Fra Paolo Sarpi: Venice’s Secret Atheist?
To his contemporaries, he was an astronomer to equal Galileo. To Galileo, he was the greatest mathematician of his age. To William Harvey, he was the world’s foremost expert on blood circulation. To William Gilbert, its greatest authority on magnetism. And to the Pope, he was a statesman and theologian so gifted and dangerous, that the only way to overcome him was via a string of stiletto-wielding assassins. In short, no matter what you did during the late 16th century, and no matter how brilliant you were at it, Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623) was the idol whose accomplishments you aspired to be worthy of.
And yet, until recently, he was known primarily as the author of a definitive history of The Council of Trent, his scientific work forgotten, his anti-Papal statesmanship effectively buried by the Catholic Church, and his philosophical program all but obliterated. Then in 1983 historian David Wootton made a rather spectacular claim: Paolo Sarpi, the most holy friar of Venice, secretly did not believe in God, and was in fact Europe’s first atheist in the modern sense of the word.
The greatest mind of his age and the first atheist? It is a story seemingly too perfectly contrived to be true, and it was taken that way by most Venetian scholars when Wootton published his book. They claimed that, though radically anti-Papal, and a regular correspondent of the most heretical thinkers of his time, nonetheless he was a thorough-going, faith-based Christian of the early church fathers variety.
So, which is it? Unconventional Christian or secret atheist?
His life was divided into three stages: that of the theological prodigy, the scientist-scholar, and the statesman. His gift for scholarship and debate was recognized early. He possessed a photographic memory paired with an uncompromising sense of intellectual rigor that brooked no theological frippery. As a teenager, he entered the Servite order of friars, and soon became their intellectual superstar, paraded at public disputations as an unconquerable prodigy. He gained a reputation for unequalled canonical and historical insight, and was soon brought to Mantua (where Isabella d’Este had ruled but a handful of decades previously) as a court adviser, in which capacity his political advise was frequently sought and invariably sound.
Mantuan court life, however, didn’t fully agree with him. It took up time that could have been devoted to study, and the Gonzaga currently ruling was prone to elaborate practical jokes. One of these involved Sarpi as an integral player. A donkey was born, and Gonzaga had Sarpi compile all the astrological data surrounding the birth to send to the most famous astrologers of the day, who returned verdicts that the newborn would, undoubtedly, attain the rank of prince, or perhaps even Pope (and, as future events would show, the Catholic Church would have come off little the worse had that donkey attained the pontificate instead of Paul V, but we’ll come to that soon enough).
Returning to his life of study, he authored a series of definitive scientific treatises while at the same time ascending in responsibility in the Servite order, taking the lead in their theological battles with the scheming Jesuits. His scientific work included fundamental insights into optics, anatomy, magnetism, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, and engineering. In fact, his reputation in this last field was so great that inventors from all over Europe would bring him their devices for evaluation. Without being told, he could discern at a glance what the proposed device was for, and how it might be mechanically improved.
A genius, surely, and a man of unrivalled renown for personal piety, but was there a great secret beneath the mask of doctrinal conformity? For it was around the time of his early scientific work that he jotted down the private notes that have come to us as the Pensieri, and which Wootton used as the basis for his claim of Sarpi’s fundamental atheism. In these notes, Sarpi took the observations of Averroes as to the practical crowd-control nature of religion, and Pietro Pomponazzi on the non-existence of personal immortality several steps further.
Not only is the soul not immortal, and most religions the product of societal conditioning, but God himself is little more than a social construct built out of the psychological vices of men. Sarpi sees humans as yearning intemperately after the impossible, mourning the limitations on their power and life span, and assuaging those limitations in fantasies of absolute power, in deity-crafting. This, Sarpi explains, is the real reason behind the inconsistency of even our most carefully crafted gods, why they are presented as simultaneously Beyond Emotion and Ragingly Jealous, as Unchanging but somehow Touched By Prayer. The incoherency of our gods is the trail of our own warring fantastical –appetites—they don’t make sense because we, as a mass, don’t tend to make sense.
At best, then, religion is a “medicine” to be administered to those too sick to deal with life as it is, but for those of a strong mental constitution, it is unnecessary and even harmful to their moral and intellectual development. The true philosopher, then, must seek contentment in the things of the day, pay lip service to the beliefs of the masses, and in private pursue his own moderate pleasures, realizing his finiteness and never attempting to push beyond his natural, material boundaries.
In spite of the striking originality and daring of these ideas, there are those who consider them either thought experiments, not seriously meant, or notions that reflect on the role of reason in religion which do not touch Sarpi’s supposed vaunting of faith. Sarpi’s extensive work as a commentator and defender of religion, and his exemplary and humble life as a friar do indeed make for a potent counter-balance to the Pensieri, but their role is, I think, somewhat weakened by the fact that Sarpi wrote an entire text on how to act one way while believing something entirely separate.
Whether an atheist or not, the last phase of Sarpi’s career dealt such a fundamental blow to one of Catholicism’s most potent weapons that on its strength alone, Sarpi deserves the thanks of humanity in general and humanists in particular. For the Pope had grown hungry to undo the historical independence of the Venetian Republic, and chose as his entry point the property laws of Venice. The Church had, through bequeathals, become the major landowner in Venetia, never surrendering property once acquired, and since that Church land was untaxed, the end result was that the Church got richer while the remaining landowners and workers bore ever higher tax burdens. Sensibly, Venice passed a law that forbid the Church to hold any more bequeathed territory. This hit the papal pocketbook, and the Pope responded in a fury in 1606, imposing interdiction and excommunication on all of Venetia until the law was reversed.
At this moment, Venice turned to Paolo Sarpi. Seven times, Venice had been interdicted, and every time it had folded to papal might. Understandably –so—the interdict and excommunication of a territory effectively dissolved all social bonds. Sons needed not respect parents. Spouses were no longer considered married. Subjects weren’t required obey rulers. No church ceremonies could be performed, and all residents were declared beyond the grace of Christ. It was a big deal, and when the Pope used these weapons, he nearly always got his way.
But then, the Pope had never faced a man like Sarpi. Sarpi’s advice was bold and simple—to carry on the business of state and society as if nothing had happened. In effect, to ignore the Papal interdiction completely, and to compel any priests who complied with it to re-open their churches and continue their work under the threat of legal punishment. The nation, which the Pope expected to be awash in chaos and revolution, effectively returned to its business, suffering no obvious harm from this, the Pope’s greatest weapon.
Pope Paul V was livid. It was bad enough that all of Venetia was ignoring his sacred condemnation, but their cause was becoming that of Europe, the papacy itself looking more ridiculous with each passing day that the excommunication and interdiction did precisely nothing to alter the prosperous course of Venetian life. Weeks passed, and the Pope’s cause was abandoned by all but, of course, Spain. When reconciliation was finally effected, it was entirely to Venice’s credit, the Pope lifting his Dread Weapons while Venice offered effectively nothing in return, admitting of no wrong, and changing no law. Sarpi’s bold move had effectively destroyed the Pope’s greatest secular threat. It would never be used against a sovereign territory again.
The Pope and Venice had been reconciled, if begrudgingly, leaving Paul V to work out his frustration on ever more bloody plans to do away with his nemesis, Paolo Sarpi. When attempts to bribe the officials of Venice into surrendering Sarpi to the Pope failed, he hired gangs of assassins to permanently solve the Sarpi problem. The first group was apprehended, but a second squad of five men succeeded in accosting Sarpi on the way to his monastery, stabbing him twice in the neck, and one final time through the temple, the blade emerging through his cheek and lodging in the bone of his skull.
But a simple stiletto through the skull wasn’t enough to take Fra Paolo down. Within weeks, he was back on the streets, his scars a source of pride to Venetians who considered him the walking instantiation of their invulnerability. Though the Pope wouldn’t stop sending hit squads to Venice, all of those that followed were discovered and dealt with long before they threatened Venice’s favorite citizen.
For the rest of his life, Sarpi produced a steady stream of political tracts dealing with the secular usurpation of power by the religious authorities, railing against the legal immunity of priests, the use of criminals and prostitutes to line the Church coffers, and, in his greatest and most famous work, the History of the Council of Trent, he crafted a timeless and detailed exposé of the shady papal vote-packing that turned Catholicism sharply away from its one chance at honest and significant internal reform.
Sarpi died quietly and peacefully in 1623 after an extended bout of fever, dictating sage political advice to the very end. His replacements at the helm of Venetian statesmanship lacked both his courage and imagination, and within a year, the once fiercely independent nation was scrambling pathetically for the Pope’s favor, even neglecting to erect a nameplate over Sarpi’s grave, lest the act incur the papal wrath. Sarpi was finally publicly recognized with a statue in his honor erected in 1892, a late but poignant thanks from the city he loved, honored, and protected to the last.
There are two essential books in English for grasping the significance and complexity of Sarpi’s life and thought. The first, Fra Paolo Sarpi: Greatest of the Venetians, was written by Alexander Robinson in 1894 and, though something of an unrestrained rave, in Sarpi’s case the hyperbole is warranted. For him, Sarpi is the ultimate combination of modesty and brilliance, resolution and humanity, one of history’s few nearly perfect people, whose Christianity ran deep in an era of religious superficiality and profiteering. A century later, David Wootton’s Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment (1983), attempted to rewrite everything we thought we knew about Sarpi, and via an analysis of the Pensieri and a study of Sarpi’s intellectual influences, largely succeeds. Robinson’s is by far the superior book in terms of style and depth, but contains nothing of Sarpi’s radical philosophy, so if that’s your primary interest, flagging down a used copy of Wootton is pretty much your only option.