The reason of state: origins of the concept

The reason of state: origins of the concept

The " ragione di Stato ", In French the" state reason ", Is a concept of political philosophy that appeared in the 16th century in Italian space. This idea then allowed states to justify their actions, illegal though they were, in the name of the public good and for the conservation and exercise of political power. For a long time, we considered Nicholas machiavelli as the inventor of the concept. But what is it really?

Around the authorship of the concept

The authorship of the concept of reason of state is uncertain. However, it now seems established that the basis of the idea originated at the beginning of the 16th century with Nicolas Machiavelli, who justified the use of bad means for just ends in his major work, The prince. According to British historian Quentin Skinner, for Machiavelli, " you have to be prepared to do anything, no matter how unpleasant, in order to maintain your state. » The prince expresses it quite clearly in the chapter devoted to " Way in which princes should observe the faith » :

« Everyone sees what you appear, few feel what you are, and this small number does not take the courage to oppose the opinion of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men and especially of princes, for whom there is no tribunal to protest against, we look to the end. Let a prince therefore ensure that he conquers and maintains the state and the means will always be considered honorable and will be praised by everyone. »

In Machiavelli there is not the idea of ​​the modern state, in its most abstract sense. In a way, in his writings, Machiavelli introduces the " state As a unit of meaning, and in no way as a concept or an idea. Still according to Quentin Skinner, " we must go to the humanists, heirs of the Italians, in France and England of the XVIecentury, especially those whose primary focus was legal humanism To find the evocation of the state as a concept of modern political philosophy. In short, to find the real first applications of " ragione di Stato ", reason of state.

The first applications of the concept of reason of state

The invention of "reason of state" is often wrongly attributed to Machiavelli. The literary tradition has, moreover, and over the centuries, consecrated this author as the fundamental vector for the propagation of the idea, so much his work was read, edited and distributed in Europe. The Florentine therefore considered that it could be legitimate for a Prince to use insidious means, thus reserving virtue for other occasions, in order to serve his own interests - or those of the political community he represents, by its status and its socio-political position.

François Guichardin, also a Florentine, friend and contemporary of Nicolas Machiavelli, from whom he notably took up the idea of ​​reason of state, was one of the first authors to have used this concept in full in his Ricordi. Advice and warnings in political and private matters. In this regard, Maurizio Viroli, in a work devoted to Machiavelli, explains that “ the real intellectual masterpiece was the invention of his friend Guichardin, or the rediscovery of the concept [for reasons of state]. »Thus, he seems to introduce the possible birth of the notion in the Machiavelli-Guichardin binomial. While the former used it as a unit of meaning, the latter gave it its name and truly erected it as a concept.

It is therefore essential to consider the birth of raison d'etat as the fruit of a joint ideological and intellectual reflection, the conclusion of the involuntary collaboration of two major thinkers of the sixteenth century. Also, in his political approach, Guichardin remains deeply Machiavellian.

The reason of state called into question

Erasmus, followed by a whole series of northern European humanists, took an interest in this essential question of the preservation of the state, per fas and nefas, as well as the means to be implemented within the framework of this final objective. So it was in this specific context of the Reformation that Machiavelli, in England and France, was accused of being a " atheist politics ", Despising any moral interest in the exercise of power.

Thus, in 1539, in his Dialogue between Reginald Pole and Thomas Lupset, Englishman Thomas Starkey sees the thinker of the Republic of Florence as the destroyer of all political virtues. The most violent attack on Machiavelli, and certainly the most famous, was that of Innocent Gentillet, who, a few decades later, in 1576, in his Anti-Machiavelli, judge the maxims of the Florentine "loathsome ". Also, Machiavelli's thought, on the idea of ​​reason of state, taken up at the same time by Guichardin, marks the beginning of long debates in Europe, until the 1570s, and even afterwards. of the.

The reason of state, or the preservation of the state at all costs, has gained ground since its inception in the 16th century. Proof of this is that politicians still apply it today. For example, François Mitterand has often been credited with reading the Prince of Machiavelli. Moreover, the literature which revolves around raison d'etat has not only established it as a concept, but as a true "ancestor of political science". Thus, one could consider that the will of Barack Obama not to disseminate the photographs of the death of Osama bin Laden consists of an application of the reason of state: it is a matter of preserving state interests above all. , in the face of possible international criticism, which could prove to be harmful.


- SKINNER Quentin, The foundations of modern political thought (transl.), Paris, Albin Michel, Bibliothèque de l'Evolution de l'Humanité, 2009; original edition: SKINNER Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978, 2 vols.

- Reason of State and political thought at the time of Richelieu, Etienne Thuau. Albin Michel, 2000.

- BORGNA Romain, FAGGION Lucien (dir.), Le Prince by Fra Paolo. Political practices and forma mentis of the patriciate in Venice in the 17th century, Aix-en-Provence, University of Provence, 2011, p. 102-105 [development on the reason of state].

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