Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Thirteenth Dialogue

Montesquieu: I need to recover a little from the emotions that you have made me feel. Such fecundity of resources, such strange conceptions! There is poetry in all this and the fatal beauty that a modern-day Byron could not disavow; one again finds the scenic talents of the author of Mandragore.[1]

Machiavelli: Do you believe so, Monsieur de Secondat? Yet something tells me that you are not reassured in your irony; you are not sure that such things are impossible.

Montesquieu: If my admiration preoccupies you, you have it. I await the conclusion.

Machiavelli: I am still not there yet.

Montesquieu: So, continue.

Machiavelli: I am at your service.

Montesquieu: From the beginning, you would control the press through formidable legislation. You would quiet all voices other than your own. There would be mute parties all around you. Would you not fear conspiracies?

Machiavelli: No, because I would hardly be far-sighted if I did not disarm them at the same time with the other side of my hand.

Montesquieu: What would your means be?

Machiavelli: I would begin by deporting by the hundreds those who welcomed the ascension of my power with weapons in their hands. One tells me that in Italy, Germany and France it was through secret societies that the men of disorder who conspired against the government were recruited; I would break the dark threads that weave plots like cobwebs in the dens.

Montesquieu: Afterwards?

Machiavelli: The acts of organizing a secret society or being affiliated with one would be rigorously punished.

Montesquieu: In the future, that would be good; but what about the existing [secret] societies?

Machiavelli: In the interests of the general security, I would expel all those who were well-known for belonging to them. Those whom I could not reach would remain in the shadow of a perpetual threat, because I would institute a law that would permit the government to use administrative means to deport anyone who was affiliated with them.

Montesquieu: That is to say, without trial and conviction.

Machiavelli: Why do you say so? Would not the decision of the government be a conviction? You surely know that one would have little pity for agitators. In the countries that are incessantly troubled by civil discord, it would be necessary to bring about [social] peace through acts of implacable rigor; if there would be an accounting for victims that assures tranquility, it would be made. Finally, the appearance of he who commands must become so imposing that no one would dare to make an attempt on his life. After covering Italy in blood, Sylla[2] could live in Rome as a common person: no one dared to touch a hair on his head.

Montesquieu: I see that you would enter into a period of terrible execution; I do not dare to make any observations. Nevertheless, it seems that, even by following your designs, you could be less severe.

Machiavelli: If one were to seek my clemency, I would think about it. I can even confide to you that a portion of the severe provisions that I would include in the law must be purely comminatory, on the condition that one would not force me to use them otherwise.

Montesquieu: This is what you call comminatory?! Yet your clemency reassures me a little; there are moments when -- if a mortal heard you -- you would freeze his blood.

Machiavelli: Why? I lived very close to the Duke of Valentinois,[3] who left behind a terrible renown and quite merited it, because he had moments of no pity; nevertheless, I can assure you that the necessities of execution aside, he was a very good-natured man. One could say the same thing of nearly all the absolute monarchs; they were basically good; they were especially good to the children.

Montesquieu: I think I might like you better when you are angry: your gentleness frightens me more. But let us return. You had annihilated the secret societies.

Machiavelli: Do not go so quickly; I would not do this. You create confusion.

Montesquieu: Why and how?

Machiavelli: I would prohibit the secret societies, whose character and machinations escape my government's surveillance, but I would not deprive myself of a means of information, of an occult influence that could be considerable if used properly.

Montesquieu: What would you do?

Machiavelli: I foresee the possibility of giving to a certain number of such societies a kind of legal existence or, rather, centralizing them all into a single one, of which I would be the supreme leader. Thus, I could keep in my hands the diverse revolutionary elements that the country contains. The people who compose such societies belong to all the nations, classes and social ranks; I would be up-to-date on the most obscure intrigues of politics. Such a centralized society would be like an annex to my police, of whom I will soon speak to you.

The subterranean world of the secret societies is full of empty minds, which do not concern me in the least, but in this world there would be directions to give and forces to set in motion. If it does something, it will be my hand that moves; if it prepares a conspiracy, its leader will be me; I would be the leader of the league.

Montesquieu: And you believe that these cohorts of democrats, republicans, anarchists and terrorists would let you approach and break bread with them; you believe that those who refuse human domination would accept a guide who would be their master?

Machiavelli: The fact is that you do not know, O Montesquieu, the powerlessness and even the foolishness of the majority of the people involved in European demagogy. These tigers have the souls of sheep, heads full of wind; it suffices to speak their language to penetrate into their ranks. Their ideas, moreover, have unbelievable affinities with the doctrines of absolute power. Their dream is the absorption of individuals into a symbolic unity. They demand the complete realization of equality by virtue of a power that can only be definitive in the hands of a single man. You see that, even here, I would be the leader of their school! And then it is necessary to say that they would have no choice in the matter. The secret societies would exist in the conditions that I set or they would not exist at all.

Montesquieu: The finale sic volo jubeo[4] would not have to wait long with you. I decidedly believe that here you would be well-guarded against conspiracies.

Machiavelli: Yes, it is good of you to say so, but my legislation would not permit meetings or discussions that exceed a certain number of people.

Montesquieu: How many?

Machiavelli: You want these details? One would not permit meetings of more than 15 or 20 people.

Montesquieu: What? Friends could not dine together beyond this number?

Machiavelli: You are already alarmed, I can see, in the name of Gaulish gaiety. So, yes, one could dine in larger numbers, because my regime would not be as unsociable as you might think, but on the condition that one does not speak of politics.

Montesquieu: Could one speak of literature?

Machiavelli: Yes, but on the condition that, under the pretext of literature, one would not meet with a political goal. Note that one might not speak of politics at all and yet give a banquet a demonstrative character that would be understood by the public. It would be necessary that this not happen.

Montesquieu: Alas! In such a system it would be difficult for the citizens to live without offending the government!

Machiavelli: This is an error, [because] only agitators would suffer from such restrictions; no one else would feel them.

It goes without saying that here I do not occupy myself with acts of rebellion against my power, nor attacks that attempt to overthrow it, nor attacks against the person of the prince, his authority or his institutions. These would be real crimes, which would be repressed by the common rights of all the legislation. They would be foreseen and punished in my kingdom according to a classification and following the definitions that would not allow the slightest direct or indirect attack against the established order of things.

Montesquieu: Permit me to have confidence in you in this regard and to not inquire into your means. Nevertheless, it would not suffice to establish Draconian laws; one would have to find a magistracy that wants to apply them. This point is not without difficulty.

Machiavelli: There would be no difficulty here.

Montesquieu: You would destroy the judicial organization?

Machiavelli: I would destroy nothing: I would modify and innovate.

Montesquieu: So you would establish courts-martial, provost courts, finally courts of exception?

Machiavelli: No.

Montesquieu: What would you do then?

Machiavelli: First of all, it is good that you know that I would have no need of decreeing a great number of severe laws whose application I would have to pursue. Many already exist and would still be in force, because all governments, free or absolute, republican or monarchical, experience the same difficulties: they are all obligated in moments of crisis to have recourse to rigorous laws, some of which remain, others are weakened after the necessities that gave birth to them. One must make use of both; with respect to the latter, one recalls that they would not be explicitly abrogated, that they were perfectly wise laws, and that the return of the abuses that they prevented would render their application necessary. In this way, the government would only appear to make an action of good administration (and this would often be the case).

You see that it would only be a question of giving a little jurisdiction to the actions of the courts, which is always easy to do in the centralized countries, where the magistracy is in direct contact with the administration through the ministry on which it depends.

As for the new laws that would be made under my reign and that would for the most part be rendered as simple decrees, their application would perhaps not be as easy, because -- in the countries in which the magistrates are not removable -- they tend to resist the too-direct actions of power in the interpretation of the law.

But I believe I have found a very ingenuous, very simple and apparently purely regulatory arrangement that -- without attacking the permanence of the magistracy -- would modify what is too-absolute in the consequences of this principle. I would issue a decree that would require the retirement of the magistrates when they reach a certain age. I do not doubt that here I would have public opinion with me, because it is a painful -- and all too frequent -- spectacle to see a judge who is called upon at every moment to hand down rulings on the highest and most difficult questions fall into a frailty of mind that renders him incapable of doing so.

Montesquieu: If you will permit me, I have several notions I would like to speak to you about. The assertion that you advance is not at all in conformity with experience. Among the men who live by the continual exercise of mental work, intelligence does not weaken; this is -- if one can say so -- the privilege of thought among those for whom it becomes the principal element. If among a few magistrates their faculties totter with age, among the greatest number of people they are conserved and their lights in fact always increase; there would be no need to replace them, because death makes the natural vacancies in their ranks that it must; but if there would actually be among them as many examples of decadence as you claim, it would be a thousand times better for the interests of good justice to suffer this evil than accepting your remedy.

Machiavelli: I have higher reasons than yours.

Montesquieu: National security [la raison d'Etat]?

Machiavelli: Perhaps. If you are sure about something, it should be that -- in this new arrangement -- the magistrates will not deviate more than previously when it is a question of purely civil interests.

Montesquieu: Why should I be sure? According to what you have said, I already see that they would deviate when it is a question of political interests.

Machiavelli: They must not do so; they must do their duties as they must be done, because -- in political matters -- it will be necessary for [public] order that the judges are always on the side of power. The worst thing would be a situation in which a sovereign could be injured by seditious decrees through which the entire country could be seized at the same moment against the government. What use would be the imposition of silence upon the press if the press-function was recovered in the judgments of the courts?

Montesquieu: Under modest appearances, your way would thus be quite powerful, since you attribute to it such a scope.

Machiavelli: Yes, because it would make disappear the spirit of resistance, the esprit de corps that is always so dangerous in the judicial institutions that conserve the memory -- perhaps [even] the worship -- of past governments. My way introduces into these institutions' hearts a mass of new elements, the influences of which would be completely favorable to the spirit that would animate my reign. Every year, 20, 30, [even 40] judges' benches would become vacant due to [forced] retirement, thus causing a displacement of all judicial personnel, who could thus be renewed from top to bottom every six months. As you know, a single vacancy can involve 50 nominations due to the successive effects of the incumbents of different grades who are displaced. You can judge what the effect would be when there are 30 or 40 vacancies that occur at the same time. Not only would the collective spirit disappear from politics, but one would more narrowly resemble the government, which disposes of an even greater number of seats. One would have young men who have the desire to make their own ways, who would no longer be stopped in their careers by the perpetuity of those who preceded them. They would know that the government loves order, that the country also loves it and that it is only a question of serving them both by rendering good judicial decisions when order is concerned.

Montesquieu: But, at least from a nameless blindness, one could reproach you for exciting in the magistracy a fatal spirit of competition in the judiciary corps; I could not show you what the consequences would be, because I believe that they would not stop you.

Machiavelli: I do not have the pretense of trying to escape criticism; it matters little to me, provided that I cannot hear it. In all things, my principle would be the irrevocability of my decisions, despite the murmurs. A prince who acts in this way would always be sure of imposing respect for his will.

[1] La Mandragola by Machiavelli (written between 1518 and 1519).

[2] Lucius Cornelius Sylla, a Roman statesman (138 - 78 BCE).

[3] Also known as Cesare Borgia.

[4] "Thus I will command" in Latin. Taken from Juvenal, Satires, vi, 223: Sic volo, sic jubeo, stat pro ratione voluntas.

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

To Contact NOT BORED!
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998