Mind the gap! Did the notion of ‘reason of state’ transform prior understandings of political community?

A Cambridge politics essay from 2020.

The notion of ‘reason of state’ transformed prior understandings of political community—since it both (1) separated politics from morality and (2) reprioritised politics over morality. Raison d’état as a political concept created a ‘gap’ between political expediency and moral justice. The early-modern period oversaw the intellectual emergence of a unique combination of ‘politico-moral disunity’ and ‘political priority’. Although raison d’état’s reprioritisation of the political mirrored ancient political priority, it transformed medieval moral priority, while the separation of politics from morality was an original and enduring change in political thought. In coming to this conclusion, I ask two questions. Firstly, did the notion of ‘reason of state’ transform prior understandings of the unity of justice and expediency in the political community? Secondly, did the notion of ‘reason of state’ transform prior understandings of the priority of justice or expediency in the political community? I answer in the affirmative in response to each question, which I consider in turn.

Graduating from my first degree at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge in 2021.

Firstly, did the notion of ‘reason of state’ transform prior understandings of the unity of justice and expediency in the political community? The notion of ‘reason of state’, by separating justice from expediency, created ‘politico-moral disunity’—transforming ancient and medieval ‘politico-moral unity’. I consider each understanding of political community—ancient, medieval, and early modern—in turn, focusing on the transformative raison d’état.

In ancient understandings of political community, in general, justice and expediency were one, embodying ‘politico-moral unity’. As a city is just when ‘each of the three elements in it [is] performing its own function’, man is just ‘when each of the elements within him is performing its proper task’ (Plato, The Republic 441d-e). For the city and the truest of souls, then, ‘justice is wisdom and goodness’, so ‘it will easily be seen to be something stronger than injustice’, and produces ‘co-operation and friendship’; ‘injustice’, on the other hand, ‘is ignorance’, and therefore ‘renders [the city] incapable of concerted action, through faction and disagreement’, in contrast to justice, which produces ‘co-operation and friendship’ (The Republic 351a-352a). In this way, to expediently realise any end, including the satisfaction of basic needs in pursuit of survival, justice is necessary. Meanwhile, for justice to be possible, expediency must be guaranteed: basic bodily needs must be met, and political community and hierarchy must exist (The Republic 373b, 374e). The reason Plato’s vision of justice is a moral vision is that the function (ergon) of the guardian class is not only to rule but also to contemplate the forms (including the form of the good) and to apply this learning to the material realm: i.e., to rule well (The Republic 517b-541a). Justice is, in this way, not simply the realisation of natural functions, but of good functions. Sallust (The War with Catiline, I-II) agreed that ‘mental excellence’, ‘self-restraint’, and ‘justice’ were essential ingredients of an ‘evener and steadier course’ for polities. Cicero also sees state stability—and, therefore, generalised political expediency—as guaranteed by justice, although his premise is that ‘law […] is right reason in harmony with nature’, rather than with the good per se (Cicero, The Republic III.33), partly due to Aristotle’s rejection of the form of the good as a possible object of contemplation (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1096b-1097a), prioritising a naturalistic account of virtue (NE 1104a). While the ancients differed on the foundation of such an elision, they tended to share a fusion of justice and expediency—that is to say, ‘politico-moral unity’.  

In medieval understandings of political community, similarly, justice and expediency tended to be seen as one, embodying ‘political moral unity’. The basis for such unity once again shifted in Christendom from the forms (Plato) or nature (Aristotle, Cicero) to, ultimately, God. The unity of nature and society corresponds to the unity of God’s intention: therefore, the expedient and just political form is monarchy, where by ‘one ruler’ can create the ‘single principle’ governing each ‘part in relation to the whole universe’ (or, at least, sub-universal polity) (Dante, Monarchy vii-viii). To rule with a view to the ‘universal good’, which ‘is not found except in God’, warrants not only ‘that honour by which a man becomes a citizen [of the kingdom of God] and a member of God’s household’, but also ‘the glory of men, which they do not seek’ (Aquinas, De regimine principum ix). Though divine justice is the aim for medieval Christian writers (meaning their priority is morality, not politics, per se), they share the ancient fusion of justice and expediency—i.e., politico-moral unity. 

In early-modern understandings of political community, however, expediency separated from justice, generating ‘politico-moral disunity’. Theorists of ‘reason of state’ were reacting in part to Machiavelli, for whom ‘it is necessary for a ruler who wishes to maintain his position to learn to be able to be not good, and to use that ability or not use it according to necessity’ (Machiavelli 2019: 53). Expediency is not only here prioritised over justice (see below), but also separated from it. To follow expediency requires not always following justice. Since Hannibal’s ‘detestable’ deeds and Scipio’s ‘laudable’ ones produced the same result, they partook in the same ‘glory’ (Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy III.22); moral considerations do not therefore contribute to whether honour and survival are expediently met. Among thinkers of raison d’état, perhaps the most ‘anti-Machiavellian’ is Botero, for whom Machiavelli’s heavy political priority pays insufficient intention to unacceptable ‘immoral’ consequences of such a position, particular for organised religion (Bireley 2017: xxii-xxiii). But even Botero (2017: 213) admits ‘how true that saying of the Lord that the children of darkness show more prudence in the affairs than do the children of light’. Lipsius is similarly dissatisfied with Machiavelli’s reduction of virtue to mere ‘virtú’, or political ‘skill’ to avoid being ‘despised’ and to pursue ‘gloria’ through honour and status recognition (Skinner 2019: 102). But he concedes that sovereign ‘deception’ in the name of ‘the Public Good’ may be ‘useful’ for reasons of political expediency, though also as an ‘abomination to the Lord’ (Lipsius 2004: 523). Political expediency, for Lipsius, did not always align with theologico-moral justice. The separation initiated by Machiavelli and theorists of raison d’état between politics and morality deepened as the rise of commerce reduced subjects, not just princes, to ‘no other goal but gain’ (Keohane 1980: 164). Interstate warfare and the Reformation tore down the unity of the Catholic legitimation stories of the middle ages (MacCulloch 2010), but it was the rise of commerce that spread the prioritisation of ‘interests’ over ‘ideals’ (Lloyd 1992) to subjects, deepening the rift between morality and politics.

Secondly, did the notion of ‘reason of state’ transform prior understandings of the priority of justice or expediency in the political community? The notion of ‘reason of state’, by prioritising expediency over justice, transformed medieval ‘moral priority’ into ancient-style ‘political priority’. Though this transformation did not persevere into later modernity, the uncertainty of what exactly liberalism and nationalism prioritise demonstrates the significance of the hammer-blow to universal theological politics that the notion of ‘reason of state’ wrought—though particular attempts to bring back theological politics have been made, by liberals and nationalists alike. As previously, I consider each understanding of political community in turn, in order to gauge the significance of the notion of raison d’état.

In ancient understandings of political community, expediency tended to be held above justice, constituting ‘political priority’. Just as Tacitus (Annals, I.1) acknowledges that ‘Rome at the beginning was ruled by kings’, Glaucon in Plato’s Republic (373b) saw the first city as one fit for ‘pigs’, given people could only satisfy their iron-souled desire to sustain themselves, while following cities could only reach a stage where cultivation of the virtue through arts and philosophy is possible after the city reaches sufficient power through war-making and enslaving (The Republic 373e). For Aristotle, similarly, ‘the state is by nature prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part’ (The Politics 1252a19-20). Therefore, ‘justice’ is only possible as ‘the bond of men in states; for the administration of justice […] is the principle of order in political society’ (The Politics 1252a33-35). While politics and morality are unified, as ‘nature has given mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community’, the latter is prior to the former—as no ‘philosophy lecture is so fine that it deserves to be set above the public law and customs of a well-ordered state’ (Cicero, The Republic  I.1-3). The pursuit of the good and virtue may be the central moral goal of the ancients; but in terms of practical priority, political expediency precedes (i.e., makes possible) moral justice.

In medieval understandings of political community, justice tended to be held above expediency, constituting ‘moral priority’. Though Augustine valued politico-moral unity through ‘peace’ (not ‘discord’) between the city of God and the city of man, he also thought, ‘[t]his heavenly city, then, while is sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations’, ‘serv[ing] and adopt[ing] […] earthly peace […] so long only as ho hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced’ (Tierney 1964: 11-12) (my emphasis). Politics and morality may coincide—but for Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and other Christian medievalists, justice took precedence, constituting ‘theologico-moral priority’. 

In early-modern understandings of political community, expediency was (in general) reprioritised over justice, renewing the ‘political priority’ of antiquity. In ‘negotiations and treaties’, the princes ‘must employ [strategies] secret and patient’, in order to protect their security as (an ally of) one of the ‘two Powers in Christendome’: France and Spain (Rohan 1640: 9). Similarly, though Francis Bacon admits that to ‘lieth’ constitutes a ‘wickedness of falsehood’, it is a quasi-virtue (neither vice nor virtue) for the prince or negotiator to give ‘signs […] that he is not who he is’ through dissimulation—in honour of the Spanish maxim: ‘[t]ell a lie, and find a troth’ (Bacon 2018: 79-80). Acting without virtue is, for Machiavellian reasons, a necessity for many theorists of ‘reason of state’—who may accept the ‘public’ necessity of ‘betray[al]’ and telling ‘lies’ when necessary, but reject it in their ‘private’ capacity (Montaigne 1991: 392-393). ‘Many’ princes, therefore, ‘could save themselves as private individuals who damn themselves in their capacity as private persons’ (Richelieu 1961: 127). Above all else, ‘both princes and their states’ must follow ‘reason’ over their passions (Richelieu 1961: 72-73) in order to calculate the best ‘ways and means necessary to preserve [the state’s] ‘duration, constancy, and essential forms of existence’’ (Dreitzel 2002: 172).

Although the notion of ‘reason of state’, then, was often fused with Machiavellianism in the eyes of seventeenth-century religious commentators (Höpfl 2002), such that both shared a ‘political priority’ through an emphasis on expediency over justice for states, three tensions between the two schools are clear. One is that theorists of ‘reason of state’ were unclear as to what decisions are best to maximise political expediency: while Botero is sceptical of offensive wars that go beyond ‘secur[ing] the borders’ and ‘defend[ing] allies’ (Botero 2017: 75; Bireley 2017), Machiavelli (2019: 85-88) views a unification of Italy under one polity as the only long-term remedy to the peninsula’s ills. Another is that Machiavelli’s focus was on political expediency as the glory of the prince and the citizenry of a republic, while Botero (2017: 1) sees reason of state as entailing ‘the knowledge of the means suitable to found, conserve, and expand [the] dominion [of the state]’. The last difference is that, while glory and honour are Machiavelli’s principle occupations (rendering him, in Platonic terms, a ‘silver soul’), Hobbes is concerned with survival (rendering him, in Platonic terms, an ‘iron soul’). Without survival, for Hobbes, glory is a mere nothing (Hobbes 1996: 91). A key part of ‘reason of state’ is to ensure ‘the State is united’, lest ‘every one [be] for himself, and must look to strengthen and enrich himself by any means how ill soever’ (Hobbes 1995: 48), potentially lapsing back into a ‘warre’ of ‘every man, against every man’ (Hobbes 1996: 88)—a fearful scenario which a ruler responding to reason of state should avoid at all costs.Montaigne agrees is not always served by ‘greatness’, which can motivate martyrdom or other kinds of honourable death (Montaigne 1991: 1039). Differences aside, what raison d’état theorists and Machiavelli share is a tendency to separate politics from morality, expediency from justice, and prioritise the former (political expediency) over the latter.

A side-effect of separating morality from politics, and prioritising the political over the moral, has been an increase in institutional hypocrisy. Notions of reason of state don’t rest on a medieval theological basis, and nor do they coexist with moral legitimation, as in ancient states. Thus, sovereigns need to ‘mask political reality’ in some respect—in particular, through ‘colourful language’ (Runciman 2008: 33); the sovereign, after all, has the right to decide on the proper signification of words and theological doctrine, since they are an ‘actor’ whose actions citizens authorise through the social contract (Hobbes 1996), and it is therefore incumbent on the sovereign to put on a plausible performance embodying first-order hypocrisy (Runciman 2008). Machiavelli, meanwhile, openly engaged in conceptual ‘redescription’ (Stacey 2009) of what were traditionally considered ‘vices’ as ‘virtues’, such as instilling ‘fear’ rather than ‘love’ in one’s people (Machiavelli 2019: 57), on the basis that there are some alleged ‘vices without which it is difficult to preserve one’s power’ (Machiavelli 2019: 54). Though Machiavelli’s language is ‘first-order hypocrisy’, it is not ‘second-order hypocrisy’ (Runciman 2008)—as he acknowledges his hypocrisy. Montaigne (1991: 896-897) accomplishes this feat, too, when he calls it ‘honour’ that people accuse him of employing ‘artifice’ and ‘cunning’ when he says, ‘our wills and desires are laws unto themselves but our [public] actions must accept law as ordained by the State’. This public/private distinction embodies the Hobbesian distinction between artificial and natural persons, since subjects in a Commonwealth must necessarily disregard their moral views in order to wear the mask of the obedient citizen (Runciman 2008), while the sovereign must dress up their actions with whatever views they choose to use to legitimate them with (Runciman 2013). Sovereign and subject alike wear masks in modernity; it is praiseworthy of theorists of reason of state that they recognise this as hypocrisy, which has continued to rise since.

To conclude, the notion of ‘reason of state’ transformed prior understandings of political community by both separating morality from politics and reprioritising politics over morality. While the reprioritisation of politics mimics ancient political priority, the separation between politics and morality is original and enduring. The use of political hypocrisy to ‘cloak’ this nascent ‘gap’ between politics and morality continued into high modernity—but must be excluded from our present analysis, for reasons of length.



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