Like a Machiavelli in a den of Savonarolas

Faith and Reason The Rev John Kennedy, a secretary in the Methodist Church's Division of Social Responsibility, argues for an alternative to official religious culture.

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.

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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital