The Pope vs. the Friar: Dopamine Addiction in the Italian Renaissance

by Gary Strang on July 3, 2013

Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar who fought moral corruption in the clergy. On May 23, 1497, he was burned at the stake on the orders of Pope Alexander VI.

Florence during the Renaissance is a tale of two cities. One city was the birthplace of the early Renaissance, a center of rationality that spurred the resurgence of classical learning. From Da Vinci’s discoveries in anatomy and hydrodynamics to Galileo’s improvements on the telescope and championing of Copernican heliocentrism, Florence was a hotbed of empiricism and scientific innovation.

The other city was a nest of corruption, hate and moral decrepitude controlled by two groups of dopamine-addicted power elite. On one hand was the Catholic church. On the other was the Casa di Medici, the political and financial dynasty that ruled the city for three centuries. (The two factions could in fact be viewed as two sides of the same coin: The Medicis produced four popes.) The carrot and the stick — in the forms of bribery and violence — were primary tools for gaining and holding onto dopamine-pumping power. For Florentines living under the so-called “Godfathers of the Renaissance, the key to wealth and power was to be “amici degli amici.” It wasn’t about what you knew, but who you knew.

But in 1494, the power structure changed radically. After the invasion of Florence by Charles VIII of France, the Medicis were thrown out of Florence and control of the city went to a Domenican friar named Girolama Savonarola, a prophetic figure who was respected by the non-elites for his impassioned sermons on Christian virtue and moral fortitude.

Of course, Savonarola’s version of morality was awash in the dopamine-tainted tenets of the church. In 1497, his ideology led to the infamous “Falò delle vanità” (Italian for “Bonfire of the Vanities”), in which his supporters publicly burned books, art, musical instruments, cosmetics, playing cards, mirrors and other objects viewed as “sinful.”

For the humble acolytes of the Dominican order — and Florence’s poor class — this ascetic view was welcome. After all, it was Saint Dominic who famously replied to a colleague who asked why he sold all of his books, “Would you have me study off these dead skins, when men are dying of hunger?” However, Savonarola’s desire to expose corruption within the church made him an enemy out one very powerful super-addict, Pope Alexander VI. The pope is no mendicant. He lives like a king.

Just like other addictions, the addiction to dopamine covers a wide range of intensity and behavior. In the case of Savonarola v. Alexander VI, the judgment of both men was clouded by dopamine, but to different degrees. Alexander VI, obsessed with fulfilling the Maslowian deficit needs of esteem and peer approval to kind of degree required by a luxury-, praise- and power-hungry pope, was obviously more addicted to dopamine than Savonarola, a lowly friar who lived a life of austerity and prayer. And Alexander VI would do just about anything to maintain his denial-inducing dopamine-delivery system, a system based on simony, nepotism, bribery and murder. So he did what any fearful mob boss would do: He had his enemy killed by his henchmen. On May 23, 1497, Savonarola was hanged and burned to death.

But it makes sense that a pope would be more addicted to dopamine than a poor friar. A pope’s dopamine levels are always high, and they need to be replenished. His highly addicted brain can choose little else other than the route to more of the drug it so deeply craves. As Lord Acton famously noted in a 1887 letter, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The word “power” is easily substituted by the word “dopamine.” (Notably, Acton was writing to the noted scholar of Renaissance papacy Mandell Creighton, the Bishop of London, himself no stranger to dopamine’s boozy effects.)

It’s incredible how an addiction to dopamine — to feed esteem and peer approval D-needs — can distort many of the profoundly ethical values espoused by Biblical scripture. In the 1990 Brian de Palma film “Bonfire of the Vanities” (based on the Tom Wolfe novel of the same name, which itself took its name from Savonarola’s infamous book-burning), washed up New York writer Peter Fallow (played by Bruce Willis) quotes Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

image: Pope Alexander VI (left, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo) and Girolama Savonarola (by Fra Bartolomeo), Wikimedia Commons

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