My honors course for first year students (HON 101: Explorations of The Western Canon) is emerging as one of the most enjoyable courses I’ve ever taught. I’m teaching it as an intellectual history course, delving into how the civilization known as “the West” came to be what it is today. We don’t spend a lot of time on Plato and Aristotle and jump instead to Plotinus, Augustine, and the Church. In fact in these first weeks of class you’d think we were in a religious setting there is so much talk about God and faith.
That is important — you can’t understand the West without understanding the religion that defined it for over 1000 years. Although it sounds political incorrect, western civilization is a Christian culture. This doesn’t mean people are all devout Christians, only that the history of and development of the Christian faith has done more to shape the West than anything else. Even a radical atheist has cultural views and values that come from Christianity, it’s embedded in our culture.
We’re currently on the fascinating period at the end of the medieval age when Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotelian thought and logic into church theology — faith and reason became the motto of the Church. This shifted focus away from the Augustinian view that the material world was essentially worthless. To Augustine all that mattered were spiritual issues and preparation for the afterlife. Trying to succeed or progress in this world was meaningless and even dangerous — you could become addicted to ‘things of the flesh’ (wealth, power, material comforts) and lose sight of what brings true happiness. Augustine’s view defined the early Church and helps explain why for hundreds of years Europeans did not progress. Tradition and custom defined the proper way to behave, and material progress was not a goal but in fact something to avoid.
Aquinas discovered Aristotle through the work of Islamic rationalist philosophers, especially Avicenna and Averroes. But it wasn’t just Aquinas — Aristotle’s works were spreading through Europe among intellectuals, causing a potential challenge to church authority. Aquinas is important because he provided the framework for the Church to adapt to the change and accept Aristotle’s ideas. Since taking Aristotle too seriously would mean that church authority could be called into question, the church decided to make Aristotle an authority about material matters. Aristotelian scholasticism became the academic norm. Aristotle’s logic would be used to examine and prove facts already known to be true rather than to question authority.
The Italian poet and philosopher Petrarch is often called the ‘father of humanism.’ Living from 1304 to 1374, his writings explored human emotions, driven by his muse, the ever intangible Laura. Yet he had one foot in the new humanistic world inspired by re-discovering old Roman and Greek literature, and one in the medieval world of Augustinian asceticism. The class read some of Petrarch’s letters to the Romans like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca, expressing delight and admiration at the beauty of their ideas and literature. They opened up a new world to Petrarch, one that moved him and filled him with awe. He couldn’t really communicate with them, but the letters allowed him to transcend the centuries with his imagination.
Yet he also carried with him a copy of Augustine’s confessions. We read a conversation Petrarch imagined between himself and Augustine as he pondered deep in his soul the allure of humanist love and Augustine’s insistence that only the spiritual mattered. When Petrarch defends interest in the material side of life — why would we be in a material world if God did not mean for us to partake of it — he imagines this response from Augustine:
“O man, little in yourself, and of little wisdom! Do you, then, dream that you shall enjoy every pleasure in heaven and earth, and everything will turn out fortunate and prosperous for you always and everywhere? But that delusion has betrayed thousands of men thousands of times, and has sunk into hell a countless host of souls. Thinking to have one foot on earth and one in heaven, they could neither stand her below nor mount on high.”
From Augustine comes the message that earthly delights and material goods cannot bring happiness. Humans delude themselves in pursuit of them, addicted to a desire for more pleasure, more power and more wealth. People believe that they can “have it all,” succeed at all times, and thus set themselves up for despair and failure. The deeper one falls into the material world, the more trapped one becomes, addicted to the pleasures, pains and competitions of the day, losing sight of the soul’s only path to real happiness — for Petrarch and Augustine, that would be through the Christian God.
Yet Petrarch cannot simply embrace Augustine’s rejection of earthly matters. He laments in his letters to the ancient Romans the manner in which people pursue silver and gold rather than the beauty of literature and philosophy. There is something profound in the human experience, even if one agrees that materialism alone can be dangerous and addictive.
In class we discussed what Augustine and Petrarch might think if they were to visit the 21st century. We talked about how they might feel sorry of the people of this age, seeing us wholly addicted to material pursuits, suffering the highest rate of depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and discontent in history — even as we are the most prosperous. To them we’d given up the true path to happiness and instead embraced delusion. Even religious folk tend to treat their faith as a sidelight, their material pursuits dominate their actions. The competing forces in Petrarch’s soul are still relevant almost 800 years later.
Yet Petrarch also suggests a solution: appreciation of true beauty, such as poetry, literature, art or the highest of human emotions. There is joy and beautify in friendship, love, companionship and human experience. That is more real than collecting material possessions or winning a competition. And while devout faith in a religion may be impossible for many of us (including myself), an openness to the spiritual gives perspective. Our lives are just a tiny speck in the expanse of time. Everything we touch, everything we do, all that we take seriously fades. What seems profoundly important now may be forgotten next week. If we rely on the material world for our joy or for meaning we will be disappointed because by nature the material world is transitory.
Many of Augustine’s ideas came from Plotinus, whose neo-Platonism he adapted to Christian theology. Plotinus had a purely intellectual view of spirituality, and we can still use our minds to contemplate deeper meaning and the purpose of existence. Even if we don’t find answers that satisfy us the way Christianity satisfied Augustine, the intuition and perspective spiritual contemplation provides can make life joyful rather than painful.
It’s easy in the modern “we want it now” world of forward looking progress to think that we can ignore the past. I hope in this course to help students appreciate that we can better understand ourselves and the nature of our cultural reality by looking back at those who came before, including the great humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca. Knowledge can bring a richness and joy to life that material possessions can never provide.