Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Something Else Besides Sincerity

Chris has recently had several posts on the subject of atheism (here, here, here, and here). The last of these in particular has a long comments thread; I really don't have much to say on it, except that atheists of the sort Chris is criticizing, who don't see any nuance in religion at all, need to step back a bit and read a few George Eliot novels, since they are clearly getting an unbalanced diet.

George Eliot certainly falls within the atheism of suspicion; being Feuerbachian, she's also an excellent appreciator of religious nuance. Moreover, she's an outstanding observer of human nature. I suggest that Chris and people like him can see themselves as George Eliot atheists, in the powerful intellectual tradition of Mary Anne Evans herself.

In any case, here's a quotation that I think Chris would really like. Some context is in order. The novel it's from is Romola, perhaps my favorite of Eliot's novels. Romola takes place in late fifteenth-century Florence, where the city is being torn apart by political parties. One of these is headed by Savonarola, a narrow, dogmatic Dominican. However, Eliot is a consummate novelist, and she doesn't leave the characterization of Savonarola at that. For Savonarola is not a villain; he is a good man. The main character, Romola, becomes a sort of student of his, and becoming so, her vista opens up on a level of moral action she had never before recognized. Even though both Florence and Romola's life are falling apart, she learns from Savonarola how to ignite "that flame of unselfish emotion by which a life of sadness might still be a life of active love." In Eliot's powerful image, she becomes a sort of Visible Madonna to complement, and contrast with, Florence's patron, the Unseen Madonna.

So Savonarola is a sort of hero. However, he is a man caught up in contradictions. He is a mystic, an apocalyptic visionary; but he is also a very pragmatic politician. Both are equally important parts of who he is, and for a while he is able to join them both. However, as he does it becomes harder and harder for him to distinguish between the Kingdom of God he preaches and the political party he leads. As long as he manages to keep them apart, he manages to rule Florence by grabbing hold of its spirit and showing it a new life. However, it would take a more superhuman strength than Savonarola has to keep the two distinguished, and slowly they begin to meld. This leads, among other things, to a break between Romola and Savonarola, as Romola goes on beyond Savonarola's religion into a morality of love. But, more relevant to the quotation, it leads to Savonarola's downfall. The Kingdom of God that Savonarola preaches is a kingdom that is supported by miracles; the political party he leads has its power from the will of the people. However, as the two begin to blur together, the people more and more wish to see Savonarola's politics supported by miracles, and he is challenged by fanatics opposing him to a literal Trial by Fire. If his political regime truly has divine favor, the people begin to think, he will walk through the fire and not be harmed.

We thus come up Savonarola in his cell, caught in the contradiction of being both prophet and politician. His prophetic side is certain that the Kingdom of God is supported by miracles; his pragmatic side, on which his political savvy is based, recognizes the folly of the trial; but his increasing inability to distinguish prophecy and politics, ideal and real, the Rule inspired by God and the rule inspired by Savonarola, puts him in a bind that can only end badly for him (and eventually does). This is from a long passage in Chapter 64, in which we find Savonarola struggling to decide what to do.

To the common run of mankind it has always seemed a proof of mental vigour to find moral questions easy, and judge conduct according to concise alternatives. And nothing was likely to seem plainer than that a man who at one time declared that God would not leave him without the guarantee of a miracle, and yet drew back when it was proposed to test his declaration, had said what he did not believe. Were not Fra Domenico and Fra Mariano, and scores of Piagnoni besides, ready to enter the fire? What was the cause of their superior courage, if it was not their superior faith? Savonarola could not have explained his conduct satisfactorily to his friends, even if he had been able to explain it thoroughly to himself. And he was not. Our naked feelings make haste to clothe themselves in propositions which lie at hand among our store of opinions, and to give a true account of what passes within us something else is necessary besides sincerity, even when sincerity is unmixed.

[Emphasis added.]

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