Montesquieu: I hesitate to respond to you, Machiavelli, because in your last words there is I-don't-know-what Satanic raillery, which leaves me with the internal suspicion that your discourse is not completely in agreement with your secret thoughts. Yes, you have the fatal eloquence that emits traces of the truth, and you are quite the somber genius whose name is still the fright of contemporary generations. Nevertheless, I willingly recognize that, faced with such a powerful spirit, one loses too much by keeping silent; I want to listen to you to the end, and I even want to respond to you, although at present I have little hope of convincing you. You have made a truly sinister picture of modern society; I do not know if it is faithful, but it is at least incomplete, because, in all things, on the side of evil there is good and you have only shown me the evil; furthermore, you have not given me the means of verifying the point at which you are correct, because I do not know of which people and States you spoke when you made this black painting of contemporary morals.
Machiavelli: So, let us admit that I have taken as an example the country that, of all the nations of Europe, is the most advanced in civilization and that -- I hasten to add -- would be the last to apply to itself the portrait that I will make. . . .
Montesquieu: Thus, it is France that you would like to speak?
Machiavelli: Yes, indeed.
Montesquieu: You are right to do so, because it is there that the somber doctrines of materialism have penetrated the least. It is France that has remained the home for the great ideas and the great passions, the source of which you believe to be drained, and it is from France that travel the great principles of public rights, for which you make no place in the government of the States.
Machiavelli: You can add that it is the field for experimentation in political theory.
Montesquieu: I do not know any experiment that has profited in any durable manner from the establishment of despotism, either in France or elsewhere, among the contemporary nations; and this is what, above all, makes me find very little of your theories about the necessity of absolute power to be in conformity with the reality of things. Until now, I have only known two European States that are completely deprived of liberal institutions, that have kept the pure monarchical element on all sides: Turkey and Russia, and, even if you closely regard the internal movements that operate in the heart of this last power, perhaps you will find there the symptoms of an imminent transformation. It is true that you announce to me that -- in a more or less near future -- the people, threatened by inevitable dissolution, will return to despotism as to the Ark of Salvation; that they will constitute themselves under the form of the great absolute monarchies, analogous to those of Asia; [but] this is only a prediction. In how much time will this take place?
Machiavelli: Within a century.
Montesquieu: You are a fortune-teller; a century: this is a long time. But let me tell you why your prediction will not come true. Modern societies no longer need be envisioned with the eyes of the past. Their customs, habits and needs have all changed. Thus, one need not unreservedly have faith in the inductions of historical analogies when judging these societies' destinies. One must especially take care not to take the facts that are only accidents for universal laws, nor to transform the necessities of particular situations or times into general rules. From the fact that despotism has occurred several times in history, as a consequence of social disturbances, does it follow that it must be taken as a rule of government? From the fact that it has served as a transition in the past, should I conclude that it is the proper way to resolve the crises of modern epochs? Isn't it more rational to say that different evils call for different remedies, different problems for different solutions, different social customs for different political customs? An invariable law of society is that it tends towards perfection, towards progress; eternal wisdom -- if I can say so -- has condemned it to progress; eternal wisdom has refused movement in the opposite direction. This progress: it is necessary that society attains it.
Machiavelli: Or it dies.
Montesquieu: Do not place us at the extremes; societies never die as they are being born. When they are constituted in the mode that suits them, their institutions can be altered, fall into decadence and perish; but they will have lasted many centuries. It is thus that the diverse peoples of Europe have passed, through successive transformations, from the feudal system to the monarchical system to the constitutional regime. This progressive development, the unity of which is so imposing, has nothing fortuitous about it; it has occurred as the necessary consequence of the movement that is operative in ideas before being rendered into deeds.
Societies cannot have other forms of government than those that are related to their principles and it is against this absolute law that you go when you believe that despotism is compatible with modern civilization. To the extent people have regarded sovereignty as a pure emanation of the divine will, they have submitted to absolute power without complaint; to the extent their institutions have been insufficient to assure their progress, they have accepted the arbitrary. But from the day that their rights were recognized and solemnly declared; from the day that more fecund institutions determined all the functions of the social body through liberty, the politics at the disposal of the princes has fallen from its heights; power became like a dependent upon the public domain; the art of government became an administrative affair. Today, things are ordered in such a way that, within the States, the ruling power only appears as the motor of the organized forces.
It is certain that, if you suppose such societies to be infected by all the corruptions, with all the vices of which you spoke to me just a moment ago, they proceed in a rapid fashion towards decomposition; but how can you not see that the conclusion that you drew from this is a veritable begging of the question? Since when does liberty debase souls and degrade character? These are not the lessons of history, because they attest instead in strokes of fire that the greatest peoples have been the freest. If morals have deteriorated -- as you have said -- in some part of Europe of which I am unfamiliar, it is because despotism has taken control there; because liberty has been extinguished; thus it is necessary to maintain liberty where it exists and reestablish it where it exists no longer.
At this moment, we are -- do not forget -- on the terrain of principles; and if yours differ from mine, I ask that they be invariable; therefore, I no longer know where I am when I hear you praise liberty in antiquity and proscribe it in modern times, repel it or allow it according to the time or place. These distinctions, supposed to be justified, do not leave the principle intact and it is to this principle alone that I am attached.
Machiavelli: Like a skillful pilot, you have avoided the reef by keeping to the high seas. Generalities are a great aid in discussions; but I confess that I am very impatient to know how the grave Montesquieu will navigate the principle of popular sovereignty. At this moment, I no longer know if it is or is not a part of your system. Do you or do you not allow a place for it?
Montesquieu: I cannot respond to a question if it posed in these terms.
Machiavelli: I know that your reason is troubled by this phantom.
Montesquieu: You are deceived, Machiavelli; but before I respond to you, I must recall to you my writings and the character of the mission that they fulfilled. You have rendered my name in solidarity with the iniquities of the French Revolution: this is a very severe judgment for a philosopher who has taken such prudent steps in search of the truth. Born in a century of intellectual effervescence, on the eve of a revolution that would -- in my country -- carry off the old forms of monarchical government, I can say that none of the immediate consequences of the movement that grew in these ideas escaped my view. I cannot ignore the fact that the system of the division of power would one day necessarily displace the seat of sovereignty.
This principle -- badly understood, badly defined, and badly applied, especially -- could engender terrible uncertainties and upset French society from the bottom to the top. The feeling for these perils became the rule for my works. While imprudent innovators (who immediately attacked the source of power) prepared a formidable catastrophe without realizing it, I uniquely applied myself to the study of the forms of free government, to extract the principles, properly speaking, that preside over their establishment. Statesman rather than philosopher, jurisconsult rather than theologian, practical legislator (if the boldness of such a word is permitted to me) rather than theoretician, I believed I could do more for my country by teaching it to govern itself than by questioning the very principle of authority. Nevertheless, God forbid that I try to make for myself a purer merit at the expense of those who, like me, sought the truth in good faith! We have all committed mistakes, but each has the responsibility for his own works.
Yes, Machiavelli -- and this is a concession that I do not hesitate to make to you -- you were right when, a little while ago, you said that it was necessary that the emancipation of the French people was in conformity with the higher principles that preside over the existence of human societies and this reservation lets you foresee the judgment that I will provide on the principle of popular sovereignty.
First of all, I do not allow a designation that seems to exclude from sovereignty the most enlightened classes of society. This distinction is fundamental, because it will make a State either a pure democracy or a representative State. If sovereignty resides anywhere, it resides in the entire nation; thus I would call it national sovereignty. But the idea of this sovereignty is not an absolute truth: it is only relative. The sovereignty of human power corresponds to a profoundly subversive idea, namely, the sovereignty of human rights; it was this materialist and atheist doctrine that precipitated the French Revolution in the blood and inflicted on it the opprobrium of despotism after the delirium of independence. It is inexact to say that the nations are the absolute masters of their respective destinies, because their sovereign master is God himself and they are never outside His power. If they possessed absolute sovereignty, they would be everything, [and thus] even against eternal justice, against God himself: who would dare to go that far? But the principle of the divine right [of kings], with the meaning that is communally attached to it, is not a less fatal principle, because it condemns the people to obscurantism, to the arbitrary, to nothingness; it logically reconstitutes the regime of castes; it makes the people into a herd of slaves, led -- as in India -- by the hands of the priests and trembling under the rod of the master. How could it be otherwise? If the sovereign is the envoy of God, if he is the very representative of the Divinity on earth, he has complete power over the human creatures submitted to his control, and this power could only be braked in accordance with the general rules of equity, which would always be easy to break.
It is on this field (that separates these two extreme opinions) that the furious battles of partisanship are fought: one side cries "No divine authority!" while the other cries "No human authority!" O Supreme Providence, my reason refuses to accept one or the other of these alternatives; they both appear to me as an equal blasphemy against your wisdom! Between the divine right that excludes mankind and the human right that excludes God, there is the truth, Machiavelli; the nations, like individuals, are free in the hands of God. They have all the rights, all the powers, on the condition that they are used according to the rules of eternal justice. Sovereignty is human in the sense that it is given by men and that it is men who exercise it; it is divine in the sense that it is instituted by God and that it can only be exercised according to the precepts that He has established.
(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! November 2007.)