Happy birthday to Petrarch! A walk in his footsteps 717 years after his birth

And an invitation to a dialogue on Tocqueville at his historic home in Normandy!

Gracious reader,

On July 20th, 1304—seven hundred and seventeen years ago yesterday—Francesco Petrarch was born.

Petrarch was a poet, a scholar, and the father of Renaissance humanism and the Italian Renaissance. I sometimes joke that Petrarch is my best friend who died seven centuries ago. His ideas, life, and influence animate my life and inspire what we do here at Civic Renaissance: reviving the best of the old and applying it to the needs of the present.

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Over the last week, my family and I have visited a number of sites related to Petrarch’s life—including his hometown of Arezzo, in Tuscany; his homes in Incisa Italy, and Avignon France; and a trip to the magnificent Mont Ventoux in France’s Provence, which was important to Petrarch in ways that we’ll explore shortly.

Our Petrarch pilgrimage is part of research for a future book I’d like to write. The idea is to write a guide to help travelers walk in the footsteps of the great men and women who built our world. On this trip, for example, we’ve walked in the footsteps of Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as St. Augustine, Dante, Boccacio, and of course, Petrarch. (Stay tuned for future editions of Civic Renaissance that will explore historic sites related to these thinkers, as well as others such as Blaise Pascal, Michele de Montaigne, Montesquieu, Tocqueville and more!)

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To honor Petrarch’s birth today, I thought I’d share with you a few reasons why I think he has a great deal to offer us.

There’s much I could say on this, but I’ll limit myself to three ways that I think Petrarch can inspire us today: his zealous curiosity, his passion for the Great Conversation, and his doggedly optimistic vision for the future.

  1. Zealous curiosity.

Petrarch was incurably curious. He had an irreducible wonder about the people and places around him. He travelled throughout his life, and has been aptly called Europe’s “first tourist.” He also absolutely adored books, and was famous for traipsing across the continent (in an era where very few people travelled at all) to scour monasteries and libraries for new books to add to his collection.

I love this quote from a letter where Petrarch enthused to a friend of his love of books:

Perhaps now I have more books than I need, but it is with books as with other things: the more one gets the more one wants. [emphasis added]

Yet there is something special about books. Gold, silver, gems, purple robes, a marble palace, broad lands, paintings, a horse with rich trappings, and all such things bring only a mute, a superficial pleasure.

But books thrill you to the marrow; they talk to you, counsel you, admit you to their living, speaking friendship. [emphasis added]

His curiosity and love of learning drove him to do and achieve all that he did in his life.

  1. Passion for the Great Conversation.

Petrarch loved ideas. It was his love of ideas that led him to dig through Europe’s musty libraries and monasteries, which among other things ultimately resulted in him unearthing a slew of Cicero’s letters—a re-discovery that is credited with helping to begin the Italian Renaissance.

As Cicero had done with the writings of Plato before him, translating Plato culturally and literally to his fellow Romans, Petrarch introduced Cicero to his own era.

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Petrarch lived through the Black Death, the plague that killed up to half of Europe’s population. He also saw up close the shortcomings of the most important institution of his day: the papacy and the Catholic Church. And he was disillusioned by the way that the public intellectuals of his era seemed overly focused on questions that had nothing to do with the day-to-day life of ordinary people.

In response to these problems, he looked to the wisdom of the past to help him navigate the challenges of his own era. The thinkers who had come before were, for him, alive. He famously wrote multiple letters to Cicero—one criticizing and disagreeing with him, and another letter apologizing for the first.

So consumed was Petrarch by the Great Conversation, these writers and ideas became part of him. In his own words:

I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as an older man. I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in my memory but in my marrow.

He was able to translate his curiosity and passion for the Great Conversation into a coherent set of ideas—a high view of humanity informed by his Christian faith and love of classical authors—that was contagious to his peers both in his generation and those that followed. He found a way to have his passion for the wisdom of the past take root and obtain a tremendous cultural staying power, lasting for hundreds of years—even through to today. Interestingly, though, it’s not clear that he knew he was living through the beginning of a “renaissance.” He likely didn’t know the influence he was having—or would have in the years after his death.

This is encouraging for those of us who love ideas and care about the notion of starting a new renaissance today: meaningful change takes time, and we ought not get discouraged just because we cannot immediately see the effects of our work. While it may not have been clear in Petrarch’s own time, there is now no doubting his enormous influence on generations of scholars and thinkers that came after him—an influence that helped start an intellectual, cultural, social, and Civic Renaissance.

  1. Doggedly optimistic vision for the future.

Though he was disillusioned by the people and institutions that were in positions of power during his day—he coined the term “Dark Ages” to describe the shortcomings he saw in his current moment—Petrarch wasn’t content to sit back and criticize. He both proposed and worked toward a vision of a brighter future.

For Petrarch, change was both organic and personal. He believed that a single individual could make an important difference in the world. Indeed, Petrarch himself is an example of this.

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On his famous ascent of Mont Ventoux, a mountain the south of France, he recounts in a letter to a friend the journey to the summit that he made with his brother. His brother took the shorter and more direct route, he says, while he took the more arduous route.

Today, my family and had the pleasure of going to a church called Notre-Dame de Beauregard in Orgon, France, which offered us a majestic view of Mont Ventoux. The church is appropriately named, too: Beauregard means “beautiful look” in French! It was amazing to be there, and part of the book idea is to make it easier for you to go to places like this, too!

Writing of his difficult journey to the summit, Petrarch reflects on taking a moment to look out at the majestic view of Provence around him. While enjoying the beauty of his natural surroundings, he decides to open his pocket copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions and read the fist passage he alights upon.

He opens to the Tenth Book of Confessions, and his eyes fell to this passage:

And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not. [emphasis added]

For Petrarch, this was a powerful reminder of the importance of looking inward at the state of his own soul. Change started by looking within, and then acting upon one’s outside world.

To hold that change is even possible — that we can change the world by changing ourselves – is radically optimistic, and Petrarch’s belief on this score is something in which we can take encouragement even to this day.

As we look around at the state of our world — the hurt, the brokenness, the division — we can be reminded of the role we each have to be part of healing and unity, that we can each help bring about a better era by embodying a better way of being ourselves.

Petrarch was only one person, but the reverberations of his efforts can still be felt, even seven centuries later.

In following in Petrarch’s footsteps—metaphorically and perhaps literally, as I did over the last week (and as you might do, too, per the intent of my next book project)— we can have such a positive effect on our era, and on history, too.

(Side note: I had every intention of sending this email out yesterday, on the actual day of Petrarch’s birth, but we are in the south of France right now, and can you believe there are parts of the world that don’t have reliable internet connection today? :) )

And an invitation to a dialogue on Tocqueville at his historic home in Normandy!

On Saturday, July 24th at 1pm EST, I’ll be hosting a special conversation on the life and legacy of Alexis de Tocqueville—at his historic home in Normandy, with his family.

Reserve your spot now!

In partnership with Braver Angels and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Civic Renaissance is delighted to bring you a dialogue at the home of Alexis de Tocqueville with members of his family. We’ll discuss who Tocqueville was as a person and how his ideas have continuing significance, even more than a century-and-a-half after he lived.

On his yearlong visit to America in 1831, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville developed insights on American life that have offered wisdom and inspiration to generations of Americans.

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There is a reason that even today Americans across the political spectrum cite Tocqueville’s many prescient ideas about the perils and promise of American democracy. Tocqueville was clear-eyed about his subject: he saw America’s great strengths, as well as its great weaknesses, and drew conclusions that he thought could promote a healthy democratic life in his own beloved France.

There is virtually no aspect of American life that escape Tocqueville’s keen observation: populism, localism, self-governance, civil society as counterbalance to excesses of American rugged individualism, the possible pitfalls of an increasingly wealthy middle class tempted by materialism and consumerism, the “habits of the heart” and citizenship that support democracy—and much, much more.

But who was Tocqueville the person? Who were the people and places that helped form him?

Join this conversation LIVE from the Tocqueville estate in Normandy, France—I’ll be joined by two of Tocqueville’s relatives, Jean-Guillaume de Tocqueville and his wife Stéphanie de Tocqueville, and John Wood Jr. of Braver Angels will give introductory remarks—to explore Tocqueville’s life, legacy, and hope for us today. .

This conversation will focus on the personal side of this famous and great thinker, and will also explore the work of the Tocqueville Foundation, led by his relatives, which seeks to preserve and promote his legacy today.

With the many challenges and questions facing American democracy today—with faith in our institutions and public life at historic lows—returning to Tocqueville’s ideas can offer us not just instruction, but also hope.

This event is free and open to all. A recording will be available on Braver Angels’s YouTube channel a few days after the event. (Feel free to register even if you can't make it and we'll make sure to send you the recording!)

Please also feel free to send me an email directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com with any suggestions of groups or organizations that might be interested in this event.

I hope you’ll consider joining us for this very unique conversation and opportunity to discuss Tocqueville with his family at his home in Tocqueville, Normandy!

And thanks for being a part of Civic Renaissance!