I attended the Works of the Mind lecture sponsored by the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Studies this afternoon. The lecture, by Paolo Cherchi, Professor Emeritus, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Committee on Social Thought, the University of Chicago, was entitled Petrarch and the Birth of the Modern Conscience.
The speaker was both insightful and infectious in his presentation as he outlined some of the important concepts of Petrarch's famous poetic cycle know as the Canzoniere.
In the first sonnet of his Canzoniere, the collection inspired by his love for Laura, Petrarch confesses shame for poems suffused with vain hopes and vain sorrows. Pursuing these three themes – shame, vain hope and vain suffering throughout the work, Petrarch abandons the guidance of reason in sentimental matters, and lets conscience take over. Against the classical Stoic belief that reason must dominate his feelings, the poet listens to conscience, the only true judge of what makes him happy. Happiness comes when will and power coincide: this is possible only through Faith, which gives certainty to hopes and meaning to sorrows. Love inspires the search for self, which leads to the discovery of the conscience, and plants the seed for the birth of Humanism. Professor Cherchi effectively conveyed this side of Petrarch but also shared further insights into the very modern project, the search for self. While we can find this project beginning as early as Augustine's Confessions, it is in Petrarch, who influenced Shakespeare and other later poets that this is expressed in a way that we might call modern. The result of his talk was to inspire my further exploration of Petrarch through his poetry.