Petrarch Counsels A Ruler On The Ends Of Power

Giacomo Bussolari was born to a poor family in Pavia, Italy around 1300.  A natural gift for oratory augmented the modest opportunities available to him; and he found in the Augustinian order a vehicle for the expression of his ambitions.  During the 1350s he was a leading figure in the city, even rising to command the city’s military during conflict with the Visconti in 1356.  Yet Fortune was to turn against him, as so often happens; by 1359 the Visconti had mounted a successful campaign against Pavia, and Bussolari was ignominiously deposed.

Imprisoned in 1360, he was freed only thirteen years later, by which time his claws had lost their sharpness.  He ended his days in apparent contentment on the island of Ischia, where his brother Bartolomeo was a bishop, dying in 1380.  He should have counted himself lucky, for there are many worse ways to end one’s days.  The humanist Petrarch wrote Bussolari a letter of admonition when he was on the ascendancy at Pavia.  The old scholar knew what was in store for Bussolari, and felt it was his duty to make an effort to rein him in.  We may gauge the success, or lack of success, of these efforts by observing the Augustinian cleric’s dramatic fall from power to the darkness of a dungeon; but at least Petrarch tried to mollify the worst expressions of Bussolari’s arrogance.  Petrarch’s letter is a long one, but it contains timeless leadership advice, perhaps never needed more than our own modern leaders.  This advice we will now discuss.  Recognizing that Bussolari had an unquenchable will to power, Petrarch begins with this warning:

You will understand—unless I happen to be wrong—that there is no place here for ambition and bragging, and no place for an irrational and shameful tyranny.  Whenever your lust to dominate others starts to burn, I do not say “gaze upwards at the heavens” (as well-educated and reasonable men do when egged on by temptations), but redirect your eyes on your own self, and in turn think closely about your shoes, belt, and cloak.  You will see nothing about yourself that displays imperial purple, but everything that indicates a service to Christ, not a kingly authority over men.

Instead of thinking of your own power and omnipotence, Petrarch warns, think of your own duties and obligations.  Remember who you are, and where you came from; never assume airs that you have no right to assume, and do not become intoxicated with your own grandiosity.  His letter continues in no ambiguous terms:

If you are avid to control others, order around those who comfortable with a servile role.  Control, my good brother, control the willing; but do so in peace, which alone can raise up the small, bring together the dispersed, and revive the feeble.  Wield authority, but in a city that is intact, or since this cannot be done now, rule more gently among the city’s ruins, and do not think what is maimed should be even more maimed by your implacable barbarity.  [Dominandi avidus, servire cupientibus impera; dominare, frater, dominare volentibus sed in pace, quae sola quidem et parva augere potens est et dissipata colligere et exsanguia refovere; dominare, sed integra in urbe, sive, id iam quoniam fieri nequit, his ipsis in ruinis dominare placatior, nec laceram iam amplius lacerandam implacabili censeas feritate.]

If you must indulge your lust to dominate, at least channel that lust against those wretched creatures who seem to enjoy being dominated.  The healthy majority, Petrarch says, should be let alone.  Govern a state that is whole and healthy; but if you have already caused severe damage to the nation’s institutions, at least have the consideration to be mild among the ruins, and cause no further harm.  Finally, Petrarch says,

Do not build a temple to Mars, as Julius Caesar is said to have considered doing near the end of his life.

Instead of building shrines to wasteful and futile wars, Petrarch says, a leader should instead focus his energies on improving the lives and conditions of his people.  These achievements are more lasting, and more worthy of a great leader, than the illusions created by fleeting military adventures.  When I visited the ancient town of Cumae near the Bay of Naples, I remember looking out across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards the island of Ischia, where Bussolari spent his final days.  I thought about his fate, a man whose name is almost forgotten today.  He once ruled Pavia like a tyrant; and then, one day, it was all gone, and his city lay in ruins.  Along these lines I suppose we can say that life is both too short, and too long:  it is too short to make full use of the lessons we learn along the road, and too long for us to want to relive life’s pains and sufferings.

A view from Cumae out on the Tyrrhenian Sea to Ischia

There is a passage in Herodotus (VII.45) where the Persian king Xerxes is described as watching his vast invading army cross the Hellespont into Europe.  As he observes his endless numbers of ships and men, all busily absorbed in their tasks, his eyes (we are told) began to fill with tears.  Xerxes’s uncle Artabanus, standing beside him, asked the king the reason for this outpouring of emotion.  “I was musing now on how short is human life, and the pity of it pierced me through,” Xerxes said.  “All these men are here before us, all so focused on their purposes, and yet, in a hundred years’ time, not a single one of them will be alive.”  Artabanus’s response was one truly worthy of a philosopher.  He told Xerxes that, even though life was short, mortals experience such sufferings that no wise man would wish for an unnaturally extended life.  “So numerous are the misfortunes that befall us, and so terrible the diseases that afflict us, that life in all its brevity still seems long,” he said.

History has not recorded Bussolari’s response to Petrarch’s sharp chastisement.  One suspects that it fell on deaf ears, as the words of philosophers often do when they try to advise temporal rulers.  Plato was unable to win over Dionysius of Syracuse, who had the philosopher enslaved for a time; Voltaire was eventually run off by Frederick the Great; and Bussolari ignored Petrarch, believing him to be fit only for the world of books.  Alas!  He would eventually realize his mistake.  But by then it was too late.  Petrarch’s wisdom likely came to Bussolari during his thirteen-year prison term, or when he was winding down his days in exile on the island of Ischia, alone and forgotten.

Such is the inevitable fate of all those who grasp blindly for power, heedless of their obligations and limitations.




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