Like a Machiavelli in a Den of Savonarolas

Article excerpt

We all seem to be floundering in a certain moral confusion, from the Royal Family down. If we want a model of moral engagement for the Nineties, we might take a look at an example from the 1490s.

The City Republic of Florence, in a fit of fin-de-siecle angst, and rather more concrete fear of the French, gave its government over to a Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola. He combined moral fervour with constructive social policy. He is most famous for the "Bonfire of the Vanities" - he piled up all the things the Florentines had fun with, and set fire to them. Botticelli, incredibly, stacked some of his own stuff on to the heap.

Within three years the Florentines had got fed up with goodness, and Savonarola himself was burned on the same spot. A rather decent republic replaced the good monk. One of that republic's most able servants was an ambivalent admirer of Savonarola who had watched him burn that day, and realised the frailty of human commitment to great ideals. This was Niccolo Machiavelli.

Savonarola's fate confirmed Machiavelli's instinct to be deeply sceptical about the motives of human behaviour. Indeed, Machiavelli recognised in Savonarola that the ruthlessness of the righteous reformer is uncomfortably like that of the self-serving tyrant. Machiavelli himself hardly got it right - he was tortured by the Medici and narrowly avoided execution.

One lesson from our little tale is this: be careful. Keep your comments on the present moral order within the conventional hand-wringing pieties. I broke this rule some weeks ago when I argued in an obscure pamphlet that our society was increasingly, anddamagingly, hedonistic. We tend to be driven by incoherent selfish impulses - pursuing fun with sex and money. I suggested that such a society is not about to revert to the tutelage of the Christian tradition, but urgently needs to develop a responsiblyhedonistic ethic - pursuing serious fun with sex and money.

At this point the roof fell in, and I was denounced by David Alton on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph as "evil". But the issue needs to be raised, for it contains all the subsidiary social and political topics that dominate public debate.

The problem is this. We are unable to be honest with ourselves about what level of bad behaviour we intend to get up to. We refuse to create an arena in which we can be frank about ourselves, with the kind of honesty that got Savonarola burned and ruinedMachiavelli's reputation. …