Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Eighth Dialogue

Machiavelli: I will take the hypothesis that is the most contrary to me: a State constituted as a republic. With a monarchy, the role that I propose to play would be too easy. I will take a republic because, with such a form of government, I would encounter resistance -- apparently almost insurmountable -- in its ideas, customs and laws. Are you opposed to this hypothesis? I will accept from your hand a State, whatever its form, large or small; I will suppose it to be endowed with all the institutions that guarantee liberty and I will address to you a single question: Do you believe it can be protected from a blow or what today one calls a coup d'Etat?

Montesquieu: No, this is true, but you will at least grant me that such an enterprise would be singularly difficult in contemporary political societies, such as they are organized.

Machiavelli: And why is this? Are not these societies prey to factions at all times? Are there not elements of civil war, parties and pretenders?

Montesquieu: This is possible, but I believe I can draw your attention to an error you have made. These usurpations -- which are necessarily very infrequent because they are full of perils and because they are repugnant to modern customs --, supposing that they succeed, do not have the importance that you appear to attribute to them. A change of power does not bring about a change of the institutions. A pretender will trouble the State, true; his party might triumph, I will admit it; power might be in other hands, yes; but public rights and the very foundations of the institutions will remain steady. This is what concerns me.

Machiavelli: Is it true that you have such an illusion?

Montesquieu: Establish the contrary.

Machiavelli: Thus you will, for the moment, grant me the success of an armed enterprise against the establish order?

Montesquieu: Yes.

Machiavelli: Remark the situation in which I would find myself placed. I have momentarily suppressed all power other than mine. If the institutions still standing can raise some kind of obstacle, it would be purely formal; in fact, the acts of my will cannot encounter any real resistance; finally, I am an extra-legal situation, which the Romans described in a very beautiful and powerfully energetic word: dictatorship. That is to say, I can do everything I want to do, since I am legislator, executor, judge and the head of the army, on horseback.

Retain this. I have triumphed through the support of a faction, that is to say, this event could only have been accomplished in the midst of a profound internal dissent. One can say, at random, but without deception, what the cause was. It would be an antagonism between the aristocracy and the people, or between the people and the bourgeoisie. At the basis of things, it could only be this; on the surface, there would have been a jumble of ideas, opinions, influences and contrary currents, as in the States in which liberty has been momentarily unleashed. There would have been political elements of all kinds, sections of previously victorious parties that were vanquished, unbridled ambitions, ardent covetousness, implacable hatreds, terrors everywhere, men of every opinion and every doctrine, restorers of old regimes, demagogues, anarchists, utopians -- all at work, all working equally from their sides on the overthrow of the established order. What must one conclude from such a condition? Two things: first, that the country had a great need for rest and it would have refused nothing to the one who could bring it; second, that, in the midst of this division of parties, there was no real force or, rather, there was only one, namely, the people.

I would be a victorious pretender; I suppose that I bear a great historical name, one likely to work upon the imagination of the masses. Such as Pisistratus, Caesar, even Nero;[1] I would lean upon the people; this is the a b c of any usurper. Here is the blind power that will provide the means of doing everything with impunity: authority, the name that will cover for everything. You would see how the people actually care for your legal fictions and your constitutional guarantees!

I had been silent in the midst of these factions, and now you will see how I operate.

Perhaps you will recall the rules that I established in The Prince for conserving conquered provinces. The usurper of a State is in a situation analogous to that of a conqueror. He is condemned to renew everything, to dissolve the State, to destroy the city, to change the face of customs.[2]

This would be the goal, but, at the moment, it is only necessary to reach it through oblique routes, diverted means, clever arrangements and -- as far as possible -- without violence. Thus, I would not directly destroy the institutions, but I would link them, one to the other, by an unperceived blow that would disturb their [respective] mechanisms. Thus, I would by turns touch the judiciary organizations, suffrage, the press, individual liberty and education.

On top of the old laws, I would place a new legislation that, without expressly abrogating the old ones, would first mask them, then soon after efface them completely. Such are my general conceptions; now you will see the details of the execution.

Montesquieu: Too bad you are not still back in the gardens of Rucellai,[3] O Machiavelli, professing these beautiful lessons; it is regrettable that posterity cannot hear you!

Machiavelli: Be reassured: for those who know how to read, all this is in The Prince.

Montesquieu: So, it is the day after your coup d'Etat. What would you do now?

Machiavelli: A great thing, then a small one.

Montesquieu: Can we first see the great one?

Machiavelli: After the success of a blow against established power, all is not finished and the parties do not generally see themselves as beaten. One still does not exactly know what the energy of the usurper is worth, one tries it, one raises oneself against him, weapons in hand. The moment has come to impart a terror that strikes the entire city and weakens the most intrepid souls.

Montesquieu: What would you do? You told me you had repudiated [the spilling of] blood.

Machiavelli: Here it would not be a question of false humanity. Society is threatened; it is in a state of legitimate [self-]defense; the excess of rigor and even cruelty will prevent new bloodbaths in the future. Do not ask me what one would do; it would be necessary that the souls are terrified once and for all, and that fear soaks them.

Montesquieu: Yes, I recall: it is here in The Prince, when you recount the sinister execution of Borgia in Cesena.[4] You haven't changed.

Machiavelli: No: as you will see much later; I would only act in this way due to necessity, and I will suffer for it.

Montesquieu: But who would spill this blood?

Machiavelli: The army, that great judge of the States, whose hand never dishonors its victims! Two results of the greatest importance would be produced by the intervention of the army into the repression. From that moment, it would -- on the one hand -- always be in a situation of hostility with respect to the civilian population, which it would chastise without discretion; it would -- on the other hand -- be attached in an indissoluble fashion with the fate of its chief.

Montesquieu: And you believe that this blood will not fall back on you?

Machiavelli: No, because, in the eyes of the people, the sovereign would be a stranger to the excesses of the soldiers, who are always difficult to restrain. Those who can be held responsible would be the generals, the ministers, those who executed my orders. They will be -- I affirm to you -- devoted to me to their very last breaths, because they will know what awaits them after me.

Montesquieu: This is the first act of your sovereignty. Can we see the second?

Machiavelli: I do not know if you have remarked the power of slight means in politics. After doing what I have told you, I would stamp my image upon all new monies, of which I would issue a considerable quantity.

Montesquieu: But this would be a puerile measure among the primary concerns of the State.

Machiavelli: Do you believe so? You do not have experience with power. The human face imprinted upon money is the very sign of power. First of all, there will be proud spirits who will shake with anger, but one will get used to it; the very enemies of my power will be obligated to have my portrait in their purses. It is quite certain that one would little by little get used to regarding with the most loving eyes the features that are stamped upon the material sign of our pleasures. From the day on which my image is on the money, I would be king.

Montesquieu: I will confess that this view is new to me; but let us move on. Have you forgotten that new peoples have the weakness of giving themselves constitutions that are the guarantors of their rights? With your power issuing from force, with the projects that you have revealed to me, perhaps you would find yourself embarrassed in the presence of a fundamental charter, whose principles, rules and arrangement are contrary to your maxims of government.

Machiavelli: I would make another constitution, that's all.

Montesquieu: And do you think this would be easy?

Machiavelli: Where would the difficulty come from? For the moment, there would be no other will, no other force than mine and, for my basis of action, I would have the popular elements.

Montesquieu: This is true. Nevertheless, I have a scruple: following what you have said to me, I imagine that your constitution would not be a monument to liberty. You think a single crisis of power, a single instance of fortunate violence would be sufficient to snatch from a nation all of the rights, conquests, institutions and principles with which it has become accustomed to living?

Machiavelli: Permit me! I would not go so quickly. I would say to you that there are a few instances in which peoples are like individual men, who adhere more to appearances than to the reality of things: in politics, this is a rule whose directions I would scrupulously follow; allow me to recall the principles that you hold dearest and you will see that I am not as embarrassed as you to believe them.

Montesquieu: What are you going to do, O Machiavelli?

Machiavelli: Fear nothing: name them to me.

Montesquieu: I do not trust myself, I will confess.

Machiavelli: So, I will recall them to you myself. No doubt you would not fail to speak to me of the separation of the powers, freedom of speech and the press, religious liberty, individual liberty, the right of [free] association, equality before the law, the inviolability of property and the home, the right of petition, the free consent to taxes, the proportionality of penalties, and the non-retroactivity of the laws. Is this sufficient? Do you desire more?

Montesquieu: I believe that this would be much more than necessary, Machiavelli, to put your government ill at ease.

Machiavelli: Here you are deceived and this is so true that I do not find it inconvenient to proclaim such principles; indeed, I would even make them the preamble of my constitution, if you like.

Montesquieu: You have already proved to me that you are a great magician.

Machiavelli: There is no magic involved here, only political know-how.

Montesquieu: Having inscribed these principles at the head of your constitution, how could you not apply them?

Machiavelli: Ah! Be advised: I said to you that I would proclaim these privileges, but I did not say that I would inscribe them or designate them explicitly.

Montesquieu: What do you mean?

Machiavelli: I would not make any recapitulation; I would limit myself to declaring to the people that I recognize and confirm the great principles of modern law.

Montesquieu: The import of this reticence escapes me.

Machiavelli: You will recognize how it is important. If I were to expressly enumerate these rights, my freedom of action would be chained to those that I had declared; I do not want this. By not naming them, I appear to grant them all and I do not grant any in particular; this would later permit me to set aside -- by way of exception[5] -- those that I have judged to be dangerous.

Montesquieu: I understand.

Machiavelli: Furthermore, among my principles, some belong to political and constitutional rights properly speaking, while others belong to civil law. This is a distinction that must always exist in the exercise of absolute power. It is their civil rights that the people hold the dearest; I would not touch them, if I can, and, in this manner at least, a part of my program would be accomplished.

Montesquieu: And, as for political rights. . . ?

Machiavelli: In The Prince, I included the maxim that was and has not ceased to be true: "Whenever one takes neither things nor honor from the general run of men, they live contented, and one only has to fight against the ambition of the few, which one brakes in many ways, and with ease."[6] My response to your question is here.

Montesquieu: Keeping to the letter, one might not find this sufficient; one could respond to you that political rights are also goods; that it also matters to the honor of peoples to maintain them and that, by infringing them, you in reality harm their goods as well as their honor. One could add that the maintenance of civil rights is tied to the maintenance of political rights by a close solidarity. Who will guarantee the citizens that, if you strip them of political liberty today, you will not strip them of individual liberty tomorrow; that, if you make an attempt on their liberty today, you will not make an attempt on their fortunes tomorrow?[7]

Machiavelli: It is certain that the argument is presented with much vivacity, but I believe that you also understand the exaggeration perfectly well. You still seem to believe that modern people are starved for liberty. Have you foreseen the case in which they no longer want it, and can you imagine that the princes have more passion for it than the people do? Therefore, in your so profoundly lax society, in which the individual only lives in the sphere of his egoism and his material interests, ask the greatest number of people, and you will see if, from all sides, one does not respond to you: "What does politics matter to me? What does liberty mean to me? Are not all the governments the same? Should not a government be able to defend itself?"

Remark it well, moreover, that it won't only be the people who will speak this way: so will the bourgeois, the industrialists, the educated people, the rich, the literate, all those who are in a position to appreciate your beautiful doctrines concerning public rights. They will bless me; they will cry that I have saved them, that they are a minority, that they are incapable of ruling themselves. The nations have I-don't-know-what secret love for the vigorous geniuses of force. To all the violent acts marked by the talent for artifice, you will hear with an admiration that will exceed the blame: "This is not good, but it is skillful, it is well played, it is strong!"

Montesquieu: Thus, you return to the professional part of your doctrines?

Machiavelli: No, we are at their execution. I would have certainly taken several steps further if you had not obliged me to make a digression. Let's resume.

[1] Or, for that matter, "Napoleon," as in Napoleon III, the ruler of France when these dialogues were written and published. "Historical tradition gave rise to the French peasants' belief in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them. And there turned up an individual who claims to be that man because he bears the name Napoleon, in consequence of the Napoleonic Code, which decrees 'Inquiry into paternity is forbidden.' After a twenty-year vagabondage and a series of grotesque adventures, the legend is consummated, and the man becomes Emperor of the French. The fixed idea of the nephew was realized because it coincided with the fixed idea of the most numerous class of the French people." Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

[2] The Prince, Chapter V: "And whoever becomes lord of a city accustomed to living free and does not undo her, he may expect to be undone by her; because in rebellion it always has for a refuge the name of liberty and of its ancient orders; which one never forgets either because of the passage of time or because of [the ruler's] beneficence. And whatever one might do or provide, if one does not disunite or disperse the inhabitants, they do not forget the name nor those orders, and suddenly in every accident they come back."

[3] Cosimo Rucellai was a friend of Machiavelli who died young: Machiavelli's The Art of War is set in the Rucellai gardens.

[4] Author's note: The Prince, Chapter VII.

[5] Presumably a "state of exception," in which the entire constitution is suspended due to an emergency.

[6] The Prince, Chapter XIX. Note that rather than translate Joly's French translation of Machiavelli's Italian into English, we have quoted from Angelo M. Codevilla's translation of the Italian.

[7] See Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little, Book II, Chapter V: "Marvelous identity of principles: freedom suppressed is property destroyed."

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

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