No Comment, Quotation — October 4, 2008, 9:42 am

Petrarcha’s Ascent of Mt Ventoux

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Quæ dum mirarer singula et nunc terrenum aliquid saperem, nunc exemplo corporis animum ad altiora subveherem, visum est mihi Confessionum Augustini librum, caritatis tuæ munus, inspicere; quem et conditoris et donatoris in memoriam servo habeoque semper in manibus: pugillare opusculum, perexigui voluminis sed infinitæ dulcedinis. aperio, lecturus quicquid occurreret; quid enim nisi pium et devotum posset occurrere? Forte autem decimus illius operis liber oblatus est. Frater expectans per os meum ab Augustino aliquid audire, intentis auribus stabat. Deum testor ipsumque qui aderat, quod ubi primum defixi oculos, scriptum erat: «et eunt homines admirari alta montium et ingentes fluctus maris et latissimos lapsus fluminum et oceani ambitum et giros siderum, et relinquunt se ipsos.»

Obstupui, fateor; audiendique avidum fratrem rogans ne mihi molestus esset, librum clausi, iratus mihimet quod nunc etiam terrestria mirarer, qui iampridem ab ipsis gentium philosophis discere debuissem nihil præter animum esse mirabile, cui magno nihil est magnum.

Tunc vero montem satis vidisse contentus, in me ipsum interiores oculos reflexi, et ex illa hora non fuit qui me loquentem audiret donec ad ima pervenimus; satis mihi taciti negotii verbum illud attulerat…

In silentio cogitanti quanta mortalibus consilii esset inopia, qui, nobilissima sui parte neglecta, diffundantur in plurima et inanibus spectaculis evanescant, quod intus inveniri poterat, quærentes extrinsecus; admirantique nobilitatem animi nostri, nisi sponte degenerans ab originis suæ primordiis aberrasset, et quæ sibi dederat in honorem Deus, ipse in opprobrium convertisset.

Quotiens, putas, illo die, rediens et in tergum versus, cacumen montis aspexi! et vix unius cubiti altitudo visa est præ altitudine contemplationis humanæ, siquis eam non in lutum terrenæ fœditatis immergeret. Illud quoque per singulos passus occurrebat: si tantum sudoris ac laboris, ut corpus cælo paululum proximius fieret, subire non piguit, quæ crux, quis carcer, quis equuleus deberet terrere animum appropinquantem Deo, turgidumque cacumen insolentiæ et mortalia fata calcantem?

Et hoc: quotocuique accidet, ut ab hac semita, vel durarum metu rerum vel mollium cupidine, non divertat? O nimium felix! Siquis usquam est, de illo sensisse arbitrer poetam:

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum subiecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari!
O quanto studio laborandum esset, non ut altiorem terram, sed ut elatos terrenis impulsibus appetitus sub pedibus haberemus!

While I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes, it occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustin’s Confessions, a gift that I owe to your love, and that I always have about me, in memory of both the author and the giver. I opened the compact little volume, small indeed in size, but of infinite charm, with the intention of reading whatever came to hand, for I could happen upon nothing that would be otherwise than edifying and devout. Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustin’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “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.” I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. Those words had given me occupation enough, for I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them…

I thought in silence of the lack of good counsel in us mortals, who neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within. I wondered at the natural nobility of our soul, save when it debases itself of its own free will, and deserts its original estate, turning what God has given it for its honor into dishonor. How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation, — when it is not immersed in the foul mire of earth? With every downward step I asked myself this: If we are ready to endure so much sweat and labor in order that we may bring our bodies a little nearer heaven, how can a soul struggling toward God, up the steps of human pride and human destiny, fear any cross or prison or sting of fortune? How few, I thought, are diverted from their path by the fear of difficulties or the love of ease! How happy the lot of those few, if any such there be! It is of them, assuredly, that the poet was thinking, when he wrote:

Happy the man who is skilled to understand
Nature’s hid causes; who beneath his feet
All terrors casts, and death’s relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.
How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.

Francesco Petrarcha, letter to Doinigi da Borgo San Sepolcro, Apr. 26, 1336.


I spent many happy weeks in the shadow of Mount Ventoux, which rises dramatically a last final outcropping of the mighty Alps as they stretch to the middle Rhone. Once I decided to visit its peak. I faced nothing like the task that Petrarcha undertook. My voyage started at a wonderful hostelry at the mountain’s foot where I had an interminable feast served with the wonderful wine now made on the plateau to the south. Then I drove up the hairpin curve-filled road to the top. The process was too fast, perhaps, and the rapid turns in the car produced nausea rather than breathlessness. But the panorama that emerged was wonderful and the agricultural nature of the area assured that it was not so radically different from Petrarcha’s day. At the peak, shrouded in mist and an unlikely chill for that baking summer day, I found a little chalet-style restaurant where one could enjoy a warm beverage and a peak through the clouds at the plain below.

But Petrarcha’s trip served another purpose than tourism. He confesses he was driven by a desire to be closer to nature and to see its wonders. But on arriving, his eye falls to Augustin and his admonition to measure his life by a different relationship. He references the Confessions, but then the real message of this letter lies in another text, in Augustin’s De vera religione (xxxix, 72) where he writes “Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas.” “Do not go outwards, but travel into yourself, for truth lives in the interior of the human being.” Augustin chastizes those who obsess with the material world, and even with nature, to the detriment of their spiritual calling. But is it possible to reconcile these things? Can a journey not simultaneously be a voyage of discovery of inner and external worlds? Petrarcha does not see the contradiction in the end. He met both at the summit of Mount Ventoux. And having obtained his goal, he realized that it was the trip that had mattered, not its achievement.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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