The War of the League of Cambrai, Paolo Sarpi and John Locke

Against Oligarchy
Webster G. Tarpley, Ph.D.
From ICLC Conference panel titled: “The Axioms of the American System,” Feb. 18, 1996; appeared in New Federalist, March 18, 1996

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Every person, whether he knows it or not, is a philosopher. Each of us necessarily develops a theory of how the world works. This theory is expressed as a set of axioms. The axioms are self-evident ideas that are recognized and accepted by everybody in sight. The axioms define human nature, the content of history, the workings of economics, the purpose of government, the goals of life. Today’s American population operates according to axioms which are false, oligarchical – and suicidal. A dictatorship or a monarchy can get by with slaves or subjects, but a republic demands educated and capable citizens. Without citizens, a republic cannot survive. The most dangerous force in American life today is public opinion itself. In today’s crisis, public opinion rejects out of hand all the urgent measures needed to promote national survival. This public opinion is stupefied by television and spectator sports and crassly manipulated by the news media. This depraved public opinion reflects not so much the admitted failure of political leadership as the degradation of the intellectual life of the average citizen. In the face of this kind of public opinion, world civilization as we have known it cannot long survive.

Is there a remedy? It must be to uncover the false axioms, uproot them, and replace them with the truth. History and philosophy are two powerful weapons in this fight against false axioms. The crisis of the citizen needs to be seen in a long historical perspective – we need to look at the five hundred years since the Italian Renaissance opened the modern era.

Before the Renaissance started about 1400, there was a discouraging sameness in most known forms of human society. Some were better, some were worse, but they were generally two-class systems: ruling elite and mass. The mass made up 95% of the population. They were peasants, serfs, and slaves, almost always laboring on the land, almost always illiterate and benighted. Their lives were nasty, brutish, and short. Over these peasants and serfs commanded a feudal aristocracy. Monarchy is bad enough, but most of the pre-Renaissance societies were something worse: they were small ruling classes called oligarchies. The aristocrats had military retainers, priests, scribes, and lackeys, making up at most 5% of the population. Under these conditions, world population potential was measured in the hundreds of millions, and even these were decimated by frequent plagues and famines.

Now and then a good ruler might appear, and did appear, along with excellent philosophers and scientists. But the oligarchy was always present, waiting to drag the society down again. Usury, constant warfare, slavery, racism, Aristotelian philosophy – these are the trademarks of oligarchy. Oligarchs come in many forms: the Roman senate, the barons of the dark ages, the Russian boyars, east European magnates, the French frondeurs, the princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Most of these feudal aristocrats were very ignorant, brutal, and crude. The medieval feudal aristocrats were easily manipulated by the Venetians, who had inherited the methods of Babylon, Rome, and Byzantium. From about 1000 AD until about 1600, the leading center of oligarchy in Europe and nearby Asia was Venice.

The first sustained breakout from this 2-class model came with the movement starting with Dante and Petrarch and culminating in Cusanus, Leonardo, and the Italian Renaissance of the 1400’s. The high point of the early Renaissance was the Council of Florence in 1439, convened under the sponsorship of the Medici rulers of Florence. In addition to briefly re-uniting the Christian world, this council embraced the theology of the filioque. In political terms filioque meant that each and every human being is made in the image of God, similar to God, by virtue of possessing God-like qualities of intellectual creativity in the form of a human soul. Therefore the dignity of the human person had to be respected. The human mind was capable of scientific discovery, and also capable of creating the modern nation-state.

The impulse from the Council of Florence reached around the world with Columbus and the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, the Medici envoy who gave his name to the new continents of the Americas. The same impulse of human progress reached into France, where King Louis XI used Florentine methods to create the first modern national state. This was a matter first of all of breaking the power of the turbulent feudal aristocracy. This was done with taxation, which also financed the beginnings of the modern administration. Louis XI had a social base in the commercial and manufacturing classes of the cities and towns – the origins of the modern middle class. As King between 1461 and 1483, Louis promoted industry and commerce, protected the rights of labor, enacted public health statutes, built infrastructure, drained swamps, and built up a national army. The population and prosperity of France increased accordingly. France was the first nation to reach the take-off point into the modern age.

French military power also grew. This was soon noticed by the new Tudor regime in England, as well as by the rulers of Spain. It was clear that the future belonged to the larger nation-states that were smart enough to imitate the methods of Louis XI. If the Louis XI model were to prevail everywhere, there was the hope that the oligarchs as a class might be crushed. The momentum of the Renaissance art, science, and statecraft might overwhelm all resistance and become unstoppable.

The Venetians, who had been waging their own war against Florence and the other Italian Renaissance states for a century, studied events in France carefully. Venice was essentially a city-state with an inland empire in northern Italy and a marine empire in the Mediterranean. At first the Venetians thought they could survive as a great power by playing off the new nation-states one against the other. As soon as Louis XI was dead, the Venetians invited his unworthy and inferior heir Charles VIII to conquer Milan. The French conquered Naples, Florence, and Milan, but their presence also drew in the forces of Spain. It was a time of rapidly shifting alliances. Before long, the main powers had all been antagonized by Venetian perfidy and geopolitics. For the Venetians had been filching territory on all sides, grabbing for every fly that flew by them.

What followed was the War of the League of Cambrai, the great world war that marked the opening of the modern era. If Venice had been destroyed in this war, the European oligarchy would have been deprived of its command center and is likely to have perished. Without Venice, we would have been spared the wars of religion, including the Thirty Years’ War; we would have been spared the British Empire and most of its wars, including the American Civil War and the two world wars of this century. The same goes for most of the depressions and economic crises of these years.

At the heart of the League of Cambrai was the joint commitment in 1508 by King Louis XII of France and Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, to divide the territory of Venice between them. The King of Spain joined in because he wanted to take Venetian possessions in southern Italy. A little later Pope Julius II della Rovere also joined the League. Julius II della Rovere was a professional soldier and an oligarch. He was called the papa terribile; his portrayal by Rex Harrison in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy is much too kind.

But now the Venetians, the masters of geopolitics and encirclement, were faced in 1509 by a league of virtually all the European states with the exception of Hungary and England. In Venice, the Council of Ten assumed emergency powers. The program of the League of Cambrai was to expropriate all Venetian territory except for the city itself in its lagoon. By this time Venetian wealth derived more from its land possessions than from its ocean trade, so a loss of the land empire, or terrafirma, would have been a fatal blow. Among the French there were those who wanted to go further: the French general Bayard, whose courage is proverbial in France until this day, proclaimed his desire to destroy the Venetian oligarchy because of their opulent contempt for God and Christendom.

In the spring of 1509, a French army of 20,000 soldiers left Milan and crossed the Adda River into Venetian territory. On May 14, 1509 this French force met and destroyed an evenly matched Venetian mercenary army. The Venetians gave up Verona, Bergamo, Brescia, Vicenza, and even Padova, retreating into the natural fortress of their lagoons. The entire Venetian land empire had been lost in a single day. In one battle, Venice had dropped off the list of European great powers. The Venetians called it a “second Cannae.” The Florentine secretary Machiavelli exulted that in one day the Venetians had lost the fruits of 800 years of aggression. The Venetians were able to retake Padova, but had to defend it against the German Emperor and 100,000 troops. The modern era had indeed begun.

Only twice before had the Venetians been in such dire straits. They had been besieged in the lagoons in 810 AD by King Pepin of France, the heir of Charlemagne, and again by the Genoese during the war of Chioggia in 1379.

To multiply the catastrophe, a few months before, the Venetians had received news of the naval battle of Diu in which an Egyptian fleet supported by Indian princes had been wiped out by the Portuguese navy. The old Venetian monopoly in the spice trade with the east was now a dead duck.

At first the Venetians, now under siege in their lagoons, were totally isolated. Then it turned out that they did have a friend: the new King of England, Henry VIII. Advised by Cardinal Woolsey and the Cecils, Henry VIII urged Pope Julius to betray the League of Cambrai, and ally with Venice. When Julius first found that Henry VIII was supporting Venice, he was furious. Julius told the English ambassador: “You Englishmen are all scoundrels.” But soon it was clear that Julius was not so far from Henry’s position. Henry also offered the Venetians a loan, and signed a friendship treaty with them.

Julius II della Rovere now switched sides, and by February, 1510 Julius was the ally of Venice in exchange for territorial cessions and some bribes. In the summer of 1510 the French and Imperial forces reached the lagoons a second time, but their flank was attacked by Julius, and Venice was preserved. Julius II must bear the historical responsibility of permitting the survival of Venice and thus of oligarchy into the modern world.

1511 brought a third Franco-Imperial offensive, which once again reached the shores of the lagoons. Now Spain followed Julius and joined the Venetian-Papal alliance against France and the Empire. Henry VIII also joined this Holy League as a pretext for attacking France.

In the spring of 1512 came a new shift: the Emperor Maximilian decided to join Venice, the Pope, and Spain against the French. The Venetians took advantage of this, re-occupying their battered land empire for the third time.

In February, 1513 Julius II della Rovere, who had made possible the survival of oligarchy into the modern world, finally died. About a month later the Venetians, desperately maneuvering to avoid being despoiled by their nominal allies, sealed an alliance with France. Venice now faced the attacks of the Spanish general Cardona. From the top of their bell towers the Venetians watched as the Spaniards burned the towns along the edge of the lagoon, and fired their cannon toward the city itself. Venice was on the verge of perdition for the fourth time, but Cardona had to retreat.

The war dragged on through 1514. In September, 1515 the French and the Venetians finally won the key battle of Marignano. After that only Verona remained in the hands of the German Imperial forces, and Venice and the Emperor Maximilian finally signed a peace in 1517. In the same year of 1517, a desperate Venetian wartime operation masterminded by Gasparo Contarini bore fruit when Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral. From this point on, religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Germany and elsewhere would begin to relieve the immediate pressure on Venice. Venice was 5 million ducats in debt. For 8 years Venice had been devastated by the endless maneuvers of huge armies. Only the wars of religion, reformation and counter- reformation, saved Venice from being finally crushed.

Venice had survived. There remained the question as to how this small and weak state could hope to impose its oligarchical axioms on future humanity. Part of the answer was the metastasis of the Venetian oligarchical cancer to take over a large modern state. For this the Venetians eventually chose England, the power that had been most friendly during the late war.

But the roots of Venetian and Byzantine influence in England were much deeper. The Danish Viking invaders who opposed Alfred were instruments of the Byzantine Empire, whose influence reached Scandinavia along the Varangian way through Russia. The Norwegian army that invaded England in 1066 was commanded by a Byzantine general, Harold Hardrada. During the 1200’s Henry III of England was bankrupted by loans masterminded by the Venetians. When Edward III started the Hundred Years’ War against France around 1340, he was an instrument of Venice, since the Venetians wanted to prevent France from interfering with their wars against Genoa. The Wars of the Roses had been fought by factions manipulated by the Venetians, who viewed Wat Tyler’s rebellion and Wycliff’s Lollards as a dress rehearsal for Luther. Venetian factions were dominant at the court of Henry VIII. So the Venetians moved their family fortunes and their characteristic world outlook to England.

But the move to England and the creation of a British Empire were only part of the answer. As long as the forward motion of Renaissance science continued, the Venetians, the British, and all the others would be forced to imitate it and duplicate it, on pain of being militarily defeated. But the irrational domination of oligarchs could not coexist with continuous progress in science and technology. The Venetians could not simply attack science from the outside. They needed to seize control of science and corrupt science from within.

This task fell to the Venetian intelligence leader Paolo Sarpi, who lived from 1552 to 1623. Sarpi became one of the most famous persons in Europe through his role as Venetian propaganda boss during the Pope’s Interdict against Venice in 1606-1607. Sarpi authored the assassination of King Henry IV of France in 1610. And, with the help of his assets at the court of Frederick V in Heidelberg, Sarpi was decisive in starting the Thirty Years’ War, which killed half of the population of Germany and one third of the population of Europe as a whole.

Yet, Sarpi’s most lasting achievement is the launching of the European Enlightenment, including both the Bacon- Hobbes- Locke- Newton- Berkeley- Hume English empiricism and the Descartes- Voltaire- Rousseau- French Encyclopedia school. Sarpi was one of the greatest corrupters of science and philosophy.

Sarpi was a Servite monk of modest origins who rose to be number two in his order. Early in life, he became an admirer of William of Ockham, one of the stupidest of the medieval nominalist philosophers. Sarpi was also a follower of Pomponazzi, the Venetian professor who argued that man has no soul.

Sarpi lived in Rome and knew the main personalities of the Counter- Reformation, including Carlo Borromeo, Roberto Bellarmino, Pope Sixtus V, and the future Pope Urban VII. Sarpi soon became a creature of the Contarini and Morosini families, who were committed to the Venetian metastasis into northern Europe. The Contarini- Morosini faction, called the Giovani party, became dominant in Venice during the 1580’s. Sarpi became, in the words of the papal nuncio, the boss of half of Venice, and ran a salon for Calvinists and libertines which the Vatican attacked as an “academy of errors.”

The leading British authority on Sarpi is H.R. Trevor-Roper, now Lord Dacre, who calls the friar an “indefatigable polymath” or master of all the sciences. In reality, Sarpi was the chief corrupter of modern science, the greatest charlatan of all time. It is his doctrines which are taught in the universities today.

In astronomy and physics, Sarpi was the case officer who directed the work of the Padua professor Galileo Galilei. Galileo wrote that Sarpi was a mathematician unexcelled in Europe, and contemporaries recognized that Sarpi had been the adviser, author, and director of Galileo’s telescope project. Galileo’s observations were done from Sarpi’s monastery. The telescope itself had been invented by Leonardo. Galileo was until the end of his life a paid agent of the Sarpi group.

Sarpi also tried to build up a reputation as an expert on magnetism, which fascinated him because of its magical overtones. In this he was praised by G.B. della Porta, the author of Magia Naturalis. Sarpi was also famous as a mathematician, and probably wrote a treatise of mathematics which was lost when his monastery burned in 1769. Sarpi had studied the French mathematician Francois Viete. In anatomy, the Venetians attempted to prove for many years that Sarpi had been the first to discover the valves in human veins, and even that he had been the first to describe the circulation of the blood, well before Harvey.

Sarpi wrote A History of the Council of Trent, and his influence on historiography has been immense. John Milton is the English author who praises Sarpi at the greatest length. Milton used Sarpi as a major source, and praised him as the “great unmasker” of the papacy. Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was the leading historian of the British Venetian Party during the eighteenth century. In his great tome, Gibbon wrote: “Should Rome and her religion be annihilated, [Sarpi’s] golden volume may still survive, a philosophical history and a salutary warning.” Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Venetian Party historian of the nineteenth century, was also an admirer of Sarpi. For today’s Lord Dacre/Trevor- Roper, Sarpi was simply the greatest among all Catholic historians. So Sarpi was indeed a prodigy among oligarchs.

But what of Sarpi the philosopher? Sarpi never published a work of philosophy, but the Venetian archives were found to contain his philosophical manuscripts, the “Art of Thinking Well” (Arte di Ben Pensare) and the “Thoughts” (Pensieri), which were published in 1910 and again more fully in 1951. Here we find that Sarpi created the basis of modern empiricism. His method was to assert that scientific truth was to be found not in Aristotle, but rather written in mathematical characters in the great book of life. The way to get this truth was to use sense certainty, exactly as Aristotle had recommended. Many of Aristotle’s specific conclusions could be junked, but his method and thus his overall domination could be preserved.

Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes both understood Italian. They and their protector, the Earl of Devonshire, corresponded with Sarpi and his group, with Hobbes doing the translation. Hobbes visited Venice in September, 1614 and probably met Sarpi. Bacon’s inductive method is simply a bowdlerization of Sarpi.

Hobbes belonged to the Sarpi networks all his life. The plan for Hobbes’ career as a writer emerged from his meeting with Galileo in 1636, when Galileo suggested that Hobbes write a book of ethics according to the mathematical- geometrical method. All his life Hobbes went around blathering that motion was the only thing that mattered. One of Sarpi’s Pensieri reads: “From the weakness of man derives his characteristic of living in society, but from man’s depravity derives the need to live under a supreme authority….” [405] This, along with Sarpi’s favorite theme of church-state conflict, is the substance of Hobbes’ Leviathan. When Hobbes lived in Paris during the English civil war, he rubbed elbows with Venetian assets like Mersenne, Descartes, and Gassendi. Hobbes and Descartes quarreled, but also partied together.

Then there is the question of Locke. Lord Macauley and other English writers treat Sarpi as one who anticipated Locke. In reality, Locke was a plagiarist of Sarpi. And for this we have the testimony of no less a personage than a mid-eighteenth century doge of Venice, Marco Foscarini. The doge writes that Sarpi’s “Art of Thinking Well” is “the original from which Locke copied.”

Locke’s first book argues that the mind is a blank slate without any inborn or innate ideas. This meshes exactly with Sarpi, who with Aristotle and Pomponazzi tries to show that nothing enters the mind except through the senses. The corollary of this is that there is no human soul.

“Every body which moves operates on what it touches,” is Sarpi’s point of departure. Sarpi “shows how external objects operate on our senses, distinguishing between the object which creates the sensation and the sensation itself.” The sensations we feel are not qualities of the objects, but phenomena of our intellect. The senses deliver the sensations through the nervous system. Then discursive reasoning or the active intellect comes into play with ideas of number and size. The discursive reasoning orders, combines, and compares sense-ideas which have been stored in memory.

This is all closely parallel to Locke’s second book. In “Art of Thinking Well,” Sarpi writes that “knowledge by experience is of greater certainty than knowledge through reason, and no reason can ever manage to equal experience.” Locke’s second book states that all our knowledge is founded on and derives itself from experience. Experience comes from sensation or from reflection, reflection on the sense impressions already stored in the brain. Sarpi also discusses reflection, distinguishing between cognition and later reflection on that same cognition.

Sarpi admits compound ideas, made up of more than one simple sense impression, and so does Locke. Sense impressions in general do not err, says Sarpi, although sometimes impaired vision and the like will cause distortions, and discursive reasoning can become confused. Locke’s second book has similar remarks, with a discussion of color blindness. Both devote space to methods for fixing mistakes in processing sense ideas.

Sarpi argues that the intellect orders ideas according to notions of genus, species, and essence. For Locke, “all the great business of genera and species, and their essences… amounts to no more than this: That… men… enable themselves to consider things in bundles….” [II.31] From these bundles, Sarpi goes on to definitions and then to axioms (ipolipsi). Locke prefers to address axioms as maxims, and he argues that they are of limited utility, serving mainly to win debates. Sarpi is even more pessimistic, asserting that knowledge is actually harmful, and that animals are better off in their natural ignorance than we are.

Sarpi and Locke also agree on the value of syllogisms, which they also consider to be quite limited. Sarpi warns that syllogisms can often be perverse in form. Locke, wanting to show that he is fully modern and in no way a scholastic or schoolman, also denies every claim made for the syllogism – although he hastens to add that this does not in the least diminish the prestige of Aristotle.

Sarpi ends with some notes on language, saying that words were invented not to identify things, but rather the ideas of the speaker. Locke reproduces this argument in toto, stating that “…all words… signify nothing immediately but the ideas in the mind of the speaker.” [II.32] Sarpi regards words as sources of confusion and errors, as does Locke.

Most of Locke’s modern editors and biographers make no mention of Sarpi. But the catalogue of Locke’s library shows a lively interest in the Venetian. Locke owned Sarpi’s works in 6 volumes, Sarpi’s histories of the Council of Trent and of the Inquisition, Sarpi’s Italian letters, his history of Pope Paul IV, plus Micanzio’s first biography of Sarpi, for a total of 13 books

Sarpi uses 22 pages, while Locke requires just short of 1000. But there is no doubt that Sarpi, whatever his obscurity, is the founder of modern British empiricism and as such the chief philosophical charlatan of the British Empire and the English- speaking peoples, including many Americans today. In this way, Sarpi has become the most popular and influential thinker of the modern world. The dead hand of Paolo Sarpi is reaching out of his sarcophagus once again, threatening to throttle world civilization.

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