But when almost all of them were hurried away in a single great catastrophe, nay when the whole world seemed about to perish, it would have been inhuman, rather than courageous, to remain unmoved. Before that who ever heard me complain of exile, disease, litigation, elections, or the whirl of public affairs? Who ever heard a tearful regret for my father’s house, for lost fortune, diminished fame, squandered money, or absent friends? Cicero, however, shows such a want of manliness in the way he writes of such grievances that his sentiments often offend as much as his style delights me. Add to this his litigious epistles, and the complaints and insults which, with the utmost fickleness, he directs against distinguished men whom he himself has but just been lauding to the skies! On reading these I was so shocked and discomposed that I could not refrain in my irritation from writing to him and pointing out what offended me in his writings, as if he were a friend and contemporary. Ignoring the space of time which separates us, I addressed him with a familiarity springing from my sympathy with his genius. This letter suggested others of the kind. For instance, on re-reading, after some years, Seneca’s tragedy of Octavia, I felt the same impulse to write to him, and later I wrote, on various themes, to Varro, Virgil, and others. A few of these, which I have inserted in the latter part of this work, might produce the utmost astonishment in the mind of the reader, were he not forewarned. The rest I burned up in that general holocaust of which I told you above.
Just as Cicero was absorbed in his trials, so was I at one time in mine. But to-day—that you may know my present temper—it would not be inappropriate to attribute to me that serenity which comes, as Seneca says, even to the most untried, the serenity of despair itself. Why indeed fear, when one has so many times striven with death itself?
Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem.You will see me work and speak with growing courage from day to day. If I should hit upon any subject worthy of my pen, the style itself will be more vigorous. Many themes will undoubtedly offer themselves. My writing and my life I foresee will come to an end together.
But while my other works are finished, or bid fair to be, these letters, which I began in an irregular fashion in my early youth, and am now bringing together in my old age and arranging in a volume,—this work the love of my friends will never permit me to finish, since I must conscientiously reply to their messages; nor can I ever persuade them to accept the oft-repeated excuse of my other occupations. When you shall learn that I have at last begged to be freed from that duty, and have brought this work to an end, then you may know that I am dead and freed from all life’s burdens. In the meantime I shall continue to follow the path which I have entered upon, not looking for its end until darkness comes upon me. Pleasant work will take the place of repose with me. Moreover, having placed the weakest of my forces in the centre, as orators and generals are wont to do, I shall take care that, as I showed a solid front in beginning my book, so my rear-guard too shall not be wanting in courage. Indeed, I may make better head against the attacks and buffets of fortune, thanks to a gradual process of hardening which has gone on through life. In short, although I dare not assert how I shall demean myself in the stress of circumstances, I am firmly resolved not to succumb to any trial hereafter. “Beneath the crash of worlds undaunted he appears.” You may picture me thus armed with the good thoughts of Virgil and Horace, which I used often to read and praise in my earlier years, and which, in my latter days of calamity, stern necessity has forced me to make my own.
My communion with you has been very pleasant, and I have, in my enjoyment, been led half unconsciously to prolong it. It brought back your face over land and sea, and kept you with me until evening. I took up my pen this morning, and the day and this letter are coming to an end together.
Well, this which I dedicate to you, my brother, is a fabric, so to speak, of many coloured threads. But should I ever find a resting-place, and the leisure I have always sought in vain (and there is the promise of such a change), I intend to weave for you a more worthy and certainly more uniform web. I should be glad to think that I am among the few who can promise and confer fame; but you can lift yourself into the light without my aid, borne on the wings of your own genius. However, if I am able to rise, in spite of all the difficulties which beset me, you hereafter shall assuredly be my Idomeneus, my Atticus, and my Lucilius. Farewell.