The Christendom of the late-medieval west was a soil desiccated of the experience of paradise. Centuries of Roman Catholic piety had enriched this soil with faith in the kingdom of heaven, but not far below the surface there was an aridity that caused longing for a more immediate experience of it. Growing frustration was expressed in the period’s proliferation of mystics, and also in the life work of the man that would unintentionally inspire modern Europeans to depart from Christianity altogether, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (d. 1374).
By the late middle ages, western culture had come to be shaped by doctrines emphasizing the miseries of human life and the need for punishment before the kingdom of heaven could be experienced. The world was a wretched place, and man’s condition within it lamentable.
Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) had expressed western Christendom’s pessimistic spirit in a book that became the closest thing to a best seller the middle ages could produce. It was entitled The Misery of the Human Condition, and it was a catalog of reasons why the pious Christian should despise the world, or cosmos. Read by large numbers of literate Christians, it became a monument of medieval western cosmological pessimism.
Traditional Christianity since the time of Pentecost had held that the world was indeed broken by sin, but that it was nevertheless infused with God’s presence by virtue of his incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ and his presence in the person of the Holy Spirit. In the Christian east, from which the west by Petrarch’s time had been separated for three centuries due to the Great Schism, contemporary theological movements like hesychasm had reaffirmed the divine presence in the world, most immediately in the sacramental life of the Church. But now, in the fourteenth century, western Christendom had little place for the ancient Christian doctrine of hesychasm, and the leading opponent of it, Barlaam of Calabria, had apostatized from the Orthodox Church to become a Roman Catholic. He was convinced, under the influence of scholasticism, that man can not know God immediately, but only through an intermediary state of grace. And he no doubt communicated this conviction to Petrarch when he began tutoring him in the Greek language soon after his flight from the east.
By now, scholasticism had come to dominate all theological reflection in the west. And this was in fact a matter of grave concern to Petrarch.
One of his regular laments was that scholasticism had ruined the theological culture of Christendom. He argued that it separated the believer from God, leading him into obscure and ultimately irrelevant speculations about the supernatural. And it threatened to make life in this world meaningless.
Petrarch was a faithful and devout Roman Catholic Christian, who lived his life in a perpetual struggle to experience the consolation of God. A student of law at the university, however, he found little in contemporary learning that communicated this experience. One of his most interesting works is a book entitled Secretum, and represents an imaginary dialogue with Saint Augustine about the vanity of this world and the need to renounce its joys. It reveals to some extent the dead end of western piety that early Renaissance humanists seem to have encountered. Perhaps for the sake of style, Petrarch made Augustine the victor of the debate, but he himself continued to live a life of restless exploration of the experiences of this world, believing, apparently, that salvation was to be found in a life of virtue within it. “It is better to will the good,” he once said against the scholastic tendency to speculate about God, “than to know the truth.”
In a certain way, then, Petrarch’s humanist breakthrough–or breakout–was the result of western Christendom’s ancient desire to experience paradise at a time when that very civilization seemed increasingly to deny it. This was an important reason for the coming of the Renaissance, though historians have conventionally given little attention to it.