As a language of politics, ‘reason of state’ has undergone development and transformation. It originally meant in Botero that a state was endowed with its own raison d’ etre which overrode all moral and legal considerations. In the English Renaissance, however, this political language of prudence was expanded to include not only its synonym, arcana imperii, or mysteries of state, but also a Phoenix image and the Actaeon myth.
According to F. Meinecke, a German historian, this ‘noble sport’ became common in Italy about the second quarter of the seventeenth century, as a subject for conversations among the barbers and other base craftmen. In England, its vulgarization began a little earlier at the turn of the century, when Ben Jonson used the term ‘de stato’ in his satirical comedy, Cynthia’s Revels (1600). By the caricaturized portrait of Sir Politic Would-be, the leading figure in the subplot of Volpone (1610), he also showed us how much a Quiotic man of the Renaissance such as he was enamored and distracted with the matters of state.
On the other hand, Edmund Spenser refers to the ‘somewhat’ of Queen Elizabeth alias Diana as one of arcana imperii, and tells us how the spell the Queen had casted over him was broken when Spenser-Faunus peeped at her middle-aged naked body. Thus ‘breaking forth in laughter’ Spenser fashioned himself from a faithful subject of the Shepherds’ Nation into a revolutionary ‘subject’.
To John Donne, a failure in life due to his religious faith and secret marriage, the trope doesn’t imply the Queen’s deformed body, but his own world of love. He tries in vain to persuade his newlywed wife to live an eternal life with him like the Phoenix that resurrects as often as it dies. So he yearns for death to be buried in a well-wrought urn, and be canonized for love. But as he grows old, he becomes so anxious for recognition by the world that he changes his faith to Anglicanism, with the result that he denies the existence of the Phoenix itself. He also confesses in his sermon that arcana imperii have also turned into something negative and harmful at once.
By 1621, when the reason of state became a part of the arsenal of arguments on the side of the Parliament, the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh had already been carried out as a scapegoat of the King’s pro-Spanish policy. In The History of the World, one of the best-sellers of the seventeenth century, Raleigh mentioned nothing definitely about what the King’s Prerogative or the reason of state should be like, but it is quite clear he thought it as a matter of course ever since the Norman dynasty for the king to consult with the Parliament on anything really important to the state.
The popularity of that political language, which gave poets in the English Renaissance an occasion suitable for their self-aggrandizement, has not lasted long since then. Apart from people’s allergy to the bitter Civil War, some other reasons can be considered. One is the disappearance, with the dusk of the Renaissance, of a man with the Actaeon-like mentality who will gladly be hunted to death by his own passions. The other is the fact that it was originally made of too contradictory elements such as ‘honestum’ and ‘utile’ to live long in England, where the ‘jealousy of trade’ soon became prevalent in the eighteenth century.