Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years' War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes ; Noel Malcolm

By Noel Malcolm | Go to book overview

6
‘Reason of State’ and Hobbes

THE first book to have ‘ragion di stato’ (reason of state) in its title, and the most influential of all books on this topic, was published by the ex-Jesuit Giovanni Botero in 1589. In his dedicatory epistle Botero explained that he had made many journeys in recent years, and had visited the courts of several kings and princes.

Among the things that I have observed, I have been greatly astonished to find Reason of State a constant subject of discussion and to hear the opinions of Niccolò Machiavelli and Cornelius Tacitus frequently quoted: the former for his precepts relating to the rule and government of peoples, the latter for his lively description of the arts employed by the Emperor Tiberius in acquiring and retaining the imperial title in Rome I was moved to indignation rather than amazement to find that this barbarous mode of government had won such acceptance that it was brazenly opposed to Divine Law, so that men even spoke of some things being permissible by Reason of State and others by conscience.1

In the rest of his book, Botero went on to develop a more carefully modulated view of what reason of state could or should be. But those severe opening remarks testify to some simple and important facts: the term ‘ragion di stato’ already enjoyed wide currency; it was associated with Machiavellianism and Tacitism; and it was used to account for political actions that were, on the face of it, contrary to ‘Divine Law’ or morality. There is other evidence, from earlier in the sixteenth century, that the term was in common use; but the great popular vogue for ‘ragion

1 G. Botero, The Reason of State, tr. P. J. Waley and D. P. Waley (London, 1956), pp. xiii–xiv (G. Botero, Della ragion di stato, ed. C. Morandi (Bologna, 1930), pp. 3–4: ‘tra l’altre cose da me osservate, mi ha recato somma meraviglia, il sentire tutto il dí mentovare Ragione di Stato, e in cotal materia citare ora Nicolò Machiavelli, ora Cornelio Tacito: quello, perchè dà precetti appartenenti al governo, e al reggimento de’ popoli; questo, perchè esprime vivamente l’arti usate da Tiberio Cesare, e per conseguire, e per conservarsi nell’Imperio di Roma Ma quel, che mi moveva non tanto a meraviglia, quanto a sdegno si era il vedere, che così barbara maniera di governo fosse accreditata in modo, che si contraponesse sfacciatamente alla legge di Dio; sino a dire, che alcune cose sono lecite per ragione di Stato, altre per conscienza’).

-92-

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