The Renaissance poet Petrarch extols the virtues of the quiet life
It seems to me that I can demonstrate the blessedness of solitude by exhibiting the troubles and afflictions of a populous environment, reviewing the actions of men whom one kind of life preserves in peace and tranquility and the other kind keeps agitated and careworn and breathless. For there is a single idea underlying all these observations, that one kind of life is attended with happy leisure and the other with grievous worry.
The busy man, a hapless dweller of the city, awakes in the middle of the night, his sleep interrupted by his cares or the cries of his clients, often even by fear of the light and by terror of nightly visions. No sooner is he up than he settles his body to the miserable bench and applies his mind to falsehood. On treachery his heart is wholly fixed – whether he meditates driving a corrupt bargain, betraying his friend or his ward, assailing with his seductions his neighbour’s wife whose only refuge is her chastity, spreading the veil of justice over a litigious quarrel, or whatever other mischief of a public or private character he intends. Now eager with passion and aflame with desire, and now frozen with desperation, like a very bad workman, he begins before dawn the web of the daily toil in which he shall involve others with himself.
The retired man – the man of leisure – awakes in a happy mood, refreshed by moderate rest and a short sleep, unbroken unless he is aroused at intervals by the songs of night-haunting Philomel. When he has shaken himself lightly from his couch, and banishing thoughts of his body, begun to intone in the calm hours, he summons the Lord to strengthen his heart. No pleasures of the busy man, no luxury of city life, no pomp of kingdoms can match his state. Looking up from his place to the starry heaven […] he turns immediately to the study of some honest and agreeable lesson, and so nourished with the most delightful food, he awaits the coming of light with great composure of mind.
The longed-for light has now arrived to their differing prayers, and the busy man’s doorway is beset by enemies and friends. He is greeted, solicited, pulled in one direction, jostled in another, assailed with arguments, and rent asunder. The retired man finds a free doorway, and he has the choice of remaining where he is or going whithersoever his mind disposes him.
The busy man, loaded with complaints and affairs, goes in troubled spirits to the courts, and the beginning of his cruel day is marked by lawsuits. The retired man, with store of leisure and of calm, goes blithely into a nearby wood and enters joyfully upon the propitious threshold of a serene day.
Extracts from the first book of De Vita Solitaria by Petrarch, translated into English as The Life of Solitude by Jacob Zeitlin. There are also good French, Italian and Latin editions available. For more idling philosophy, try our online course.