Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Fourth Dialogue

Machiavelli: Listening to your theories of the division of power and the benefits that it has brought to the people of Europe, I could not keep myself, Montesquieu, from admiring the point at which the illusion of systems seizes hold of the greatest minds.

Seduced by the institutions of England, you have believed that you could make the constitutional regime the universal panacea for all States; but you have not accounted for the irresistible movement that today tears society from its old traditions. It will not take two centuries before this form of government, which you admire, is no longer in Europe anything but an historical memory, something as superannuated and weak as Aristotle's rule of the three unities.[1]

At first permit me to examine your political mechanism: you balance the three powers, and you confine each in their department: one makes the laws, another applies them, and a third executes them: the prince reigns, the ministers govern. A marvelous thing, this constitutional scale! You have foreseen everything, ruled everything, except movement: the triumph of such a system is not action, but immobility so that the mechanism functions with precision; but, in reality, things do not happen this way. On the first occasion, movement will be produced through the rupture of one of the springs that you have so carefully forged. Do you believe that the powers will remain within the constitutional limits that you have assigned them and that they will not manage to cross? What independent legislative assembly does not aspire to sovereignty? What magistracy does not give way to public opinion? What prince especially -- the sovereign of a kingdom or the leader or a republic -- unreservedly accepts the passive role to which you have condemned him; who, in the secrecy of his thoughts, does not meditate on the overthrow of the rival powers that hinder his action? In reality, you have put into motion all of the contrary forces, incited all of the enterprises, given weapons to all of the parties. You have surrendered power to the assault launched by the ambitions, and have made the State an arena in which the factions are unleashed. In a little while, there will be disorder everywhere; inexhaustible rhetoricians will transform the deliberatory assemblies into oratory jousts; audacious journalists and unbridled pamphleteers will attack the person of the sovereign every day, will discredit the government, the ministers, the men in positions of power. . . .

Montesquieu: I have long known these reproaches that are addressed to free governments. They have no value in my eyes; abuse does not condemn these institutions. I know of many States that have long lived in peace and under such laws: I pity those who cannot.

Machiavelli: Wait: in your calculations, you have only accounted for social minorities. There are gigantic populations riveted to work by poverty, as they were in the past by slavery. What importance do all your parliamentary fictions have to their happiness? In short, your great political movement has only ended in the triumph of a minority privileged by chance, as the ancient nobility triumphed through birth. What importance to the proletarian bent over his work, overwhelmed by the weight of his destiny, is the fact that a few orators have the right to speak, that a few journalists have the right to write? You have created rights that will eternally remain in the state of pure faculty for the masses of people, because they will not make use of them. These rights, of which the law recognizes the ideal enjoyment and necessity refuses the real exercise, are only a bitter irony of the people's destiny. I respond to you that one day they will take them in hatred and will destroy them by hand so as to to then place their trust in despotism.

Montesquieu: What scorn does Machiavelli have for humanity and what idea does he have of the baseness of modern people? Powerful God, I do not believe that you have created them so vile. Machiavelli, whatever he says about it, is unfamiliar with the principles and conditions of existence of contemporary civilization. Today, work is the communal law, as it is the divine law; and, far from being a sign of the servitude of men, it is the link of their association, the instrument of their equality.

Political rights are not illusory for the people in those States in which the law does not recognize privileges and in which all careers are open to individual activity. No doubt, and in no society would it be otherwise, the inequality of intelligence and fortune involves, for the individual, inevitable inequalities in the exercise of their rights; but does it not suffice that these rights exist so that the wish of an enlightened philosophy is fulfilled, so that the emancipation of men is assured to the extent that it can be? Even for those whom chance has caused to be born in the most humble conditions, is it nothing to live with the feeling of their independence and their dignity as citizens? But this is only an aspect of the question, because if the moral grandeur of the people is tied to liberty, they are no less bound by their material interests.

Machiavelli: Here I have anticipated you. The school to which you belong has proposed principles, the final consequences of which it appears not to have perceived: you believe that they lead to the reign of reason; I will show you that they lead to the reign of force. In its original purity, your political system consists in giving a practically equal part of the action to the diverse power groups of which society is composed, to allow these groups to cooperate in social activity in a just proportion; you do not want the aristocratic elements to take priority over the democratic elements. Nevertheless, the temperament of your institutions is to give more power to the aristocracy than to the people, and more power to the prince than to the aristocracy, thus dividing power in proportion to the political capacities of those who must exercise them.

Montesquieu: This is true.

Machiavelli: You make the different classes of society participate in political functions according to the degree of their aptitude and their knowledge; you emancipate the bourgeoisie through the vote, you restrain the people through the poll tax; popular liberties create the power of popular opinion, the aristocracy provides the prestige of great manners, the throne casts upon the nation the splendor of supreme rank; you keep all the great traditions, all the great memories, the worship of all the great things. On the surface, one sees a monarchical society, but it is at base completely democratic, because, in reality, there are no barriers between the classes and work is the instrument of all fortunes. Is this not right?

Montesquieu: Yes, Machiavelli: you know how to comprehend the opinions that you do not share.

Machiavelli: So, all these beautiful things have taken place or will take place as in a dream; because you have a new principle with which all the institutions decompose with a frightening rapidity.

Montesquieu: What is this principle?

Machiavelli: That of popular sovereignty. One will find -- do not doubt it -- the squaring of the circle before being able to reconcile the balance of power with the existence of a similar principle in the nation where it is admitted. By an absolutely inevitable consequence, the people will, one day or another, seize all the powers that in principle one has recognized in them. Will this seizure be undertaken so as to keep them? No. After several days of madness, they will throw them over due to lassitude for the first soldier of fortune who comes along. In your country, in 1793, you saw how the French head-cutters treated representative democracy: the sovereign people were affirmed by the punishment of their king, then they trampled on their rights; they gave themselves to Robespierre, Barras, Bonaparte.

You are a great thinker, but you do not know the inexhaustible cowardice of the people; I do not speak of those of my times, but those of yours; groveling before strength, pitiless before weakness, implacable concerning faults, indulgent of crime, incapable of tolerating the annoyances of a free regime and patient to the point of martyrdom with all of the violence of bold despotism, breaking thrones in moments of anger and then giving themselves masters whose offenses they pardon, though they decapitated 20 constitutional monarchs for much less.

Thus, you seek out justice; you seek out rights, stability, order, the respect for the very complicated forms of your parliamentary mechanisms among the violent, undisciplined and uncultivated masses to whom you have said: "You are rights, you are the masters, you are the arbiters of the State!" Oh! I know well that the prudent Montesquieu, the politically circumspect Montesquieu, who proposes principles and sets aside the consequences, did not inscribe the dogma of popular sovereignty in Spirit of the Laws; but, as you said a little while ago, the consequences derive from the principles that you have proposed. The affinity of your doctrines with those of the Social Contract[2] are easy to see. Also, ever since the day on which the French revolutionaries (swearing in verba magistri[3]) wrote that "A constitution can only be the free creation of a convention of associates," the monarchical and parliamentary government was sentenced to death in your country. In vain one has tried to restore the principles; vainly has your King, Louis XVIII, by returning to France, tried to return power to its source by promulgating the declarations of '89 as a precedent for the royal grant; this pious fiction of the aristocratic monarchy was in too flagrant a contradiction with the past: it had to vanish into the noise of the revolution of 1830, as did the government of 1830, in its turn. . . .

Montesquieu: Finish.

Machiavelli: Let us not get ahead of ourselves. What you (as much as I) know of the past authorizes me, in the present, to say that the principle of popular sovereignty is destructive of all stability, that it indefinitely consecrates the right to revolution. It puts society in open war against all the human powers and even against God; it is the very incarnation of force. It made of the people a ferocious force that sleeps when it is satiated with blood and chained up; and here is the invariable progression that follows in societies in which movement is ruled by this principle: popular sovereignty engenders demagoguery, demagoguery engenders anarchy, anarchy leads to despotism. For you, despotism is barbarism. So! You see that the people return to barbarism along the road of civilization.

But this is not all, and I claim from other points of view that despotism is the only form of government that is really appropriate for the social situation of modern people. You have said to me that their material interests bind them to liberty; here, you play too fine a game. In general, which States need liberty? Those that live through great sentiments, great passions, heroism, faith, and even honor, as you said in your era when you spoke of the French monarchy. Stoicism can make a free people; in certain conditions, Christianity can have the same privilege. I can understand the necessity of liberty in Athens, in Rome, among the nations that only breathe through the glory of arms, that satisfy all their expansions through war, that moreover need all the energies of patriotism, all the civic enthusiasms to triumph over their enemies.

The public liberties were the natural patrimony of the States in which the servile and industrial functions were relegated to the slaves, where a man was useless if he was not a citizen. I can still conceive of liberty in certain periods of the Christian era and especially in the small States that were linked together by the systems of confederation analogous to those of the Hellenic republics, as in Italy and Germany. Here again I find some of the natural causes that make liberty necessary. It was almost inoffensive during the times in which the principle of authority was not questioned, in which religion had absolute control over men, in which the people -- placed under the tutelary regime of the guilds -- docilely marched under the leadership of its shepherds. If political emancipation had been attempted then, it would have succeeded without danger, because it would have been accomplished in conformity with the principles upon which the existence of all societies rests. But, with the advent of your great States, which only live through industriousness, with the appearance of our godless and faithless populations, when the people are no longer satisfied by war and when their violent activities necessarily carry them back to internal affairs, liberty -- along with the principles that serve it -- can only be a cause of dissolution and ruin. I add that liberty is no more necessary to the moral needs of individuals than it is to the States.

From the lassitude of ideas and the shock of revolutions have come cold and disabused societies that have arrived at indifference in politics as well as in religion, that have no other stimulants than material pleasures, that only live through self-interest, that have no other worship than that of gold, whose mercantile customs compete with those of the Jews, whom they have taken as models.[4] Do you believe that it was for the love of liberty in itself that the lower classes tried to launch an assault on power? It was due to their hatred of those who possess [it]; basically, it was to tear from them their wealth, the instrument of the pleasures that they envied.

Those who possess [wealth] implore an energetic arm, a strong power, from all sides; they only demand one thing from them: to protect the State against the agitations that its weak constitution cannot resist, to give to them the necessary security so that they can enjoy and conduct their affairs. What forms of government would you apply to societies in which corruption is everywhere; in which fortunes are only acquired by the surprises of fraud; in which morality is only guaranteed by repressive laws; in which the feeling of patriotism itself is extinguished in I-don't-know-what universal cosmopolitanism?

I do not see any other salvation for such societies, veritable colossi with feet of clay, than in the institution of a maximum concentration that puts all public power at the disposition of those who govern; in a hierarchical administration similar to that of the Roman Empire, which mechanically ruled all the movements of individuals; in a vast system of legislation that takes back in detail all of the liberties that had been imprudently granted; in a gigantic despotism, finally, that could strike immediately and at any time all those who resist, all those who complain. The Caesarism of the Lower Empire appears to me to have realized quite well what I desire for the well-being of modern societies. Thanks to the vast apparatuses that already function -- one tells me -- in more than one European country, they could live in peace, as in China, Japan and India. It is not necessary for common prejudice to make us scorn the Eastern civilizations, whose institutions one learns every day to appreciate better. For example, the Chinese people are very commercial and very well administered.

[1] A very clever comparison, because it suggests that the three branches of government are a kind of theatrical staging.

[2] By Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762).

[3] Latin for "in words of the master." See Horace, Epistle I, 1, 14: iurare in verba magistri ("to swear in the words of the master").

[4] This is the only passage in the entire book that mentions Jewish people. We mention this fact because this book was later used as source material for the virulently anti-Semitic fake entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

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

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