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. Augustine'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 [Page 317] 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. Augustine'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...--Petrarca (1336).
There is a wide difference between admiration and love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects, and terrible--Burke.
Today's post is an act of escapism after spending a morning serving on a committee that allocates grant money to scientists that have perfected the art of sincere over-promising and diligent accumulation of strategic publication records; I picked up Cassirer and Kristeller's The Renaissance Philosophy of Man.
I used to associate Mt. Ventoux with the ritualized memorial of the death of Tom Simpson and, more favorably, the awe-inspiring time trial win by Jean-François Bernard in 1987 to be followed by disastrous team-tactics toward Villard-de-Lans. But now I can set those alonside Petrarca's account of his climb* of the mountain which, according to Wikipedia is 1,912 m (6,273 ft). (I read it in Nachod's translation in the Kristeller/Randall volume, but link to another one.) The logician, Buridian, is said to have gotten there first, but Petrarca's account is worth reading if only because of his astute comments about the trickiness of selecting travel companions.
The passage quoted above is near the end of Petrarca's description of his thoughts once he reached the top of the mountain together with his brother and two servants. In fact, the reported thought occurs at the start of sun-set. I am not the first to note that Petrarca, who describes his conflicted will alongside his narrative of the day-long journey up the mountain, echoes the conversion moment in Augustine's Confessions, where, carried along by the chanting kid's voice, which he decides to interpret as a command from God, Augustine picks up Scripture and is inspired to convert to Christianity by Romans 13:13-4, which induces a serenity of heart without doubt [quasi luce securitatis infusa cordi meo omnes dubitationis tenebrae diffugerunt].
Petrarca quotes a passage from the Confessions in which a post-conversion Augustine describes people's hankering after the sublime while lacking self-knowledge.** It is tempting to say that Petrarca treats Augustine as teaching him the significance of the spiritual life.
That's not all false, of course, but it is worth noting that in Petrarca this spiritual journey is re-interpreted as a call to a philosophical life. I don't just claim this just because of the emphasis on self-knowledge. Rather, I recognized (recall this post) Petrarca's quote from Seneca's eight letter (one of those "pagan philosophers"), nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for the soul, if it be great, naught is great, which characterizes the greatness of soul of the self-sufficient, even sublime mind--one that attains immortality by skilled emendation or posthumous fame.
The physical, strenuous exercise of the climb prepares the body for a turn to philosophy, that is, the transformation of a weak, unstable mind into one that can face even death with equanimity. That the turn to philosophy is treated as a transformative, Pauline experience in the manner of our very own L.A. Paul is, of course, no surprise as such. But precisely at that transformative moment Petrarca is not just unable to talk with his pious brother (who had been extolled as the perfect climbing companion),*** but his brother's need is a source of possible irritation. Petrarca's account is so beautiful that one might miss the ugliness of the moment in which fellow-feeling is not permitted.
I do not wish to rule out ways that are philosophical yet permit exquisite co-affectivity rather than a withdrawal from human need, that is, philosophical escapism. But not for the first time I am struck by how alluring philosophical escapism can be felt from within and how discordant it can be seen to be from without; Petrarca's poetic-philosophical-confessional shows that mountaineers can indeed see farther.