Petrus Alfonsi and The Scholar’s Guide

Who was Petrus Alfonsi?

Thousands of years ago, a man named Petrus Alfonsi lived a life that could encompass that of several different people. Many historical figures that we know of today were seemingly so steadfast in their positions and beliefs throughout their lives, and Alfonso’s existence in the history of literature and science if nothing else challenges this to a noticeable degree. Alfonsi was born a Jewish man named Moses in 11th century al-Andalus, or modern day Spain, and was familiar with both Hebrew and Arabic teachings to the extent in which he was able to share this frame of thought when he later converted to Christianity.

This path that Alfonsi chose is one that we don’t often see in literature from this period, however those familiar with the bible may find a connection between Alfonsi’s life story and that of Simon from scripture, who later converted to discipleship under the name Paul. This goes even further, as later on, Alfonsi like Paul also changed his name to what we know it as today. Alfonsi was passionate about his direction for life, and wanted to shared this spiritual rebirth and what he had learned from it with others in his travels, which honestly is a nice sentiment when noticing that he truly set out to be an encouraging guide to others. While there in Europe, Alfonsi interestingly enough made notable contributions to the world of Astronomy as well as literature! Many of these contributions were possible due to Alfonsi’s fluency in both Arabic and Latin, as he was able to make many important distinguishing translations needed in the scientific world.

Alfonsi in the World of Literature

Alfonsi during this period created two major literary works that we as readers are able to gather insight from today, based on their subject matter as well as the new perspectives brought by Alfonsi’s unique connection with his chosen European, Christian identity. The first of these was entitled Dialogi Contra Iudaeos, this was a particularly thought provoking piece to me, and I found it very clever how he framed this work. Alfonsi sets the story as a sort of dialogue between his past self, Moses, and his converted self, Petrus. This work allowed Alfonsi to reason through his decision making and set the foreground for the intentionality found within his new belief system, as well as the internal conflicts that were necessary on the road to becoming Petrus Alfonsi in an all-encompassing way.

This dialogue between both versions of Alfonsi’s identity could certainly be interpreted as a way for the discourse to be laid down plainly, for internal conflicts to be presented and from there concluded. These conclusions could pose as supposed ideas about what faith means to oneself, as well as how it may affect the community around them, and how they are able to relate. This work creates a space for this method of storytelling and overall presentation of ideas, as Petrus’s next work studied will truly be formulated from this in a rather effective way. Below is an image pulled from the Dialogi contra Iudaeos in which we are able to see both versions of Alfonsi conversating, which I found to be a really interesting visual.

Figure 1: Dialogi contra Iudaeos

The Scholar’s Guide

Figure 2: The Scholar’s Guide

Though the Dialogi Contra Iudaeos set a sort of standard of communication from Alfonsi to the readers, his next work, the Disciplina Clericalis, or Scholar’s Guide truly transcended the effectivity of shared thought and conversation to modern readers today. This piece is also functionally set up as dialogue, though the it is provided in an more comfortable, familiar setting and overall situation. This work is set up as many conversations between a father and his son, one often leading to another lesson within the lesson. This works so well in the way that it provides a rather wholesome medium in which rational thoughts about humanity may be discussed and pondered. These works have been translated in several languages, and have been enjoyed by many different groups due to their lightheartedness and good nature. When reading excerpts from this work, they do interestingly read similar to biblical scripture, however the exchanges between the father and son do feel more personal, and to me more forgiving. Below, Petrus explains his goals of the Scholars Guide, and how it aligns with his understanding of what it means to be a man of faith.

“I have also observed that the temperament of man is delicate; it must be instructed by being led, as it were, little by little, so that it will not become bored. I am mindful also of its hardness, which must to some extent be softened and sweetened, so that it may retain with it learns with greater facility, what it tends to forget” (Alfonsi 289).

Alfonsi in this quote acknowledges his understanding of how human beings operate, letting the reader know that he very intentionally wrote The Scholar’s Guide in such a way that it would not scare off readers with the more orthodox fire and brimstone method of teaching, but instead with a caring, more patient approach that would allow him to feel as though he was spreading values and thoughts that he found important in a way that others would be receptive to.

The Parable of the Half Friend, that later leads to the Parable of the Whole Friend, is a wonderful example of this gentle methodology. The Parable of the Half Friend introduces the lesson to be learned given from the father to the son, regarding what true friendship looks like, as well as how hard it is to come by. In the passage, the father tells him;

“The wise man says, ‘Do not praise your friend until you have tested him.’ I was born before you, and I have scarcely acquired half a friend. How have you got a hundred?” (Alfonsi 290)

The son is unable to prove himself to have any real friendships, and from there is willing to learn from his father, and ready to understand what a true friend is, and how he can distinguish one. This sort of anecdotal storytelling is incredibly effective, as it shows the problem and solution to basic human toils. Friendship is a construct that fully transcends time, and Alfonsi’s choice to include this in his teachings shows his ability to understand what is important and life, and what people could truly benefit from acquiring this further level of understanding of concepts that are so heavily present in our lives even today.

This same sentiment rings true for the majority of The Scholar’s Guide and is a comforting way in which readers can interpret different approaches to decision making,and more generally just how to live life. I thought about how Alfonsi’s life was so direct in purpose, and how cool it was that he used his literary medium to do what he thought was right, and how it’s even cooler still how receptive the readers were to his thoughts and ideas. There is still a lot to be learned that we can take from this guide, in more ways than we might think even after all these years.

Works Cited:

Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume A. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.