Science: In the Battle Between Faith and Reason


I recently was engaged in some interesting discussions about science and reason in tension with religious doctrine and faith, probably inspired by the publicity generated by the Catholic Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. As a social scientist cautioned by skepticism when it comes to scientific or spiritual truths, I easily agree with the quote by Simone Weil above.

For me, the discussion resonated with the major theme of my first book, The City of Man: A Trilogy, that explored the dramatic story of an epic battle waged in 15th century Italy between these very forces that marked the transition of the Age of Faith into the Age of Reason. The clash of ideas lent itself readily to personification through the historical characters of the fundamentalist preacher Girolamo Savonarola and the first political modernist Niccolo Machiavelli. Yet, their story is far more nuanced and complex than a simple progression of man’s reasoning intellect.

I have excerpted my Author’s Note from the book to reprint here.

Author’s Note

Girolamo Savonarola can hardly be considered an obscure figure in European history. Many people are readily familiar with his infamous Bonfire of the Vanities and have a vague understanding of his relation to the art and politics of his day. I have always been astounded, however, by the way in which this friar’s tale, set within its particular historical circumstances, so closely approximates the great myths and legends that transcend both time and place. To borrow the words of one scholar, the life of Savonarola in Florence approximates “the battle between good and evil, played out against a background of order and chaos, fought for the redemption of fallen and painfully self-conscious man.”[1] In this sense we may appreciate its universalism and relevance. My interpretation is presented along three important dimensions of historical literature: context, character, and theme.

Context: Most of us have a basic knowledge of the Italian Renaissance, primarily within the context of art history and the genius of such figures as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Standard reference texts characterize this remarkable cultural period as one in which new conceptions of the individual in relation to the universe contributed to a great flourishing of scholarly, literary, philosophical, scientific, and artistic achievement. This novel arose from my desire to comprehend the richness of the Renaissance and the causality of historical events. How did such a great flowering of human achievement come about? Was it a historical accident? An unfathomable mystery? Cultural or religious destiny? Plain dumb luck?

The most helpful view in understanding the conceptual framework for this novel is the classic one that characterizes the Renaissance as a transition, a bridge between the Middle Ages and the early modern world. It was a rapid period of change between the Age of Faith and the Enlightenment, brought forth by an upheaval of social, economic, and political institutions. Such periods of transition and change are not unique in history. We may look to the Age of Pericles in Athens, the Age of Rome under Julius Caesar, the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution, and our own technological information age for parallels ancient and modern.

History, of course, is littered with winners and losers and every remarkable period of human advancement has been accompanied by rather less appealing characteristics and events. The great flowering of ideas and creativity during the Renaissance occurred on a continent beset with low life expectancy and high death rates due to famine, plague, and frequent wars. Medical and sanitary conditions were abysmal and the Black Death still haunted the urban landscape. Great disparities in wealth, combined with the tyranny of ruthless despots and oligarchs, resulted in constant economic and political instability. The imperialist nations of France, Spain and the Ottoman Turks were in their initial phases of expansionary conquest. The Roman Catholic Church engaged in corrupt practices, such as selling indulgences, and the Popes themselves were hardly paragons of virtue with their large retinues of mistresses and bastard children. The entire European countryside was largely mired in poverty, brutalized by war and famine, and ruled by despots and superstitions.

The two sides of the Renaissance—its glory and brutality—bring many important issues into sharp relief. Periods of social and cultural upheaval have motivated mankind to ponder deeper philosophical and religious questions concerning the purpose and meaning of existence. As the Renaissance bridged two periods classified as the Ages of Faith and Reason, such questions were particularly momentous because of the immediate conflict between the worldviews that defined these two eras. Prior to the Renaissance, the West was gradually becoming aware of new ways of relating to the universe. In fathoming the mysteries of the unknown, the intellect, employing reason and scientific inquiry, seemed to hold more promise than the traditional touchstones of spiritual faith and superstition. God and the universe became centered in Man, and the experience of man became paramount for understanding the world. As coincidence would have it, self-serving church leaders ensured that Faith was being corrupted just as Science and Reason were emerging as powerful cornerstones of a new philosophical humanism. Existing structures of power were challenged by the new usurpers to that power and the ensuing clash was violent.

The highest ethical objective of the new philosophical humanism became the salvation of the soul through the earthly good of humanity and the perfectibility of man. Such a philosophy justified the mass accumulation of wealth and power—ostensibly for the ultimate glory of God—and represented a significant shift away from the church’s moral teachings of poverty, humility, and penance. The result was an explosion of new expression through art, poetry, architecture and philosophy that overwhelmed the piety and reverent morality of Christian doctrine. Savonarola was acutely aware of the conflict in which he was engaged as his program of reform was symbolically represented by the transformation of the sinful, earthly city of Man (Babylon or Rome) into the heavenly city of God (the “New Jerusalem”).

These issues remain sharply delineated in our own societal distinctions between Church and State. Whereas we, in the modern West, presume a separation between religious and secular institutions, the concept of a unified religious state has been widely pursued in both western and non-western societies. The most obvious recent example is the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist state, but one must also consider the Victorian Age of morality, Puritanism, and modern Christian fundamentalism. From the perspective of the dramatist, these philosophical positions are often manifested in the attitudes and characters of real persons. Girolamo Savonarola can be viewed as the last vestige of the medieval age of faith while Niccolo Machiavelli can be celebrated (or vilified) as the harbinger of a new, enlightened age of science and reason. In my interpretation of the Renaissance I explore these two archetypal historical characters in depth.

Character: The character of Savonarola is particularly intriguing within the aforementioned historical context. Here was an obscure, ascetic monk who rose to the height of power and influence in the richest and most sophisticated city of his day. Under Savonarola’s guidance, Florence developed new institutions of government, economic justice and religious charity. Evidence suggests that many of Florence’s cultural icons—Michelangelo, Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, to name only a few—were quite taken with the charismatic preacher’s message and became his devout followers. Ultimately, however, Savonarola became a victim to his own overreaching ambitions and emotional weaknesses. His story is a classic, earthly Greek tragedy. In posterity, Savonarola has been immortalized by history and his message has inspired religious reformers from Martin Luther to our present day.

Most modern characterizations of Savonarola appear to reflect a contemporary bias that finds horrifying any assault on the primacy of reason and scientific inquiry. Many studies portray him as a fanatic and a reactionary, a religious fundamentalist who resisted science and reason by burning books and art and condemning the enlightened views of his day. But if he were a madman, how are we to judge Michelangelo, Botticelli, Lorenzo de’Medici and thousands of other Florentines who were deeply impressed by him? Were they all mad as well?

Niccolo Machiavelli is another figure who holds a significant place in our cultural imagination and, like Savonarola, is in some need of reevaluation. Like Marx and ‘Marxist’, Machiavelli and ‘Machiavellian’ suffer a strained, uneasy relationship warped by time. Machiavelli was blessed with an analytical mind and is often cited as the first political scientist. He studied the human drive for power and sought to devise a strategy to harness that drive to the greater good. His reputation, however, has been hijacked throughout history in the service of those who pursue power as the means to any ends. In this he is certainly misunderstood—perhaps not wrongly, but surely not fully.

We have no writings and little knowledge of Machiavelli that predate a letter he wrote near the end of the Savonarolan episode. We can conjecture that many of Machiavelli’s early ideas derived from his experiences in Florence in the 1490s at which time he was a young man in his twenties. I have tried to employ his eyes to view the Savonarolan phenomenon from a modern perspective. I use Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Discourses and History of Florence from which to extrapolate back to those youthful experiences when he must have struggled to make sense of a rapidly changing world. In my interpretation Machiavelli seeks to impose order and restrain chaos by the most efficient means he can imagine. In this respect he is no different from Savonarola, who seeks the same through faith in God.

Theme: The Age of Reason that commenced more than five hundred years ago is the age in which we still reside. In this age, the immense and vast capability of man and his intellect is expected to solve all puzzles and answer all questions that plague existence. From such a perspective, Savonarola is inevitably dismissed as a reactionary who resisted a new world that he could not understand. But perhaps he understood it all too well. At the turn of the twenty-first century we have discovered that science overpromises, at least in the sense of immediate gratification, and that we need to recognize the limits imposed on reason. For Savonarola, the salvation of the soul was paramount, but certainly not to the exclusion of the development of the mind. The preacher was a man of considerable intellectual talents and was an avid proponent of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (and, by implication, Aristotle) on the reconciliation of philosophy and Christian theology. The conflicts and tensions within the heart and mind of this one individual cannot be dismissed by caricaturing him as a zealot.

The story of Savonarola and Machiavelli is, above all, a story of the conflicts within the human spirit—what we might refer to as the soul of mankind. As the human soul is a prisoner of the body, the struggle of mankind, like that of Savonarola, is the struggle to free the soul from the body, or the flesh. The material world imposes itself on our sense of the spiritual world of the soul and, indeed, to reconcile the demands of the material with the needs of the spiritual has been the struggle of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. This struggle has profound dimensions, such as the search for a higher being or the experience of love, and also mundane ones, such as how to function within the world of industrial employment in order to secure a living. A long literary tradition addresses this struggle and includes works by such renowned and celebrated authors as Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Hugo, Kafka, Kazantzakis, Mann, Conrad, Camus, and Kundera.

I believe this eternal struggle of the soul is why the life of Girolamo Savonarola is so compelling. Today, more than five hundred years after his death, his story seems as relevant as ever to the universals of human experience. More Ancient Greek than modern Western hero, Savonarola is a man of shining virtues and tragic flaws, and in this he is all too human.

Through the struggle of the friar and the observations of Machiavelli, this novel also examines the question of mankind’s capacity for both extreme good and evil. The Florentines glorified Savonarola, and ultimately crucified him when he became an inconvenience. The guilt of this contradiction lives on today as humble citizens honor him with the memorial marking the site of his hanging and burning on May 23, 1498 in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. (Every May 23 flowers appear in the morning to cover the brass plaque in the Piazza.) The trials of history reveal that the barbarism of men extends well into our own time. Our collective experience defies our faith in both God and reason to fathom the depths of the human heart and soul. And this is, perhaps, how it should be. We are, and will remain, a mystery.

In addressing “The Modern Spiritual Problem,” Carl Jung captures the dilemma from the perspective of the psychoanalyst:

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare and humaneness. But it takes more than an ordinary dose of optimism to make it appear that these ideals are still unshaken. Material security, even, has gone by the board, for the modern man begins to see that every step in material progress adds just so much force to the threat of a more stupendous catastrophe. The very picture terrorizes the imagination. What are we to imagine when cities today perfect measures of defense against poison-gas attacks, and practice them in “dress rehearsals”? We cannot but suppose that such attacks have been planned and provided for—again on the principle ‘in time of peace prepare for war.’ Let man accumulate his materials of destruction and the devil within him will soon be unable to resist putting them to their fated use.

…if [modern man] turns away from the terrifying prospect of a blind world in which building and destroying successively tip the scale, and if he then turns his gaze inward upon the recesses of his own mind, he will discover a chaos and darkness there which he would gladly ignore. Science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.[2]

Jung, writing in the 1930s before the conflagration of the Second World War, was eerily prescient of future experiences with terrorism and genocide. The evidence continues to accumulate that mankind is both good and evil, light and dark. One particular hypothesis explored in this book is that change, which we often label progress, can have corrupting influences on society, well apart from its positive effects. When it is the harbinger of chaos and crisis, change incites fear and lays bare the most base and cruel of human instincts. Only by understanding this dimension of ourselves, either consciously or intuitively, can we hope to resist the temptation to evil. Faith, whether it is in God or science, fellow man or self, is the only antidote to fear. Faith props up efforts to reestablish order and maintain control of human destiny. Savonarola put his faith in God and the Bible while Machiavelli put his in Cicero, the Republic and Realpolitik.

Background texts:

To tease out the thematic elements of the story, I have drawn heavily upon three principal texts: the Bible, Augustine’s City of God, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, was the primary reference from which Savonarola drew his sermons and developed his prophesies. His particular gift was to draw parallels between the Old Testament and events of his day and in so doing, reiterate the teachings of the Gospels. His intellectual sources for the ideal organization of earthly society, along religious guidelines, were Augustine and Aquinas. Savonarola liberally used the Old Testament and Augustine’s City of God to delineate a clear moral distinction between the earthly and heavenly cities. He employed Aquinas’ writings on politics for practical implementation. His mission was to transform the earthly city of Florence into the heavenly City of God.

Dante’s The Divine Comedy can be viewed as a mythical, Christian text delivered from a more secular, historical perspective. Dante’s pilgrim takes us on a journey that first plunges into the depths of sin in Hell, finds redemption in Purgatory, and ultimately ascends to salvation in Heaven. On this journey Dante takes us through the Florence and Italy of his day, exposing the factionalism, conflict, and corruption that impedes the good and the just. In so doing he, much like Savonarola, provided a framework for common Florentine citizens to comprehend their everyday world. Dante is Florence’s most famous son and all Florentines were intimately familiar with his verse. Furthermore, his three-stage pilgrimage through condemnation, redemption, and salvation parallels Savonarola’s own brief journey across Florence’s stage.

This interpretation of the events of Savonarola’s life is uniquely my own and is intended to adhere closely to the historical record of Renaissance Florence, and to the words attributed to Savonarola, Machiavelli, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Pope Alexander VI and others. (The only purely fictional character is Chiara Corbinelli and those created by her circumstances, such as the Prioress. The relationships between Tommaso Soderini and Machiavelli, as well as those between Tommaso and the Compagnacci are inferred from historical evidence, but there is no indication that Tommaso and Niccolo were close friends. I have assumed they were because they were neighbors, close in age, and because a close mentor relationship did exist between Niccolo and Piero Soderini, Tommaso’s uncle.) Certain plot elements have been created to tie the characters together but do not, to the best of my historical research, contradict any historical evidence. The historical background is gleaned from the professional research of respected scholars and historians. Artistic license, though kept to a minimum, and mistakes, hopefully minimized as well, are my sole responsibility.

The Renaissance city of Florence was a moment of promise—a promise of the mind, body, and spirit of man; a sensual awakening, the puberty of modern civilization; the birth of l’uomo universale; the blossoming of intellectual discipline and humanistic interpretation. We have embraced its ideals and continue to uphold the myth. But we should always question how well it serves us and never forget that every man is modern to his times.

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief.

[2] Carl G. Jung, from “The Modern Spiritual Problem,” in Modern Man in Search of a Soul [p. 204].