On The Solitary Life

The scholar Petrarch once secured an audience with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who lived from 1316 to 1378.  His meeting with the emperor at Lombardy in 1354 is described in one of Petrarch’s luminous letters (Familiares XIX.3).  It was a charming custom of those days that kings and popes would occasionally seek out men of letters for the purpose of philosophical inquiry.  Perhaps kings preferred to talk with scholars because they were removed from the concerns of power, and could speak with a frankness that was lacking with the royal ministers and advisors.

Charles first asked Petrarch about the progress of one of his books, a tome entitled De Viris Illustribus (Lives of Famous Men).  Petrarch informed him that it was still a work in progress, but that he would send the emperor a copy once it was finished.  “I promise that you will have it, Caesar, if your valor approves itself, and my life is spared” Petrarch somewhat insolently told him.  By this he meant that the emperor would have to deserve the book by virtue of his good deeds; and that it would be sent provided that Petrarch’s advancing years did not degrade his writing faculties.  He then went on say, in words that could have been spoken by Cicero, these words:

As for you, Caesar, you will know yourself to be worthy of this gift, and of a book bearing such a title, when you shall be distinguished not in name only, and by the possessions of a diadem, insignificant in itself, but also by your deeds; and when, by the greatness of your character, you shall have placed yourself upon a level with the illustrious men of the past.  You must so live that posterity shall read of your great deeds as you read of those of the ancients.

Would that our modern leaders might hear and implement these words!  But that is a subject for a different place.  It might be expected that such impertinent talk to an emperor would be met with hostility or dismissal; but Charles readily accepted Petrarch’s counsel, and took it in stride.  The scholar then presented the emperor with some ancient Roman gold and silver coins.  He told the emperor that he must not only learn about the deeds and attitudes of the great man stamped on the precious metals; he must strive to emulate their example in his own life.  As he presented the coins to Charles, he gave a brief summary of the lives of the figures on each coin.  Petrarch reports that Charles was delighted with this dialogue, and pressed the Italian scholar for more information.  He asked to hear of Petrarch’s life history, his favorite anecdotes, and of his future plans.  When it came to the future, Petrarch confessed his momentary uncertainty.

He told the emperor that, despite his best intentions, he had been “unable to bring his work to the state of perfection” that he would have liked.  He was finding it difficult, he candidly admitted, to break free from the bad habits of the past.  Charles tried to be more specific.  “What I would like to know, sir, is what type of life pleases you best.”  On this subject Petrarch was well-equipped to answer.  He told the emperor that it was the life of solitude that pleased him most.  For him such a life was superior to any that could result from a life of public attention.  The forests and mountains called him, as did his literary work; and this was what mattered to him most.  But here the emperor smiled, and said:

All this I well know, and have intentionally led you step by step, by my questions, to this confession.  While I agree with many of your opinions, I must deprecate this notion of yours.

So here a stimulating debate arose between these two great men:  one a man of letters, the other a man of temporal power.  Petrarch warned Charles not to attempt to debate him on this subject, for he believed he would easily be able to demolish the monarch’s pretensions.  Nevertheless Charles decided to engage, and the two of them sparred.  Petrarch pronounced him a worthy adversary; and each of them left the playing field believing himself the victor.  This is always a good sign of a successful debate, and the two of them parted on amicable terms.

No doubt Petrarch detailed the merits of a life of peace and solitude.  These were subjects he touched on in his memoir My Secret Book.  What is the use of having a family solely for the purpose of procreation?  If it is for the vain hope of “being remembered,” we should think again, because we may be disappointed.  Do any of us remember the names and deeds of our own great-grandfathers, or great-great-grandfathers?  No.  Why, then, should we think our remote descendants will remember us?  Is it not true that what live forever are great deeds and virtue, rather than human beings, who may or may not be worthy of remembrance?  Should not posterity judge us by our accomplishments?  The world is a hurricane of anxieties, torments, and disappointments, Petrarch might have added.  Our vanity will not save us, either; for the body withers and declines in time.  He quotes Juvenal (X.172), who reminds us with his usual brutality,

Mors sola fatetur quantula sint hominum corpuscula,

And this means, “Only death discloses how pathetic are the bodies of men.”  Celebrate your body now, my friend; but know that those who see you in death will have a very different impression of your glorious musculature.  Chasing after spoils and honors is ultimately futile; the only lasting satisfaction, Petrarch would have said, is to be found in the life of moral rectitude.  He was a disciple of Cicero in the marrow of his bones.

Petrarch tells us that he accompanied the emperor as he left Milan and proceeded to Piacenza.  At this point, a Tuscan soldier recognized Petrarch and took him by the hand.  The soldier then turned to the emperor and said, “Sire, this is the man whom I have often told you about.  If you accomplish great deeds, he will not allow your name to be forgotten; otherwise, he will know when to speak and when to keep silent.”  Assuming this anecdote is true–and I have no reason to doubt it–it is meant as a sly reminder from Petrarch that historians and scholars will have the last word with regard to whether a ruler is remembered favorably or unfavorably by posterity.

But is it true that the life of solitude the best life?  I tend to think that we must first ask what we mean by “solitude.”  If solitude be a stubborn withdrawal from the affairs of society, and a timid retreat into an isolated hermitage, then I must confess I am no proponent of the “solitary life.” To me such a life seems to be no life at all.  It is nothing less than a negation of life.  Cicero never advocated such a reticent course; he was a patriot and a man of public affairs.  He was constantly interested in the hustle and flow of events, and could not help involving himself in them as he saw it.  I will not condemn those who see this differently; for every man must find his own path, and what is right for me cannot be imposed on another without  offending Nature.

It is only that I think a man of ability has some responsibility to contribute to his society’s collective betterment.  The man of ability should strive to do what he can to right the wrongs he sees, within the scope of the powers given to him by Fortune.  He should relish the solitude and peace that comes as a reward for a job well done; but the satisfaction of solitude should be earned through the accomplishment of good works.  This seems to me the better way of evaluating the question.

In this regard I find a certain anecdote by Boccaccio to be relevant.  In his Lives of Famous Women, he tells us about a woman named Busa, who was from the town of Canosa.  She seems to have lived a solitary life.  When the Roman army was catastrophically defeated at Cannae by Hannibal, a panic took hold in the army.  Defeated remnants of the army were in confusion and despair.  Boccaccio says that Busa took it upon herself to act as an angel of mercy to many of the despairing soldiers.  She comforted them; dressed their wounds; opened her house and estate to them for recuperation; and showed them tender mercies in their hour of need.  No one commanded her to do this.  No one forced her to do this.  She took it upon herself to perform this singular act of mercy.  She even gave some of them money when they left her estate.

In evaluating her actions, Boccaccio reckons them as greater than the feats of largesse performed by Alexander the Great.  For him it was nothing to give away what he could not use himself.  But Busa gave away what was hers and what she herself needed.  Alexander gave to acquire and secure his reputation; but she gave because it was in her nature.  Busa, he says, deserved more glory for her selfless acts than Alexander.  And this is how it seems to me also.  The solitary life can redeem itself only if it permits those who practice it to contribute honorably to their fellows.  If it cannot do this, of what use is it?

Were we born to live our lives in seclusion, behind bolted doors and snarling suspicions?  Or were we created for the purpose of achieving great deeds, and overcoming insurmountable obstacles?  Our bodies are transitory and ephemeral, and will be nothing but desiccated husks in due course; but our actions will live forever, and will in time be weighed by Fortune’s scales.  And this is what Sallust meant when he said, in the opening paragraph of his monograph Catiline, that “masculine virtue is pure, and eternal.”


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