Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Ninth Dialogue

Montesquieu: You were up to the day following the institution of a constitution created by you without the assent of the nation.

Machiavelli: Here I must stop you: I never claimed to scorn the received ideas whose supremacy I know.

Montesquieu: Really?

Machiavelli: I speak very seriously.

Montesquieu: Thus you plan to associate the nation with the new, fundamental work that you are preparing?

Machiavelli: Yes, no doubt. Does this surprise you? I would do even better: I would ratify by popular vote the blow of force that I had landed on the State: I would say to the people, in the terms that would be suitable: "Everything was going badly; I broke it all; I have saved you; do you want me? You are free to condemn me or absolve me by your vote."

Montesquieu: [They would be] free under the weight of terror and armed force.

Machiavelli: One would acclaim me.

Montesquieu: I believe it.

Machiavelli: And the popular vote, which I made the instrument of my power, would become the very basis of my government. I would establish universal suffrage (without distinction for class or property qualifications), with which absolutism could be organized in a single blow.

Montesquieu: Yes, because -- with a single blow -- you will have broken the unity of the family, you will have depreciated suffrage, you will have annulled the preponderance of luminaries and you will have made the masses into a blind force that are directed according to your liking.

Machiavelli: I will accomplish the kind of progress to which, today, all the peoples of Europe ardently aspire: I would organize universal suffrage as [George] Washington did in the United States, and the first use I would make of it would be to submit my constitution to it.

Montesquieu: What? Would you have it discussed in the primary or secondary assemblies?

Machiavelli: Oh! Let us leave here -- I beg you -- your 18th century ideas; they are no longer relevant to the present.

Montesquieu: So, in what manner would you organize the acceptance of your constitution? How will the organic articles be discussed?

Machiavelli: But I do not mean that they should be discussed at all; I believe that I already told you so.

Montesquieu: I have only followed you on the terrain of principles that it has pleased you to choose. You have spoken to me of the United States of America: I do not know if you are a new Washington, but it is certain that the current constitution of the United States was discussed, deliberated and voted upon by the nation's representatives.

Machiavelli: For mercy's sake, do not confound times, places and peoples. We are in Europe; my constitution will be presented en bloc, it will be accepted en bloc.

Montesquieu: By acting in this way, you will not disguise anything from anyone. How could the people -- voting in such conditions -- know what they were doing and how far they were plunging in?

Machiavelli: And where have you ever seen a constitution that is truly worthy of the name, truly durable, been the result of popular deliberations? A constitution must come fully formed from the head of a single person or it is merely a work condemned to nothingness. Without homogeneity, without the liaison of its parties, without practical force, it would necessarily carry the imprints of all the weaknesses of the views that presided over its redaction.

Once again: a constitution can only be the work of a single person; never have things been done otherwise; I can call as witnesses all of the founders of empire: Sesostris, Solon, Lycurgus, Charlemagne, Frederic II, Peter the First.

Montesquieu: It is a chapter from one of your disciples that you are developing for me here.

Machiavelli: And who would this be?

Montesquieu: Joseph de Maistre.[1] There are general considerations here that are not without truth, but I find them to be without application. To hear you, one would think that you would be pulling the people from out of chaos or the profound night of their primary origins. You do not appear to remember that, in the hypothesis in which you placed us, the nation had attained the apogee of its civilization, that its public laws have been established and that it possesses legitimate institutions.

Machiavelli: I do not say "no." You will also see that I would have no need to destroy your institutions from the bottom to the top to arrive at my goal. It would be sufficient for me to modify the economy and change the arrangements.

Montesquieu: Will you explain?

Machiavelli: You have given me a course in constitutional politics; I aim to benefit from it. I am not, moreover, as foreign as one generally believes in Europe to all these ideas about political balance: you can perceive this in my Discourses on Titus Livy. But let us return to the deed. You rightly remarked just a moment ago that, in the European parliamentary States, the public powers are distributed practically everywhere, in the same manner, between a certain number of political bodies, the regularized interaction of which constitute the government.

Thus one finds everywhere -- under diverse names, but with practically uniform assignations -- a ministerial organization, a senate, a legislative body, a Council of State, and a court of cassation. I must spare you from the useless development of the respective mechanisms of these powers, the secret[s] of which you know better than I; it is obvious that each one corresponds with an essential function of the government. You will remark that it is the function, not the institution, that I have called essential. Thus, it would be necessary to have a ruling power, a moderating power, a legislative power and a regulating power -- none of this is in doubt.

Montesquieu: But, if I understand you well, these diverse powers would, in your eyes, compose a single power and you would give it all to a single man by suppressing the institutions.

Machiavelli: Once more, you are deceived. One could not act in such a fashion without danger. One could not do it during your century and in your country, especially, given the fanaticism that reigns there for what you call the principles of '89, but please listen to me well. In statics, the displacement of a fulcrum can change the direction of force; in mechanics, the displacement of a spring can change movement. But in appearances, everything remains the same. Likewise, in physiology, temperament depends on the state of the organs. If the organs are modified, the temperament changes. So, the diverse institutions of which we speak function in the governmental economy like real organs in the human body. I would touch the organs, the organs would remain, but the political complexion of the State would be changed. Can you understand this?

Montesquieu: This is not difficult and circumlocution is not necessary. You keep the names, and you remove the things [they refer to].[2] This is what Augustus did in Rome when he destroyed the Republic. There was still a consulate, a praetorship, a censor, a tribunal; but there were no consuls, praetors, censors or tribunes.

Machiavelli: You must confess that one could have chosen worse models. Everything can be done in politics on the condition that one flatters public prejudices and keeps respect for appearances intact.

Montesquieu: Do not return to generalities; get back to work, I am following you.

Machiavelli: Do not forget that my personal convictions would be the sources of each of my actions. To my eyes, your parliamentary governments are only schools for dispute, homes for sterile agitation, in the midst of which are exhausted the fecund activities of the nations that the grandstand and the press condemn to powerlessness. Consequently, I would not have remorse; I would begin from an elevated point of view and my goals justify my actions.

For abstract theories, I would substitute practical reason, the experiences of the centuries, the examples of men of genius who have done great things by the same means; I would begin by returning to power its vital conditions.

My first reform would immediately focus upon your so-called ministerial responsibility. In the centralized countries -- such as yours, for example, where public opinion, through an instinctive sentiment, yields up everything to the Chief of State, the good as well as the bad -- to inscribe at the top of the charter the idea that the sovereign is not responsible, this is to lie to the public sentiment, this is to establish a fiction that always vanishes in the noise of revolution.

Thus I would begin by crossing out from my constitution the principle of ministerial responsibility; the sovereign whom I would institute would be the only one responsible to the people.

Montesquieu: Fine! There are no circumlocutions here.

Machiavelli: In your parliamentary system, the nation's representatives -- as you have explained to me -- have the sole initiative for the proposal of laws or have it concurrently with the executive power. This would be the source of the most serious abuses, because, in a similar ordering of things, each deputy could at every turn substitute himself for the government by presenting the least studied, the least thorough proposals. With parliamentary initiative in place, the Chamber could -- when it wanted to -- overthrow the government. I would cross out parliamentary initiative. The proposition of the laws would belong to the sovereign alone.

Montesquieu: I see that you would enter into the career of absolute power by the best route, because in a State in which the initiation of the laws belongs to the sovereign alone, the sovereign is the only legislator; but, before, you go too far, I would to make an objection. You would like to erect yourself upon this rock, but I find that you are seated upon sand.

Machiavelli: How so?

Montesquieu: Have you not taken popular suffrage as the basis of your power?

Machiavelli: Without doubt, yes.

Montesquieu: So you are only a representative, revocable at the whim of the people, in whom the real sovereignty resides. You believe that you can make this principle serve the maintenance of your authority. Have you not perceived that one could overthrow you when one wanted to? On the other hand, you have declared yourself to be the only one responsible; do you reckon yourself to be an angel? But whether you realize it or not, one would not blame you any less for any evil that could take place, and you would perish during the first crisis.

Machiavelli: You are anticipating: the objection comes too soon, but I will respond to it, since you force me. You strangely deceive yourself if you believe that I have not foreseen this argument. If my power was threatened, it could only be so by factions. I would be guarded against them by the two essential rights that I have placed in my constitution.

Montesquieu: What are these rights?

Machiavelli: The appeal to the people, [and] the right to put the country into a state of siege.[3] I am chief of the army, I have all of the public force in my hands; at the first [signs of] insurrection against my power, the bayonets would allow me to get the better of the resistance and I would again find in the popular ballot a new consecration of my authority.

Montesquieu: You make arguments to which no reply can be made; but let us return -- I beg you -- to the Legislative Body that you have installed. On this point, I do not see you to be clear of difficulties; you have deprived this assembly of parliamentary initiative, but it retains the right to vote upon the laws that you present to it for adoption. No doubt you do not intend to let it exercise this right.

Machiavelli: You are more distrustful that I, because I confess to you that I do not see any difficulties here. Since no one other than myself can present laws, I have nothing to fear if someone does something against my power. Thus, I have said to you that it would be part of my plans to let the appearance of these institutions continue. I simply declare to you that I do not intend to leave to the Chamber what you would call the right of amendment. It is obvious that, with the exercise of such a faculty, the law could be deflected from its original goal and the economy could be susceptible to being changed. The law must be accept or rejected: there can be no other alternative.

Montesquieu: But this faculty would not be needed to overthrow you: it would be sufficient if the legislative assembly systematically rejected all your proposed laws or if it refused to vote for any taxes to be levied.

Machiavelli: You know perfectly well that things could not take place like that. A chamber of whatever kind that, through such an act of temerity, hindered the movement of public affairs would be committing suicide. Furthermore, I would have a thousand means of neutralizing the power of such an assembly. I could reduce the number of representatives by half and thus I would have half the political passion to combat. I would reserve for myself the nomination of the presidents and vice-presidents who would lead the deliberations. In place of permanent sessions, I would reduce the tenure of the assembly to several months. I would especially do something that would be of a very great importance, something of which the practice has already started (so one tells me): I would abolish the gratuity of the legislative mandate; I would have the deputies receive a salary; their functions would be salaried. I regard this innovation as the surest means of tying the nation's representatives to [my] power. I do not need to develop this for you: the efficacy of these means is easily understood. I would add that, as the head of executive power, I would have the right to convoke or dissolve the Legislative Body and, in case of its dissolution, I would reserve for myself the longest periods of time to convoke a new one. I understand perfectly well that the legislative assembly cannot remain independent of my power without presenting dangers to it, but be reassured: we will soon encounter other practical means of tying it in. Are these constitutional details sufficient for you? Would you like more?

Montesquieu: This will not be necessary at all, and you can now move on to the organization of the Senate.

Machiavelli: I see that you have very well understood that this will be the principal part of my work, the keystone of my constitution.

Montesquieu: Truly I do not know what more you could do, because -- from this moment -- I regard you as the complete master of the State.

Machiavelli: It pleases you to say so, but, in reality, sovereignty cannot be established on such superficial bases. Alongside the sovereign, one must have bodies that are imposing due to the splendor of their titles and dignity, and due to the personal glory of those who compose them. It is not good that the person of the sovereign is constantly in play, that his hand is always perceived; it would be necessary that his action could, if needed, be covered under the authority of the great magistracies that surround the throne.

Montesquieu: It is easy to see that you intend the Senate and the Council of State to play these roles.

Machiavelli: One cannot hide anything from you.

Montesquieu: You speak of the throne: I see that you are the king and we were in a republic just a moment ago. The transition has hardly been arranged.

Machiavelli: The illustrious French publicist cannot ask me to decide upon the details of the execution: from the moment that I became all-powerful, the hour at which I would proclaim myself king was simply a matter of opportunity. I would become king before or after the promulgation of my constitution: it hardly matters.

Montesquieu: This is true. Let us return to the organization of the Senate.

[1] Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre (1753-1821) was an influential spokesperson for the restoration of the hereditary monarchy in the aftermath of he French Revolution.

[2] See Guy Debord's comments on the falsification of food in his essay Abat Faim.

[3] A "state of exception" in which the constitution is suspended, possibly due to an attack by foreign powers or an uprising by domestic agitators.

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

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