Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Third Dialogue

Montesquieu: A thick mass of shadows are headed for this clime; our region will soon be invaded. Come to this side; if not, we will soon be separated.

Machiavelli: I have not found in your last words the precision that characterized your language at the beginning of our interview. I find that you have exaggerated the consequences of the principles that are contained in Spirit of the Laws.

Montesquieu: In this work, I intentionally avoided the elaboration of long theories. If you knew it other than through what had been reported to you, you would see that the particular developments that I have given you here effortlessly derive from the principles that I proposed. Moreover, I do not have difficulty in confessing that the knowledge that I have acquired from recent events has modified or completed several of my ideas.

Machiavelli: Do you seriously intend to claim that despotism is incompatible with the political situation of the peoples of Europe?

Montesquieu: I do not say all of the peoples, but I will cite for you, if you like, those whom the development of political science has led to this great result.

Machiavelli: Who are these people?

Montesquieu: [Those in] England, France, Belgium, a part of Italy, Prussia, Switzerland, the German Confederation, Holland and even Austria, that is to say, as you can see, almost all of Europe into which the Roman world had previously extended.

Machiavelli: I know something of what has happened in Europe from 1527 to modern times and I confess to you that I am curious to hear you justify your proposition.

Montesquieu: So! Listen to me and perhaps I will manage to convince you. It is not men, it is institutions that assure the rule of liberty and good customs in these States. All of the good depends upon the perfection or imperfection of these institutions, but all of the evil that can result for men from their unification in society also necessarily depends on them; and when I demand the best institutions, you will understand that -- following the very beautiful remark made by Solon -- I mean the most perfect institutions that the people can support. This means that I do not conceive of them based upon impossible conditions of existence and that, by this, I separate myself from the deplorable reformers who claim to construct societies upon pure, rational hypotheses without bearing in mind the climate, habits, customs and even prejudices.

At the origin of the nations, institutions are what they can be. Antiquity has shown us marvelous civilizations, States in which the conditions of free government were admirably understood. The peoples of the Christian era have had more difficulty putting their constitutions into harmony with the movements of political life, but they profited from the teachings of antiquity and, with infinitely more complicated civilizations, they arrived at more perfect results.

One of the primary causes of anarchy and despotism, as well, is the theoretical and practical ignorance in which the European States have lived concerning the principles that preside over the organization of power. When the principle of sovereignty resides uniquely in the person of the prince, how can the rights of the nation be affirmed? When the one who is tasked with executing the law is, at the same time, the legislator, how can his power not be tyrannical? When the legislative and executive powers are confounded, when the juridical power comes to be united in the same hand, how can the citizens be guaranteed against the arbitrary?[1]

I know well that certain liberties, that certain public rights which are sooner or later introduced into the least advanced political morals, do not fail to provide obstacles to the unlimited exercise of absolute royalty; that, on the other hand, the fear of making the people cry out, the spirit of gentleness, brings them to use with moderation the excessive powers with which they are invested; but it is no less true that such precarious guarantees are at the mercy of the monarch who, in principle, possesses the goods, rights and persons of his subjects. The division of power has posed the problem of free societies in Europe and, if something can soften for me the anxiety of the hours that precede the final judgment, it is the idea that my passage on the earth was not foreign to this great emancipation.

You, Machiavelli, were born within the limits of the Middle Ages, and -- with the renaissance of the arts -- you saw the aurora of modern times open up; but the society in the midst of which you lived, permit me to say so, was still stamped with the erring ways of barbarity; Europe was a tournament. The ideas of war, domination and conquest filled the heads of the statesmen and princes. Force was everything; rights were nothing, I agree; the kingdoms were prey for conquerors; within the States, the sovereigns struggled against great vassals; the great vassals crushed the towns. In the midst of the feudal anarchy that armed all of Europe, the down-trodden people were used to regarding the princes and great men as fateful divinities to whom the human race was delivered. You lived in times full of tumult, but also full of grandeur. You saw intrepid captains, men of iron and audacious geniuses; and the world, filled with somber beauty in its disorder, appeared to you as it would appear to an artist whose imagination is struck more than his moral sense; this is what, in my eyes, explains The Prince, and you were not so far from the truth when, a little while ago -- in an Italian feint -- it pleased you to sound me out by attributing the book to a diplomat's caprice. But, since then, the world has progressed; today the people regard themselves as the arbiters of their own destinies: they have, in fact as in law, destroyed privilege, have destroyed the aristocracy; they have established a principle that will be quite new to you and that is descended from the Marquis [Victor] Hugo: they have established the principle of equality; they no longer see anything but representatives[2] in those who govern them; they have realized the principle of equality in civil laws, which no one can take from them. They hold to these laws as to their own blood, because these laws have actually cost the blood of their ancestors.

You spoke to me a little while ago of war, which still rages, I know, but the first progress made was no longer giving the property of the vanquished States to the victors. Rights that you hardly knew, international rights, today govern the relations of the nations amongst themselves, just as civil rights govern the relations of the subjects amongst themselves in each nation.

After having assured their private rights by civil laws, and their public rights by treaties, the people wanted to put themselves in order with their princes and they assured their political rights through constitutions. Long yielded up to the arbitrary by the confusion of power, which allowed the princes to make tyrannical laws so as to exercise them tyrannically, the people separated the three powers (legislative, executive and judiciary) by constitutional lines that cannot be crossed without sounding the alarm throughout the entire political body.

By this sole reform, which is an immense deed, domestic public rights were created and the higher principles that constituted them were extracted. The person of the prince ceased to be confounded with that of the State; sovereignty appeared as having its source in the very heart of the nation, which distributed power between both the prince and the independent political bodies. I do not want to offer to the illustrious statesman who hears me a developed theory of the regime that, in England and in France, is called the constitutional regime; it has come to pass today in the customs of the principal European States, not only because the constitutional regime is the expression of the highest political science, but especially because it is the sole practical mode of government when one is faced with the ideas of modern civilization.

In all this time, under the rule of liberty as well as under the rule of tyranny, one has only been governed by laws. It is thus on the manner in which the laws are made that all of the guarantees of the citizens are founded. If the prince is the unique legislator, he will only only make tyrannical laws, that is, if he does not overturn the State's constitution in a few years; but, in any case, there is absolutism; if the unique legislator is a senate, there is oligarchy, which is a regime odious to the people because it provides as many tyrants as masters; if it is the people, one approaches anarchy, which is another way of ending up in despotism; if it is an assembly elected by the people, the first part of the problem is already resolved, because this is the very basis of representative government, which today is in effect in all of the southern part of Europe.

But an assembly of representatives of the people that possesses in itself all legislative sovereignty cannot fail to abuse its powers and bring the greatest perils to the State. The regime that is definitively constituted -- as a fortunate compromise between aristocracy, democracy and monarchy -- by the simultaneous participation of these three forms of government, by means of a balancing of power, seems to be the masterpiece of the human spirit. The person of the sovereign remains sacred, inviolable; but, by conserving a mass of capital assignations that -- for the good of the State -- must remain in his power, his essential role is simply that of the procurator of the execution of the laws. No longer having in his hand the plenitude of power, his responsibility is effaced and passes to the ministers that he brings into his government. The laws, of which he has the exclusive proposition (or concurrently with another State body), are prepared by a council composed of men who are mature in their experience of the affairs of State; they are submitted to an Upper Chamber (hereditary or [elected] for life) that examines them to see if their dispositions are in any way contrary to the constitution; they are voted upon by a Legislative Body that emanates from the suffrage of the nation; and they are applied by an independent magistracy. If the law is vicious, it is rejected or amended by the Legislative Body: the Upper Chamber can be opposed to a law's adoption if it would be contrary to the principles upon which the constitution rests.

The triumph of this so profoundly conceived system (the mechanisms of which -- you understand -- can be combined in a thousand ways, following the temperament of the people to whom it is applied) was to reconcile order with liberty, stability with movement; to involve the participation of all the citizens in political life by suppressing the agitations of public space. This is the country governing itself, through the alternating shifts of majorities, which in the chambers influence the nominations of the government's ministers.

The relations between the prince and the subjects rest -- as you can see -- upon a vast system of guarantees in which the unshakable bases are in civil order. No one can be injured in his person or his goods by an act of administrative authority; individual liberty is under the protection of the magistrates; in criminal matters, the accused are judged by their peers; above all jurisdictions, there is the supreme jurisdiction that is tasked with nullifying the decrees that are made in violation of the laws. The citizens themselves are armed, for the defense of their rights, by the institution of bourgeois militias that cooperate with the police of the cities; the simplest particular person can -- through a petition -- bring his or her complaint to the very feet of the sovereign assemblies that represent the nation. The communes are administered by public officials who are named by elections. Each year, large provincial assemblies -- also issued from suffrage -- are held to express the needs and wishes of the populations that surround them.

Such is the all-too-weak image, O Machiavelli, of some of the institutions that today flourish in the modern States and especially in my beautiful homeland; but as publicity is essential in free countries, all of these institutions cannot live long if they do not function in broad daylight. A power that was still unknown in your country, and that was only born in my times, has come to give them the last breath of life. This is the press, long proscribed and still decried by ignorance, but to which one can apply the beautiful phrase that Adam Smith used with respect to credit: It is a public road. It is indeed by this road that all of the movements of all of the ideas of modern peoples are manifested. In the State, the press exercises the same function as the police: it expresses the needs, renders the complaints, denounces the abuses and the arbitrary acts; it constrains all the depositories of power to morality; to do this, it is sufficient for it to put them before public opinion.

In societies that are ruled in these ways, O Machiavelli, what part would you give to the ambitions of the princes and the enterprises of tyranny? I do not ignore the painful convulsions through which this progress has triumphed. In France, liberty drowned in blood during the revolutionary period and only re-surfaced with the Restoration. In that country, new commotions still ready themselves; but all the principles, all the institutions of which I have spoken to you, passed into the customs of France and the people who gravitated towards the sphere of its civilization. I have finished, Machiavelli. Today, the States, like the sovereigns, govern themselves by the rules of justice. The modern [government] minister who is inspired by your lessons would not remain in power a year; the monarch who would put into practice the maxims of The Prince would stir up against him the reprobation of his subjects; he would be banned from Europe.

Machiavelli: Do you think so?

Montesquieu: Will you pardon my frankness?

Machiavelli: Why not?

Montesquieu: Shall I think that your ideas have been slightly modified?

Machiavelli: I propose to demolish, piece by piece, all the beautiful things that you have said, and to demonstrate to you that it is my ideas alone that have carried the day, despite the new ideas, the new customs, your so-called principles of public rights, all the institutions of which you have spoken to me; but permit me, before I do so, to ask you a question: where are you in contemporary history?

Montesquieu: The notions that I have acquired about the various European States go up to the last days of 1847. The accidents of my wandering course through the infinite spaces and the confused multitudes of souls that fill them have not allowed me to encounter anyone who can inform me about events beyond the epoch of which I have spoken to you. Since my descent into the sojourn of darkness, I have passed approximately half a century among the people of the ancient world, and it has only been during the last quarter of a century that I have encountered the legions of modern people; still it is necessary to say that the majority come here from the furthest corners of the universe. I do not even know what year it is today.

Machiavelli: Here the last are the first, O Montesquieu! The statesman of the Middle Ages, the politician of barbaric times, knows more about modern times than the philosopher of the 18th century. Today it is the year of grace 1864.

Montesquieu: Would you inform me, Machiavelli -- I beg you, do so instantly -- what has occurred in Europe since 1847?[3]

Machiavelli: If you will permit it, not before I have had the pleasure of bringing ruin to the heart of your theories.

Montesquieu: As you wish; but believe me I am not worried in this respect. Centuries are needed to change the principles and forms of the governments under which the people have become accustomed to living. No new political teaching could result from the 15 years that have elapsed; and, in any case, if such has occurred, it could not be Machiavelli's doctrines that have triumphed.

Machiavelli: So you think: and so, listen to me in your turn.

[1] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XI, Chapter VI. [Translator's note: "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner. Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression."]

[2] Translator's note: mandataires can also mean "defenders."

[3] Translator's note: The reader knows: revolution. In 1848 alone, there were revolutions in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Wallachia.

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

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