Raison d’État

Norbert Campagna


1In 1589, in a book that bears this title, the Italian Jesuit Giovanni Botero defined raison d’État as the knowledge (notizia) of the proper means of founding preserving and increasing political power (dominio). Though often associated with the name of Machiavelli, the term raison d’État is not to be found in the Florentine’s writings. It is also absent, with one exception (Pensées, no. 1993), from the writings of Montesquieu, though he uses often the term politique. For many writers of the seventeenth century, the politiques, and notably Machiavelli and Bodin, appear as the theoreticians of the “bad” raison d’État, to which they oppose a “good” raison d’État. The debate hinges on one question, ever current: does political action sometimes require recourse to extralegal and/or immoral means? Or in the animal metaphors of Machiavelli: must the prince sometimes become a lion or a fox and cease being human? And can he sacrifice the individual’s happiness on the altar of the common good?

2Montesquieu takes up this question in several writings, such as “De la politique” of 1725, a short text in which he returns to certain subjects of the Traité des devoirs (1725), of which only a synopsis subsists. Other minor writings, like the “Réflexions sur le caractère de quelques princes et sur quelques événements de leur vie” (‘Reflections on the character of some princes and on some events in their lives’), written between 1731 and 1733, or again his “Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion” of 1716, but also certain books or chapters of The Spirit of Law add elements that allow us to read Montesquieu in the light of the debate relative to the raison d’État. And in the Pensées we find several reflections relating to the principles of politics or to the figure of the Prince – for example the “general precepts of politics” (Pensées, no. 1077).

3In his only explicit allusion to raison d’État, Montesquieu compares the situation of princes to that of individuals. He asserts that the latter have no “raisons d’État to satisfy [their] passions” and must therefore sacrifice them (Pensées, no. 1993). By “raisons d’État” – a plural that is not unwonted – we are to understand reasons relative to the preservation of the state and which relate to the princip-le of the Law of the Twelve Tables, cited by Montesquieu: the safety of the republic is the supreme good (EL, XXVI, 23). So to the law of Voconius which “sacrificed both the citizen and the man, and thought only of the republic” (EL, XXVII, 1). In the passage of the Pensées just cited, Montesquieu sometimes allows it to be seen that behind these raisons d’État are often hidden princes’ passions, in particular the passion for power, whereas they pretend to be concerned for the good of the state. Thus they prove to be, as Machiavelli advised them to be, good simulators and dissimulators.

4Other passages in Montesquieu’s works echo debates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: “Finally, the good man discussed in book III, chapter 5, is not the Christian good man, but the political good man, who has the political virtue of which I have spoken” (“Enfin, l’homme de bien, dont il est question dans le livre III, chapitre V, n’est pas l’homme de bien chrétien, mais l’homme de bien politique, qui a la vertu politique dont j’ai parlé”, EL, notice to the posthumous edition), which is the love of country. And he writes elsewhere: “All the moral vices are not political vices” (“Tous les vices moraux ne sont pas des vices politiques”, EL, XIX, 11). What condemns the moral integrity of the individual does not necessarily condemn the state. If he does not follow Machiavelli, who places the country’s salvation above the soul’s, Montesquieu nevertheless distinguishes Christian virtue from political virtue.

5He also distinguishes two different points of view on religion when he asserts: “We are politicians here and not theologians […] (“Nous sommes ici politiques et non pas théologiens […]”, EL, XXV, 9). The theologian is interested in the question of the truth of religion, the politician the question of his contribution to the maintenance of the state and the terrestrial goods which he must promote. He will accept if need be, by raison d’État, his subjects’ embracing a religion he knows to be false. His “fundamental principle of political laws with respect to religion” reflects the prudential approach proper to certain theoreticians of the raison d’État: “When one has the power to receive or not to receive a new religion in a state, it must not be received; when it is established, it must be tolerated” (“Quand on est maître de recevoir dans un État une nouvelle religion, ou de ne la pas recevoir, il ne faut pas l’y établir ; quand elle y est établie, il faut la tolérer”, EL, XXV, 10).

6The Romans were politicians with respect to religion: “I find this difference between the Roman legislators and those of other peoples: the former made religion for the state and the others the state for religion” (“[J]e trouve cette différence entre les législateurs romains et ceux des autres peuples, que les premiers firent la religion pour l’État et les autres l’État pour la religion”, Dissertation on the Romans’ policies in religion, OC, t. VIII, p. 83). That caused them to adopt false beliefs and absurd practices, but “it was only for good reasons that they sinned against reason itself” (“ce ne fut que par de bonnes raisons qu’ils [les Romains] péchèrent contre la raison même”, p. 86). In the Discourse on Cicero of 1716, Montesquieu speaks of the art of haruspices “which was established at first by the magistrates’ policy among coarse peoples, and weakened by the same policy when they became more enlightened” (“qui fut établi dans le commencement par la politique des magistrats chez des peuples grossiers, et affaibli par la même politique lorsqu’ils devinrent plus éclairés”, OC, t. VIII, p. 127). Like civil laws, religion must be adapted to the spirit of a people to contribute to its terrestrial happiness.

7In such a case, the role of the theologians and ecclesiastics as counselors to the prince is again in question. In his Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and of their decadence, Montesquieu shows how the ecclesiastics came to insert themselves more and more into political matters and details the harm that resulted from it (Romains, xxii, OC, t. II, p. 272). In the Pensées he has a fictional character – M. Zamega – say that theologians and ecclesiastics should not have any influence on the prince’s decisions (Pensées, no. 540). And one of the maxims of politics stipulates that “the maxims of religion are highly pernicious when they are brought into human politics” Pensées, no. 1007). He repeats this thought in the “Memoir on the silence to impose on the Constitution” of 1754 (OC, t. IX, p. 534). Montesquieu thus sets himself apart from the theoreticians of the “good” raison d’État, for whom political success depends on the influence of theologians on political decisions.

8This latter thesis rests on the idea of a divine providence that governs human affairs and makes them prosper only insofar as they are in conformity with morality and religion. In thus manner, morality and utility are united and the tragic possibility of a necessary but immoral action is excluded. Montesquieu has recourse to an analogous strategy: “As nothing so offends justice as what is ordinarily called politics, that science of ruse and artifice, the author in chapter 13 decries it more usefully than if he were proving its injustice. He shows its futility” (“Comme rien ne choque plus la justice que ce qu’on appelle ordinairement la politique, cette science de ruse et d’artifice, l’auteur dans le chapitre xiii la décrie d’une façon plus utile que s’il en prouvait l’injustice. Il en montre l’inutilité”, résumé of Traité des devoirs, OC, t. VIII, p. 439). In “De la politique”, Montesquieu asserts that he hopes to turn the great away from politics by showing them its futility; it is placed in relation to the “passions independent of the yoke of laws” (OC, t. VIII, p. 511). In these two quotations, politics appears opposed to justice and to the principle of legality, but if the second does not nuance, the first suggests that the term “politics” (politique) has taken on a meaning it did not originally have. It is to this noble origin that allusion is made in the following Pensée: “Greek politicians. Indeed, the science of the arts that are of some utility to men who live in society is subordinated to the great art that fashions and governs societies” (Pensées, no. 1926). The reference here is to the architectonic conception of politics in Aristotle. Like theoreticians of the “good” raison d’État, Montesquieu observes that politics has been reduced to a body of practices contrary to morality, and which frees itself from any reference to the common good.

9It is to this conception that Montesquieu alludes when he observes that in politics princes play the game of Phryne, a “game in which each guest orders in turn what all the guests must do”: Phryne “ordered water to be brought so everyone could wash his face. Phryne remained in her natural beauty, and all the others became hideous” (Pensées, no. 1725). It is in part also this ugliness of their actions that politicians wish to hide, and the Président de Thou placed himself in this perspective when he justified the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre by declaring that “anyone who did not know how to dissimulate did not know how to reign” (Pensées, no. 1995). Louis XIV is presented as a sovereign who “had the forms of justice, of politics [in the sense of the great art of the Greeks], and of devotion, the subtleties of politics [in the sense of the science of ruse and artifice]” (Pensées, no. 1122). Men often allow themselves to be deceived by forms and do not perceive the government’s ruse – Machiavelli’s fox: “Sylle, an impetuous man, leads the Romans violently to liberty; Augustus, a wily tyrant, leads them gently into servitude” (“Sylla, homme emporté, mène violemment les Romains à la liberté ; Auguste, rusé tyran, les conduit doucement à la servitude”, Romans, xiii, p. 188). Augustus knows how to deceive men. Another sovereign, Frederick II of Prussia, is praised for having “treated the subject of anti-Machiavellism; and it is fine that those maxims that until now have horrified subjects should still horrify princes (Pensées, no. 1506).

10In the framework of such a purely utilitarian conception of politics, success becomes the single criterion for judging an action. Montesquieu alludes to this in the Pensées when he speaks of the Spanish exactions in the New World, “sole means of preserving and which, consequently, the machiavellians could hardly call cruel” (“moyen unique de conserver, et que, par conséquent, les machiavélistes ne sauraient nommer cruel”, Pensées, no 207, prior to 1731). The author speaks here of “machiavellians” and not of Machiavelli, since for him the efficacy or necessity of a means did not make its cruelty disappear: the Prince does not reassure his conscience by telling himself that a cruelty justified does not place the salvation of his soul in peril, but he is prepared to sacrifice his soul for the political good. In this, he can elicit a degree of admiration: “The heroism which morality avows touches but few people. It is the heroism that destroys morality that strikes us and causes our admiration” (“Le héroïsme que la morale avoue ne touche que peu de gens. C’est le héroïsme qui détruit la morale qui nous frappe et cause notre admiration”, Pensées, no 458, prior to 1731). Montesquieu moreover does not hesitate to speak of the “genius of a great politician [who] seeks to establish power before making it felt” (“n’hésite d’ailleurs pas à parler du « génie d’un grand politique [qui] cherche à établir la puissance avant de la faire sentir”, Pensées, no 1302, prior to 1739). Augustus in this sense had been a great politician.

11The virulence of anti-machiavellianism at the end of the sixteenth century is explained in large part by the religious wars. It was the Huguenot Innocent Gentillet who opened the hostilities. In his Anti-Machiavelli of 1576, he represented Catherine de’ Medici and the Catholic camp as worthy pupils of Machiavelli who, intending to establish a political science, in fact established a tyrannical science. Montesquieu mentions the religious wars in several places. He declares with respect to the assassination of the Duke de Guise that “in whatever circumstances the king may have found himself, it is impossible to approve what he did” (“dans quelques circonstances que le roi se trouvât, il est impossible d’approuver ce qu’il fit”, Pensées, no 616, passage struck out, prior to 1734). Elsewhere, he approves of the hanging of the Sixteen by the Duke de Mayenne, who “was following justice and not politics” (Pensées, no. 1302, prior to 1739). The assassination of Guise was an act of politics or raison d’État, just as the St. Bartholomew’s massacre, which Montesquieu takes offense to see justified in parlement by the Président de Thou: “It was a greater crime for a cold-blooded magistrate to have justified that action than for a violent council to have decided on it, and for soldiers to have carried it out” (“Ce fut un plus grand crime à un magistrat de sang-froid, d’avoir justifié cette action, qu’à un conseil violent de l’avoir résolue, et à des soldats de l’avoir exécutée”, Pensées, no. 1995). The king had the Duke de Guise eliminated solely because he was becoming too popular; the Sixteen were hanged because they had committed crimes. In The Spirit of Law he mentions Crillon, who was prepared to kill Guise in single combat, but refused to assassinate him (EL, IV, 2): he thereby expressed a sense of honor in contradiction with Henri III’s raison d’État. If the “refinements” of politics do not offend the monarchy, they must nevertheless be joined “to the idea of grandeur of the mind or the grandeur of the affairs” (ibid.). Montesquieu elsewhere establishes a link between recourse to the “bad” raison d’État and his theory of climates, writing that in cold climates one finds “fewer suspicions, less politics and ruses” (EL, XIV, 2).

12The ruses and subtleties of politicians are not only futile, but also conterproductive, for “the reputation they have of excelling in their art discourages almost everyone from dealing with them, and […] they find themselves for that reason deprived of all the advantages of conventions” (“la réputation qu’ils ont d’exceller dans leur art, dégoûte presque tout le monde de traiter avec eux et […] ils se trouvent par là privés de tous les avantages des conventions”, summary of Traité des devoirs, p. 439). The treaties and conventions made between princes have become valueless because of the “bad faith [which] has become so prevalent in politics” (Pensées, no 743). That bad faith already existed in Roman times (Romans, vi, p. 131 ss.). Montesquieu thus deplores “that politicians’ views are shortsighted” (Pensées, no. 20, prior to 1731). Thus he criticizes the princes who think they can increase their power by ruining a neighboring state (Pensées, no. 318, prior to 1731). In a Europe which is “a state composed of several provinces”, each state needs the others’ opulence in order to increase its own. Cooperation is thus necessary, and it presupposes confidence, which cannot arise where there is bad faith.

13It is interesting that Montesquieu should write these lines precisely in a chapter devoted to the rise of commerce in Europe: “We have begun to get over Machiavellism, and will continue to do so every day. More moderation in the councils is needed. What was once called coups d’État would today, independently of the horror, be merely instances of imprudence” (“On a commencé à se guérir du machiavélisme, et on s’en guérira tous les jours. Il faut plus de modération dans les conseils. Ce qu’on appelait autrefois des coups d’État ne serait aujourd’hui, indépendamment de l’horreur, que des imprudences”, EL, XXI, 20). Rather than combating the “bad” raison d’État only on moral terrain – where it inspires horror – we must also attempt to defeat it with its own weapons, by showing that the political prudence which it pretends to incarnate is nothing but imprudence. The facts have indeed proven that “great coups d’autorité have turned out to be so inept that it is a recognized experience that there only the goodness of a government can now bring prosperity” (“les grands coups d’autorité se sont trouvés si maladroits, que c’est une expérience reconnue, qu’il n’y a plus que la bonté du gouvernement qui donne de la prospérité”, EL, XXI, 16 [20]). If Machiavelli did not forbid the prince to be good, he nevertheless recommended that he always be prepared to become mean – violent or devious – if the circumstances so required, political prudence informing the prince when that must be the case. For Montesquieu, ruse leads to the abasement of human nature, and a politician that uses one risks appearing weak. And such weakness, combined with the unworthy means by which it tries to compensate for it, risks attracting scorn, whereas its victim will elicit compassion (Pensées, no. 1565).

14It is the inability to place themselves in the long term and their propensity to see only the immediate advantages that incites numerous princes to violate certain laws, for “it can happen that the good one does by offending the laws of the state appears greater than the former”, in other words the good one does by respecting the laws of the state; but this is only an appearance, and “the good based on overturning the laws of the state can only be compared to the harm that follows that very overturning” (Pensées, no. 1998). As for superstition, Montesquieu declares to be sure that wise legislators have sometimes advantageously had recourse to it, but that “humankind in general has lost thereby a thousand times more than it has gained” (Pensées, no. 1265). Raison d’État can thus find itself in conflict with the raison of humankind.

15Montesquieu is realistic – or political – enough to recognize that governments must sometimes free themselves from strict legality: “If one is obliged to step outside the law, one must at least step back in as soon as possible. If one is obliged to do things which by their nature are not good, one must do them the least badly than one can” (“Si l’on est obligé de sortir de la loi, il faut, du moins, y rentrer le plus tôt qu’il est possible. Si l’on est obligé de faire des choses qui, par leur nature, ne sont pas bonnes, il faut les faire le moins mal qu’il est possible”, Pensées, no. 1749). The author specifies in introducing this piece of advice that it is addressed to magistrates “as an honest man speaks to another honest man”. This notion of honesty could correspond to Cicero’s fourth point, “a certain suitability of actions, secundum ordinem et modum”, Pensées, no. 1263).

16Bills of attainder provide Montesquieu with a first concrete example of those actions that go outside the strict legal framework (Pensées, no. 1665). In English common law, two witnesses are required to find someone guilty. But the party guilty of high crime may well have got rid of all the witnesses; rather than give up on a guilty verdict, the English legislator has reserved the right to make personal laws in this sort of case. If in the Pensées Montesquieu is content to describe this practice, he observes in its regard in The Spirit of Law that “the practice of the freest peoples who ever lived on the earth leads [him] to believe that there are cases where a veil must temporarily be placed over freedom, as statues of the gods are hidden” (“l’usage des peuples les plus libres qui aient jamais été sur la terre, [lui] fait croire qu’il y a des cas où il faut mettre, pour un moment, un voile sur la liberté, comme l’on cache les statues des dieux”, EL, XII, 19). The “temporarily” echoes the “step back in as soon as possible” (above) of the Pensées. And the description of the English procedure – with public debate, the accused having the right to defend himself – is supposed to show that the English seek to do something which in itself is not good by doing “the least harm they can”.

17This exhortation to return as soon as possible to “the ordinary functioning of government where the laws protect everything and take arms against no one” (EL, XII, 18) recurs when Montesquieu speaks of a republic which must decide on the fate of those who have tried to overturn it, providing him thereby with a second concrete example. If the “bad” raison d’État would suggest eliminating them to avoid preserving potential enemies in its bosom, Montesquieu takes the longer view and asserts that by allowing immoderate acts to those who govern, one places “great power in the hands of a few citizens”, and “[under] pretext of the republic’s vengeance one would establish the tyranny of the avengers” (ibid.). The following article does not apply to those who envisage recourse to means outside the law: “Because men are evil, the laws are obliged to suppose them better than they are” (Pensées, no. 824, prior to 1739). When a coup d’État is involved, it might be more prudent to suppose them worse than they are.

18Tyrannicide provides a third example, but as it were in reverse. In Romans, Montesquieu speaks of a “dominant love of country which, making an exception to the ordinary rules of crimes and virtues”, leads to an action “which on3 could not at first approve of because it was atrocious”, but which is ultimately “admired as divine”. The assassination of Cæsar is as impossible to approve of as that of Guise; whereas the latter does not originate in virtue, the former does. By killing Cæsar, Brutus manifested a “virtue [which] seemed to forget itself in order to surpass itself” (Romans, xi, p. 175). Brutus took no account of any of the bonds uniting him with Cæsar and thus freed himself from all his obligations towards him. In this sense, his act was atrocious. But he carried it out only to preserve that form of government that alone gave value to bonds of citizenship, friendship, and so on.

19In the Spicilège Montesquieu asserts that “Machiavelli spoke of princes only as Samuel did, without approving of them […] he was a great republican” (“Machiavel n’a parlé des princes que comme Samuel en a parlé sans les approuver […] il était grand républicain”, no. 529; OC, t. 12, p. 468). Rousseau will make an analogous reading of Machiavelli, but that does not go to the essential: the fundamental question is not whether Machiavelli was a partisan of the principality or the republic, but whether a republican would disapprove of the means employed to establish or preserve a republic, when he would do so if it were a principality. When Machiavelli speaks of immoral means in his Discorsi, a republican work, does he also do so without approval?

20If Bodin and Machiavelli were for many seventeenth-century European thinkers writers who must not be followed because of their immorality, Tacitus, who had been rediscovered thanks to Justus Lipsius, appeared to them as an alternative to the “politicians”. Tacitean politics was thus to become a synonym for the “good” raison d’État for writers who did not want to take inspiration from sacred history and the examples of Moses and Joshua, and could not, without loss of respectability, refer to Machiavelli. In the seventeenth century there appeared in Italy and Spain numerous compilations of maxims drawn from Tacitus, the end of which was to inspire the politics of those who governed so as to establish an inductive political science, based on the examples of history, particularly Roman history. By reading Tacitus one could discover the means that permitted the preservation of the state and those that led to its ruin. That presupposes that the general laws remained the same and that it sufficed to apply them to the new circumstances.

21Montesquieu rejects Tacitism: “Little good does it do politicians to study their Tacitus: all they will find is subtle reflections about facts which would require the eternity of the world to return in the same circumstances” (“Les politiques ont beau étudier leur Tacite : ils n’y trouveront que des réflexions subtiles sur des faits qui auraient besoin de l’éternité du monde pour revenir dans les mêmes circonstances”, Pensées, no. 843, prior to 1739). Under these conditions it is illusory to try to foresee events. Already in the Traité des devoirs (1725) Montesquieu undertook to show that most effects “depend on causes so imperceptible, or so distant, that one cannot foresee them” (“dépendent de causes si imperceptibles, ou si éloignées, qu’on ne peut les prévoir”, OC, t. VIII, p. 439); he adds that one of politicians’ principal errors is to believe that men always act in a reasonable and thus foreseeable manner. For Montesquieu, men often act out of passion or whim (ibid., p. 439 and 511). Whereas the Tacitists try to elaborate a political prudence that can guide someone who governs, supposing him to be perfectly rational and acting in a world which is also perfectly rational, Montesquieu asserts that such prudence “comes down to very little in most cases” (ibid., p. 514). Political matters are not subject to rational calculation, but to “whim and fortune, in other words to man” (EL, XIX, 27). Behind these men there is still “the supreme cause that does what it wills, and uses whatever it wills” (EL, XVI, 2). That supreme cause is the nature of things, and it is only if raison d’État submits to her that it will have some chance of success.


Jean Bodin, Les Six Livres de la République [1576], Paris: Fayard, 1986.

Giovanni Botero, La Ragion di Stato [1589], Rome: Donzelli Editore, 1997.

Yves-Charles Zarka ed., Raison et déraison d’État: théoriciens et théories de la raison d’État aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1994.

Rüdiger Voigt (Hrsg), Staatsräson: steht die Macht über dem Recht? Baden Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2012.

Norbert Campagna, Staatsverständnisse im spanischen “siglo de oro”, Baden Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2013.

Bibliographical reference

Campagna Norbert , « Raison d’État », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : http://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/1377722859/en