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.
Instead, we have an official religious culture which is trapped into seeming to deny our appetites and interests, whereas we need to acknowledge and to manage them. We intend to behave more badly than the churches can accept. But we need to learn to treat pain, age, death and fidelity in such a way that we enjoy behaving well when thus constrained. How will we so learn?
That learning is urgently needed in society at large. But there is a radical Christian alternative to our struggling secularism. It is the evangelical line spelt out eloquently in Veritatis Splendor and elsewhere. It proclaims the Pauline view, that we have been saved by grace through faith, and have no moral achievements to boast of - but that God has prepared paths for us to walk in, once we lay aside moral nagging at the modern world and seek our own Christian vocation. That vocation clearly has a pu blic dimension. But it is the calling of an ardent minority, not a public ethic for society at large.
It was with some anxiety that I found myself among that ardent minority last week, at the Epiphany Conference of David Alton's Movement for Christian Democracy. I felt like a Machiavelli in a den of Savonarolas, but it was a lovely time of sharp political debate, and warm fellowship, and moving worship. It was exciting to find a wildly diverse group of Catholics and Protestants with a clear Christian view of personal morality and public ethics. There seemed to be the possibility of a real, discomfiting,searching debate about the ways we live now, and how on earth we are to live together.
So here is a modest proposal for moral debate in the Nineties, and the next millennium. We need to rescue Savonarola from the flames of the Piazza delle Signoria, and Machiavelli from a perhaps even hotter place. We actually do need to work at a hedonistic ethic, which will acknowledge that we intend to behave more disgracefully than inherited official morality can admit. But this Machiavellian kind of honesty may in time help us to be better behaved than we can at present imagine.
In the meantime, let the Savonarola tendency explore a public ethic that starts unashamedly from the point of Christian ardour. Their project sounds noisy, uncomfortable and messy; but it could, dare one say, be fun.