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Savonarola himself called scholastic ‘divisions and arguments, irrelevant digressions and excessive citations’, instead preaching Apocalypse and the End of Days. As Lorenzo de’ Medici’s grip on power weakened in the face of papal hostility and the imminent invasion of King Charles VIII of France, Savonarola’s impassioned message that Florence might still represent the New Jerusalem if its citizens confronted their sins became irresistible. By 1494 he had positioned himself at the heart of Florentine politics, tacitly supporting the exile of the Medici, celebrating Charles VIII as a latter-day Cyrus liberating the city from tyranny, and deftly negotiating the creation of a new republic.
Weinstein’s absorbing narrative ultimately focuses on the extraordinary four years between 1494 and 1498, when Savonarola virtually ran Florence as a theocracy in which his ‘moral and political authority’ extended ‘into every part of the city’s life’. Weinstein provides a balanced assessment of his progressive initiatives – such as demanding the political right of appeal to those sentenced to death for challenging Medici rule – and his more draconian demands, capital punishment for sodomy being the most notorious. The more sensational accounts of episodes from Savonarola’s life, such as taking the deathbed confession of Lorenzo and encouraging the bonfire of the vanities, are calmly ascribed to PseudoBurlamacchi, Savonarola’s first hagiographer. Weinstein concentrates instead on the dizzying factional vicissitudes of Florentine political life and the friar’s remarkable ability to manipulate them – in which he was at least as successful as he was at swaying a congregation – before they finally began to turn on him in 1497.
Weinstein’s greatest contribution is his deft interpretation of Savonarola’s confession, extracted under torture over several agonising weeks throughout April andMay 1498. Observing how all previous academic interpretations ‘tend to confirm their authors’ biases’, either castigating Savonarola as a fraudulent prophet or praising him as a righteous believer whose confession was fabricated, Weinstein reaches a different conclusion. Savonarola’s confession maintained a clear distinction ‘between moral leadership and active political citizenship’; he refused to accept that he had unlawfully tampered with civic political life. The accusations of false prophecy were a different matter: ‘what he confessed was not the falsity of his prophecy but the falsity of his claim to divine illumination for it’. He regarded his torture and trial as punishment ‘by the God for whom he had presumptuously claimed to speak’. In a wonderfully humane and rather moving conclusion, Weinstein reflects that it is unhelpful to reduce Savonarola to the status of either a saint or a fanatical charlatan. The challenge instead is to reconcile ‘the irascible puritan at war with his world, the charismatic preacher who, as Machiavelli would have it, adapted “his lies” to the times’.
If Paul Oppenheimer appears to elide such complex resolutions by concluding that Machiavelli’s political vision is ultimately a ‘restlessness, or a constant modern uncertainty’, he could be forgiven, because it remains much more difficult to produce a genuinely innovative and original life of Machiavelli. The main problem is to integrate successfully Machiavelli’s career with the sheer diversity of his writings, from the political and historical works neglected in his own lifetime but which have been subsequently pored over by centuries of academics and politicians (The Prince and the Discourses on Livy), to the later, slighter, dramatic works (such as La Mandragola) which brought him public acclaim towards the end of his life. Oppenheimer’s response is to offer an intriguing if contentious thesis: the ‘treacherous milieu of social anarchy’ in which Machiavelli operated – a
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£10 uk (£12 elsewhere) inc. p&p email: firstname.lastname@example.org world of wars, riots, coups, assassinations, disease, religious fanaticism and random murder – was ‘an ideal if unusual laboratory in which to study politics in the raw, so to speak, or politics without ideology’. For Oppenheimer, Machiavelli’s greatest insight is that ‘the inevitability of treachery renders inevitable an invalidation of all ideologies’. It is a debatable argument, especially when Oppenheimer claims that comparable political thinkers such as Hobbes, Bodin, Danton and even Marx emerged from ‘stable’, ‘well-policed environments’ in contrast to the violent, murderous political world that shaped Machiavelli. Nor is it pursued convincingly through readings of his key works, which often come as terse supplements to the otherwise fluent and carefully researched history of Machiavelli’s career, from his rise to power under the new republic to his disgrace, torture and exile at the hands of the returning Medici.
In their own ways both Savonarola and Machiavelli longed for a ruler to unify their fragmented theological and political worlds. For Savonarola it was briefly Charles VIII, and for Machiavelli it was Cesare Borgia, the charismatic and ruthless condottiero who for a short while threatened to conquer northern Italy in a series of bloody military adventures between 1500 and 1502, episodes that provide Oppenheimer’s book with its most vivid and persuasive chapters. Ultimately neither could endorse any one individual – Savonarola for obvious religious reasons, and Machiavelli because of his enduring belief in the arbitrary power of fortuna, the great leveller of all political careers. Although both men could identify their historical conditions more clearly than their contemporaries, neither could offer an immediate way out of them, consumed as they were by what Oppenheimer calls the ‘macabre shadows of the age’. Savonarola and Machiavelli represent two of the greatest examples of Renaissance Men, artfully constructing their own individuality in the face of extraordinary theological and political turbulence, and both these books reveal the terrible personal cost suffered by them in exercising such individuality. To order these books, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39
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Star-Crossed Allies Reagan & Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship
By Richard Aldous (Hutchinson 384pp £25)
Seen in retrospect, the Reagan– Thatcher relationship does not seem a difficult one. They had natural affinities, and easily developed a warm friendship. But at the time it was not so simple. In many ways it was like Churchill’s encounters with Roosevelt – friendly, even affectionate at times, but masking important differences of interest between the two countries that threatened to come to the surface and had to be covered by skilful diplomacy. As Palmerston used to say, there was no such thing as permanent friendship between countries, merely permanent interests that vary from time to time.
Richard Aldous has taken advantage of the masses of material, on both sides of the Atlantic, which has come into the public domain since the 1980s, to construct a careful history of how the two got on. He has written a detailed and interesting book. It is by no means the last word on the subject, and suffers from not having access to the text of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, which will not be published until after her death. But it will do to be going on with.
The Anglo-American relationship is unbalanced in the sense that it is unequal. America is a much bigger and more powerful country. The disparity had become marked by the end of the Second World War, so that although we still spoke of the Big Three, of the UK, the USA and the USSR, it was in reality the Big Two, with Britain tagging along. In terms of military power, this gap between Britain and the two superpowers widened throughout the Cold War. Britain was easily the most important of America’s allies, as well as the most reliable. But it was not a partner in the full sense, and could not be. Britain wanted, and needed, more from America, especially in access to advanced weapons systems, than America wanted from Britain; Thatcher was always obliged to struggle to get what she felt was necessary. She was extremely good at bargaining, and did very well on the whole, but it was hard going.
Britain also needed to get the most it could from American protective cover, and this applied particularly to the Star Wars anti-missile defence. Here, Thatcher benefited from Reagan’s enormous attachment to the advanced weaponry of the system, which (so it seems to
Double act us now) went beyond the strictly rational. Reagan stood to the left of Thatcher on one important point. He actually believed in eliminating nuclear weapons completely, if he could get Soviet agreement. He believed that, in a non-nuclear world, America would be strong enough in conventional weapons to hold the peace. Thatcher knew that Britain could not do this. For her, nuclear weapons made up for Britain’s inability to afford the cost of conventional forces on a large scale. She therefore opposed nuclear disarmament unless it could take place within a general peace settlement with the Soviets on a scale that was unimaginable in the 1980s, or has been at any time since. There was the possibility that Britain and America might have drifted apart in a fundamental sense over this issue, and she was terrified of this happening. What she did was to appeal above Reagan’s head, in addressing both houses of Congress, where she was assured of right-wing Republican support. Even so, it was a near thing. Gorbachev was prepared to do a nuclear deal with Reagan, but only on one condition: that America would abandon Star Wars, which Gorbachev knew Russia could not afford to duplicate. Reagan could have had a deal, but he was too emotionally attached to Star Wars to clinch it, so the negotiations had to be abandoned at this point, and Thatcher was saved.
The moment has now passed, for global balance has altered radically since the 1980s; America and Russia are no longer powerful enough to impose a ban on nuclear weapons on the rest of the world. Were they ever? Britain certainly, and in all likelihood France, would have insisted on retaining a nuclear capability to keep themselves at the top table. Now there are the Asian nuclear powers, led by China, and there is not much chance of including China in a non-nuclear pact.
This is only one point on which Reagan and Thatcher had profound differences. Reagan was a little scared of her at times, as he privately admitted, and she was terrified of alienating him. In fact, they ended up getting on very well, and not only friendship but a genuine affection began to develop during the eight years that they worked together. Indeed it was a much closer relationship towards the end than anything between Churchill and Roosevelt, who were separated by colonialism, which FDR hated, and to which Churchill was deeply attached. By the time of the Reagan–Thatcher relationship that was all history, and only the Falklands crisis served as a reminder. They both got over this difficulty with aplomb. It was a measure of their friendship that, after Reagan retired, his successor, the elder Bush, found himself much happier with routine British politicians such as John Major. The age of the giants had passed, but it was good while it lasted. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39
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