"The great deceivers of the world begin by deceiving themselves," to quote Moliere's 'The Imaginary Invalid'. Convinced of his own fragility, the invalid persuades others of his persistent illnesses, not consciously and thus utterly convincingly.
I was reminded of this, finishing Linda Proud's wonderful Botticelli Trilogy, 'The Rebirth of Venus' her three novels tracing the rise and fall of the Medici and the impact of the New Learning on a rebirth of culture - most especially in philosophy and in art.
The third novel traces the fall of the Medici, the sundering of Ficino's restored Platonic Academy and the career of Savonarola.
Savonarola, the Dominican friar and a prophet of a purified Florence, Linda sees as a tragic figure. A man convinced, by self-deception, that God speaks to him, a man with a mission, himself pure in intention but not in insight, a fatally narrow vessel to hold any such vision and whose Godly intentions lead to disaster, not least because its executors, his companion friars, are less pure than he and that the wider situation he creates is open to the exploitation of darker forces than he can comprehend. It is so easy to paint him in the black and white of his Dominican habit but he is more complex than that neither a martyr of a Christian republic nor demagogic scourge. It is to Linda Proud's virtue (as it was to George Eliot in her great novel of Renaissance Italy, 'Romola') to grant Savonarola's his complexity.
Savonarola is a great reminder to me of an adage that my (Jesuit) professor of philosophy repeated often: that you cannot simply read out of the Bible a moral or political position. It needs to be anchored into a wider philosophical and practical conversation.
The book works as beautifully as novel, as introduction to the neo-Platonic philosophy that birthed humanism and as an exploration of its rippling effects on art, governance and our view of what is Man?
She defends it against both the narrowing doors of fundamentalism and the complacent cynicism of materialism, giving it, understandably a modern resonance.
The book, also, anchors itself in an assumption that a unifying culture is expressed best in the images it births forth. On that mark, there can be no doubt that the Renaissance was a testimony both to the importance of humanity, its divine origination, the importance of how that origination is uniquely gifted to each and every one of us; and, how the truth always leads us to beauty. Our unity in and with God calls forth singing - in sound and colour.
At the heart of the book is a call to recognise that it is here and now that the truth is realised and it comes in beholding the world aright. A great painting, such as Botticelli's 'The Rebirth of Venus' (seen above) is precisely so because it is a gift of that realisation, whatever else we may read out of its complex symbolism, the starting point is in the wonder of its beholding. It stills us towards contemplation, as all great art should.