Lecture 123: The True Reformer - Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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Lecture 123: The True Reformer

Chesterton's Unwritten Book on Savonarola

Chesterton’s Unwritten Book on Savonarola


Giralomo Savonarola was a simple friar who was perhaps too simple for 15th century Florence. To a world of self-adoration and opulence—a world of worldliness—he preached poverty and heaven. He stoked “the bonfire of the vanities” which history has warped into a mere destruction of art and a puritan hatred of beauty. But no works of art were burned, only wigs and masks and robes. For causing such trouble, a separate fire was set for Savonarola in which his own body was burned, after he had first been hanged.  

As one who was martyred for speaking out against a politically-motivated Pope, the corruption of the clergy and the lack of attention the Church was paying to the poor, Savonarola has a better reputation among Protestants than he does among Catholics. But both tend to see him only as protester, and not as the true reformer that he was. Chesterton says we do not understand Savonarola, because such figures come along to show us “what horror may lie at the heart of civilisation.” In this sense, he hopes that we may never understand Savonarola. But Chesterton understood him, and his friend Father John O’Connor urged him to write a book about the friar who managed to upend the Medicis.    

In 1924, Hodder and Stoughton announced that it would be publishing a series of “intimate biographies” by G.K. Chesterton, and the first four were to be Stevenson, Napoleon, Savonarola, and Cobbett. Only the first and last of these were published. The other two were never even written. And so, says Fr. O’Connor, “one of the few satisfactory books for the many on the great and deeply-injured Prior of San Marco, has failed to come our way… Gilbert was busy with The Everlasting Man just then, and could not see his way clear.” 

Msgr. O’Connor speculates that one of the main reasons Chesterton did not get at the Savonarola book was the extra demands on his time after he became Catholic. He was “preyed upon” by people who wanted to take advantage of him for their own interests. He generally never turned down an invitation, only, in this case, he was not able to keep the invitation of writing a book.  

We can get a hint of what the book might have contained based on the few references Chesterton makes to the martyred friar. He says that the people of the Middle Ages preferred priests to prophets. They disliked any personality that grew too large, dreading him as egoist and sometimes even lynching him as a heretic. (Introduction to Past and Present, 1909) And yet, the real prophets—and here he includes Elijah, John the Baptist, Savonarola and John Bunyan—are the only real democrats, that is, “the only real disbelievers in the efficacy of fashion and station and wealth. They did conceive that the problem par excellence was not the problem of the poor, but the problem of the rich.” They were willing to go “kings’ palaces and rebuke them as if they were the scum of the earth.”(The Speaker, Dec. 7, 1901)  

In his great essay on Savonarola from Twelve Types, he writes: 

The great deliverers of men have, for the most part, saved them from calamities which we all recognise as evil, from calamities which are the ancient enemies of humanity. The great law-givers saved us from anarchy: the great physicians saved us from pestilence: the great reformers saved us from starvation. But there is a huge and bottomless evil compared with which all these are fleabites, the most desolating curse that can fall upon men or nations, and it has no name except we call it satisfaction. Savonarola did not save men from anarchy, but from order; not from pestilence, but from paralysis; not from starvation, but from luxury. Men like Savonarola are the witnesses to the tremendous psychological fact at the back of all our brains, but for which no name has ever been found, that ease is the worst enemy of happiness, and civilisation potentially the end of man. 

For I fancy that Savonarola’s thrilling challenge to the luxury of his day went far deeper than the mere question of sin…He was making war against no trivial human sins, but against godless and thankless quiescence, against getting used to happiness, the mystic sin by which all creation fell. He was preaching that severity which is the sign-manual of youth and hope. He was preaching that alertness, that clean agility and vigilance, which is as necessary to gain pleasure as to gain holiness, as indispensable in a lover as in a monk. A critic has truly pointed out that Savonarola could not have been fundamentally anti-aesthetic, since he had such friends as Michael Angelo, Botticelli, and Luca della Robbia. The fact is that this purification and austerity are even more necessary for the appreciation of life and laughter than for anything else. To let no bird fly past unnoticed, to spell patiently the stones and weeds, to have in the mind a storehouse of sunsets, requires a discipline in pleasure, and an education in gratitude. 

The civilisation which surrounded Savonarola on every side was a civilisation which had already taken the wrong turn, the turn that leads to endless inventions and no discoveries, in which new things grow old with confounding rapidity, but in which no old things ever grow new. The monstrosity of the crimes of the Renaissance was not a mark of imagination; it was a mark, as all monstrosity is, of the loss of imagination. It is only when a man has really ceased to see a horse as it is, that he invents a centaur, only when he can no longer be surprised at an ox, that he worships the devil…Savonarola addressed himself to the hardest of all earthly tasks, that of making men turn back and wonder at the simplicities they had learnt to ignore. It is strange that the most unpopular of all doctrines is the doctrine which declares the common life divine…Christianity, in Savonarola’s mind, identical with democracy, is the hardest of gospels; there is nothing that so strikes men with fear as the saying that they are all the sons of God. 

This essay was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Gilbert! magazine.