Two Excerpts from Giovanni Botero’s Counter-Reformation Treatise on Statecraft

In the dedication to his Della Ragion di Stato Libri Dieci [The Reason of State in Ten Books], written at Rome on 10 May 1589, the Italian political philosopher and diplomat Giovanni Botero (c.1544–1617) is at pains to distinguish his text from that of the great Florentine, Machiavelli:

In recent years I have been obliged by various circumstances to make many journeys, both on my own account and in the service of friends and patrons, and to frequent, more than I should have wished, the courts of kings and great princes, in Italy and beyond the Alps. 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. It seemed to me that since I was so often among people whose talk was of these things, I might be worthily employed in giving some account of them. A glance at the works of these two authors showed me that Machiavelli bases his Reason of State on lack of conscience and that Tiberius justified his cruelty and tyranny by an inhuman lex majestatis and in other ways that would not have been tolerated by the most humble of women, still less by Romans, had not Cassius been the last of the Romans. I was amazed that so impious an author and so wicked a tyrant should be held in such esteem that they are thought to provide ideal examples of the methods by which states should be governed and administered; and 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. This is both irrational and blasphemous, for he who would deprive conscience of its universal jurisdiction over all that concerns man in his public as well as in his private life shows thereby that he has no soul and no God. The very beasts possess a natural instinct which turns them towards useful things and away from harmful ones: shall then the light of reason and dictates of conscience, bestowed upon man to enable him to distinguish good and evil, be obscured in affairs of state, mute in matters of importance? Provoked by indignation or zeal, I have often been emboldened to write of the corruption fostered by these two men in the policy and counsel of princes, from which have arisen discord within the Church of God and strife among Christians; accordingly I have set out to treat of the Reason of State in this book which I now send to Your Most Illustrious Lordship [i.e., Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, who governed the ecclesiastical principality of Salzburg from 1587 to 1612]. The noise of courts and the obligations of service, as well as my limited ability, forbid me to claim that I have depicted it in colour, still less that I have brought it to life. But wishing it to have some greater embellishment before passing into the hands of its readers, I have been so bold as to honour it with the glorious name of Your Most Illustrious Lordship.

(G. Botero, Dedication, The Reason of State [Della Ragion di Stato, 1589; rev. 1598], English trans. by P. J. and D. P. Waley, 1956, xiii–xiv)

While Botero proceeds to adopt many of Machiavelli’s arguments — “especially in his pragmatic defence of Christianity as a religion calculated to ensure the obedience of subjects to their ruler” (D. P. Waley, Introduction, viii) — Botero’s attempt to restore ethics and conscience to their rightful place in the science of politics was significant.

This reaction against the Machiavellian approach is not asserted openly except in the Dedication, nor is it pressed to its logical conclusions, yet in it lies the true importance of the book. The age was not notable for virtue in high places and Machiavelli’s acceptance of this situation as a necessary evil was general. Botero’s repeated emphasis on justice and integrity as qualities requisite in a ruler should perhaps be attributed to his acquaintance with Cardinal Charles Borromeo, from whose example he learnt that a good and saintly character might yet be an effective one. Botero recommends piety and the observance of treaties on grounds of expediency (Book II, chapters 14 and 15; Book V, chapter 1) rather than because such conduct is good in itself but, despite this timidity, his attitude marks a fundamental change. After being banished from the vocabulary of political discussion by Machiavelli as irrelevant, morality was reinstated in a position of honour.

(D. P. Waley, Introduction, in Giovanni Botero[’s] The Reason of State, translated by P. J. and D. P. Waley, 1956, ix)

Botero’s 20th-century translator and editor argues that, for the most part, Botero’s Della Ragion di Stato lacks profundity: “So cautious is Botero about generalisations that his advice is detailed and for the most part trite.” (D. P. Waley, Introduction, viii) Although influenced by the “new” thinkers (e.g., Jean Bodin’s Six Livres de la République), Botero preferred a dated scholastic approach and style, relying heavily on classical authors, especially the Roman historians (quoting from Livy 46 times, and from Tacitus, 73 times), for source material. As a “representative political thinker of the Counter-Reformation,” Botero opposed Protestantism, invoked the spirit of the Crusades, and concluded “his book with an appeal to Christians to unite against the Turk which is in some ways reminiscent of Machiavelli’s appeal for Italian unity against the ‘barbarians’ in the last chapter of The Prince.” (D. P. Waley, Introduction, x) But in other ways, Botero surprises. His political science is innovative, as well as recycled, making it especially interesting to those in succeeding centuries.

What is less typical of his time is Botero’s interest in economics, which shows him at his best in Books VII and VIII. There is a good deal that is precocious in Botero’s thought about such matters, in particular the foretaste of the labour theory of value (Book VIII, chapter 3) and the remarks about population and the influence of agricultural productivity on the size of towns (Book VIII, chapter 4), a subject to which he returns in his Greatness of Cities.

(D. P. Waley, Introduction, in Giovanni Botero[’s] The Reason of State, translated by P. J. and D. P. Waley, 1956, x)

Botero’s late-16th-century works (originally issued in Italian) were widely available in Latin, bringing him a large international audience, including policy-makers and prominent figures in the European Republic of Letters. His Delle Cause della Grandezza e Magnificenza della Città (1588, rpt. 1589) was Englished as A Treatise, concerning the Causes of the Magnificencie and Greatnes of Cities in 1606, which greatly expanded its reach within “the Common-wealth of Learning.” Influential Englishmen such as Sir Walter Ralegh (1552–1618), Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), William Cavendish (bap. 1593, d. 1676; 1st duke of Newcastle), James Howell (1594?–1666), and William Cavendish (1617–1684, 3rd earl of Devonshire), among others, all studied Botero’s political philosophy.

The following excerpts are from Book 4 (Chapter 7, “Of the Poor”), with its sustained discussion of the dangers of populist discontent, and from Book 1 (Chapter 19, “Of Liberality”; Chapter 20, “The Relief of Want”; Chapter 21, “The Promotion of Virtue”; Chapter 22, “Observations on Liberality”), recommending a strategic use of state resources to promote civic virtue by rewarding (and encouraging) merit.



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B O O K   F O U R

C H A P T E R   7
Of the Poor

Opening quotation markThose who have nothing to gain from public peace, that is to say those who live in great poverty and wretchedness, are also a danger to it; for having nothing to lose, they are easily stirred by new events and willingly embrace any means that presents itself of bettering themselves by the downfall of others. Thus in Rome the poor (known as the fifth class) were not normally enrolled in the militia, except in the naval arm, which was regarded as less honourable than the land forces. Livy writes that when there were rumours in Greece of a war between King Perseus and the Romans, the poor were for Perseus because they hoped that everything would be overturned, while the wealthier citizens, who wished nothing to change, were on the side of the Romans. Also, when Catiline set about raising disturbances in the republic he made use of men of wretched life and condition for, as Sallust says, homini potentiam quaerenti egentissimus, quisque opportunissimus, cui neque sua cara, quippe quae nulla sunt, et omnia cum pretio honesta videntur [in English: to a man in search of power the most needy are the most useful, for they have no possessions dear to them, and they think everything honest which has a price]. And when Caesar aspired to rule his fatherland he looked to all those who had fallen into great necessity, whether through debts or bad management or some other cause, for since they had no reason to be content with the existing régime he thought them suited to his own purpose of overturning the state. There were some who were so poor that he could not help them, but he used to say openly of those that ‘they needed a civil war’. All those who have deprived their own country of liberty have made use of the poor, for, as Sallust says, semper in civitate, quibus opes nullae sunt, bonis invident, malos extollunt, vetera odere, nova exoptant, odio suarum rerum mutari omnia student [in English: always in cities those who have nothing envy the good, exalt the wicked, detest old institutions and want new ones, and try to alter everything because they hate their own condition]. Those who are most ready to do evil are poor men who have been rich, and extreme poverty is as dangerous in a man of reputation and authority as extreme wealth. When David fled from the anger of Saul, convenerunt ad eum omnes, qui erant in angustia constituti et oppressi aere alieno et amaro animo [in English: and every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him (I Samuel 22:2)]. The great troubles in France, the sound of which has been heard even here, have arisen from the same sort of people, for the rulers have become poor and fallen into heavy debts through the wars between the Most Christian and the Catholic kings, and the soldiers too have lacked the means to live and spend as they were accustomed to; thus both formed the plan of enriching themselves with the wealth of the Church, which in that country has a revenue of above six million crowns. Taking advantage of heresy (which they call ‘the new religion’), they had recourse to arms, and thereby have reduced to extreme poverty what was once a flourishing kingdom; as Alienus Cecina once said, privata vulnera reipublicae vulneribus obtegere statuerunt [in English: they determined to hide their own wounds behind the wounds of the state].

 The king should secure himself against such men, either by driving them out of his state or by giving them an interest in its internal peace. They may be driven out by sending them to the colonies, as the Spartans did with the Partheniae whom they sent to Taranto for fear that they might cause trouble; or they may be dispatched to the wars, as the Venetians were able to do with their many ruffians, owing to the war of Cyprus; or, finally, they may be simply ordered out, as was Ferdinand of Spain’s way with the gypsies, to whom he allowed sixty days to leave the country. Their interest in the state can be secured by compelling them to undertake some work, such as agriculture or any trade which will give them a sufficient income to live on. Amasis King of Egypt made a law obliging all his subjects to present themselves to the provincial governors and to give an account of how they lived and what their means were; the penalty for those who could not account for their means of livelihood was death. In Athens the Areopagites used to blame severely those fools who knew no trade, and Solon suggested that a son who through his father’s neglect had no trade should not be compelled to help that father. Chinese law obliges a son to learn and practise his father’s calling: this has the double advantage that great excellence in crafts is attained and that every man has the opportunity to learn in his own home a trade that will keep him. The lazy and the workless are not tolerated, and even the blind and crippled do such work as they are capable of; only the completely disabled are admitted to hospitals. Vopiscus calls Alexandria civitas opulenta, dives, fecunda in qua nemo vivat otiosus ... podagrosi quod agant habent, habent caeci quod faciant, ne chiragrici quidem apud eos otiosi vivunt [in English: an abundant, wealthy, fertile city, in which no one is idle ... the disabled and blind are given work to do, and even those who are crippled with gout are not idle there]. King Wu Ti who gave to China much of that discipline by which that country is now maintained wished women either to follow their father in his craft or keep themselves busy with distaff and needle. As for Augustus Caesar, filiam et nepotes ita instituit, ut etiam lanificio assuefaceret [in English: he brought up his daughters and nieces in such a manner that they even learned to weave]. The kings of Rome attempted to give their subjects as much interest as possible in the defence of the state by seeing to it that they all had some fixed property, so that their love of their own real property should compel them to love and protect the régime. Lycurgus, as Nabis said to Quintus Flamininus, fore credidit, ut per aequationem fortunae ac dignitatis multi essent, qui pro republica arma ferrent [in English: he thought that equality of wealth and position were responsible for the fact that many were willing to take up arms on behalf of the republic].

 But since not everyone can possess land or exercise a trade and there will always be others besides, the ruler should either himself provide the poor with some means of livelihood, or make others do so. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that nothing is more dangerous to a prince than an idle populace. To this end Augustus Caesar caused many buildings to be erected and encouraged the leading citizens to do the same, to keep the poorer elements in tranquillity. When an engineer proposed to Vespasian a method for transporting large columns to the Capitol at little expense, the Emperor rewarded him and said that he was pleased with the invention but preferred to have some way of giving a livelihood to the populace; meaning to say that he was willing to spend money in order to give a means of living to many who would have been deprived of it by this ingenious discovery.

 Finally, the ruler should attempt to secure tranquillity by entrusting power only to those whose interests are bound up with internal peace and endangered by unrest and change. Thus Q. Flamininus, when he undertook the reorganisation of the cities of Thessaly, gave most power to the class which realised that the safety and tranquillity of the state would be to its own advantage.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  The Reason of State [Della Ragion di Stato, Venice, 1589; rev. 1598]. By Giovanni Botero. As Englished in Giovanni Botero[’s] The reason of state. Translated by P. J. and D. P. Waley. With an introduction by D. P. Waley. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956. Book 4, Ch. 7, pp. 91–94.

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B O O K   O N E

C H A P T E R   19
Of Liberality

Opening quotation markLiberality is another beneficent quality and may be applied in two ways: to relieve the needy from want and to promote virtue.Closing quotation mark

C H A P T E R   20
The Relief of Want

Opening quotation markNo action is more royal, more divine, than to bring help to the wretched, for the loving-kindness of God, and the care and protection which He gives to the poor and afflicted is extolled in the Scriptures above all else. He commands the rulers of the earth to act in the same way, and indeed there could be no surer and more certain method of winning the hearts of the populace and their gratitude. It is proverbial among the Jews that the giving of alms has preserved their families and upheld their greatness. The greatest rulers that Christendom has known have all been most liberal to those in want: Constantine, Charlemagne, Theodosius and others like them, among whom I must not omit King Robert of France. He was a son of Hugh Capet and established that dynasty on the French throne by the generosity of his almsgiving; he provided food for a thousand poor people, to whom he also furnished transport so that they might follow his court and pray for him wherever he was. Louis IX, who reigned most happily for forty-four years, supported a hundred and twenty of the poor all the year round and a hundred and forty during Lent; and we must not omit Louis Duke of Savoy, who was so benevolent to the poor and charitable to the needy that his greatest pleasure was to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to give help wherever it was needed. King John II of Portugal excelled in this; he used to say that he did not use men to find gold for him, but he found gold to help men in their needs, and to symbolise this he took as his emblem the pelican which restores with its own blood its young ones destroyed by serpents. Cortés [i.e., the Spaniard Fernando Cortés (1485–1547), the discoverer and conqueror of Mexico], who deserves a place among those who in recent times have shone in the arts of war and peace, often borrowed money at interest to give alms.

 Liberality is always becoming to a ruler, but it is most effective for his purposes at times of public disaster, when the country is afflicted by famine, pestilence, earthquake, fire, flood, devastation by an enemy or the calamities of war. Titus, a ruler who was so beloved that he was called ‘the joy of mankind’ comforted his afflicted people in times of plague and other disasters not only as a ruler but as a father, consoling them with letters and helping them by whatever practical means he could. When the catastrophe is so great as to be beyond remedy the ruler must exhibit his sorrow openly, as Caesar Augustus did after the slaughter of Varus’ army in Germany, and that Jewish king who, when Jerusalem was besieged and its inhabitants starving, wore a hair-shirt to placate the wrath of God and to show that he shared in the sufferings of his people. A public misfortune is the very best of opportunities for a prince to win the hearts of his subjects: then is the time to sow the seeds of benevolence, to implant love in the breasts of his people which will blossom and repay him a hundredfold. There are two special reasons why a ruler should, because of the position which he holds, give prompt assistance: the needs of a private person can be relieved by an individual, but a common adversity requires the help of the prince; and even when a private individual wishes to provide relief it is not fitting that he should do so, since it is dangerous for the commonwealth to be thus beholden to one man. The Romans, knowing this, put to death Cassius, Manlius Capitolinus and the Gracchi, because they had placed the Roman people under a greater obligation than was warranted by their status as private citizens, partly by liberal distributions of grain in time of famine and partly by legislation which favoured the populace. Tiberius knew well how to derive advantage from such misfortunes, as when a part of the city of Rome had been destroyed by fire and Caesar damnum ad gloriam vertit exsolutis domuum et insularum pretiis [in English: Caesar turned the misfortune to his own glory, paying the value of the houses and tenements].

 Another sure way to win affection is for the ruler to deprive himself to spare the people taxation or hardship. Marcus Aurelius, not wishing to lay a heavy tax on the provinces of the Empire to pay for the Marcomannic War, sent for public auction the gold and silver vessels, crystal, aromatics, precious alloys, pearls, jewels, paintings, palace furnishings and everything rare and valuable amassed by his forbears; and with the money thus obtained he financed that difficult enterprise.Closing quotation mark

C H A P T E R   21
The Promotion of Virtue

Opening quotation markNot only does liberality serve to rescue the unfortunate from wretchedness, but virtue is also encouraged and promoted by this form of beneficence, and it does not give rise to envy because it concerns deserving people; it fosters talent, upholds the arts, furthers science and adorns religion, which is the supreme ornament and splendour of the State, and again it binds the whole people to their ruler. Men who excel in letters, as in other fields, are as it were the leaders of the multitude, who follow their judgment, and when they are beholden to the prince for the grace and favour which they receive, the rest also feel obliged to him. All the greatest rulers have rewarded outstanding talents and excellent qualities: Theodosius founded, according to some, the University of Bologna for the encouragement of science and the liberal arts and increased the endowments and the number of teachers at Rome; the Emperor Justinian, although himself unlettered and untaught, had the wisdom to patronise literature and the arts. Charlemagne was outstanding in this respect and he not only founded an infinite number of schools for the study of Greek and Latin throughout his dominions, but also the universities of Paris and Pavia; he restored that of Bologna, encouraged the exercise of outstanding talents in every possible way and revived virtue and all the arts so that learning and manners flourished in his time; and this, no less than his feats of arms, won him the title of ‘the Great’. Although the Emperor Constantine Ducas [aka Emperor of the East (1059–1067)] had himself no literary accomplishments he showed much favour to learning and learned men and was wont to say that he would rather be ennobled by knowledge than by imperial rank. Otto III, although young, was admired by all the world for his support of men of letters; and Alfonso of Aragon King of Naples and Matthias Corvinus King of Hungary were no less admired.Closing quotation mark

C H A P T E R   22
Observations on Liberality

Opening quotation markThree considerations must be borne in mind when making gifts. The first is that nothing should be given to the undeserving, for the gift which is made to one who is not worthy of it is ill-used and moreover it is a slight to those who are truly deserving, and so to virtue itself. The subjects, seeing their ruler give, and give generously, to people of no merit, regardless of juster claims, will use any means to win his favour and his rewards which although due to virtue alone are more readily given elsewhere. Because his predecessor had misused the revenues and public money the Emperor Basil the Macedonian proclaimed that whoever had received gifts of money from him should make restitution. Lampridius writes that Alexander Severus aurum et argentum raro cuiquam nisi militi divisit, nefas esse dicens, ut dispensator publicus in delectationes suas et suorum converteret id, quod provinciales dedissent [in English: he rarely gave away gold or silver to any save soldiers, saying that it was not right for the public administrator to use for the benefit of himself and his friends what had been contributed by the people of the provinces].

 The second consideration is that gifts should not be immoderately large, since this cannot be long continued unless the ruler takes where he should not, turning to theft and becoming a tyrant rather than a king. In fourteen years Nero gave away more than fifty million crowns, but in order to be able to give to flatterers and such folk he murdered righteous men and brought ruin upon rich and honoured ones to fill the pockets of rascals and recreants: hence Galba revoked all his gifts.

 Lastly, it is important that the gift should be made not all at one time, but little by little, for thus the recipient is influenced by the hope of receiving more, whereas if he knows he has received all he withdraws and makes the best of what he has. And besides, as a gentle fall of rain refreshes and penetrates the soil better, so a judicious liberality is more efficacious in arousing and retaining the goodwill of those who benefit by it. Should it be asked whether it is wiser for a prince to give to many in moderation, or liberally to a few, we would answer without hesitation that it is better to give moderately to many and, if it were possible, to all; for the merit of the ruler is greater when, like the sun which shines and casts its light upon all alike, it is universal.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  The Reason of State [Della Ragion di Stato, Venice, 1589; rev. 1598]. By Giovanni Botero. As Englished in Giovanni Botero[’s] The reason of state. Translated by P. J. and D. P. Waley. With an introduction by D. P. Waley. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956. Book 1, Ch. 19–22, pp. 29–33.