Apocalypse and Guilt: Why Savonarola and Greta differ.

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.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) (www.chinauncovered.net) His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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4 Responses to Apocalypse and Guilt: Why Savonarola and Greta differ.

  1. Harold Carter says:

    Not sure this is right. She speaks (some) of the language of utilitarianism but the problem with that concept has always been how to define “greatest good”. One way to decide on what is “good” is to aggregate individual preferences; but evidently those might lead (in the present example) to a tragedy of the global commons as Chinese and Indian consumers rush to catch up with the west. Thus for environmentalists a second concept always has to be substituted; that of a a “good” knowable only to the informed and educated. Since however that knowledge of what is truly good may lead to decisions directly antithetic to popular preferences, there needs to be a set of principles that justifies some views being imposed on others. These principles may not be religious but they can look and feel very like the attitudes of previous generations for whom God was the justification; and can lead to similar divisions of humanity into those judged virtuous and those judged heretical. So it seems to me that what we are entering is an age of a new (albeit pantheistic) religiosity, with large helpings of guilt and shame and a need for repentance and penance. Depressingly however the new religion is Calvinist – in the sense that all are irredeemably sinful and no amount of individual contrition can absolve our collective guilt.


  2. Thanks for the comment. Bentham thinks that “greatest good” can be measured via his felicific calculus. Imagine how tedious that would be, even for an individual like Boris, to calculate prior to hopping into bed with his latest mistress, the distribution of pleasures and pains to both partners. It would make for a nightmare of indecision. Of course this may be beneficial, and point in the end to a Buddha like stillness-the real answer to humanity’s tussle with nature. Bentham’s definition, the greatest good is what makes the greatest number happy, is an outrageous measure of morality. Imagine what can make the greatest number happy.
    I would say that the modern world is by definition polytheist. That should promote tolerance, and living with difference, on a J.S. Mills condition of no harm done to others. But J.S. Mills has little to say about the crusading spirit, other than deplore it.
    About Greta, in this piece, I don’t take her Climate Change theory to task, only to point out that it stands in the long tradition of millenarianism.
    all the best


  3. Graham Lean says:

    Thanks for this interesting approach. The saintly Greta is very much a product of the early 21st century, a naive ideologue who has been indoctrinated and promoted by those with extreme political views. She reflects the increasingly shrill and divisive chamber that social media has become and the divisiveness that it encourages. The system and all who espouse it are evil, so the system must be swept away. No room for tolerance or diversity of opinion. Sounds like another insane utopian fantasy that the last century was so scarred by, and which Dostoevsky so ominously predicted.


  4. Many thanks for the comment. Social media is indeed a shrill chamber. How long will it last? You are right to suggest that it seeks to impose uniformity by bullying. To be effective, it would have to become a monopoly. Very difficult to achieve.


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