It has been argued that 'the history of humanist political thought before about 1620 … can almost be told exclusively from … Italy and the Netherlands'.1 It is no coincidence that these two countries were both directly experiencing the central political fact of the time: the hegemony of Catholic Spain in Europe, which had been firm since the time of Charles I and remained so upon Philip II's death in 1598. However, both countries experienced this hegemony in very different ways.

In Italy, Spanish dominance allowed her satellites to build up very powerful fiscal-military states over the course of the sixteenth century as any other power was precluded from interfering in Italian affairs. However, the Netherlands spent the latter half of the century in revolt against the Spanish in a conflict that quickly took on a religious tint due to the prevailing Protestantism of the Dutch. The particular circumstances of these two countries ensured that political theories developed there would, in Meinecke's phrase 'take on the colour of the soil from which they sprang'.2

This also accounts for the similarity between Dutch thought and that emerging in the other humanist centre, France, which experienced a religious civil war in the latter half of the century which was eventually ended by Henry of Navarre's pragmatic declaration that 'Paris is worth a mass'. It was in these three countries that the new discourse of reason of state was mostly developed, from the time of Machiavelli and Guicciardini to that of Richelieu and Rohan.

The challenge from Machiavelli

In the middle of the sixteenth century, the predominant form of political discourse in Europe was Ciceronianism. As the Italian republics declined, a genre of humanist advice books for princes emerged which focused on advising them on the best way to run their realms, continuing an earlier genre in a new humanist vein. The answers generally took a line which would have been familiar to Cicero and Seneca, counselling the application of the advice they offer in On Moral Obligations and On Clemency. Their preoccupation with honour and glory derived from virtue was ostensibly the main feature of political discourse, however rulers might act in practice. And for those republics that remained at the start of the sixteenth century, state institutions were seen as foci of representation whose aim was the common good.

In both cases, Cicero's identification of the moral with the expedient was formally assumed, along with a Christian gloss. Politics was hence defined as the pursuit of the public good, which was held to be identical with the good of the state or ruler. Machiavelli was the first to question the contradictions inherent in this inflexible idea, setting about to 'set aside fantasies about rulers' and address 'what happens in fact' when theory meets practice.3 By publishing The Prince in 1513, he threw down a challenge to European political discourse that provoked a hostile but begrudgingly accepting acknowledgement over the course of the century. His challenge was essentially to point out that the expedient clearly did not always match with the moral, and that in reality princes always looked to their own interests first.

The other person to lay the groundwork for the new discourse was Guicciardini, who wrote his Dialogue on the Government of Florence in the 1520s. He here made two pertinent points, the first being that as all states are founded on an initial act of violence, it makes little sense to rule out further acts of violence as immoral (although they may not be expedient). This had interesting implications for the place of the exception in politics, which shall be discussed later. Secondly, he uses the term 'the reason of states' to denote the idea of departing from normal moral reasoning to focus on expediency. Interestingly, the picture presented of the interlocutor most associated with this view, Lorenzo de Medici, bears an interesting resemblance to how Machiavelli was received over the course of the century: criticized extensively, but accepted with reservation as necessary.

It was this doctrine of raison d'état which threatened traditional political discourse in Europe.


Machiavelli's legacy was controversial and ambiguous. On the one hand, 'the scheming Machiavell' became a commonplace in plays hardly designed to edify his reputation, and 'Old Nick' became a new name for Satan. On the other hand, a number of writers engaged with his ideas (often while simultaneously criticizing him), although most could never accept the full implications of the ideas of this suspected atheist.

The most influential and exemplifying example of this literature was Botero's Reason of State, published in Italy in 1591. Botero's work throws into sharp relief the problem for writers who were dealing with the twin legacies of Machiavellism and Christian humanism, especially when one examines the examples he uses and also what he did not say. Botero leaves a fundamental contradiction unresolved by paying lip service to both earlier Erasmian humanism and Machiavelli. He starts out by stating that 'Reason of State is the knowledge of the means by which … a dominion may be founded, preserved and extended', being 'concerned most nearly with preservation'.4 He speaks much of prudence and military science and how to augment the strength of a state, all preoccupations of Machiavelli. He also accepts that in the final analysis, rulers act out of self-interest.

However, he has another preoccupation: 'Why then should a Christian prince set up a reason of State contrary to God’s law, as though it were a rival altar?'.5 Furthermore, 'the virtue of a prince is often the cause of his people’s prosperity'.5 However, Botero does not succeed in adequately synthesizing Christian humanism and the self-interest of rulers. Although he tries to argue that Divine Law and the prince's interest always coincide, Meinecke is surely right to claim that 'more profound reflection might have caused him to doubt the harmony between State interest and religious duties'.6 If Divine favour was necessary to good statecraft, it seems somewhat strange that Botero would draw so many examples of prudence and greatness from Turkey and China. He ends Reason of State with a condemnation of self-interested politics, exhorting Christendom to unite against the Turkish threat. Botero, by systemisizing the theory of the times, exposed its flaws.


If we take Botero's work as an archetypical piece on reason of state, which was penned just nine years before the turn of the century, it seems clear that there had been no decisive shift to Machiavellism by the start of the seventeenth century. Botero had attempted to render the concept of reason of state harmless by reducing it down to the preservation of states, and had essentially attempted to appropriate the non-normative parts of Machiavelli for Christian humanism, such as the concern with prudence, military affairs, and achieving greatness through population (and wealth, which Machiavelli did not consider as important in warfare). He had left out Machiavelli's aggression and cruelty, which the latter had thought essential for a prince to establish a durable state.

Botero still maintains with Cicero that it is better to be loved than feared and with Erasmus that expansion by force of arms is immoral, and believed that the best way to govern any new territory that was acquired was to make the people there as close to natural citizens as possible, rather than pacifying them sternly. However, despite the absence of a definite transition in the work of Botero, there has certainly been a shift towards what might be called 'interest politics'. Gradually the authority of Tacitus was coming to have as much influence as that of Cicero, if not more. Such is evident in the works of Botero and an extremely influential French writer, Michel de Montaigne, who quote from both.

All humanisms had their classical sources, and the preferred source for reason of state theorists was Tacitus. He chronicled the dark times of the Roman Empire in the first century, depicting the cynical and self-interested ruler Tiberius using dissimulation and force to overcome equally egocentric enemies, during what Seneca called 'the stormy age of the state'. The example of Tiberius' machinations seemed especially appropriate to this time when Europe was ravaged by civil and religious wars, but some contemporaries were concerned about which was the cause and which the effect in this relationship. Was it the focus on Machiavelli and Tacitus by political writers which was causing such acts as the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre and the repression of the Spanish in the Netherlands, or was art just imitating life?

This concern that one would be seen as condoning such actions by embracing reason of state or interest politics no doubt held some people back, whereas Henry IV's pragmatic conversion to Catholicism in 1594, followed by the Edict of Nantes, which brought the French Wars of Religion to an end, could be seen as an example of 'good' reason of state if the priority of an observer was civil peace rather than religious dogmatism. By 1600 the position of reason of state was hence ambiguous and capable of being construed in a negative or positive light.

The destination: 'interest politics'

Reason of state had, however, laid the groundwork for the works of 'interest politics' that emerged in France several decades later, stemming from the pens of Rohan, Naudé and Richelieu. The basic idea of interest politics is that states have an 'interest' which is abstractly defined and which represents the best course of action for them to take at any given time, which must be discerned by rulers. This interest is not necessarily tied in with the particular interest of any given ruler or subject, but is rather the interest of the state, abstractly defined without reference to the current rulers or subjects. This was revolutionary.

Rulers need to suppress their passions or utilize them in ways which follow this interest, which is discerned by reason and prudence. Rohan concentrated almost entirely on international affairs, which he saw as, in the words of Salmon, a 'Hobbesian state of nature written large in terms of national entities'.8 For Rohan, internal politics was dominated by personal interest, and the ruler had to be sure not to lose sight of the true interest of his state amidst conflicting particular interests. Salmon makes a good case for the primacy of the ruler in Rohan's thought by his analysis of the example of the Dutch Republic: we are told by Rohan that the interest of Dutch was the federal liberty of their cities, but that Maurice of Nassau was thought to be following the Dutch interest by uniting the provinces through war. Hence the old idea of politics as the seeking of the public good seems to have given way to politics as the expansion and entrenchment of autocratic states.


Richelieu, France's chief minister after the civil wars, explored more deeply the relationship of the interest of state to the interest of subjects. In his Political Testament, he identifies the state's interest as being identical with that of the public's. He tapped into the new idea that a person's interest was something which lay half-way between reason and passion, something which they could be persuaded of by reason but which derived ultimately from their passions. It hence behoved the state to try and channel people's passions down socially useful channels by persuading them it was in their interest to do as the state wished, by the use of rhetoric or, if necessary, force.

'Authority constrains men to obedience,' he noted, 'but reason persuades them to it'.9 The personal interests of subjects existed simply to be wielded as tools to make them obedient to the autocratic state, as for instance with Richelieu’s exhortation that the nobility be encouraged to stop their internal strife and use their proven love of glory for the good of the nation. This is, Keohane says, 'one of the most clear-cut statements of the theory of concentrated power in the history of politics'.10 It is clear that the development of both Richelieu's and Rohan's thought owes to the refocusing of politics away from the public good and towards the reason of state. Nor would Gabriel Naudé's thoughts on coup d’état have been possible in an earlier time, when the 'state' had no abstract existence separate from the current rulers. Reason of state gave the state this existence by formulating rules that involved the state expanding and entrenching itself outward into time and space, giving itself a permanent existence which was distinct from the particular interests of its current rulers or the people it ruled.


To complete this survey, it is necessary to look at one other and complementary way in which contemporaries coped with the troubled times that were current in Europe. Faced with civil wars and competing claims for authority, Neostoicism and Scepticism were two twin ideas expounded most notably by two men who considered themselves very close in outlook, Justus Lipsius and Michel de Montaigne. Both counselled individuals to effectively abandon the political sphere and seek fulfilment through a rational, organized personal life. Montaigne's Essays is archetypical example of such a work, and it appealed to many Frenchmen in the aftermath of decades of civil war. There was a widespread feeling that civil war was the worst possible thing that could beset a society, and leaving the public sphere to an absolute monarch while cultivating your own affairs in the private sphere seemed an obvious solution that would lead to harmony and prosperity.

In the Netherlands, Lipsius preached obedience to a moderately absolute fiscal-military state which would ensure internal order and allow its subjects to pursue their private affairs. This view appealed to men such as himself, bourgeois and learned men in universities who lost out more than the poor when civil order broke down. Both men reached their conclusion through scepticism of both Cicero and Aristotle's legacy, as well as the new humanism: believing there were no universal moral laws, every state would necessarily proscribe its own and citizens should obey them. The state had to be realistic about its subjects pursuit of their self-interest and use arms and taxation to control them. Meanwhile, it was in the interest of subjects to follow the laws of the state, preferring living in chains to dying on their feet.


The situation at the start of the seventeenth century was not one in which a shift entirely from politics as understood in classical terms to reason of state had taken place, but there had certainly been a transformative shift in political discourse. Machiavelli threw down the gauntlet by abandoning the notion that the public good was the ultimate goal of a prince, writing what might more be termed 'political science' than 'political philosophy'. The new idea that the actual goal of a prince was to stay in power himself, or that the goal of a state was to maintain itself in time and space, sent shockwaves through Europe.

By 1600 writers had attempted to deal with the challenge in various ways, some trying to appropriate Machiavelli's ideas of prudence and virtue to shore up the public good, and others recognizing that states did indeed, in reality, have a reason of their own which often overrode Divine, civil or moral law. However, the climate of this chaotic age was still not ready to pick apart the contradiction of identifying the public good with the particular, yet allowing the state an agency of its own, even though it could recognize in practice that this contradiction existed.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century there had been a shift from politics to reason of state, but one that was not total or complete. Scepticism and Neostoicism were more natural reactions amidst the carnage of the latter sixteenth century, especially when the doctrines of reason of state were believed to be behind them; it would be some time before Gabriel Naudé could complain that the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre was all very well, but not carried out in a radical enough manner.

1. Richard Tuck, Philosophy and Government 1572 – 1651 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 31
2. Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison D'etat and its Place in Modern History (London, 1957), p.65
3. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Cambridge, 1988), trans. Quentin Skinner, p. 55
4. Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State (London, 1956), trans. P.J and D.P. Waley, p. 3
5. Ibid., p. 64
6. Ibid., p. 65
7. Meinecke, op. cit., p. 69
8. J.H.M Salmon, 'Rohan and reason of state' in Renaissance and Revolt (1987)
9. The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu, II.2
10. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: Renaissance to Enlightenment (1980), p. 180
11. J. Bartelson, 'Making exceptions: Some Remarks on the Concept of Coup d’état and its History', Political Theory, 25 (1997)