It should be a consolation to us to know that the world’s mindless injustices and furies are of old date. Every age sees and experiences them, and every man finds his own way of adapting himself to the clamor and tumult around him. Some throw themselves into their work; others retreat into solitude; some find a balance between such extremes and navigate the white-crested waters of Fate as best they can.
I was fortunate today to have found one of those little hidden literary gems that just begs to be polished off and displayed for others. Poring over the writings of the great humanist Francesco Petrarch, one finds so many bezels of wisdom that it becomes difficult to adjust one’s gaze to their radiating brilliance. But there is one passage that so perfectly encapsulates the idea of the healthy philosophical mind accepting the cruelties of the world that I could not resist sharing it here. It is found among Petrarch’s letters to his friends; this one is directed to one Stefano Colonna. Its message is one of spiritual empowerment: it reminds us that, amidst all the cyclones churning around us, it remains our own responsibility to extract peace and happiness from this life.
Petrarch begins by taking for granted the permanent turbulence of the world, and the disturbing variability of fortune:
A Roman emperor lasted out his years in prison subject to bitter servitude. The city of Rome itself saw Hannibal with his army standing before the Colline Gate. This might be borne more tolerably when compared with worse events, as the city was taken by Goths after many centuries, and had been captured by Senones before this. I conclude one thing from all these examples: in human affairs there is nothing so miserable that cannot happen even to those who are considered the luckiest.
If this is so, what can a thinking man do to maintain his sanity and dignity? In words that echo the tenderest and most intimate counsels of St. Augustine–and even, perhaps, the contemplative intensity of Islam’s greatest mystics–Petrarch tells us:
These things being what they are (you who is the best of men!), you see what you have to do…Do what some prudent men are accustomed to doing. Not the garden-variety man, but some pristine animals fearing contact with dirt. When they come out of their dwellings, look around, and see their places splattered with filth, they walk backwards on their feet and return to their dens.
You also will find no place for peace and quiet in the whole world; go back to the confines of your room and stay within yourself. Stay awake with yourself; speak with yourself; be silent with yourself; walk with yourself; stand with yourself. Do not fret about solitude if you are with yourself: because if you are not with yourself, you will still be alone even if you are among other people. Make for yourself a place in the center of your soul where you may find refuge, experience joy, and where you may find repose with no one’s interference…
You may ask, “By what artistry may I accomplish this?” Virtue alone is able to summon all these things into existence [Virtus sola potens est hec omnia prestare]. Through virtue you will truly be able to live bountifully and happily wherever you want; when you are in the middle of evils [in medio malorum], nothing pernicious will have access to you; you will crave nothing except what produces happiness. Nothing will disgust you except what makes you miserable. You will know that no one becomes happy or miserable except through his own spirit.
External things do not belong to you; everything you own is with you already. Nothing that belongs to someone else can be given to you, and nothing of yours can be taken away. The path of life you may select lies within your own power. The opinions of other people should be avoided and the wise counsels of the few must be followed. With an elevated spirit, Fortune must be looked down on. Know that she has more unthinking force than real strength, barks more often than she bites, and stands in your way less often than she yells at you; that she has no ability to control your property.
Yet nothing is beyond her power; place no trust in her enticements; whatever has come to you is due to her intercession. To these thoughts, know also that if you should rise to a higher station in life, you should ascribe it to divine clemency. If you fall, accept it with a philosophic spirit: in fortune’s kingdom, good men are defeated and bad ones are raised to high places. And understand, as the Psalmist says, the meaning of “in their final days.” And remember that this is a road of labors, not a landscape of gifts [Memorque viam hanc laborum esse non patriam meritorum].
When you are feeling overwhelmed by the injustices of the world, and feel dislocated by the chaos swirling about you, take refuge in these sentiments. They are words to revisit often. If Petrarch ever wrote lines that surpassed these in wisdom, I have not read them.
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