Systemic Politics Against Individual Ethics: New Modes and Orders of Political Reasoning?
The reaction to Machiavelli’s political thought among writers in the “reason of state” genre of the later sixteenth century is one of the best known case-studies in the history of the reception of any political writer. Yet the nature of “reason of state” itself has been construed in ways that under-estimate the ramifications of Machiavelli’s method of dealing with the relation between ethics and politics. The conventional view that sees Machiavellism as a removal of legal and ethical constraints on political action is still consistent with the view that politics as a field of inquiry is derivative of ethics: the model of the individual choosing agent is retained as the model of political strategy, only with a different scope of possible choices and a different matrix of constraints on those choices. At least some of the “reason of state” writers took Machiavelli to be proposing an even more radical revision of conventional Christian and European ways of thinking about politics than this one, a revision that might be called systemic and strategic rather than conscientious and ethical. Montaigne, for example, used the individual conscience as the model of political reasoning but treated conscience not as a sacred tie between man and god but as a social resource to be deployed, sacrificed, etc, for the good of political society. Zuccolo and others later moved outside the model of individual conscience itself to imagine a truly systemic model of political choice. At the time, “reason of state” writers concerned themselves specifically with problems of internal partisan strife and external military strategy, but it’s arguable that distinctive twenty-first-century problems of international terrorism and ecological degradation might also be dealt with by dint of this kind of political reasoning.