via Scott Horton's blog No Comment in Harpers.org
While I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes, it occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustin’s Confessions, a gift that I owe to your love, and that I always have about me, in memory of both the author and the giver. I opened the compact little volume, small indeed in size, but of infinite charm, with the intention of reading whatever came to hand, for I could happen upon nothing that would be otherwise than edifying and devout. Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustin’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. Those words had given me occupation enough, for I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them…
I thought in silence of the lack of good counsel in us mortals, who neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within. I wondered at the natural nobility of our soul, save when it debases itself of its own free will, and deserts its original estate, turning what God has given it for its honor into dishonor. How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation, — when it is not immersed in the foul mire of earth? With every downward step I asked myself this: If we are ready to endure so much sweat and labor in order that we may bring our bodies a little nearer heaven, how can a soul struggling toward God, up the steps of human pride and human destiny, fear any cross or prison or sting of fortune? How few, I thought, are diverted from their path by the fear of difficulties or the love of ease! How happy the lot of those few, if any such there be! It is of them, assuredly, that the poet was thinking, when he wrote:
Happy the man who is skilled to understand
Nature’s hid causes; who beneath his feet
All terrors casts, and death’s relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.
How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.
–Francesco Petrarcha, letter to Doinigi da Borgo San Sepolcro, Apr. 26, 1336.
But Petrarcha’s trip served another purpose than tourism. He confesses he was driven by a desire to be closer to nature and to see its wonders. But on arriving, his eye falls to Augustin and his admonition to measure his life by a different relationship. He references the Confessions, but then the real message of this letter lies in another text, in Augustin’s De vera religione (xxxix, 72) where he writes “Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas.” “Do not go outwards, but travel into yourself, for truth lives in the interior of the human being.” Augustin chastizes those who obsess with the material world, and even with nature, to the detriment of their spiritual calling. But is it possible to reconcile these things? Can a journey not simultaneously be a voyage of discovery of inner and external worlds? Petrarcha does not see the contradiction in the end. He met both at the summit of Mount Ventoux. And having obtained his goal, he realized that it was the trip that had mattered, not its achievement.
The same lesson, then, may be applied to the poem quoted at the end. Since we are selfsame, "to trample beneath us those appetites that spring from earthly desires" will be as self-defeating as a fountain trying to stuff itself back down into its spring. We don't oppose the Flow of Nature, we flow it from within.