Modern Life Coaching, From The 1400s

Renaissance man Leon Battista Alberti’s 700-year-old life advice remains surprisingly modern–if not a whiff controversial and haughty. Here are his insights on education, choosing a profession, and marriage.


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

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].”

On Lawyers


“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


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

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:

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About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.