Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

First Dialogue

Machiavelli: On the borders of this desert clime, one has told me, I will encounter the shadow of the great Montesquieu. Is this him who is before me?

Montequieu: The name "Great" belongs to no one here, O Machiavelli! I am he whom you seek.

Machiavelli: Among the illustrious personages whose shadows people the sojourn of darkness, there is none I desire to meet more than Montesquieu. Driven back into unknown spaces by the migration of souls, I give thanks to the happenstance that finally places me in the presence of the author of The Spirit of the Laws.

Montequieu: The former Secretary of State of the Florentine Republic has still not forgotten the language of the courts. But what can those who have crossed the somber shores exchange, if not anguish and regret?

Machiavelli: Is this the philosopher or the statesman who speaks thus? What importance can death have for those who have lived through thought, since thought does not die? As for me, I do not know a more tolerable condition than that which is made for us here until the day of the last judgment. To be delivered from the cares and concerns of material life, to live in the domain of pure reason, to converse with the great men who have filled the universe with the sound of their names; to follow from afar the revolutions of the States, the fall and transformation of empires; to meditate upon their new constitutions, on the changes in the customs and the ideas of the people of Europe, on the progress of their civilization, in politics, the arts and industry, as in the sphere of philosophical ideas: What theatre for thought! What subjects for astonishment! What new points of view! What unheard-of revelations! What marvels, if one can believe the shadows that descend here! For us, death is like a profound retirement, in which we finish receiving the lessons of history and the qualifications of humanity. Nothingness itself has not broken all the ties that bind us to the earth, because posterity still speaks of those who, like you, have imparted great movements to the human spirit. Your political principles rule, at present, over nearly half of Europe; and if someone could be freed from fear by effectuating the somber passage that leads from hell to the heavens, who can do it better than he who presents himself with titles of pure glory before eternal justice?

Montequieu: You do not speak of yourself, Machiavelli; it would be too modest, when one leaves behind the immense reputation as the author of The Prince.

Machiavelli: I believe I comprehend the irony that hides behind your words. The great French publicist thus judges me like the crowd that only knows my name and a blind prejudice? This book makes a fatal reputation for me, I know it: it has rendered me responsible for all the tyrannies; it has attracted to me the malediction of the people who have personified in me their hatred of despotism; it poisoned my last days and the disapproval of posterity seems to have followed me this far. Yet what did I do? For 15 years, I served my homeland, which was a Republic; I conspired for its independence; and I defended it without respite against Louis XII, the Spanish, Jules II and Borgia himself who, without me, would have suffocated it. I protected it against the bloody intrigues that grew in all senses around it, fighting with diplomacy like another fights with a sword; dealing with, negotiating with, joining or breaking the threads in accordance with the Republic's interests, which were then crushed between the great powers and tossed around by war like a skiff. And it was not an oppressive or autocratic government that we supported in Florence; these were popular institutions. Was I among those whom one saw change with fortune? The Medicis' torturers knew to come after me, following the fall of Soderini. Elevated along with liberty, I succumbed with it; I lived in banishment without the glance of a prince deigning to turn towards me. I died poor and forgotten. This was my life and these were my crimes that won me the ingratitude of my party, the hatred of posterity. The heavens, perhaps, will be more just towards me.

Montesquieu: I know all this, Machiavelli, and this is why I have never been able to comprehend how the Florentine patriot, how the servant of a Republic, was made to be the founder of the somber school that has given you, as disciples, all the crowned heads, but that is proper to justify tyranny's greatest crimes.

Machiavelli: And if I tell you that the book was only a diplomat's fantasy; that it was not intended for publication; that it has received publicity to which its author has remained a stranger; that it was conceived under the influence of ideas that were then shared by all the Italian principalities that were avid to aggrandize themselves at the expense of each other and that were directed by an astute politics in which the most perfidious was reputed to be the most skillful. . . .

Montesquieu: Is this truly your thinking? Since you speak to me with such frankness, I can confess to you that such was mine and that, in this respect, I shared the opinion of many of those who knew your life and had attentively read your works. Yes, yes, Machiavelli, and this avowal honors you: then you did not say what you thought or you only spoke under the influence of personal feelings that, for a moment, clouded your great reason.

Machiavelli: This is what deceives you, Montesquieu: as well as those who have judged as you have. My only crime was telling the truth to the people as well as to the kings; not moral truth, but political truth; not the truth such as it should be, but as it is, such as it will always be. It was not me who was the founder of the doctrine whose paternity one has attributed to me; it was the human heart. Machiavellianism came before Machiavelli.

Moses, Sesostris, Solomon, Lysander, Philippe and Alexander of Macedonia, Agathocles, Romulus, Tarquin, Julius Cesar, Augustus and even Nero, Charlemagne, Theodoric, Clovis, Hugues Capet, Louis XI, Gonzalves of Cordova, Cesar Borgia -- these are my doctrine's ancestors. I move on[1] without, of course, speaking of those who came after me, the list of which would be long, and who learned nothing from The Prince that they didn't already know from the practice of power. Who in your time rendered me more brilliant homage than Frederic II? Pen in hand, he denied me in the interest of his own popularity and, in politics, he rigorously applied my doctrines.

By which inexplicable failing of the human spirit does one complain to me about what I wrote in this book? So many would like to reproach the scientist for seeking the physical causes that bring about the fall of the body that injures us by falling; the physician who describes the illness; the chemist who records the history of poison; the moralist who paints the vices; and the historian who writes history.

Montesquieu: Oh, Machiavelli! that Socrates is not here to unravel the sophistry that hides within your words! Nature did not make me apt for discussion, but it is hardly difficult for me to respond to you: you compare the evils engendered by the spirit of domination, cunning and violence to poison and sickness; and these are the illnesses whose means of communication your writings teach to the States; these are the poisons that you teach one to distill. When the scientist, the physician, and the moralist research evil, it is not to teach its propagation; it is to cure it. But this is what your book does not do; but this doesn't matter to me and I am not less appeased. From the moment that you do not erect despotism as a principle, from the moment that you yourself consider it to be an evil, it seems to me that, by this alone, you condemn it and, on this point at least, we can be in agreement.

Machiavelli: We are not at all in agreement, Montesquieu, because you have not understood all of my thought; I have laid you open to a comparison in which it was too easy to triumph. Socrates' irony doesn't worry me, because he was only a sophist who used a false instrument -- logomachy -- more cleverly than the others. This isn't your school and it isn't mine: thus let us leave words and comparisons so that we can concern ourselves with ideas. Here is how I formulate my system and I doubt that you can weaken it, because it is only made up of deductions from moral and political facts of an eternal truth: bad instincts among men are more powerful than the good ones. Man has more enthusiasm for evil than for good; fear and force have more control over him than reason. I do not stop to demonstrate such truths; only the scatterbrained coterie of Baron Holbach -- in which J.-J. Rousseau was the great priest and Diderot was the apostle -- has contradicted them. All men aspire to domination and there is none who would not be an oppressor if he could; all or almost all are ready to sacrifice the rights of others for their own interests.

What restrains the devouring animals that one calls men? At the origin of society, there was brutal and unchecked force; later it was the law, that is to say, force still, ruled by forms. You have consulted all the sources of history; everywhere force appears before rights.

Political liberty is only a relative idea; the necessity to live is what dominates the States as well as individuals.

In certain European latitudes, there are people incapable of moderation in the exercise of liberty. If liberty is extended there, it becomes license; civil or social war occurs and the State is lost, either it is divided into factions and dismembered by the effect of its own convulsions, or its divisions render it prey to foreigners. In such conditions, people prefer despotism to anarchy. Are they wrong?

Once constituted, the States have two kinds of enemies: enemies within and enemies without. What weapons can they employ in a war against foreigners? Do the two general enemies reciprocally communicate their battle plans so as to mutually place each other in a position to defend themselves? Do they prohibit nocturnal attacks, traps, ambushes, battles of unequal numbers of troops? No, no doubt they do not and such combatants would make us laugh. And do you not want one to employ these traps, these artifices, all of these strategies that are indispensable to war, against [internal] agitators? No doubt one would use less rigor, but basically the rules are the same. Is it possible to use pure reason to lead the violent masses that are only moved by feelings, passions and prejudices?

Whether management of affairs is confided in an autocrat, an oligarchy or the people, no war, no negotiation, no internal reform can be successful without the help of those combinations that you appear to disapprove of, but that you yourself would be obligated to use if the king of France tasked you with the least affair of State.

What puerile disapproval has struck The Prince! Is it that politics has nothing to do with morality? Have you ever seen a single State that conducts itself in accordance with the principles that govern private morality? But then any war would be a crime, even when it has a just cause; any conquest that had no other motivation than glory would be a heinous crime; any treaty in which a power tilts the balance in its own favor would be an undignified fraud; any usurpation of sovereign power would be an act that would merit death. Nothing would be legitimate if it weren't founded on rights! But I have told you all along and I maintain it, even in the presence of contemporary history: all the sovereign powers have had force at their origins or the negation of rights (which is the same thing). Is this to say that I should proscribe rights? No, but I regard them as an extraordinarily limited application, as much in the relationships of the nations amongst themselves as in the relationships between the governors and the governed.

Moreover, do you not see that this word "rights" is infinitely vague? Where does they begin and where do they end? When will rights exist and when will they not? I'll cite some examples. Here is a State: there is bad organization of the public powers, the turbulence of democracy, the powerlessness of the laws against agitators, disorder that reigns everywhere until ruin is precipitated. An audacious man springs forth from the ranks of the aristocracy or from the heart of the people; he breaks up all of the constituted powers; he puts his hands upon the laws, he revises the institutions and he brings 20 years of peace to his country. Did he have the right to do what he has done?

Pisistrates seized the citadel through force and prepared the age of Pericles. Brutus violated the monarchical Constitution of Rome, expelled the Tarquins and, at dagger-point, founded a republic, the grandeur of which was the most imposing spectacle that the universe has ever seen. But the struggle between the patriarchy and the plebeians, which -- as long as it was restrained -- made the Republic vital, led to dissolution and all perished. Caesar and Augustus appeared; they too were lawbreakers, but the Roman Empire that succeeded the Republic -- thanks to them -- lasted as long as it did and only succumbed by covering the entire world with its debris. So! Was "right" with these audacious men? According to you, no. And nevertheless posterity has covered them in glory; in reality, they served and saved their country; they prolonged its existence through the centuries. You see that, in the States, the principle of rights is dominated by the principle of [self-]interest, and what can be extracted from these considerations are the ideas that good can come from evil, that one arrives at the good through evil,[2] as one cures with poison, as one saves life by cutting with iron. I am less preoccupied with what is good and moral than with what is useful and necessary; I take society such as it is and I provide rules as a consequence of these facts.

Speaking abstractly, are violence and cunning evils? Yes, but it is quite necessary to use them in governing men as long as men are not angels.

Anything can be good or bad according to the usage that one makes of it and the fruit that one can derive from it; the end justifies the means and, if you now ask me why I -- a republican -- give preference to absolute government, I would say to you: witness the fickleness and cowardice of the populace in my homeland, its innate taste for servitude, its incapacity to conceive of and respect the conditions of free life; in my eyes, it is a blind force that dissolves itself sooner or later if it is not in the hand of a single man. I would respond that the people, left to their own devices, would only know how to destroy themselves; that they would never be able to administrate, judge or make war. I would say to you that Greece only shone in the eclipses of liberty; that, without the despotism of the Roman aristocracy, and that, later on, without the despotism of the emperors, this brilliant civilization would never have been developed.

Can I find examples among the modern States? They are so striking and so numerous that I will take the first ones that come to mind.

Under which institutions and which men have the Italian republics shone? With which sovereigns have Spain, France and Germany constituted their power? Under Leon X, Jules II, Philippe II, Barberousse, Louis XIV, and Napoleon -- all heavy-handed men, and more often poised upon the hilt of their swords than on the charters of their States.

But I am surprised at having spoken for so long to convince the illustrious writer who listens to me. If I am not mistaken, are not some of these ideas in The Spirit of the Laws? Has this discourse injured the serious and cold man who, without passion, meditated on the problems of politics? The Encyclopedists were not Catos: the author of the Persian Letters[3] was not a saint, nor even a fervent devotee. Our school, which is called immoral, was perhaps more attached to the True God than the philosophers of the 18th century were.

Montesquieu: You last words do not anger me, Machiavelli, and I have listened to you with attention. Would you like to hear me and let me speak with the same liberty?

Machiavelli: I will be like a mute and I will listen in a respectful silence to the one whom one calls the legislator of the nations.

[1] J'en passe et des meilleurs: see the portrait scene in Victor Hugo's Hernani (1830).

[2] A contradiction of Victor Hugo's statement in Book VI, Chapter VII, of Napoleon the Little: "Nothing good has evil for its basis."

[3] That is to say, Montesquieu himself.

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! November 2007. Footnotes by the translator.)

To Contact NOT BORED!
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998