Perpetual and immense

Some choice passages from Renée Neu Watkins’s translation (Waveland Press, 1999) of Leon Battista Alberti’s magnificently shrewd De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (The advantages and disadvantages of books), written in Latin around 1430:

[…] I have meditated and thought long and hard, searching with all my ingenuity for a subject I could treat adequately and which would prove the quality of my intellect, so as to satisfy them if it lay within me. But nothing came to mind that had not been beautifully dealt with by the divinely inspired classical authors, so that no one of our time, however learned, could deal with it better than they, nor did there seem to be some topic left of the kind they had treated, that I could handle well and with grace. The ancients had encompassed all serious and comic material, leaving to us only the opportunity to read them and the obligation to admire. Older contemporaries of ours have seized on a few subjects that lay hidden, perhaps overlooked by the ancients, and have thus gained honor and fame. If one wants glory, however, one must be willing to write something that is not perfect and ideal rather than allow oneself to grow old in erudite silence.


I earnestly beg you, my brother (if I may borrow your own phrasing in Ephebis) to read this little book of ours, correct it according to your own unswerving judgment, and by your emendations kindly make it better and more beautiful.


The life men of learning live is necessarily hard and harsh; by this I mean the ones who, as they should, abandon all other things for the sake of intellectual work. No art, however minor, demands less that total dedication if you want to excel in it. What we know to be true of all arts is most especially true of reading and writing; there is no freedom from striving at any age.


In my experience, however, you won’t find many rich men who think books, let alone the delights of study, are worth the effort.


Who, with a mind occupied by love, will be able to focus whole and steadfast attention on texts? Who can then be fully absorbed in his work, intent on the teachings, ready and able to store up and retain them? Who, when captive to the madness of love, will have the will power and intellectual vigor and enthusiasm to perfect himself in any noble art? Don’t we know how love usually affects people? Sapping energy, corrupting conduct, perverting the intelligence, loading the mind with obsessions, filling the intellect with errors, driving a man to madness: these are its well-known services, the gifts that it bestows.


A brief period away from study has the power to disperse more material than many long hours of application can restore; things placed in memory slip away faster than they can be rememorized or recaptured.

[Cf. the pianist’s quip, variously attributed to Liszt, Rubinstein, and Paderewski: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice; two days, and my friends notice; three days, and everybody notices.”]

When you wish to buy clothes, isn’t it true that your library will say to you: “You owe me that money, I forbid…” If you wish to pursue the hunt, or music, or the martial arts or sports, won’t the books says: “You are stealing this energy from us, we will not bring you fame and reputation!” If you inquire into technical knowledge or painting or three dimensional design, the philosophical disciplines will react strongly: “This is the way you defraud us of your energies. From you we will withhold knowledge of the highest things…!”


If you want to refresh your spirit by a country excursion […] the vocation you have taken up will pull you back from there to books and writing, and if you do not with much labor and long hours devote yourself totally to these, the books themselves will threaten you with shattering disgrace.


But I would not want to obscure the true nature of scholars by concluding that they devote themselves to books with no idea of pleasure. They could not perform such great labors without some notion of pleasure in their minds. There are those who willingly go into mourning, because they take pleasure from being considered very faithful and true to the memory of friendship. Many actions by which we satisfy convention and public opinion seem less painful to us than they really are. The pleasure of study, however, is such that it might better be called pain: sedentary all the time, reading all the time, thinking hard, always alone, renouncing festivities and play. I am not so bitter and hard a man that I would dare call this a pleasant way to live. […] To satisfy the desire to learn is indeed a pleasure, but the very hard work of study and the accompanying anxiety that oppresses the spirit always bring more mental torment than joy. So if we indeed take a certain pleasure in learning, huge cares and labors undermine it. There is a big difference, moreover, between the burden of fighting the intrigues and assault of enemies, which is experienced relatively briefly, and the scholar’s daily anxiety, which is perpetual and immense. For there are innumerable things in books that are supremely worth knowing, nor is it easy to describe how the desire to learn presses upon a scholar. He may participate in difficulty scholarly debates, or explore some elegant, worthy, and learned subject; while he does so, he does not sleep, does not eat, does not rest, and feels almost no satisfaction. The desire to know and to remember it all is constantly gnawing at him. He takes on immense projects, is entangled in an array of possible rhetorical devices, is constantly tense. On top of this, he is always coming across things previously unknown to him: he encounters in his reading adroit, subtle, and clever ideas, finds some unusual illustrative anecdote, or learns new refinements of the power of persuasion; these things provoke in him the desire to learn more, and he is unable to set limits or stop, nor is he granted any peace of mind as long as he has not cleared up every obscurity. Thus, as you see, the scholar is a very complex puzzle himself, and neither physically nor mentally ever, or hardly ever, gets any rest. Bleak solitude, hard labor, endless hours, great anxiety, difficulty questions, total absorption, intense anxiety—as there is no pleasure to be found in this man, so in his whole life there is almost no break in the onslaught of work and worry.

To Alberti’s unremittingly bleak, if otherwise unsurpassed, characterization of the obsessively acquisitive and self-reinforcing anxiety at the heart of bibliophilia (epistemophilia?), one might counterpose a finer appreciation of the compensating blisses and ecstasies: Barthes’s “pleasure of the text,” Feynman’s “pleasure of finding things out,” Morris’s account of “pleasure in the work itself” (which he writes about here and here), something—appropriately, I cannot remember what—in Emerson. See also: Aristotle’s “desire to know,” Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” Joyce’s “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

One might almost say for the hell of it

Vincent Cronin on Alberti in his essay “The Humanists,” Horizon magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter 1971:

Alberti did make his mark—as a writer, architect, painter, sculptor, and musician. Such versatility is a distinguishing characteristic of the humanists and another essential ingredient of their ideal man. In part versatility was a practical expression of the tremendous energy released through the study of the classical world, but it must also be seen as a reaction against the pigeonholing of earlier centuries. The medieval division of mankind into oratores, bellatores, laboratores (those who pray, those who make war, those who work with their hands) is well known, and within the latter category men were subdivided by the guild system into armorers, masons, furriers, and the like. These distinctions had been unknown in the ancient world, in which Aeschylus, as is proudly inscribed on his tomb, fought at Marathon, and in which Socrates was known not only as a philosopher but also a sculptor. The humanists returned eagerly to this classical concept, and set no bounds to the skills one man might master.

Versatility went hand in hand with a markedly amateur attitude. Alberti did things for the love of it—one might almost say for the hell of it. Florence never had a university and distrusted the attitude that had once sought to count the angels on a pinhead and now, in less humane cities, tried to count the number of imperfect subjunctives in Thucydides. It was reported of Cicero that he had never been a professional philosopher and that he conducted his philosophical meditations in the corridors of the law courts: “He philosophized most when he seemed to be doing so least.” That became a catch phrase in Florence, and a kind of deal.

In 1469 Alberti wrote a masterpiece of moral philosophy, the De Iciarchia. Here are some quotations from this little-known book:

If you are idle you might as well be asleep: you are neither wholly alive nor wholly dead.

Man is born to be useful to his fellows. And the purpose of all his skills is simply the service of others.

We must so conduct ourselves that when evening comes we have no resource to say, “Today I learned nothing, today I acquired no graceful accomplishment, today I did nothing useful for a friend, nothing that gave me enjoyment.”

Believe me, a man who is eloquent will easily make others carry out his wishes.