Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Fifteenth Dialogue


Montesquieu: Although we have wandered in a very large circle[1] in which you have organized almost everything, I must not hide from you the fact that there is still much for you to do to completely reassure me about the durability of your power. The thing that astonishes me the most is the fact that you have based your power upon popular suffrage, that is to say, the most inconsistent element I know. Tell me, then, I beseech you: have you said that you would be king?

Machiavelli: Yes, king.

Montesquieu: For life or hereditarily?

Machiavelli: I would be king as one is king in all the kingdoms of the world: a hereditary king with a descent summoned to succeed me from male to male, by order of progeny, with the perpetual exclusion of the women.

Montesquieu: You are not gallant.

Machiavelli: If you will permit me, I am inspired by the traditions of the Frankish and Salian monarchies.[2]

Montesquieu: No doubt you will explain to me how you believe you can reconcile hereditary monarchy with the democratic suffrage of the United States.

Machiavelli: Yes.

Montesquieu: What? You hope to bind the will of the future generations with this principle?

Machiavelli: Yes.

Montesquieu: For the present, I would like to see the manner in which you would deal with this suffrage when it comes to applying it to the nomination of public officers.

Machiavelli: What public officers? You know quite well that in monarchical States it is the government that names the functionaries of all levels.

Montesquieu: This depends on the functionaries. Those who are in charge of the administration of the villages are generally named by the inhabitants, even under monarchical governments.

Machiavelli: One would change this with a single law; in the future, they would be named by the government.

Montesquieu: And the nation's representatives: it would be you who named them?

Machiavelli: You know quite well that this would not be possible.

Montesquieu: Then I pity you, because if you leave suffrage to its own devices, if you could not find a new arrangement here, then the assembly of the nation's representatives would not delay to stock itself -- under the influence of the [various political] parties -- with deputies who are hostile to your power.

Machiavelli: But I would never leave suffrage to its own devices.

Montesquieu: I would not expect you to. But what arrangement would you adopt?

Machiavelli: The first point would be to bind to the government all those who would want to represent the country. I would impose the solemnity of the oath upon all candidates. It would not be an oath to the nation, as your revolutionaries of '89 swore; I would require on oath of loyalty to the prince himself and his constitution.

Montesquieu: But in politics, since you would not fear to violate your oaths, how could you hope that they would be more scrupulous than you on this point?

Machiavelli: I count little upon the political conscience of men; I count upon the power of public opinion; no would dare to debase himself in front of this power by openly failing to uphold his sworn faith. Even less would one dare do so if the taking of this oath preceded the election instead of following it, and one would have no excuse for seeking out votes in these conditions if one did not decide in advance to serve me. It would now be necessary to give the government the means of resisting the influence of the opposition, of preventing the opposition from making the ranks of those who want to defend the government desert it. During the elections, the parties have the habit of proclaiming their candidates and proposing them instead of those of the government. I would do as they do: I would have my own declared candidates and I would propose them instead of those of the parties.

Montesquieu: If you were not all-powerful, these means would be detestable, because -- by openly offering to do battle -- you would provoke blows.

Machiavelli: I intend to have things so that the agents of my government (from the first to the last) would strive to have my candidates triumph.

Montesquieu: This goes without saying.

Machiavelli: Everything is of the greatest importance in this matter. "The laws that establish suffrage are fundamental; the manner in which suffrage is given is fundamental; the law that sets the manner of giving the notices of suffrage is fundamental."[3] Was it not you who said this?

Montesquieu: I do not always recognize my language when it comes from your mouth; it seems to me that the words you quoted apply to democratic governments.

Machiavelli: No doubt, and you have already been able to see that my politics would essentially consist in basing myself upon the people; that my real and declared goal would be to represent them, although I wear a crown. Depository of all the power that they have delegated to me, I alone would be their real representative.[4] What I want, they would want; what I do, they would do. Consequently, it is indispensable that, at the time of the election, the various factions could not substitute their influence for the one of which I am the armed personification. I have also found other means of paralyzing their efforts. It is necessary that you know, for example, that the law that prohibits meetings would naturally apply to those that could be held with the elections in mind. In this matter, the parties could neither get together nor understand each other.

Montesquieu: Why do you always foreground the parties? Under the pretext of imposing impediments upon them, do you not impose them upon the voters themselves? It is definite that the parties are only collections of voters; if the voters could not enlighten themselves through meetings or parleys, how would they vote with knowledge of the matters at hand?

Machiavelli: I see you are unfamiliar with the infinite art and boldness with which political passions thwart prohibitive measures. Do not bother with the voters; those who are animated by good intentions will always know how to vote. Furthermore, I would make use of tolerance; not only would I not prohibit the meetings that would be formed in the interests of my candidates, but I would go as far as closing my eyes to the machinations of several popular candidacies that would noisily agitate in the name of liberty; but it is good to tell you that those who would cry the loudest would be my own men.

Montesquieu: And how would you control the voting?

Machiavelli: First of all, in what concerns the countrysides, I would not want the voters going to vote in the large metropolitan centers, where they could come into contact with the oppositional spirit of the market towns and cities, and receive the instructions that could come from the capital; I would like that one votes according to village. The results of such an arrangement, which is apparently so simple, would nevertheless be considerable.

Montesquieu: This is easy to understand: you would obligate the votes of the countrysides to be divided among the insignificant famous people or, lacking well-known names, to refer them to the candidates designated by your government. I would be quite surprised if, in such a system, many able or talented people blossomed.

Machiavelli: Public order has less need of men of talent than men devoted to the government. Great ability sits upon the throne and among those who surround it; elsewhere it is useless; it is even harmful, because it can only be exercised against power.

Montesquieu: Your aphorisms cut like a sword; I have no arguments to oppose to what you say. Thus, please take up the rest of your electoral regulations.

Machiavelli: For the reasons that I have stated, I also would not want balloting by list, which could falsify the election, which could permit the coalition of men and principles. Furthermore, I would divide the electoral colleges into a certain number of administrative districts in which there would only be room for the election of a single deputy and in which, consequently, each voter could only place one name on his ballot.

Moreover, it would be necessary to have the possibility of neutralizing the opposition in the districts in which it would make itself too vividly felt. Thus, let us suppose that in previous elections, a district has made itself remarkable for the majority of its hostile votes or one had reason to foresee that it would come out against the government's candidates: nothing would be easier than remedying this situation. If this district only has a small population, one could unite it with a nearby or faraway district (but either way much larger), in which the hostile voices would be drowned or their political spirit would be lost. If, on the contrary, the hostile district has a large population, one could split it into several parts that would be annexed by nearby districts and that would could annihilate them.

You will understand that I am passing over a mass of details that would only be accessories to the ensemble. Thus, if needed, I could divide the colleges into sections, so as to give greater range of action to the administration when needed, and I would have the municipal officers whose nominations depend on the government preside over the colleges and the sections of the colleges.

Montesquieu: I note with a certain surprise that here you would not make use of a measure that you suggested at the time of Leo X[5] and that consisted in the submission of the ballots to inspectors after the vote.

Machiavelli: This would be difficult to do today, and I believe that one should only use this means with the greatest prudence. A skillful government would have so many other resources! Without directly buying the vote, that is to say, by naked funds, nothing would be easier for such a government than making the populations vote as it wished by means of administrative concessions, by promising to build a port here, a market there, a road or a canal somewhere else; inversely, by giving nothing to the cities and towns in which the vote is hostile.

Montesquieu: I have nothing to reproach in the basics of these arrangements, but would you not fear that one would say that you were corrupting or oppressing the popular vote? Would you not fear compromising your power in the struggles in which it would always find itself so directly engaged? The least success that one could have over your candidates would be a brilliant victory that would put your government in check. What does not cease to worry me on your account is that I see you obliged to succeed in all things, under the pain of a [complete] disaster.

Machiavelli: You speak the language of fear: be reassured. By that point, I would have succeeded in so many things: I would not perish due to the infinitely small. Bossuet's grain of sand[6] was not made for the real statesmen. I would be so advanced in my career that I could even brave storms without danger. What could the infinitesimal administrative inconveniences of which you speak mean? Do you believe that I have the pretense of being perfect? Do I not know that more than one mistake would be made around me? No, no doubt I could not arrange things so that there would not be a few pillages, a few scandals. Would this prevent the totality of my affairs from progressing and progressing well? The essential would be not so much committing no mistakes than maintaining responsibility with an energetic attitude that overwhelms my detractors. Although the opposition might manage to introduce into my chamber a few declaimers, what would this matter to me? I am not one of those who wants to count out the necessities of their times.

One of my great principles would be to set equals against each other. In the same way that I would use the press against the press, I would use the grandstand against the grandstand; as much as necessary, I would have men who are trained in speechmaking and capable of speaking for several hours without stopping. The essential would be to have a compact majority and a president of whom one is sure. There is a particular art in conducting debates and carrying off the vote. Would I need the artifices of parliamentary strategy? Nineteen of the twenty members of the Chamber would be my men, who would vote according to orders, while I would move the strings of an artificial and clandestinely purchased opposition; once this was in place, one could make beautiful speeches, [but] they would enter the ears of my deputies like the wind into the keyhole of a lock. Would you like me now to speak of my Senate?

Montesquieu: I know what this would be like from Caligula.[7]


[1] An interesting ambiguity: has the conversation wandered in a circle or have its two participants wandered in one (a circle of hell)?

[2] In Germany and Franconia, between 1024 and 1125.

[3] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book II, Chapter II. [Translator's note: "The laws therefore which establish the right of suffrage are fundamental to this government [...] As the division of those who have a right of suffrage is a fundamental law in republics, so the manner of giving this suffrage is another fundamental."]

[4] The French here, mandataire, also means "defender."

[5] Pope Leo X (1475-1521). See Chapter XI of The Prince.

[6] Though there are a great many famous quotations concerning grains of sand, we have been unable to find one attributed to the French bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704).

[7] Under Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12-41 AD), the Roman Senate was publicly humiliated.


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




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