Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was a true Renaissance man, distinguishing himself as an author, artist, poet, architect, and philosopher. Probably sometime in the 1430s, Alberti wrote “De commodis litterarum atque incommodes” (The Use and Abuse of Books), in which he extols the virtue of scholarship. In this work, Alberti also provided insightful commentary and life advice to scholars about marriage, choosing a profession, the state of education, and a number of other contemporary topics.
Alberti’s 700-year-old commentary on life sounds surprisingly modern. So, from the “there is nothing new under the sun” department, here are some of Alberti’s astute life observations for today’s scholars of the art of living.
On Choosing a Wife
“I advise any poor man to avoid marriage with a poor woman, for that is the ultimate evil.”
“I warn him not to desire a young female, for youth is an age unfavorable to scholars and offers them little security…I know what I am talking about.”
“Choose some little elderly widow, then, who is less likely to look down on you than other women.”
“If I seem to be joking in this discourse about matrimonial matters, just call to mind the wives of learned men you know, consider their ages and dowries, to say nothing of their faithfulness.”
Marrying Into Money: Folly!
“It is vilest servitude to submit to the assaults of a wife who is always talking about and insisting on her family's wealth and importance...Spoiled by consciousness of her wealth, she will spend more than you, or rather she, can afford. Having been raised in luxury she will go wild with her abundance of ready money. Your wife will impose numerous rules on your conduct and frequently accuse you of being nothing without her wealth...as they say, nothing is more unbearable than a wealthy woman. [My advice is] Go away, flee, hide yourself in your library!”
Choosing a Profession
“For all the multitude of studious men who have distinguished themselves in the almost infinitely varied fields of knowledge, there are only three professions that will bring monetary reward. One is the profession of those who record cases and contracts [scribes], another, of those who are masters of jurisprudence [lawyers], and the third, of those who treat the sick [physicians].”
“If an unscrupulous…lawyer takes up an unjust case, they [the ‘crowd’] will call him a great master, the best of men, and a great friend. They have come to think deception a virtue…When a man is good and just and holy…when he stands for law and truth, not employing deceit and audacious lies, not shifting his allegiance at will, not hoping to win for the sake of money, but fighting for the sake of honor, they call him useless, ignorant, and a loser of cases.”
“What can I say of our lawyers that is truly good?...You burst all the seams of your miserable heart; you are not afraid, for the sake of payment, to fight and quibble with the most powerful and eminent citizens. They threaten you, revile you, swear at you, cast blame on you. Unhappy man, you expose your reputation and your back to all this for the sake of money...What a way to make money!"
On the Motivations of Doctors
“Did I not see many good men and good doctors wrestling hard and bitterly with poverty, yet always ready to struggle on? The general public, however, takes the view that medical men, for the sake of money, wish for and follow precisely the things that other men consider sad and horrible, like wounds, disease, plague, and death.”
“Prisoners of war or [those] captured by pirates go involuntarily into servitude, but physicians choose by an impulse of their own to become slaves…physicians…willingly and greedily take on diseases, contagion, and danger of death for a stranger, simply because they are attracted to the transaction by a little heap of coins.”
On Becoming an Academic
“We must consider anyone who devotes himself to learning in the hope of wealth extremely foolish. For the services of learned men that lead to pay are either dishonest or servile.”
“Book learning is not of the slightest use for gaining wealth, but just the opposite, a great financial drain.”
“In case there are any men so shameless that…they have let their greed convince them that, with fraud and deceit, they can make money by the choice of a scholarly career, I want them to know they are greatly mistaken.”
The State of Education
“These days…too many take up the study of books. Those who are notable for intelligence, therefore, clearly see that they should put their energy into something more attractive and more advantageous, anything rather than scholarship. Who can fail to see in all this that our citizens do not value education? Men meant to herd sheep and inhabit stables are discussing and judging the fortunes of humanity.”
Studying and Knowledge
“The more you learn, the more you realize how much you do not know.”
“It is more becoming to bear poverty with fortitude for the sake of knowledge than to gain wealth without honor.”
“No one is so stupid that he doesn't want a connection to learned and famous men.”
Do you think Alberti's advice still hits home today--or should he go back and hide in his library?
For other installments in the “there is nothing new under the sun” series, see:
- Ye Olde "How-To" Videos--How To Dial A Telephone And More
- Focusing in the Age of Distraction: 3 Time-Proven Strategies
- Looking Forward by Looking Back: Predictions for 1993... From 1893.