Our literature choices shouldn’t be confined by categories and comparison. We should consider what sustains us, what brings life and hope, what bears fruit in us. Literature can inspire virtue and dispel fear, and Francesco Petrarch would call us to absorb the “precious treasure of learning” through a full feast of literature.
As Petrarch hand-copied Boccaccio’s Cicero, he exclaimed that he was “so captivated by [Cicero’s] ineffable sweetness that [he] did a thing in itself most irksome with such delight and eagerness that [he] scarcely knew [he] was doing it at all.” Drudgery fell away as the sheer joy of words materialized for Petrarch at that moment. No one told him he must do this work, no one prescribed Cicero, but through the effort of reading, Petrarch experienced something all intentional readers do. Yes, reading is work to a degree, but the delight in reading, the delight in words, is a moment we long for, and whatever the genre, the more we read, the more we experience it.
All types of reading can bring this sweetness, of course, but I am most fascinated by the range of scholars who speak of its taste. Research, translation, analysis—these are not stale labors. Francesco Petrarch and fellow statesman Leonardo Bruni speak of a richer life because they read and studied literature. To them, literature had so many uses. In one of his letters to Boccaccio, Petrarch simply claimed that “in a good mind literature excites the love of virtue, and dissipates… the fear of death,” a critical boon for a time when the Black Death raged throughout Europe. Though I do wonder what he means by “a good mind,” Petrarch wrote that many of his mentors “devoted their whole lives to literature,” and it was every advantage to them, for they were always in the process of learning. Yes, it might be a generalization, but his point was that literature enriched their lives, sustained them even. Reading literature was not a single meal but many ad infinitum.
Leonardo Bruni also advocated learning literature as a way of expanding knowledge and enriching life. In his letter to Sister Battista, he spoke of the pleasure of rereading. After absorbing a text once, Bruni told her to indulge in a second read so she may taste its “sweetness and true flavor.” Later, Bruni asks her to read widely and mentions how literary experience “will train and strengthen her taste,” so that she can even use the words of the greats like Virgil and Livy in her own writing. His reasoning points to literature as something to both absorb and imitate, but like a gourmand, his descriptions point to a deepening taste, perhaps past the pleasure of a delectable read.
As our palate for literature expands, might we also see greater application? Like Petrarch and Bruni, Aeneas Silvius, later Pope Pius II, valued literature because of its ability to inspire virtue. In his advice to young King Ladislaus, he cited the ancients, saying, “the mind of the young boy will be exalted by the sublimity of the heroic verse and will conceive ardor… and be endowed with the noblest sentiments.” Even more importantly, the most fascinating consensus among all three scholars was that maturity and age brought a holistic perspective to what they read.
Speaking from the wisdom of later years, Petrarch asserted, “My care is more for my salvation than for noble language. I used to read what gave me pleasure, now I read what may be profitable.” Literature was now about its heft, its substance, not the light milk of his first studies. He seemed to echo Aquinas in his distinction of secular from sacred literature: “But although I put the Christian writers first, I do not reject the others… I seem able to love both groups at once.” Bruni also recommended sacred literature and best works instead of popular stories—“Devoting ourselves only to the most important and the most useful subjects, and not wasting time with the obscure and profitless.” By the end of his life, his reading centered on religion and moral philosophy. Silvius, too, defends philosophy and virtue as crucial reading but adds that an eternal perspective to “Seek ye first the kingdom” is more important than literary pleasure.
Because reading can be a blend of secular and sacred, sweet and salty, or light and deep, our literature choices shouldn’t be confined by categories and comparison. We should consider what sustains us, what brings life and hope, what bears fruit in us. Yes, literature can inspire virtue and dispel fear, and with the Bible and best books in hand, Petrarch would call us to absorb the “precious treasure of learning” through a full feast of literature.
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