Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Seventh Dialogue


Machiavelli: We can stop here.

Montesquieu: I will listen to you.

Machiavelli: At first I must say that you are completely deceived about the application of my principles. In your eyes, despotism always presents itself in the decrepit forms of Eastern monarchicalism, but this is not what I imagine; in new societies, one must employ new procedures. Today, governing is not a matter of committing violent iniquities, decapitating enemies, stripping subjects of their goods, the liberal use of torture; no, death, despoliation and physical torment can only play secondary roles in the internal politics of modern States.

Montesquieu: That is fortunate.

Machiavelli: There is no doubt, I confess, that I have little admiration for your civilization of cylinders and shafts; but, believe me, I move with the times; the power of the doctrines to which my name is attached is the fact that they can accommodate themselves to all times and situations. Today, Machiavelli has grandsons who know the price of his lessons. One believes me to be quite old and every day I am rejuvenated on the earth.

Montesquieu: Are you joking?

Machiavelli: Listen to me and judge for yourself. Today, it is less a question of doing violence to men than disarming them, of repressing their political passions than effacing them, of combating their instincts than deceiving them, of proscribing their ideas than changing them by appropriating them.

Montesquieu: And how? I do not understand this language.

Machiavelli: Permit me. Here is the moral part of politics; in a little while we will come to the applications. The principal secret of government consists in weakening the public spirit to the point of completely disinteresting the people in the ideas and principles with which one makes revolution these days. In all eras, peoples -- like individual men -- are paid with words. Appearances are almost always sufficient for them; they do not demand more. Thus, one can establish artificial institutions that respond to a language and ideas that are equally artificial; one must have the talent of snatching from the parties the liberal phraseology with which they arm themselves against the government. One must saturate the people to the point of exhaustion, to the point of disgust. Today, one often speaks of the power of public opinion; I will show to you that one can make it express what one wants when one knows the hidden springs of power. But before dreaming of directing it, one must stun it, strike it with uncertainty by astonishing contradictions, work incessant diversions upon it, dazzle it by all sorts of diverse movements, imperceptibly lead it astray from its routes. One of the great secrets of the day is knowing how to seize hold of popular prejudices and passions so as to introduce into them a confusion of principles that render all understanding impossible among those who speak the same language and have the same interests.[1]

Montesquieu: Where are you going with these words, the obscurity of which has something sinister about it?

Machiavelli: If the wise Montesquieu intends to put sentiment in the place of politics, perhaps I should stop here; I have not claimed to place myself on the terrain of morality. You have challenged me to stop the movement in your societies, which are ceaselessly tormented by the spirit of anarchy and revolt. Would you like to allow me to say how I would resolve the problem? You can shelter your scruples by accepting this thesis as a matter of pure curiosity.

Montesquieu: So be it.

Machiavelli: I understand, furthermore, that you ask me for more precise indications; I will provide them; but let me tell you first which essential conditions the prince can hope for today, to consolidate his power. Above all, I must strive to destroy the parties, to dissolve the collective forces wherever they are, to paralyze individual initiative in all its manifestations; then the level of the people's character will fall by itself and all arms will soon weaken against servitude. Absolute power will no longer be an accident; it will become a need. These political precepts are not entirely new, but, as I have said to you, they are the procedures that must come to be. A great many of these results can be obtained by the use of simple police and administrative regulations. In your beautiful, well-ordered societies, you have placed -- in the stead of absolute monarchs -- a monster called the State, a new Briareus[2] whose arms extend everywhere, a colossal organism of tyranny in the shadow of which despotism will always be reborn. So, under the invocation of the State, nothing would be easier than consummating the occult work of which I was just speaking to you, and the most powerful means of action, perhaps, would be precisely those that one has the talent of borrowing from the very industrial regime that has won your admiration.

With the help of regulatory power, I would institute, for example, immense financial monopolies, reserves of the public fortune, which would depend so narrowly on the fate of all the private fortunes that they would be swallowed up along with the State's credit the day after any political catastrophe. You are an economist, Montesquieu: weigh the value of this arrangement.

As the leader of the government, my edicts and ordinances (all of them) would consistently tend towards the same goal: annihilating the collective and individual powers; excessively developing the preponderance of the State by making it the sovereign protector, promoter and remunerator.

Here is another arrangement borrowed from the industrial order: at present, the aristocracy has disappeared as a political force; but the landed bourgeoisie is still an element of dangerous resistance to the government because it is independent; it would be necessary to impoverish it or even ruin it completely. To do this, it would suffice to increase the taxes that weigh upon landed property, to maintain agriculture in a state of relative inferiority, to favor commerce and industry to the limit, but principally speculation, because the too-great prosperity of industry can itself become a danger by creating a too-great number of independent fortunes.

One would react usefully against the great industrialists, against the manufacturers, by the excitation of a disproportionate luxury, by the elevation of the rates of pay of salaried workers,[3] by profound injuries skillfully brought to the sources of production. I do not need to develop these ideas; you can certainly tell in which circumstances and under which pretexts all this could be done. The interests of the people, and even a kind of zeal for liberty, for the great economic principles, could easily cover over -- if one wishes -- the real goal. It is useless to add that the perpetual maintenance of a formidable army, ceaselessly engaged in foreign wars, must be the indispensable complement of this system; it is necessary to reach a situation in which -- in the State -- there are only proletarians, several millionaires, and soldiers.

Montesquieu: Continue.

Machiavelli: So much for the internal politics of the State. Outside, it would necessary to excite -- from one end of Europe to the other -- the very revolutionary ferment that one represses at home. This would result in two considerable advantages: liberal agitation outside justifies repression inside. Moreover, one would keep alive doubts about the powers, which one could -- to one's liking -- order or disorder. The point is to use political intrigue to tangle up all the threads of European politics so as to play by turns the powers with which one deals. Do not believe that such duplicity, if it is well supported, could turn to the detriment of the sovereign. Alexander VI was always deceptive in his diplomatic negotiations and yet he always succeeded because he knew the science of guile.[4] But in what you, today, call the official language, a striking contrast is necessary and here one could not affect the spirits of loyalty and conciliation too much; the people, who only see the appearances of things, will make a wise reputation for the sovereign who knows how to conduct himself in this way.

To any internal agitation, the sovereign must be able to respond through external war; to any imminent revolution, he must be able to respond through general warfare; but as words must never be in agreement with actions (as in politics), it is necessary that, in diverse conjunctions, the prince is quite skillful at disguising his real designs under contrary ones; he must always have the air of yielding to the pressure of public opinion when he executes what his hand has secretly prepared.

To summarize the word system in a phrase, revolution must be contained within the State: on the one side, by the terror of anarchy, on the other, by bankruptcy, and -- all things considered -- by general warfare.

You have already seen, in the rapid indications that I have given you, the important role the art of speech is summoned to play in modern politics. I am far from disdaining the press, as you will see, and I need to make use of the grandstand; the essential is to employ against one's adversaries all of the weapons that they employ against you. Not content to rely upon the violent force of democracy, I would like to borrow from the subtleties of the law their most learned resources. When one makes decisions that could appear unjust or reckless, it is essential to know how to enunciate them in good terms, to support them with the most elevated reasons that derive from morality and the law.

The power of which I dream -- quite far from having barbaric customs, as you can see -- must attract to it all the forces and the talents of the civilization in the heart of which it lives. It must surround itself with publicists, lawyers, jurisconsults, practical men and administrators, people who thoroughly know all the secrets, all the motives of social life; who speak all the languages, who have studied man in all his milieus. It is necessary to take them everywhere, no matter where, because such people render astonishing services through the ingenious procedures that they apply to politics. It is necessary to bring along with them a world of economists, bankers, industrialists, capitalists, men of vision and millionaires, because everything will actually be resolved by numbers.

As for the principal positions of leadership, the principal departments of power: one must arrange things so as to give them to men whose antecedents and characters place an abyss between them and other men, each of whom only expects death or exile in case of a change of government or the necessity of defending all that exists to their last breaths.

Suppose for an instant that I have at my disposition the different moral and material resources that I have indicated to you, and that you give me a nation to rule: you will understand! In Spirit of the Laws, you regarded it as a capital point to not change the character of a nation[5] when one wants to preserve its original vigor: so, I would only need 20 years to transform the most indomitable European character in the most complete manner and to render it as docile to tyranny as the smallest people of Asia.

Montesquieu: By enjoying yourself, you have added a [new] chapter to The Prince. I will not discuss your doctrines, whatever they are; I will only make an observation. It is obvious that you have not kept the promise that you made; the use of all these means presupposes the existence of absolute power, and I asked you precisely how you could establish it in the political societies that rest upon liberal institutions.

Machiavelli: Your observation is perfectly just and I do not intend to escape from it. This debut was only a preface.

Montesquieu: I put before you a State founded on representative institutions, a monarchy or a republic; I spoke to you of a nation long familiar with liberty and I asked you how, starting here, you could return to absolute power.

Machiavelli: Nothing could be easier.

Montesquieu: Let us see.


[1] A nearly perfect and thoroughly startling foreshadowing of the Situationist International's theories of recuperation ("snatching"), spectacle ("dazzle it") and everyday life ("artificial institutions").

[2] A hundred-armed monster in Greek mythology.

[3] This is a departure from or disagreement with Karl Marx's prediction that capitalism involved the systematic and unavoidable impoverishment of the working classes.

[4] Author's note: The Prince, Chapter XVII. [Translator's note: This appears to be a mistaken citation. It is in Chapter XI, not Chapter XVII, that Machiavelli discusses Pope Alexander VI Borgia.]

[5] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XIX, Chapter V. [Translator's note: "It is the business of the legislature to follow the spirit of the nation, when it is not contrary to the principles of government; for we do nothing so well as when we act with freedom, and follow the bent of our natural genius."]


(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! November 2007. Footnotes by the translator, except where noted.)




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