CHESTERTON’S TAKE ON SAVONAROLA
BY DANIEL T. GOMES
One of the most acute commentaries on Savonarola is made by none other than G. K. Chesterton in his book, Twelve Types. Here the English author distinguishes the historical Savonarola from the moral Savonarola, ignoring the former and focusing almost exclusively on the latter. Chesterton praises Savonarola’s defense of morals and natural law in the face of hedonism and indifference. Acknowledging the complexity of such a personality as Savonarola, Chesterton supports the Dominican friar in his outrage against the overbearing decadence of Florence under the Medici family.
“He saw that the actual crimes were not the only evils: that stolen jewels and poisoned wine and obscene pictures were merely the symptoms; that the disease was the complete dependence upon jewels and wine and pictures. This is a thing constantly forgotten in judging of ascetics and Puritans in old times,” the author states concerning Savonarola’s rationale behind his actions. Chesterton goes on to expose the criminal nature behind much of the Renaissance’s fame, and points out that Savonarola was attempting to withhold the people of Florence from a fate of nonchalance and slavery to libertinism: “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. […] Few men understood his object; some called him a madman, some a charlatan, some an enemy of human joy. They would not even have understood if he had told them, if he had said that he was saving them from a calamity of contentment which should be the end of joys and sorrows alike.”
While never admitting so, Chesterton seems to imply that the righteous endeavor of the moral Savonarola justified the actions perpetrated by the historical Savonarola. Either way, the English author manages to present a judicious and timeless account of the friar’s motives in the face of unchecked dependence on pleasure and satisfaction. Indeed, it is hard to read Chesterton’s commentary without hearing the echoes of Renaissance’s negligent civilization, “a civilization 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.”