In the following extract from Reason of State: Propaganda, and the Thirty Years' War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes, Noel Malcolm gives a lucid exposition of the idea of “reason of state” during the Renaissance and its aftermath. Malcolm's long introduction (123 pp.) is superb, actually more interesting than the pamphlet that is put in its historical context--a translation by Hobbes that is an intervention in the Thirty Years' War on behalf of the Hapsburgs. In these passages Malcolm identifies various currents in the "reason of state" literature, and draws attention to "red" and "black" interpretations of Tacitist (and Machiavellian) ideas. He intimates that we should pay attention to Justus Lipsius, a figure who once had a huge influence and was counted among the wise, but is now largely forgotten.
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The idea that politics should be understood in terms of the pursuit of interest was supported by more general ideas about human nature and human action, derived from many sources, including the Augustinian theological tradition (with its emphasis on man's fallen nature) and the various currents of thought that can be described as Renaissance naturalism. What they all had in common was an assumption that human beings would not naturally follow the dictates of conscience or 'right reason', and that they would seek a 'good' conceived more narrowly in terms of benefit or advantage; it followed that their interactions might often be conflictual, and that social or political coexistence must depend on artifice and discipline rather than natural harmony. In the modern political literature, these ideas were most forcefully expressed by Machiavelli and his followers (and by the historian Guicciardini); the Machiavellian influence on the `ragion di stato' tradition was fundamental. But late Renaissance humanists, searching for models and authorities in the ancient world, found a near-equivalent to Machiavelli's teachings in the writings of Tacitus; and, insofar as Tacitus' imperial Rome differed from the world of small principalities, independent republics, and politically active citizenries described by Machiavelli, it seemed actually closer to the world of sprawling monarchies and febrile court-politics they now inhabited. Tacitus' writings offered a radical alternative both to the Aristotelian textbook tradition and to the pious moralism of Christian advice literature; they made politics seem, instead, like a complex and ruthless game in which all players are self-interested and power is the prize. On this view, the common people, though always eager to advance their own crude interests, are stupid and easily tricked; an ambitious demagogue can deceive them, making them think that they will advance their interests when they will in fact only promote his, and a wise ruler can, and in some ways should, deceive them, both by keeping them in awe of unknown powers, and by giving them those 'simulacra' of liberty which will make them content. Much of the art of ruling thus consists of making deceptions of various kinds: these, the `arcana imperii', were easily identified with the stratagems of the Machiavellian prince.
Part of the attraction of Tacitist political literature was that it offered the reader a key to unlocking all kinds of mysteries of state (the same attraction, indeed, that was exerted by analyses of `ragion di stato'): politics thus became decipherable and legible. But opinions differed as to whether the discussion of these arcana was, on the one hand, a way of alerting the people to the tricks of their rulers, or, on the other, a way of teaching rulers how to trick the people more expertly (or at least, a way of explaining to some people that such stratagems were necessary and justified): one classic study has divided the Tacitan authors of this period into 'red' and 'black' Tacitists—that is, republican and monarchical—on those grounds. Nevertheless, the basic assumptions of these various Tacitist writers about the nature of politics and government did not significantly diverge. Among the most controversial of those was the assumption that religion must be regarded as an instrument of rule. Fear of unknown powers was a very powerful factor in human psychology (here early modern Tacitism went hand in hand with the Epicurean psychology of religion found in Lucretius). It followed that religion should be carefully managed and controlled by the ruler, for more than one reason: because it could shore up his power; because if it lay outside his control, it could be used against him by demagogues and rivals; and because, as Machiavelli had argued, the power of religion over human behaviour was such that a religion of the wrong sort could have a harmful effect on the people, and thus on the strength of the state as a whole.
While the underlying assumptions of the Tacitists about human nature and politics were shared by most writers on `ragion di stato', this Tacitist (and Machiavellian) instrumentalizing of religion offended many of them deeply. The genre of treatises on reason of state which Botero inaugurated was strongly motivated by a desire to oppose this line of argument; many of the authors of these treatises, indeed, were Jesuits, and if one followed only their self-understanding of what they were doing one would say that they were engaged in a re-Christianizing—or, to be precise, re-Catholicizing—of political theory, fully in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. (One of their greatest bugbears was the `politique' tradition of writers such as Bodin, whose experience of the French Wars of Religion had led them to recommend the toleration of religious minorities for the sake of peace; the Jesuit writers saw this as a Machiavellian subjection of religion to the state, and fiercely criticized it.) However, while they thought that they were confronting the Machiavellian-Tacitist doctrine head-on, the fact that they shared so many of its underlying assumptions meant that their whole style of argument tended, in some ways, to run parallel to it, or even to reinforce it. Against the Machiavellian claim that Christianity was enfeebling, and in opposition to any idea that religion should be merely instrumentalized by the state, they wanted to show that Christianity should be the very basis of the state, and that a state so grounded in true religion would be more successful and more advantageous. . . .
A different approach was taken by a number of writers whose attitude was less exaltedly theological than that of the Counter-Reformation theorists. The key exponent of the alternative approach was the Flemish humanist (and editor of Tacitus) Justus Lipsius, whose treatise on politics, Politicorum sive civilis doctrinae libri sex—a work much admired for the elegant way in which it wove together a tissue of quotations from classical sources—exerted a huge influence. Like the Jesuit writers, Lipsius subscribed to some fundamentally Machiavellian and Tacitist assumptions about the nature of politics; unlike them, he did not believe that it was possible to construct, even in theory, a perfectly virtuous 'reason of state', accepting instead that the art of ruling must make some compromises with vice. In his scheme of politics and government, there were three levels of fraudulent behaviour: 'light' (involving dissimulation, the concealment of intentions), 'medium' (involving the active deception, or corruption by bribery, of enemies), and 'great' (involving such actions as breach of treaty). The first, he wrote, was advisable, the second tolerable, and the third unacceptable. His justification for this position was framed, at first sight, in merely quantitative terms: 'Wine does not cease to be wine if it is lightly diluted with water; nor does prudence cease to be prudence, if you add some little drops of fraud.' But he went on to add, importantly, that the permitted frauds were tolerable only when done for the common good; any deception not aimed at that end was a great sin.
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Noel Malcolm, Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years’ War: An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 95-98, 100-101.