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Jan Waszink: The Political and Religious Crises of the 16th Century

The political and religious crises of the 16th century, especially (or so it seems) their provisional
culmination in the St Bartholomew Massacre of 1572, led to a re-assessment and re-orientation
of political ethics which entailed the gradual acceptance and admission of reason of state into
mainstream political discourse and thought. Although obviously in reality reason of state has
always been a feature of human politics, its admission to explicit political discourse has never
been obvious or easy. In fact this admission became only really possible when it was perceived
how reason of state might itself create a new 'transcending' kind of political ethics, i.e. that of the
effective preservation of the safety and well-being of all. In this transformed thinking about
political practice, politics no longer appeared as an inherently and essentially moral activity, but
as one directed towards desired effects -- not unlike medical practice in some ways, where the
effectiveness of the cure is also independent of the doctor's personal moral virtue. This (often
partial) separation of politics from the fields of ethics, religion and even law helped open the way
for the modernisation of political practice, international relations and the organisation of states
themselves that took place in the centuries to come.
Obviously however loosening the ties between ethics and politics is a controversial and
unwelcome proposition, and resistance to the process just mentioned has been widespread,
tenacious and often successful. Therefore the above process has been slow, meandering and
unpredictable, and the history of that process is at least as important an aspect of the history of
modern political thought as the history of the ideas themselves. For example, the history of
Tacitism (the political reception of the writings of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus) from the
late 16th to the early 18th century illustrates the difficult and non-linear process of absorption of
the core notions of reason of state-thought into mainstream political thought and teaching.
Whereas Tacitist authors and works could almost count on a problematic reception at the end of
the 16th century (witness many examples from the age), the literature was blending into normality
by the early 18th.
In this paper I shall discuss examples of texts aimed at the instruction of princes, politicians,
magistrates or citizens from three stages in this process; from the late 16th century; mid-17th
century and ca. 1700.