De seculo & religione

Coluccio Salutati is a name to be reckoned with. He is one of the early “humanists” along with such (older) contemporaries as Boccaccio. He is eloquent in a way that has served as a model. He stands at an intersection of life, between worldly and religious aspirations. This is an intersection that remains familiar.

Called “Cicero’s Monkey” for his refined Latin, and who knows what for his chancellorship in the Florentine Republic (back in pre-Medici days), Salutati (1332–1406) could be read today as a kind of fin de 14th-century Rod Dreher, telling his readers to retreat from a world, from which he boldly is not retreating. Back then, retreat meant clearly to a monastery or hermitage; the world was full of such possibilities, and an agrarian economy had been developed to support them. There were monasteries in and around cities, not only in remote countryside, and there were several prominent in Florence. As today, the more urban and urbane were often vexed, especially in Florence, by the convulsions of this world and its usual Party fervors. (Whether Buddhist or Christian, monks are quite capable of getting into fights. They still live in the sublunary, after all.)

Salutati’s book, On the World & Religious Life, translated and published in Harvard’s “I Tatti” series a few years ago (with the original en face), is written as a long letter to a Camaldolese monk who was his patron and mentor, and had been a renowned canon lawyer. This “Father Jerome” is now dealing with political discord within the urban monastery into which he had tried to disappear. Outside, the mobs were conducting the Ciompi Revolt, which we won’t get into.

Florence is prosperous, and getting more so, as modern methods of trade, banking, and investment are being pioneered. God, apparently, allows us in our freedom to pursue riches, if we want them. He even lets riches grow, as Salutati can see, for the industrious and conscientious, as well as for the undeserving.

Yes, we want to retreat from the world, and a very small number of the religiously devoted manage to pull it off. Many fail, but most do not succeed even in starting because their idea of retreat is a romantic posture. They die, still dreaming, of a discipline ungained. They are, as it were, sincere in their insincerity; that is, sincerely distracted from their worldly tasks, by the desire to be elsewhere. (Cue the virtue-signalling.)

In Salutati, as in others of his age, the conflict intervenes even in his account of the world. Sometimes he is astounded by its divine beauty; sometimes he describes it as a toilet; sometimes he manages mildly Manichaean feints in other directions.

But let this Idlepostulator (Idleposter?) observe that the world itself is like that, and answers to our needs, and moods. Salutati set out to write a robust defence of the active life, as his humanist successors would be doing, rather shamelessly, in another century or two. Arguably, his personal misfortunes gradually turned his attention inward, from moralizing to theologizing; and made his classical prose something new.

To me, he is an interesting as well as disappointing figure. To me, the whole “Renaissance” was a mistake, and all the self-conscious “enlightenments” that follow from it are part of a civilizational retreat, from God. But the most convincing “humanists” are the earliest ones; too, its most convincing artists. By this I don’t mean that the great Renaissance figures can be dismissed or forgotten. Dante and Giotto herald glorious things, but I insist that they precede humanism. We followed a path towards the aggrandizement and celebration of Man, and we have continued along it, farther and farther downhill. Six centuries or so later, we probably need more than six centuries to climb back up the hill.

That will not be to a city in the clouds, or “utopia,” however. Late mediaeval Florentine politics stand as guarantee that the world-as-toilet will persist. Rather the limit of our ambition should be to ascend, to a place where the City of God becomes visible again. Much of that “backward progress” must necessarily involve retracing our steps.