What Is It That Causes a Great Power Like the U.S. to Rot from Within?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Anibal Trejo
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FLORENCE — 2014 has barely dawned, and I'm standing in a cold, rainy evening at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, staring at the round plaque on the floor — ignored by the throngs of Chinese tourists — celebrating the hanging and burning of the monk Savonarola in May 23, 1498, accused of conspiring against the Florentine Republic.
Yet I'm thinking — how could I not — of Machiavelli. He was only 29 on that fateful day. He was standing only a few feet away from where I am. What was he thinking?
He had seen how Savonarola, a popular Dominican preacher, had been hailed as the savior of the republic. Savonarola rewrote the constitution to empower the lower middle class; talk about a risky (populist) move. He allied Florence with France. But he had no counterpunch when the pro-Spanish pope Alexander VI imposed harsh economic sanctions that badly hurt Florence's merchant class (a centuries-old anticipation of US sanctions on Iranian bazaaris).
Savonarola had also conducted the original bonfire of the vanities, whose flaming pyramid included wigs, pots of rouge, perfumes, books with poems by Ovid, Boccaccio and Petrarch, busts and paintings of "profane" subjects (even — horror of horrors — some by Botticelli), lutes, violas, flutes, sculptures of naked women, figures of Greek gods and on top of it all, a hideous effigy of Satan.
In the end, Florentines were fed up with Savonarola's hardcore puritan antics — and a murky papal Inquisition sentence sealed the deal. I could picture Machiavelli exhibiting his famous wry smile — as the bonfire had burned exactly one year before at the very same place where Savonarola was now in flames. The verdict: realpolitik had no place for a "democracy" directed by God. God, for that matter, didn't even care. It was only human nature that is able to condition which way the wind blows; towards freedom or towards servitude.
So this is what happened in that day at the Piazza della Signoria in 1498 — in the same year Lorenzo the Magnificent died and Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic on his third voyage to "discover" the New World; no less than the birth of Western political theory in the mind of young Niccolò.
Study Humanity, Young Man
Florence is the first modern state in the world, as Jacob Burckhardt makes it clear in his magisterial “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,” in awe about "the wondrous Florentine spirit, at once keenly critical and artistically creative.”
Florentines spent a long time weaving the proud, patriotic tradition of a self-governing republic; a very Aristotelian set up according to which "the end of the state is not mere life, it is rather a good quality of life.” Very cooperative, with everyone involved, completely different from Plato's Republic, whose rules were imposed from above.
At the dawn of the 15th century, Aristotle-reading Florentines eager to celebrate their civic and political freedom were busy on their way to carve — alongside their fabulous traditions of pictorial realism and fondness for classical architecture — no less than what became known as the Renaissance.
Why did Florence invent the Renaissance? Vasari's answer was as good as any: "The air of Florence making minds naturally free, and not content with mediocrity." It helped that education focused on the studia humanitatis — the "study of humanity" (on the way to oblivion now in the early 21st century), featuring history (to understand the greatness of ancient Greece and Rome); rhetoric; Greek and Roman literature (to improve eloquence); and moral philosophy, which boiled down to Aristotle's “Ethics.”