Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Sixth Dialogue

Machiavelli: I wish to arrive at the precise consequences. How far does the hand of God extend over humanity? Who is it who makes the sovereigns?

Montesquieu: The people do.

Machiavelli: It is written: Per me reges regnant.[1] What does this literally mean? God makes the kings.

Montesquieu: This is a translation in the manner of The Prince, O Machiavelli, and it was borrowed from you in this century by one of your most illustrious partisans,[2] but it is not from Holy Scripture. God instituted sovereignty; he did not institute the sovereigns. His all-powerful hand stopped there, because it was there that human free will begins. "The kings rule according to my commandments; they must reign following my law": such is the meaning of the Divine Book. If it was otherwise, it would be necessary to say that the good and the bad princes are established by Providence; it would be necessary to bow before Nero as well as Titus, before Caligula as well as Vespasian. No, God did not want the most sacrilegious domination to invoke his protection, the vilest tyrannies to appeal to his investiture. He left responsibility for their respective acts to the people as well as to the kings.

Machiavelli: I strongly doubt that all this is orthodox. According to you, it is the people (whomever they are) who dispose of the sovereignty authority?

Montesquieu: Take care: by contesting it, you set yourself against a truth of pure common sense. This is not a novelty in history. In ancient times, in the Middle Ages, especially when domination was established outside of invasion or conquest, sovereign power originated through the free will of the people in the original form of the election. To cite only one example: in France the leader of the Carolingian race succeeded the descendants of Clovis and the dynasty of Hugues Capet those of Charlemagne.[3] No doubt heredity came to be substituted for election. The splendor of services rendered, the public renaissance and traditions have fixed sovereignty among the principle families of Europe, and nothing is more legitimate. But the principle of national omnipotence is constantly found at the basis of revolution; it has always been summoned for the consecration of new powers. It is an anterior and preexisting principle that only realizes itself more narrowly in the diverse constitutions of the modern States.

Machiavelli: But if it is the people who choose their masters, can they also overthrow them? If they have the right to establish the form of government that suits them, what prevents them from changing it at the whims of their caprice? It would not be the rule of order and liberty that emerges from their doctrines, but the indefinite era of revolution.[4]

Montesquieu: You confound rights with the abuse that can result from their exercise, the principles with their application; these are fundamental distinctions, without which we could not understand each other.

Machiavelli: Do not hope to escape me: I asked you about the logical consequences; refuse them to me if you like. I wish to know if, according to your principles, the people have the right to overthrow their sovereigns.

Montesquieu: Yes, in extreme cases and for just cause.

Machiavelli: Who will be the judge of these extreme cases and of the justice of these extremities?

Montesquieu: And whom would you like it to be, if not the people themselves? Have things happened otherwise since the beginning of the world? This is a redoubtable sanction, no doubt, but salutary and inevitable. How can you not see that the contrary doctrine, the one that commands men to have respect for the most odious governments, would make them fall back under the yoke of monarchical fatalism?

Machiavelli: Your system has only one disadvantage: it supposes the infallibility of the people's reason; but do they not have -- as men and women -- passions, errors and injustices?

Montesquieu: When the people make mistakes, they will be punished like men who have sinned against moral law.

Machiavelli: And how is that?

Montesquieu: They will be punished by the scourges of discord, anarchy, even despotism. There is no other justice on earth, while awaiting that of God.

Machiavelli: You have used the word despotism: you see that one returns to it.

Montesquieu: Your objection is not worthy of your great spirit, Machiavelli; I imagined the most extreme consequences of the principles that you oppose, which was sufficient for the notion of the true to be falsified. God does not accord to the people either the power or the will to change the forms of government that are the essential mode of their existence. In political societies as in organic beings, the nature of things limits the expansion of free forces. It is necessary that the scope of your argument limits itself to what is acceptable to reason.

You believe that under the influence of modern ideas, revolutions would be more frequent; they will not be, [indeed] it is possible that they will be less frequent. Actually, the nations -- as you said a little while ago -- currently live through industry, and what appears to you as a cause of servitude is in fact a principle of order and liberty. Industrial civilizations have complaints that I do not ignore, but one must not deny their benefits nor denature their tendencies. The societies that live by work, exchange and credit are essentially Christian societies, whatever one says,[5] because all of these very powerful and varied forms of industry are fundamentally the application of several great moral ideas borrowed from Christianity, the source of all strength and all truth.

Industry plays such a considerable role in the movement of modern society that -- from any point of view -- one cannot make any exact calculation without accounting for its influence; and this influence is not at all that which you have believed you can assign to it. The science that seeks the connections between industrial life and the maxims that can be extracted from it reveals that there is more contrary to [than in favor of] the principle of the concentration of power. The tendency of political economy is to only see the political organism as a necessary mechanism, but also a very costly one, of which one must simplify the motives, and to reduce the role of the government to such elementary functions that its greatest disadvantage is perhaps the destruction of its prestige. Industry is the natural enemy of revolution, because, without social order, it perishes and the vital movement of modern peoples stops along with it. It cannot do without liberty, because it only lives through the manifestations of liberty; and -- remark this well -- liberties in matters of industry necessarily engender political liberties,[6] so well in fact that one can say that the people who are the most advanced in industry are also the most advanced in liberty. Forget about India and China, which live under the blind destiny of absolute monarchy, and cast your eyes on Europe and you will see.

"You have again used the word despotism." So, Machiavelli: you, whose somber genius has so profoundly assimilated all the subterranean passages, all the occult combinations, all the artifices of the law and government, with the aid of which one can chain the movements of the people's arms and their thoughts; you, who scorn mankind; you, who dream for it the terrible dominations of the East; you, whose political doctrines are borrowed from the frightening theories of Indian mythology -- please tell me, I entreat you, how will you organize despotism among the peoples for whom public rights essentially rest upon liberty and for whom morality and religion develop all movement in the same direction; among the Christian nations that live through commerce and industry; in the States whose political bodies are confronted by the publicity of the press, which throws floods of light into the most obscure corners of power? Appeal to all the resources of your powerful imagination, search and invent; and if you resolve this problem, I will declare with you that the modern spirit is vanquished.

Machiavelli: Be careful: you give me an easy score; I will take you at your word.

Montesquieu: Do so, I entreat you.

Machiavelli: I will not fail.

Montesquieu: In several hours, we will be separated. These regions are not known to you; follow me through the detours that I will make with you along this somber path; for several hours we can still avoid the reflux of shadows that you see there below.

[1] Latin for "By me kings reign." Proverbs 8:15. Note that this differs from Machiavelli's next remark, which claims it means "God makes the kings."

[2] Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a lawyer, diplomat, writer and philosopher.

[3] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XXXI, Chapter IV. [Translator's note: this citation is incorrect. The correct citation is Book XXXI, Chapter XVI.]

[4] In a work published in 1961, Christopher Hill referred to the period from 1603 to 1714 in England as "the century of revolution." In "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" (1843) Frederick Engels called the 18th century the "century of revolution." But, of course, the 19th century was also a "century of revolution," especially in France.

[5] A remark that directly confronts the central thesis of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is that modern capitalist society is essentially Jewish and/or a Jewish creation. One mentions this, of course, because the Protocols were in part a plagiarism of Joly's Dialogue in Hell.

[6] This, of course, is an ideology that continues to this very day: post-USSR Russia and contemporary China will supposedly become "democratic" if free enterprise capitalism is introduced there.

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! Novemer 2007. All footnotes by the translator, except where noted.)

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