On his deathbed in Paris in December 1642, Cardinal Richelieu was asked by the curé of Saint-Eustache, his confessor, whether he forgave his enemies. “I have had no enemies,” the cardinal is alleged to have replied, “except those of the state.” Although the anecdote may not be entirely factual—it was widely circulated by the cardinal’s critics—it points to an entire school of Catholic political thought that has fallen from favor. Richelieu occupies no place in our curriculum except as an example of cunning and ruthless statecraft. Most people associate his manner with that of Machiavelli.
It is a mistake to do so. Richelieu belongs to the ragion di stato (reason of state) tradition, which was born as a counter-Machiavellian response to “Old Nick.” But the confusion is unsurprising: reason of state emphasizes the use of state power to ensure the common good. And this clashes with the conceit popular among many Anglo-American conservatives that the wise statesman restrains the state within careful boundaries, enabling traditional culture to flourish. It’s doubly unfortunate for Catholics in American politics, who, fearing the use of state power, limit themselves to vying within the modern Republican Party’s uneasy coalition of hawks, traditionalists, and free marketeers. They have been cut off—often unknowingly—from the specific tradition of political thought by which modern Catholic strategists have understood statecraft. And they labor under an illusion. Government spending as a share of GDP has consistently inched higher since the 1960s, and that trend shows no signs of reversal. Yet outside Central Europe, conservatives seem unable to practice statecraft to harness or direct an ever-growing state.
It is understandable, however, why so many conservatives are wary of a possible association with Machiavelli. When he wrote The Prince in 1513, princely advice literature was an essential genre for educating rulers and for thinking about politics itself. Machiavelli upended the genre’s conventions and became notorious for conscioning and advising the use of wicked means in politics. Indeed, after reading The Prince, Cardinal Pole came to believe that “though a man’s name was on the title-page, the book was written by the finger of Satan even as the Holy Scriptures are said to be written by the finger of God.” And his influence cannot be overstated. Although Machiavelli spoke of the state as personal possession of a prince—“his state”—his descriptions foreshadowed the characteristics of the modern state: a vast impersonal force wielding power in the name of the people, whose decisions reflect its understanding of necessity and emergency.
Machiavelli’s manner was subtle. He styled himself a teacher of necessity, and in The Prince illustrated the amoral sensibility needed for the acquisition and maintenance of power. The princes and would-be princes who read his work were not given simple excuses for pursuing their will; instead Machiavelli explained to them the necessities they were under as rulers, and the correspondent flexibility they would need—practically, theoretically, and (to Cardinal Pole’s justified horror) morally—in order to avoid the consequences of malign fortune. “To see and hear him,” Machiavelli wrote of the prince, “he should appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, all religion.” But, Machiavelli carefully added, the prince should think only of the art of war, strategize around further acquisition, and know when to act contrary to his apparent benignity. “For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good.”
It took several decades of percolating through the courts of Europe for The Prince to draw serious responses from other political minds. Machiavelli’s guidebook was shocking not only because of its attack on Christian virtues, but because it positioned their violation as the sine qua non of successful statecraft. This framework for the debate continues to our own day. It is taken for granted that Machiavelli’s moral and religious indifference is the price of political success, and any successful leader is assumed, regardless of his character, to have paid it. Christian conservatives are supposed to be “principled” politicians; statesmen who defeat their enemies are presumed unscrupulous.
Machiavelli posed a challenge which could not be ignored: can princely government find success even under moral and religious guidance? The territory Machiavelli and his critics identified for this contest was reason of state: Is statecraft under the necessity of evil that Machiavelli described, or can Christianity extend and secure rule? In his much longer Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli identified “the difference between our religion and the ancient” as the reason why men had grown weak in his time. But the picture of falling victim to the wicked while professing the good was not Machiavelli’s own. In Matthew, the Lord chooses twelve men to carry his Gospel out through the world: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and simple as doves.” Here the wisdom of serpents was typically understood as their ability to evade snares. The apostles were to use worldly tactics to avoid capture and preserve their mission for the good. But can Christian princes truly be “wise as serpents” without becoming snakes? There were many answers to that question in the decades following Machiavelli’s death. These are often unfortunately overlooked in the political theory curricula most American politicos pass through these days.
One such response came from Giovanni Botero, a Piedmontese priest and erstwhile Jesuit who devised a serious answer to Machiavelli while a curate in Milan. Botero thought that Machiavelli’s work (along with the maxims of Tacitus) had spread corruption throughout the courts of Europe. Though not the inventor of the phrase, he gave his 1589 book the title Della ragion di stato (The Reason of State) and, along with it, invested the concept with an anti-Machiavellian standpoint. Botero considered that the best way of answering Machiavelli would not be through exposure of his corruption but rather a new mirror of princes, to show “the true and royal way that a prince ought to follow in order to become great and to govern his people successfully.”
“Reason of state,” wrote Botero to begin his work, “is knowledge of the means suitable to found, conserve, and expand dominion”—but especially conservation, since it presupposed foundation (which Botero equated to expansion). Machiavelli had changed the prince’s perspective in part by analyzing states primarily through their mode of acquisition; in other words, he took foundation and expansion to be primary, and reduced conservation itself to acquisition. By doing so, Machiavelli was able to expose the founding crimes on which all regimes were built and assert that conserving one’s state required periodic return to the terror and shock of an original founding.
Earlier princely advice literature had written the prince’s virtues in mirror. Reason of state focuses the prince’s calculations around what stato is—in Botero’s formulation, “a state is a firm rule over people.” Whether a prince possesses his state or whether a prime minister directs its government, embracing the state as “a firm rule over people” focuses the political arts on ensuring that the state rules worthily. Firm rule is integral to the character of the state: where there is firm rule there is the state, without it the state cannot be conserved.
Reason of state literature acknowledged where the power of the new, amoral reasoning was tending. Rather than harkening back to a golden age, reason of state simply accepted that moral guidance on its own would be insufficient to persuade modern princes against the Machiavellian path. The new type of prince needed a new model of statecraft founded in showing princes how advice born from Christian prudence could ensure success after Machiavelli had identified Christian education as the source of modern weakness.
Botero cites Aristotle’s emphasis on the conditions of conserving power and accepts that princes make acquisitions and take advantage of opportunities—Machiavelli’s key theme—but suggests that focusing on conserving is the greater challenge, as it requires focusing on internal and external enemies. “The conservation of a state,” Botero writes, “consists in the peace and quiet of the subjects,” as well as the absence of disturbances stemming from civil war or rebellion. Although the language of princely rule over subjects may strike the American ear afoul, most contemporary political discussion simply dances around the reality at the heart of these terms. Today we lament polarization (civil cold war) as well as loss of trust in institutions (rebellion). And after all the pointed uses of state power in recent years, it is obvious that anyone aspiring to high office in the United States should be able to answer the question: how do you intend to use the extraordinary power at your disposal? Instead of assuming that use of power is inherently abusive or Machiavellian, reason of state outlines the techniques of a power that strives for the political common good of peace, justice and abundance. To achieve this, reason of state focuses on identifying and coordinating the major stakeholders in any particular society. Where democratic theory speaks of interest coordination (through mechanisms as diverse as market signals or legislative logrolling), reason of state assumes that power will be exercised somewhere and seeks to order it toward the common good. It seeks to forestall “rebellion,” which it conceives of as the fracturing of power.
“In every state,” wrote Botero, “there are three sorts of persons: the rich, the poor, and those in the middle between the two extremes of these three types.” Like Aristotle before it, reason of state offers a ruler advice on how to use the power of his state to balance the three groups, recognizing their specific tendencies toward rebellion and dissolution of the state. Among the great, jealousy of power drives those in courtly life toward rebellion; too many noble lords can create an unwieldy governing structure (just as too few leads to weakness in war). But above all the problems of the great, Botero wrote, “truly nothing is more dangerous to republics than the sovereign greatness of an individual.” Such individuals, each successful by his own means, become presumptuous and detached from the state—particularly when they occupy positions within it. Botero marveled at the tendency of courts in his own age to empower just these sorts of people. “One can remedy these drawbacks,” he observed, “by not making use in important matters of arrogant or notably bold people because such men are by nature always planning something new, and boldness joined with power is restrained with difficulty.” Today’s ruling class is filled with such individuals—in many cases businessmen or start-up founders whose success inspires them with political boldness and cultural brazenness. Reason of state encourages rulers to devise policy to make each of the different parts of the city stakeholders in its common projects. Here, too, it follows Aristotle’s teaching closely: “It is a thing common to rule of the people and oligarchy and to monarchy and every regime,” wrote Aristotle, “not to allow any person to grow overly great contrary to proportion.” Seeking balance among the parts of the city comes from the political view of the reason of state tradition.
In the decades after Botero’s work, the reason of state tradition grew in influence due to its relevance and practicality in the world of the growing modern state. Reason of state taught princes to observe the particular qualities of each element of society contributing to the polity as a whole. It showed them that their power, when founded on the virtues and oriented toward security and abundance, could grow more secure and thus benefit their nations.
In France Richelieu (1585–1642) and Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61) both served as prime ministers under Louis XIII, with Mazarin continuing in the service of both Queen Anne and Louis XIV. In his administration of the French state, Richelieu made his name synonymous with building modern state capacity, as well as with cunning. Indeed, all of France’s leading cardinal politicians in the seventeenth century cultivated an anti-Machiavellian reputation—though with mixed success. As the eighteenth-century French diplomat Gallien de Salmorenc wrote in his Bréviaire des Politiques (1769), “Duperron, Richelieu, Mazarin and Dubois were crying out loud against Machiavelli: they were imitating him in a whisper; they spoke as Christ Jesus and acted as Alexander VI.” Yet as we have seen, suspicions such as these reflect the success of Machiavelli in equating political cunning with his own strategic framework.
Richelieu left behind a Testament politique with his reflections (likely put to paper by secretaries) on all the aspects of governing the French state. Though crafted to place his own actions in the most favorable light, Richelieu’s Testament proposes a view of the constituent parts of France with the goal of ordering them toward the common good. “I must say,” wrote Richelieu, reflecting on the administrative chaos inherited by Louis XIII, “that everyone measured his own merit by his audacity; . . . that the most scheming were held to be the wisest, and often found themselves the most prosperous.” In such a situation, power is conserved but the state is dissolved—in the absence of guiding rule, centrifugal force leads to chaos.
Reason of state guides princes toward protecting the common good by orienting each part of society toward the whole. Guided well, the nobility (or, more generally, the great leaders of society) are “capable of contributing much to its preservation and stability.” Leading the nobility requires encouraging their virtues while preventing them from exploiting the people. Accordingly, great men should be held to a stricter standard and dealt with more harshly when falling from their high estate. “While the nobility merits to be generously treated if it does well,” Richelieu writes, “it is necessary at the same time to be severe with it if it ever fails in what its status demands of it.”
Richelieu was certainly severe with the nobility. By forbidding them from maintaining fortified castles, he decreased their military power and lowered the likelihood that they would be able to resist royal decrees. But the effectiveness of royal decrees depended in turn on the king exhibiting the qualities that he sought to inculcate in the body politic. “The good conduct of a moral prince,” Richelieu writes, “banishes more vice from his realm than all the orders he can give looking toward the desired end.” The prince’s goodness goes together with his ability to bring the nobility to heel. He should do so directly, by ordering policies with specific goals in mind—such as reordering corrupt universities or curbing the influence of Silicon Valley executives.
Finally, Richelieu interprets reason of state not simply as a method for identifying the state’s interests but as the heart of and guide of government. “If man is sovereignly reasonable,” he writes, “he ought to make reason sovereign, which requires not only that he do nothing not in conformity with it, but also that he make all those who are under his authority reverence it and follow it religiously.” While the praise Richelieu gives to the role of reason in politics may seem characteristic of the Enlightenment era, it is better viewed—like reason of state as a whole—as an explanation of why rule according to the common good is rational.
The English conservative tradition has emphasized history and tradition as the key elements of government, whose essential elements, having developed over a long time, should be preserved as a reflection of incremental wisdom. Reason of state evaluates the constituent parts of the state on the basis of their current contribution to its power and security. As a part of that, reason of state counsels princes not to be rash in overturning customs, pastimes, and other traditions that hold society together stably. Instead of linking Christian rule to a kind of incoherent traditionalism, reason of state argues that respect for traditions is reasonable.
Making reason sovereign is not simply a matter of abstract decision-making. In fact, Richelieu’s chapter on making reason sovereign links rational decision-making with the importance of follow-through. Although Richelieu says that it is better to win men’s wills by the evident rationality of one’s commands, he also advises not turning away from good objectives “unless some untoward accident makes it entirely unachievable.” Here, too, the reason of state tradition embraces the use of secrecy and diligence (later identified, in the American tradition, with the secrecy and dispatch of the executive).
Richelieu sees the public interest most often threatened not in the formulation of overall plans but rather in the course of their execution. When putting plans into action, writes Richelieu, “distracting interests, pity and compassion, favoritism and importunities of all sorts obstruct their best intentions,” and private considerations worm their way into public counsel. Once policy is set toward the public interest, however, ruling within the mindset of reason of state becomes focused on secrecy, diligence, reward and punishment, and counterintelligence.
“Christians ought to forget their personal injuries,” the cardinal writes, “but magistrates must not forget those which affect the public interest.” As courtly schemers pose a particular danger to the state, Richelieu embraces every technique of modern counterintelligence to uproot them. In doing so, he seeks to secure power not for its own sake, but for the sake of a state governed in the public interest—orienting the parts of the polity toward a common task. Reason of state has the unique capacity to focus the political mind because it assumes that power will either be used in the public favor or distorted by magistrates to private benefit and disintegration of the state. While its terms may lie far from the lips of most conservative American politicos, it describes the dynamics encountered in the modern state because the state arose out of the processes it describes.
Consider the questions most often asked of contemporary political power. Has the state become too powerful in the lives of ordinary citizens? Do politicians use fear in order to heighten obedience to (“compliance with”) controversial mandates? Shouldn’t citizens be seen as individuals entitled to participate in public life without manipulation by politicians? Can we not expect politicians to finally be transparent about the operations of the government (and can’t the Vatican do the same)?
Conservatives usually answer these questions by calling on liberty to resist power in the name of our traditions, while demanding answers, accountability and transparency in decisions of state. Yet conservatives in the United States and Western Europe have not been able to bring the state to a heel. Statecraft is resolutely in the hands of those willing to exploit the available opportunities to secure and advance their power. While good people may dislike this genuinely Machiavellian approach to politics, complaining about it—as Botero and the other anti-Machiavellians knew—would do nothing to replace it.
Reason of state answers these questions by showing that secure power, exercised in the public interest, is the condition of achieving a common good out of the action of society’s diverse components. Neglecting to rule does not lead to the absence of power but to its lodging elsewhere—among corporate oligarchs (today’s nobility) or even regulatory agencies captured by corporate power. A good leader today could, as Aristotle himself advised, use a good fear—for example, of the dangers to come from collapsing families—to support programs in the public interest, all the while using counterintelligence to prevent schemers from capturing state power for private or foreign benefit.
One common reaction to reason of state literature, especially among conservative Christians, is surprise at its worldliness. The statesmen and writers presenting themselves as the counter-Machiavellian tradition embraced many of the same themes as Machiavelli’s unburdened craftsmen of power. State, power, glory, security, acquisition, abundance—could these themes really lie at the heart of politics from the standpoint of the common good? Critics sometimes claim that the classical tradition of common good statecraft is concerned with an unrealistic end state of religious uniformity and enforced piety, impractical and unconcerned with specific questions of policy. But in truth, it is the critics who are unrealistic and have been fooled by Machiavelli’s attempt to cast the Church’s goals as a disabling falsehood. He appointed himself prince of distilling the true qualities necessary for rule by depicting the classical tradition as a slurry of vain imaginings.
Characterizing the classical tradition as otherworldly and impractical may be Machiavelli’s greatest rhetorical success, for it has left modern students of politics focused on just those elements of the tradition. Young future Washingtonians fortunate enough to traverse a classical curriculum might read Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of the best regime or Saint Thomas’s account of natural law. They will never read the worldly wisdom of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, still less the practical advice of Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum. The section of Aristotle’s Politics filled with tactics for preserving rule rarely appears. The Machiavellian tradition has succeeded in making political strategy, cunning, rationalism, power, state, security, acquisition, abundance, punishment, diplomacy, counterintelligence, foresight all watchwords of today’s mercenary powers. But as the liberal order becomes ever less able to deliver on any of these its supposed hallmarks, the path is open for enterprising Christian statesmen to embrace reason of state.
It will be objected by some earnest Christians that all of this misses the point. The most important thing, they will argue, is not politics or earthly power but the salvation of souls, which is the work of God, not man. I can only make a brief response here: they are correct. But here too we must resist the temptation to cede ground to Machiavelli; political power is not solely the province of cynics, warlords, and murderers, but also the station of Constantine, Charlemagne, and Louis IX. As Saint Paul teaches, the salvation of souls requires Christians to act in concrete ways to create the conditions for God to work their salvation. “How then shall they invocate in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” For Christians, these are not empty pieties; they are duties, and duties that can only be fulfilled in political action. It is political power that is used to force abortion on this country. With the same political power our adversaries threaten churches and silence and censor those who preach the Gospel. Therefore it is political power—among other things—which must be used to restore and lift up their voices. It is written in the book of Proverbs: “in the multiplication of just men, the common people shall rejoice: when the impious shall take princedom, the people shall mourn.” We do not worship the state; we worship Christ. But we do seek to exercise power, as the anti-Machiavellians knew, for His glory.
Gladden Pappin is a visiting senior fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, on leave from the University of Dallas. He is a cofounder of both American Affairs and Postliberal Order.