Monday, November 19, 2007


An Abundance of Books

This long post contains an English paraphrase of Petrarch, De remediis utriusque fortunae 1.43 (De librorum copia), followed by the original Latin. The paraphrase comes from Charles Isaac Elton and Mary Augusta Elton, The Great Book-Collectors (London Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 1893), pp. 44-47. The Latin comes from the Google cache of a web page no longer available, which is why I wanted to preserve it for myself here. There is a complete translation of Petrarch's De remediis by Conrad H. Rawski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

This amusing dialogue by Petrarch On an Abundance of Books reminds me of Lucian's dialogue The Ignorant Book-Collector, although there can be no question of inspiration or influence, since there were no Latin translations of Lucian in the time of Petrarch, who knew no Greek. I'm just speaking off the top of my head here — to get the real story, you'd have to consult Christoper Robinson, Lucian and His Influence in Europe (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), which is not among my librorum copia.

In his treatise on Fortune, Petrarch has left us a study on book-collecting in the form of a dialogue between his natural genius and his critical reason. He argues, as it were, in his own person against the imaginary opponent. A paraphrase will show the nature and the result of the contest.

Petrarch. I have indeed a great quantity of books.

Critic. That gives me an excellent instance. Some men amass books for self-instruction and others from vanity. Some decorate their rooms with the furniture that was intended to be an ornament of the soul, as if it were like the bronzes and statues of which we were speaking. Some are working for their own vile ends behind their rows of books, and these are the worst of all, because they esteem literature merely as merchandise, and not at its real value; and this new fashionable infliction becomes another engine for the arts of avarice.

Pet. I have a very considerable quantity of books.

Crit. Well! it is a charming, embarrassing kind of luggage, affording an agreeable diversion for the mind.

Pet. I have a great abundance of books.

Crit. Yes, and a great abundance of hard work and a great lack of repose. You have to keep your mind marching in all directions, and to overload your memory. Books have led some to learning, and others to madness, when they swallow more than they can digest. In the mind, as in the body, indigestion does more harm than hunger; food and books alike must be used according to the constitution, and what is little enough for one is too much for another.

Pet. But I have an immense quantity of books.

Crit. Immense is that which has no measure, and without measure there is nothing convenient or decent in the affairs of men.

Pet. I have an incalculable number of books.

Crit. Have you more than Ptolemy, King of Egypt, accumulated in the library at Alexandria, which were all burned at one time? Perhaps there was an excuse for him in his royal wealth and his desire to benefit posterity. But what are we to say of the private citizens who have surpassed the luxury of kings? Have we not read of Serenus Sammonicus, the master of many languages, who bequeathed 62,000 volumes to the younger Gordian? Truly that was a fine inheritance, enough to sustain many souls or to oppress one to death, as all will agree. If Serenus had done nothing else in his life, and had not read a word in all those volumes, would he not have had enough to do in learning their titles and sizes and numbers and their authors' names? Here you have a science that turns a philosopher into a librarian. This is not feeding the soul with wisdom: it is the crushing it under a weight of riches or torturing it in the waters of Tantalus.

Pet. I have innumerable books.

Crit. Yes, and innumerable errors of ignorant authors and of the copyists who corrupt all that they touch.

Pet. I have a good provision of books.

Crit. What does that matter, if your intellect cannot take them in? Do you remember the Roman Sabinus who plumed himself on the learning of his slaves? Some people think that they must know what is in their own books, and say, when a new subject is started: 'I have a book about that in my library!' They think that this is quite sufficient, just as if the book were in their heads, and then they raise their eyebrows, and there is an end of the subject.

Pet. I am overflowing with books.

Crit. Why don't you overflow with talent and eloquence? Ah! but these things are not for sale, like books, and if they were I don't suppose there would be many buyers, for books do make a covering for the walls, but those other wares are only clothing for the soul, and are invisible and therefore neglected.

Pet. I have books which help me in my studies.

Crit. Take care that they do not prove a hindrance. Many a general has been beaten by having too many troops. If books came in like recruits one would not turn them away, but would stow them in proper quarters, and use the best of them, taking care not to bring up a force too soon which would be more useful on another occasion.

Pet. I have a great variety of books.

Crit. A variety of paths will often deceive the traveller.

Pet. I have collected a number of fine books.

Crit. To gain glory by means of books you must not only possess them but know them; their lodging must be in your brain and not on the book-shelf.

Pet. I keep a few beautiful books.

Crit. Yes, you keep in irons a few prisoners, who, if they could escape and talk, would have you indicted for wrongful imprisonment. But now they lie groaning in their cells, and of this they ever complain, that an idle and a greedy man is overflowing with the wealth that might have sustained a multitude of starving scholars.

G. Librorum copia magna est.

R. Opportune admodum de his sermo oritur. Nam ut quidam discipline, sic alii voluptati et iactantie libros querunt. Sunt qui hac parte suppellectilis exornent thalamos que animis exornandis inventa est neque aliter his utantur quam Corinthiis vasis aut tabulis pictis ac statuis ceterisque de quibus proxime disputatum est. Sunt qui obtentu librorum avaritie inserviant, pessimi omnium non librorum vera pretia, sed quasi mercium extimantes: pestis mala sed recens et que nuper divitum studiis obrepsisse videatur, que unum concupiscentie instrumentum atque una ars accesserit.

G. Librorum larga copia est.

R. Operosa sed delectabilis sarcina et animi iucunda distractio.

G. Ingens est copia librorum.

R. Ingens simul et laboris copia et quietis inopia: huc illuc circumagendum ingenium, his atque illis pregravanda memoria. Quid vis dicam? Libri quosdam ad scientiam, quosdam ad insaniam deduxere, dum plus hauriunt quam digerunt; ut stomachis sic ingeniis nausea sepius nocuit quam fames. Atque ut ciborum sic librorum usus pro utentis qualitate limitandus est: in rebus omnibus quod huic parum, illic est nimium. Itaque sapiens non copiam, sed sufficientiam rerum vult; illa enim sepe pestilens, hec semper est utilis.

G. Immensa copia librorum est.

R. Immensum dicimus quod mensura caret, sine qua humanis quid in rebus rectum sibique conveniens, tu metire. Est in his etiam que optima iudicantur immensitas atque immoderatio fugienda semperque pre oculis habendum illud comicum: "Nequid nimis".

G. Librorum inextimabilis multitudo est.

R. Maiorne tibi quam Ptolemeo Philadelpho regi Egypti? Quem Alexandrine bibliothece quadraginta librorum milia coacervasse compertum est, qui tamen diversis ex locis diu magno studio quesiti, simul omnes arserunt; quod elegantie regum cureque opus egregium fuisse ait Livius, quem Seneca reprehendit, non id elegantie cureque regie opus dicens sed studiose luxurie, immo ne id quidem, sed seipsam conquisitis spectaculis inaniter ostentantis. Et Livii tamen dictum et Ptolemei factum, utrumque forsitan regie opes excusent; et in longum publicis usibus prospiciens regis intentio in hoc certe laudabilis, quod sacras literas mundo non utiles modo, sed necessarias, summa diligentia atque impensa per electos ad tantum opus viros in Grecam linguam ex Hebraico fonte transfudit. At quid facias privatis, non equantibus sed superantibus apparatus regios? Sereno equidem Sammonico doctrine viro ingentis sed maioris cure, plurimarum literarum sed plurium voluminum, duo et sexaginta milia librorum fuisse legimus, quos omnes Gordiano iuniori, cuius patri fuisset amicissimus, ille moriens reliquit. Magna prorsus hereditas et multis suffectura ingeniis: num vero quis dubitet oppressura? Quid hic autem, queso, si nil aliud egisset in vita, nullum illi vel scribendi studium fuisset vel querendi labor, nichil omnium tot voluminibus comprehensorum legere atque intelligere laborasset? An non satis habuit negotii libros ipsos ac librorum titulos et auctorum nomina et voluminum formas numerumque cognoscere? Pulchra vero ars, que de philosopho librarium facit: crede michi, non est hoc nutrire scriptis ingenium, sed necare mole rerum et obruere, vel fortasse mediis in undis more Tantaleo siti animam torquere, rebus attonitam, degustantem nichil atque omnibus inhiantem.

G. Libri innumerabiles sunt michi.

R. Et errores innumeri, quidam ab impiis, alii ab indoctis editi. Illi quidem religioni ac pietati et divinis literis, hi nature ac iustitie moribusque et liberalibus disciplinis seu historie rerumque gestarum fidei, omnes autem vero adversi inque omnibus et presertim primis ubi maioribus agitur de rebus et vera falsis immixta sunt, perdifficilis ac periculosa discretio est. Ut ad plenum auctorum constet integritas, quis scriptorum inscitie inertieque medebitur corrumpenti omnia miscentique? Cuius metu multa iam, ut auguror, a magnis operibus clara ingenia refrixerunt meritoque id patitur ignavissima etas hec, culine sollicita, literarum negligens et coquos examinans, non scriptores. Quisquis itaque pingere aliquid in membranis manuque calamum versare didicerit, scriptor habebitur, doctrine omnis ignarus, expers ingenii, artis egens. Non quero iam nec queror orthographiam, que pridem interiit: qualitercunque utinam scriberent, quod iubentur! Appareret scriptoris infantia, rerum substantia non lateret! Nunc confusis exemplaribus et exemplis, unum scribere polliciti, sic aliud scribunt, ut quod ipse dictaveris non agnoscas. An si redeat Cicero aut Livius multique alii veterum illustrium, ante omnes Plinius Secundus, sua scripta relegentes, intelligent et non passim hesitantes, nunc aliena credent esse, nunc barbara? Inter humanarum inventionum tot ruinas litere sacre stant, cum maiore hominum studio, tum vel maxime protegente sua sancta poemata, suas sanctas historias divinasque suas leges auctore illarum Deo suamque perennitatem suis inventionibus largiente; reliquorum nobilissime pereunt et iam magna ex parte periere. Sic ingentis damni nullum est remedium quia nullus est sensus neque id novum hac in re, et virtutum et morum damna ingentia negliguntur: cum tanto studio minoribus occurratur, literarum iacturam inter minimas numeratis; sunt qui numerent inter lucra. Fuit nuper non in agris aut in silvis, sed in maxima florentissimaque et, quod stupeas, urbe Italie neque is pastor aratorve, sed vir nobilis magnique apud suos cives loci, qui iuraret se magno pretio empturum ne quis unquam suam patriam literatus incoleret aut intraret. O vox saxei pectoris! Fertur tale aliquid sensisse Licinius infestus literis, ut scriptum est, quas virus ac pestem publicam nominabat. Sed origo illum rustica forsan excuset; etsi enim usque ad Cesarem nomen ascendisset, naturam tamen non exuerat. Verum est enim illud Flacci:
Fortuna non mutat genus.
Sed quid de nobilibus vestris dicam, qui non modo perire literas patiuntur, sed exoptant votis? Equidem huius rei pulcherrime contemptus atque odium brevi vos in profundum ignorantie demerserint. Accedunt, ne a proposito deerrem, et scriptores nulla frenati lege, nullo probati examine, nullo iudicio electi; non fabris, non agricolis, non textoribus, non ulli fere artium tanta licentia est, cum sit in aliis leve periculum, in hac grave. Sine delectu tamen ad scribendum ruunt omnes et cuncta vastantibus certa sunt pretia. Nec vero hec scriptorum magis humano more lucra captantium quam studiosorum publicisque rebus presidentium culpa est, quibus nulla unquam rei huius cura fuit, oblitis quid Eusebio Palestine Constantinus iniunxerit, ut libri scilicet non nisi ab artificibus iisque antiquariis et perfecte artem scientibus scriberentur.

G. Librorum bona copia est.

R. Quid si capax animus non est? Meministi Sabinum illum apud Senecam servorum suorum scientia gloriantem: quid inter te atque illum interest, nisi quod aliquanto tu stultior? Uterque equidem alieno, verum ille servorum et certe suorum, at tu librorum nil ad te pertinentium ingenio gloriaris. Sunt qui quicquid in libris scriptum domi habent nosse sibi videantur cumque ulla de re mentio incidit, "hic liber" inquiunt "in armario meo est": hoc tantum idque sufficere opinantes, quasi simul in pectore sit, elato supercilio conticescunt. Ridiculum genus!

G. Libris affluo.

R. Quam mallem ingenio et eloquentia et doctrina multoque maxime innocentia et virtute! Sed hec venalia non habentur ut libri et si haberentur nescio an emptores totidem reperturi quot libri. Illi enim muros vestiunt, hec animos, qui, quoniam oculis non videntur ab hominibus, negliguntur. At profecto si librorum copia doctos faceret aut bonos, doctissimi omnium atque optimi sepe esse possent qui ditissimi, cuius sepe contrarium videmus.

G. Adminicula ad discendum libros habeo.

R. Vide autem ne impedimenta sint potius: ut nonnullis ad vincendum multitudo bellatorum, sic librorum multitudo multis ad discendum nocuit et ex copia, ut fit, inopia orta est; qui si ultro adsint non abiciendi equidem, sed sequestrandi erunt utendumque melioribus et cavendum ne qui forsan in tempore profuturi essent intempestivi obsint.

G. Multi et varii michi sunt libri.

R. Fallit sepe viarum multiplicitas viatorem et qui uno calle certus ibat, hesit in bivio multoque maior est trivii error aut quadrivii; sic sepe qui librum unum efficaciter elegisset, inutiliter multos aperuit evolvitque. Multa sunt onerosa discentibus, doctis pauca sufficiunt; nimia utrisque sunt importuna, sed fortioribus humeris subvectantur agilius.

G. Librorum nobilium magnum numerum contraxi.

R. Librorum numero nemo qui nunc occurrat preter regem illum Egyptium nobilitatus est neque id sibi tam numerus dedit, quam famosa translatio; haud dubie mirum opus tot ingeniorum, nisi unius post ingenii miraculum maius esset. Calle alio niti oportet, ut ex libris gloriam queras; non habendi sed noscendi, neque bibliothece sed memorie committendi cerebroque, non armario, concludendi sunt; alioquin vel librario publico vel armario ipso gloriosior nemo erit.

G. Egregios multos libros servo.

R. Multos in vinculis tenes, qui si forsan erumperent et loqui possent ad iudicium te privati carceris evocarent; nunc flent taciti multa quidem, nominatim illud quod persepe unus iners affluit avarus, quibus multi egeant studiosi.

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