The “plague of phantasms”: Petrarch’s Secretum and the Paramaterial Objects of Sense in Human and Non-Human Animals
In Petrarch’s Secretum written somewhere between 1347 and 1353 and circulated posthumously, Petrarch shapes a dialogue between himself and a fictionalized Augustine. Augustine chastises and instructs Petrarch for favoring an attention to the world over devotion to God and spiritual things. Towards the end of book one of this dialogue, Augustine reveals the tensions inherent in what I am calling a paramaterial construction of the mind.
Augustine cites a passage from Virgil which Petrarch claims reveals the “quadripartitam animi passionem: que primum quidem ex presentis futurique temporis respectu in duas scinditur partes… ex boni malique opinione subdistinguitur” [fourfold passion of our nature, which is split in two parts with respect to past and future, and then subdivided again in respect of good and evil]. Augustine Christianizes Virgil by bridging the gap between classicism and Scripture in order to develop an explanation of the types of concerns and attentions that divert the mind and interfere with a proper understanding of the divine. The passage deserves to be quoted at length:
Rite discernis atqui verificatum est in vobis illud Apostolicum: Corpus quod corrumpitur aggravat animam: et deprimit terrena inhabitatio sensum multa cogitantem. Conglobantur siquidem species innumere et imagines rerum visibilium que corporeis introgresse sensibus: postquam singulariter admisse sunt catervatim in anime penetralibus densantur: eamque nec ad id genitam: nec tam multorum difformiumque capacem pregravant atque confundunt. Hinc pestis illa phantasmatum vestros discerpens laceransque cogitatus: meditationibusque clarificiss quibus ad unum solum summumque lumen ascenditur iter obstruens varietate mortifera. (Opera Latina).
[You discern correctly, proven true in the words of the Apostle: “The body which is corrupted presses down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weighs down the mind that muses on many things.” Truly the innumerable species and images of visible things, that one by one are brought into the body by the senses, gather there in the inner center in a mass, and not being produced there, they weigh the soul down and overwhelm it with their contrariety. Hence that plague of phantasies tears apart and wounds the thinking faculty of the soul, and with its fatal, distracting complexity obstructs the way of clear meditation, whereby it would ascend to the One Chief Good (*lumen).]
The Wisdom of Solomon 9:15 offers that the body weighs down the soul, but Petrarch expands upon the passage to align the Phantasy and its objects with corporeality and underscores the material language of Wisdom 9:15 by using his own language of materiality. The species and phantasms “press down the soul” and “weigh down the mind,” especially when they gather together in a “mass” within the inner senses. It is my contention (and I will argue this elsewhere) that the language Petrarch deploys here was not all that uncommon up until the sixteenth century and demands to be explored as revealing a system of perception and of a particular understanding of the body’s relationship with the world rather than being too quickly dismissed as metaphor.
Petrarch sees the innumerable species and images of things visible as generated from the outside world which penetrate and infect the perceiver, granting the images of the mind the role of a foreign invader as they pass from the world, through the external senses, and into the inner senses. The body, being especially vulnerable due to its corporeality, allows these quasi-material agents to invade the perceiver which can then undermine the soul’s capacity for spiritual meditation and reflection. Petrarch polarizes soul and body by more firmly aligning the sensitive soul with corporeality. While often linked to the body, the Phantasy and its objects also traditionally served, in part, to mediate the relationship between the body and soul.
Petrarch’s Augustine associates the Phantasy with the body. In doing so, Petrarch draws upon a long tradition in his representation of the corporeality of the faculty. If we turn to Albertus Magnus’ Cleaving to God, we find a similar association of the Phantasy with the body. In addition to weighing down the mind, the plague of phantasms also “tears” the thinking faculty. While not literally tearing reason, Petrarch’s material language reinforces the representation of the corporeal nature of the mind. In his discussion of the negative theology of Dionysius, Albertus claims one must deny the experience of the body and the intellect, and links the imagination to the body and the senses. Describing the way of negative theology, Albertus says,
Hence when we approach God by the way of negation, we first deny him everything that can be experienced by the body, the senses and the imagination, secondly even things experienceable by the intellect, and finally even being itself in so far as it is found in created things. This, so far as the nature of the way is concerned, is the best means of union with God, according to Dionysius. And this is the cloud in which God is said to dwell, which Moses entered, and through this came to the inaccessible light. Certainly, it is not the spiritual which comes first, but the natural, (1 Corinthians 15.46) so one must proceed by the usual order of things, from active work to the quiet of contemplation, and from moral virtues to spiritual and contemplative realities. Finally, my soul, why are you uselessly preoccupied with so many things, and always busy with them? Seek out and love the one supreme good, in which is all that is worth seeking, and that will be enough for you. (Magnus, “On Cleaving to God”).
The Latin, as a 1621 edition has it, “primo negamus ab eo omnia corporalia & sensibilia & imaginabilia” (De adhaerendo Deo 34), might go further in distinguishing the body, the senses, and the imagination from one another, but even in the Latin, those aspects are split from the intellectual faculties Albertus turns to next. As such, Albertus reinforces the notion that perception and the imagination are distinct from the rational, but the intellectual species were thought to grow out of the abstraction from the sensible species. The problem, posed by Albertus is the multiplicity of objects and varying and sometimes contradictory evaluations which become part of them. The diversity overwhelms the soul, and, as in Petrarch, keeps it from contemplating the spiritual world.
Like Petrarch, Albertus sees the multitude of objects as preoccupying the soul and inhibiting progression towards spiritual truths. In both Albertus’ and Petrarch’s work, the Phantasy detracts from contemplating the divine, in part, because of the worldly objects with which it was linked. While Albertus typically distinguishes the fantasia from the imaginativa, he links them to the body and the material world. The imagination and its contents must first be denied before proceeding to denying the intellectual part of man. One must deny the senses but also the imagination in the first part of this turn away from the world and towards God.
Similarly, Petrarch’s Augustine recommends a turning away from the material world by turning away from the imagination. As with Albertus, Petrarch links the Phantasy to the material body and notes that the faculty and its objects detract from spiritual contemplation. Petrarch uses both terms species and phantasms, and, while there was some distinction between the two where species were often associated with the actual perceptual objects and the phantasms for the more mental objects, Petrarch, like Albertus, uses the two somewhat interchangeably. I will further discuss the various terms for the objects of the senses and the mind in a later post, but even where the two terms are deployed, their meanings tend to overlap and merge.
The “pestis illa phantasmatum,” or “plague of phantasms,” includes elements we might not otherwise not commonly associate with mental objects themselves. One such strange association Petrarch makes here is his linking of evaluations of “good and evil” with the phantasms. In descriptions of the sensitive soul, natural philosophers attributed such agency to the faculty. The Phantasy encoded mental objects not only with their sensory content, but also with their affective content. The faculty provided an immediate judgment and response to the sensory data from the outside world that included simple evaluations of pleasureable and painful which then, when transmitted to the heart, could generate an appropriate or corresponding emotional response. Petrarch lumps such evaluations into the corporeal aspect of the mind that weighs the soul down, keeping it from spiritual thoughts and contemplation.
In some accounts, the Phantasy was the highest faculty afforded to non-human animals, and natural philosophers deployed this system to explain the animal response to external objects. In the fourth chapter of Cleaving to God, Albertus makes such a claim as he discusses the need to deny the importance of species, phantasms, the external senses, and the imagination. He says, “et idcirco quamdiu homo cum phantasmatibus & sensibus ludit, & eis insister, videtur nondum exisse motus & limites bestialitatis sue, hoc est, illius quod cum bestiis habet commune. Quia illae per phantasmata & per tales sensitivas seu sensibiles species cognoscunt & afficiuntur, & non aliter, eo quod altiorem vim animae non habeant” (De adhaerendo Deo 14). [And therefore, as long as a man is still playing with the phantasms and senses, and holds to them, it seems he has not yet emerged from the motivation and limitations of his animal nature, which is what he has in common with the animals. For these know and feel objects through phantasmata and through such sensitive or sensible species and in no other way, because they do not possess a higher power of the soul.] The external senses and the imagination serve as the limit for animals, and in humans who do not use their higher powers of the soul, the external senses and the imagination threaten to turn them into beasts.
For theorists like Albertus, the animal Phantasy functioned in what I am calling a perimaterial capacity, where animal minds, tied to materiality and corporeality, were limited to simple immediate judgments of sensed phenomena, but natural philosophers also extended this model to explain human minds which, even while including an intellectual or rational soul, depended upon the Phantasy for its higher functioning. At the same time, the “lower” faculties possessed their own agency and the phantasms, species, and images in which the imagination trafficked, served as the raw materials of thought and transferred its evaluations and judgments along with the mental object.
It was at the level of the imagination where many natural philosophers like Albertus separate human from non-human animals. The sensitive soul in general and the Phantasy in particular served as the “limit” of non-human cognitive activity. Human animals, on the other hand, additionally had an intellectual soul and reason in addition to the sensitive soul they had in common with nonhuman animals. While natural philosophers stressed the difference as the basis for human superiority and their separation from other animals. As Albertus suggests, however, the attachment to the external and internal senses and their objects might place the human and nonhuman animals on a similar footing. With too much attention to the world and through too much attention to the species or phantasms of the world’s objects, the perceiver might, like nonhuman animals, be reduced to corporeality. If the soul is weighed down and mired in the objects of the world, the material mind might enclose and imprison the soul within the body by not exceeding its bounds.
It is important to remember that the perimaterial mind attributed to non-human animals allowed for individuation and did not amount to a completely mechanistic model of perception. The system was flexible enough to explain individuated aberrations and differences in animal action rather than advocating a wholly deterministic model of animal behavior. The affective nature of the Phantasy and its species or phantasms depended, in part, upon the material composition of the receiving faculty and spirits as well as upon the disposition of the perceiver. The same held true for man who could use his reason and rational soul to re-shape or re-define objects of perception whether that re-shaping was intentionally or unconsciously.
Albertus recommends turning away from the external senses, the imagination, and their objects, to focus exclusively on God. As Petrarch shapes it, the soul becomes literally weighed down by its quasi-material objects. Pulled towards corporeality, the spiritual vision becomes blind through the multitude of objects overwhelming the corporeal senses, external and internal. While seeming to include the “fourfold passions” Petrarch mentions, the objects, including the evaluations of good and evil, distract the soul by their sheer numbers and with their relationship with the material world. The impressions overwhelm and divide the proper attention of the soul, miring it in sensuality but also in the very quasi-material nature of mental objects.
For Petrarch, it would seem, the human mind can either be paramaterial in the best cases where attention is directed away from the world and towards God or perimaterial in the more common cases where the material world and the quasi-material objects in the mind literally weigh down the soul. Since the perimaterial Phantasy emerges in relation to “beasts,” the attention to the material world and its objects render the human an animal, turning it from an entity capable of reaching the divine one enclosed within its own materiality.
At the same time, while the perimaterial possibility might never be directly offered, the tenuous separation of human and nonhuman continually exposed that possibility. While I will discuss the material atomism of the epicureans and their mechanistic and corporeal explanations of human perception, behavior, and cognition, even when not taken to epicurean extremes, the distinction between man and beast was continually reinforced but, in the process of reinforcement, continually challenged and complicated.
While on the level of access to the spiritual realm, I am calling this extreme perimaterial, I also believe this perimaterial mind, with respect to the ways in which it supposedly interacted with the external world and its objects, still had a paramaterial component. As Petrarch’s Secretum reveals, the objects of the world, once converted into species or phantasms, had a material effect on, power over, and agency within a perceiver. While Albertus and Petrarch suggest that eliminating or negating the species or phantasms from the mind can lead to greater spiritual clarity, those objects, it was theorized, played important roles in ordinary perception, epistemology, and ontology and were required to explain thought. The material terms in which Petrarch describes the mind’s objects, when viewed in conjunction to other accounts of perception and cognition expose a perceiver’s subject position as porous and permeable to the objects of the world.
Magnus, Albertus. De adhaerendo Deo libellus. ex officina Plantiniana, apud Balthasarum Moretum, & viduam Joannis Moreti, & Jo. Meursium, 1621.
“On Cleaving to God.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/albert/cleaving.xi.html.
Petrarca, Francesco. [Opera Latina.] 1501.