Edmund Burke and Reason of State

David Armitage, "Edmund Burke and Reason of State," Journal of the History of Ideas 61.4 (2000), pp. 617-634.


Edmund Burke has been one of the few political thinkers to be treated seriously by international theorists. According to Martin Wight, one of the founders of the socalled “English School” of international theory, Burke was “[t]he only political philosopher who has turned wholly from political theory to international theory.” The resurgence of interest in Burke as an international theorist has not, however, generated any consensus about how he might be classified within the traditions of international theory. Wight variously divided thinkers into trichotomous schools of Realists, Rationalists, and Revolutionaries, Machiavellians, Grotians, and Kantians, or theorists of international anarchy, habitual intercourse, or moral solidarity; more recent international theorists have refined or supplemented these categories to construct similar trinitarian traditions of Realism, Liberalism, and Socialism, and of Empirical Realism, Universal Moral Order, and Historical Reason. Burke’s place within any of these traditions remains uncertain. Debate over whether he was a realist or an idealist, a Rationalist or a Revolutionist, has concluded variously that he was a “conservative crusader” or an “historical empiricist,” a belated dualist or a Cold Warrior before the fact, or, most egregiously, “a protoMarxist, or more precisely protoGramscian” theorist of hegemony. The fact that Burke so obviously eludes definition may put in doubt the analytical utility of closelydefined “traditions” of international theory.

Burke’s relationship to conceptions of reason of state provides a more precise example of the confusion within such taxonomies. According to one recent historian of international theory, Burke “laid the foundations” of the “conservative approach to International Relations informed by the two modern notions of state interest and necessity, by raison d’état”; however, in the words of another, “Burke … was vehemently opposed to the idea of Reason of State and did not subscribe to the view that national interests override moral laws.” The assumptions on which each of these judgments rests are clearly incompatible: on the one hand that a “conservative approach” in the realm of foreign affairs implies an espousal of reason of state defined as the primacy of “state interest and necessity,” that Burke did indeed acknowledge; on the other hand that reason of state is defined more exactly as “the view that national interests override moral laws” and that Burke did not hold such a view, so could not be defined as a reasonofstate theorist. It might of course be possible that Burke held various views on such matters at various points in his long literary and political career or that he argued for differing conceptions of reason of state in differing contexts. To test such a hypothesis demands a historical account of Burke’s relationship to the theories of reason of state held by his contemporaries and predecessors.

To place Burke within traditions of reason of state might seem to be a simple category error. After all, he famously scorned “dashing Machiavellian politicians,” deplored “the odious maxims of a Machiavellian policy,” condemned “the dreadful maxim of Machiavel that in great affairs men are not to be wicked by halves,” and identified the Discorsi as the inflammatory textbook of French republicanism. His strictures on Machiavelli and Machiavellianism affirmed avant la lettre the classic modern account of reason of state offered by Friedrich Meinecke, which counterposed “raison d’état on the one hand, and ethics and law on the other” and traced the emergence of this separation to the heathen Florentine who had given the tradition its familiar nickname. Such accounts of reason of state and of Machiavelli reinforced the longstanding interpretation of Burke as the last of the medieval theorists of natural law, for whom no merely human calculations of advantage or interest could override the dictates of divine reason. If reason of state represented the doctrine that political expediency should supersede moral law, then Burke could only have been its (and Machiavelli’s) enemy: his “politics … were grounded on recognition of the universal law of reason and justice ordained by God as the foundation of a good community. In this recognition the Machiavellian schism between politics and morality is closed, and it is exactly in this respect that Burke…

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