A Survey of Savanarola: Take One The Primacy of the Polis

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Dear Reader,

My apologies for the hiatus in writing. I have been busily crafting a series of academic articles on the occult background of the English poet Edmund Spenser (yes, they are awesome and boring). However, having read Lauro Martines’ work Fire in the City Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Florence as part of my research of the Renaissance, I thought I would drop in a couple of notes on some of the more interesting tidbits of the book. The underlying premise of the book itself is that the Florentine friar should not be dismissed as a lunatic reactionary because he held many ideas that sound a little bit like budding liberal Republicanism, which is kind of true but not really. However, what is perhaps most striking is the backdrop of the Italian city state of Florence against which the drama of Savonarola unfolds.

Although he was originally from Ferrara, Girolamo de Savonarola became one of the definitive characters of Florence, to which Savonarola referred as the “city of his destiny.” The idea that a single city of 40,000 inhabitants would produce Giotto, Dante, Petrarch, Marsilio Ficino and Savonarola or contain an upper class that would be conversant in Aristotle, Plato, and Ovid is remarkable. However, while Florence’s leading literary lights of the Renaissance tended to polish and refine their sensual pagan materials, Savonarola used his stellar classical education to condemn the pagan poison that had inundated Florence. Despite his attraction to heretical ideas, Savonarola was a take no prisoners badass who traveled about with an armed escort, shaming sodomites, usurers, and the decadent corrupt excesses of the Renaissance. Savonarola and his followers changed the carnival of Florence into a period of penance and purgation and exercised a tremendous influence overall in Florence until his untimely death. Martines description of the final assault on Savonarola’s priory, San Marco encapsulate the madcap life that Savonarola lived:

After a six hour siege, which included the use of small artillery pieces, they finally forced him to surrender. And at about 2:00 in the morning, although surrounded by guardsmen, he had to walk through a moving gauntlet that stretched more than 1000 meters, all the way up to the government place—a gauntlet of screaming and shouting young men, who sought to kick and punch the cowled figure, as they spat insults and spittle on him, or tried to poke at his body with torches (2).

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What is most striking about Savonarola’s Florence was that it was a singular organic community in which the conspiracies and intrigues to which Savonarola as well as his Medici rivals were subject were part and parcel of normal village life. The reason why Savonarola was so hated was because he was an integral member of the city of Florence. As Charles Taylor points out in his famous, A Secular Age, even the gossip of the village was like the buzzing of a hive, the functioning of a united organism. It is this sense of living among others who know about you and talk about you and think about you as part of them that is so absent from the contemporary world and for which we long with such intensity.

When I was a kid, I would play A LOT of video games. In fact, there probably is not any living person who has played more video games than I have. I was first bitten by the bug of role playing games during my 8th grade year, playing Final Fantasy III. While I have abandoned video games due to my addictive nature (and because it is kind of weird or probably actually damnable for a Christian to pretend to practice magic and witchcraft), I recall the incredibly simple aesthetic experience of walking into a village for the first time. Each village in Final Fantasy and other role playing video games had its own story, its own life, and yes, its own monsters to defeat.

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It always sounds like crazy town East German propaganda when a boss refers to a company as a family. And it is beyond crazy when the term is used in a university or college setting. But it shouldn’t be. A real community is a family–literally. Let us turn to the philosopher of common sense, for our guide in understanding what a real community is like. In his Politics, Aristotle lays out the basis for a community. The core of the human community is a male and a female coming together to form a family, and this family, in turn, grows and unites with other families to form a tribe, and it is in tribes that most human beings have lived in for most of human history. Humans are pack animals, and greatest melancholic poetry such as “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer” bespeak how awful it is when a tribe is broken up. How can out contemporary situation in anyway seem normal when we no longer even live in nuclear families?  It is only by living in a real human community that any Catholic restoration can function. Catholic families and individuals feel overwhelmed with  the poison of postmodernity precisely because we are alone; we do not have the strength of the pack or the tribe to support us and are thus sitting ducks.

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The idea of a bunch of reactionary Catholics or anyone else creating a city state from scratch using rationalistic arbitrary means would immediately fall apart, or even more frighteningly would actually be successful and would quickly become a mini me version of the Soviet Union. To quote the poet, the creation of a city state comes “dropping slow”, and it must be an organic process. The first step is recognize that there is a problem. If sincere social interaction is the key to longevity and happiness, and there is an unbelievable mental health crises plaguing the West at large, then there may be a connection between individualism and our postmodern malaise. It is time we make the promise of a true Catholic polis a reality, and the only way this will be achieved is by reforging the bounds within our own extended families–however painful that may be.

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