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De otio religioso: Petrarch and the Laicization of Western Monastic Asceticism

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Three of Petrarch's major prose works in Latin—De otio religioso, De vita solitaria, and Secretum—are treatises dedicated to the topic of solitude as an escape from the negotium of worldly life. An inquiry into Petrarch's understanding of solitude will show, however, that far from representing an idealized withdrawal from engagement in the world, ascesis is a technique employed by Petrarch to construct his own ideal of the public intellectual, disengaged and resistant to structures of coercive authority and power. His reshaping of an ascetic lineage, which puts early Christian authors side by side with writers from the ancient Latin Stoic tradition, may be seen as an attempt to delineate a new, laicized form of monasticism and the ascetic life. In turning to a closer examination of De otio religioso, this paper will emphasize two areas of interest, which seek to support the thesis that Petrarch's pursuit of contemplative life was strategic for the shaping of an uncompromised, intellectual, Christian identity: the presence of an absence, represented by Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order, as a model of ascetic dissent; and the absence of a presence, evoked by a radical reading of the Latin verb vacare with its more kenotic implications.

Affiliations: 1: St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana

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