Five hundred twenty-five years ago today, ardent supporters of a Dominican religious leader, Giralmo Savonarola, in Florence, Italy, collected and burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, books, and more in a purge of secular influences intended to purify in preparation for Lent.
Ultimately, Savonarola came to rule the Italian city-state following the ouster of the Medici and ensured adherence to religious values as befit an ideal republic. His campaign was cloaked in reform of corrupt practices by the Church, Rome, and secular government. About 15 years later, with the cooperation of the papacy, the Medici were restored to power.
In a contemporary narrative, in 1987, Thomas Wolfe authored Bonfire of the Vanities, a satire about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City. It is a tale centering upon three main characters: the WASPish bond trader Sherman McCoy; the Jewish assistant district attorney, Larry Kramer; and a British expatriate journalist, Peter Fallow.
Satire is, of course, the fictional use of humor, irony, and/or exaggeration to highlight, expose, and criticize the inanity, and occasionally the insanity, of behavior, generally in politics or other public life. While Savonarola was an actual person engaged in outrageous conduct in a society, Wolfe’s trio were fictional, except that they represented the embodiment of public conduct by some individuals in the larger national society.
In today’s atmosphere, there are calls for book banning, establishment of a single religion for the United States, depictions of gun-toting politicians, deadly threats against public officials, armed militias conducting drills, juveniles consigned to incarceration for no crime, and mass shootings. The comparative difference is that our modern afflictions do not emanate from a single source but appear to be a signal of general social dysfunction.
It feels, however, as though the bonfires propagated by Savonarola have continued to smolder. While vanities, like religion, may not in and of themselves be dangerous – the true danger is unbridled worship that transforms them into means of social and political deconstruction. Nihilism, by definition, enlightens no one and threatens all.