Petrarch’s Epiphany

Petrarch’s Epiphany

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Petrarch and Laura, by Nicaise De Keyzer (1842)

The man who most likely was responsible for initiating the European Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca (20 July 1304 – 19 July 1374), better known as Petrarch, fell in love with Soul on April 6, 1327, when his eyes fell upon a beautiful young girl named Laura:

It was on that day when the sun’s ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady (The Canzoniere)

Petrarch never had a relationship with this young woman, but he carried her in his heart the remainder of his days. In her, he realized the beauty and truth of Soul. This is, of course, what Jung called the anima archetype, that unconscious feminine Person that men possess within them.

Just prior to the period we know as the Renaissance, it is reasonable to assume there was a tremendous perturbation of unconscious forces stirring. The Church had focused for so long on Aristotelian philosophy and theology, and had increased their control on culture to the point where Soul had been quiesced. Effectively, culture had been de-souled and de-imaginalized.

In 1333, Petrarch found and copied a manuscript of Cicero’s Pro Archia that gave impetus to the coming Renaissance re-souling of culture. The manuscript contained a passage that was a defense of poetry and letters:

Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur. (Translation: “These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside” (Pro Archia, para. 16).

Cicero is referring to the study of books: literature, poetry, philosophy, the humanities. Petrarch adopted Cicero’s idea of studia humanitatis as one worthy for his day and age. Humanitas is nowadays associated with the term, humanism, but this was not the meaning it held during the Renaissance. What Petrarch and those who followed him meant by it was simply the study of classical Greek and Roman literature. These studies moved their souls to deep wells of creativity. James Hillman claims that “from the very beginning in Petrarch the inner content of the materials was the mythical persons and ideas from pre-Christian polytheistic world (Hillman 194).  Furthermore, he says,

This humanitas was in fact an exercise of imagination, an exploration and discipline of the imaginal, whether through science, magic, study, love, art, or voyages.  It sought the development of the imaginative mind and its power of imaginative understanding, in contradistinction to both the theological mind of Church philosophy and the feeling heart of mendicant and monastic Church orders (Hillman 195).

The Renaissance, in essence a tremendous effluence of imagination from the wellspring of the unconscious, was brought to the surface by the rediscovery of classical literature. In large part, this consisted of the study of pagan myths; the stories of the Gods and Goddesses of classical Greece and Rome. These beings arose, once again, in the conscious minds of many, and much beauty was brought forth.

Hillman believes the Renaissance study of the ancient scholars was believed to be “care of the soul,” or, effectively, psychotherapy (ibid.).  Apparently, Petrarch made the classical era an imaginal space to which, in his studies, he was transported. There, he experienced the many figures of classical literature, and thus enriched his soul and the soul of his time.

Petrarch is said to be the first modern man. Hillman says this means he was the first psychological man. His famous ascent up Mount Ventoux in April, 1336 is considered by many to be the beginning of the Renaissance, but his descent was actually the starting point. By descending back down into the valley, he symbolically descends into his own soul, for he admits, “Nothing is admirable but the Soul.”

Addendum: In our day, the study of the humanities is ridiculed as a waste of time. Many colleges and universities are closing their humanities departments so there will be more resources to teach mathematics, science, and engineering. This is a horrible mistake, for this always results in the degradation of culture. We choose this path at our own peril.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.

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