In 1492, Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar warned of the terrible tribulations threatening to engulf Rome, the City of Popes. In one of his sermons, the friar thundered that he saw a hand appearing in the sky bearing a flaming sword with the engraved words, “Behold the sword of the Lord will sweep over the earth suddenly and soon.” His words referred to the activities of the notorious Borgia Pope, Alexander VI.
Fast forward over five centuries to the United Nations headquarters Climate Change summit in Manhattan, New York. Greta Gunberg, the teenage militant is on the podium. “The world had 420 gegatons of CO2 left to emit back on January 1st2018. Today, that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than eight and a half years”.
What they share is millenarianism, the notion that apocalypse beckons, that time for radical measures is short, and that half measures will not do. Corrupt rulers who persist in the errors of their ways must be swept aside. No price is too high, and the rewards go to the courageous, the pure in spirit and the bold.
There is, however a difference. They do not share the same concept of guilt.
Savonarola’s is steeped in the Christian tradition that since the Fall, all men and women, individually, are sinners in urgent need of redemption. Final pardon or punishment, dimly perceived by men, is delivered by God in the afterlife.
Gunberg’s concept of guilt is radically secular. Guilt is collective, and redemption,, pardon or punishment are delivered in this world, by other men and women- the Just, those who are qualified to adjudicate.
Of one thing, though, we can be fairly certain. Greta’s final day on this mortal coil is likely to be less dramatic that was Girolamo’s . Our friar called for a “bonfire of the vanities”. But Alexander had him excommunicated. The Pope’s emissary arrived in Florence hotfoot from Rome, and exclaimed “”We shall have a fine bonfire, for I have the sentence of condemnation with me.’ Girolamoendured torture, strangulation and burning, the last two as near as simultaneous as the executioner could risk.
Was he guilty, one may ask? Definitely, in the sense that he spoke truth to power without sensible precaution. As Niccolo Machiavelli, his contemporary, wrote in The Prince: “Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed—as happened in our own time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola.” To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, he spoke loudly with a small stick.
He was also guilty in the sense that he considered himself and all mankind to be born into sin. His was a radically egalitarian message, as is the Christian message. Christ, he believed with every fiber of his being, had come into this world to save sinners, like him, and by his death on the cross and resurrection, had provided hope that all who believed in the Risen Christ would be saved, and their sins forgiven. His last recorded words were “The Lord has suffered as much for me.’
Both Pope and friar subscribed to this worldview. Men and women, the Church teaches, are constantly tempted by the seven deadly sins: pride is paramount, followed by greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Our conscience, honed by religious practice, acts, in Cardinal Newman’s words, as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ in our soul”. It whispers, in a still, small voice, to us, don’t go there, and when we do, it tells us we are guilty, and must repent.
If the historians are to be believed, Pope Alexander went everywhere. Known as “il papa cattivo”, Alexander is said to have intrigued, murdered, accumulated, seduced, bribed, and much else. The young Farnese, already a priest, introduced his gorgeous sister, Giulia, to a grateful Pope, who awarded him with a Cardinal’s hat. There is even a portrait of Giulia Farnese in the features of Our Lady and in the same picture the face of Alexander adoring the Madonna.
A modern might be tempted to propose that we should not be “judgmental” about Alexander’s life experiences. That was definitely not Alexander’s view. At his funeral oration, Bishop Alexis Caledoni stated that the deceased “first made a very careful confession of his sins, with a contrite heart, and was affected even to the shedding of tears, I am told; then he received in Communion the most Sacred Body and Extreme Unction was administered to him.”
Greta Gunberg’s concept of guilt is a thousand miles from that of fifteenth century Italy. We face, she has said, “the most serious crisis that humanity has ever experienced. Our first task is to realise the challenge and do whatever it takes to halt CO2 emissions and try to save what we can”. It is not the afterlife she is worried about, but the here and now.
Nine months later in New York, Greta breathes a secular version of fire and brimstone not from a pulpit but from a UN podium. Her audience include assembled presidents and heads of government. “You have stolen my childhood, she tells them. You are failing us but young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. If you chose to fail us I say we will never forgive you”.
No forgiveness for the mess bequeathed, and penance at a high price, says Greta. “Our biosphere, she says, is sacrificed so that rich countries like (Sweden) may live in luxury, while the sufferings of the greatest number pay the price of the luxuries of the few”.
This is pure utilitarianism, the nineteenth century doctrine which states that policy be made to ensure that pleasures outweigh pains for the greatest number. Its fundamental axiom, as stated by its founder, Jeremy Bentham, holds that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. The best way to achieve that is a reforming government which lets free markets rip, and foregoes war. Any prescription said to be derived from God-given law must be binned.
Guilt and Benthamism are not happy bed-fellows. But Greta is not dismayed. She definitely belongs in the camp of militant progressives from the post-cold war, global left. They favour strong government, a globalized world economy regulated under supranational supervision, and a coercive Green Deal.
It is no exaggeration to point out that our Greta is fairly and squarely on the side of the globalists. So the first difference between Greta and Girolamo is that she is not naïve. Unlike Girolamo, she has powerful forces on her side. Her parents are well-connected; she has been backed by a well-heeled public relations firm; she has spoken at the World Economic Forum at Davos, to the French National Assembly, Westminster, and in New York. She holds an honorary doctorate and has been proposed for the Nobel peace prize. Machiavelli would approve.
Greta’s concept of guilt is also very different from Girolamo’s. Girolamo believed that guilt was part of the human condition. Greta considers herself to be justified, as could be expected from a Swedish progressive, still living in the afterglow of Scandinavian Lutheranism. She is justified by her faith in the righteousness of her cause. The sinners are the others, who jet around the world, rather than, as she does, riding to New York harbor in a racing yacht, Malizia II,.skippered by Pierre Casiraghi, the son of Princess Caroline of Monaco, and the German round-the-world sailor Boris Herrmann. Caroline and Boris shared in the adulation.
Over 500 years after Girolamo began to preach in Florence, the year that Columbus landed in the new world, marking the dawn of European global primacy, Greta’s message is a post modern statement of collective Western guilt at having created the mess the world is in.
Here she is:“ our biosphere is sacrificed so that rich countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the suffering of the greatest number (yes Jeremy, your words are embalmed, as is your body) who pay for the luxury of the few. And if the solutions cannot be found from within the system, then perhaps we must change the system itself”.
What is “the system”? It is competition. “You cheat as soon as you can because the only thing that matters is profits. We have to co-operate and share what remains from the planet’s resources in a just way”.
Greta, in short, has become overnight the high priestess of western fat cats. That shouldn’t be surprising. Her concept of guilt is secular, collective and inegalitarian. Unlike Girolamo, Greta is on the side of the powerful. But she is calling for revolution. That can’t last. She might contemplate Girolamo’s fate. As Machiavelli understood, the powerful feel no guilt in the defense of their privilege.