Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Sixteenth Dialogue


Montesquieu: One of the salient points of your politics would be the annihilation of the parties and the destruction of the collective forces. You have not failed this program; nevertheless, I still see around you things upon which you have not touched. You still have not laid your hands upon the clergy, the University, the bar, the national militia or the commercial guilds. It seems to me that, among them, there is more than one dangerous element.

Machiavelli: I cannot speak to you of everything at once. Let us deal with the national militias, because I would not have to occupy myself with them; their dissolution would necessarily have been one of the first acts of my power. The organization of a citizen's guard could not be reconciled with a regular army, because the armed citizens could transform themselves into agitators at any moment. Nevertheless, this point is not without difficulty. The national guard is a useless institution, but it bears a popular name. In military States, it flatters the puerile instincts of certain bourgeois classes that -- due to a quite ridiculous fault -- ally the taste for military parades with commercial habits. As such, the national guard is an inoffensive prejudice; it would be much more maladroit to clash with it, because the prince must never have the air of separating his interests from those of the city that believes it has found a guarantee in the arming of it inhabitants.

Montesquieu: But then you would dissolve this militia.

Machiavelli: I would dissolve it so as to reorganize it on other bases. The essential would be to place it under the immediate orders of the agents of civilian authority and to remove from it the prerogative of recruiting its leaders through elections; I would be the one to do this. Furthermore, I would only organize it in the places that are suitable, and I would reserve the rights to dissolve it again and reestablish it on other bases if circumstances demand it. I have nothing more to say to you on this subject.

Concerning the University, the current order of things is satisfactory to me. You are indeed not unaware that the great bodies of education are no longer organized as they once were. One assures me that, almost everywhere, they have lost their autonomy and are now only public services supported by the State. Thus, as I have told you more than once, the State would be the prince; the moral direction of the public establishments would be in his hands; it would be his agents who inspire the minds of the young. Both the leaders and the members of the teaching bodies of all level would be named by the government; they would be tied to it; they would depend on it. If there remained -- here or there -- a few traces of independent organization in some public school or Academy, it would be easy to lead it back to a common center of unity and direction. This would be a matter of a regulation or even a simple ministerial decree. I swiftly pass over the details that do not call for my attention. Nevertheless, I must not abandon this subject without telling you that I regard it as very important that, in the teaching of law, studies of constitutional politics would be prohibited.

Montesquieu: Indeed, you would have very good reasons for this.

Machiavelli: My reasons would be very simple: I do not want the young people who are at the conclusion of their studies to be carelessly occupied with politics. To get mixed up in writing constitutions at the age of 18 is to prepare a tragedy.[1] Such instruction could only falsify the ideas of the young people and prematurely initiate them into matters that surpass the limits of their reason. It is with badly digested, badly understood notions that one prepares fake statesmen, utopians whose temerity of spirit will later be translated into temerity of action.

It will be necessary that the generations that are born under my reign are raised with respect for established institutions and with love for the prince. I would also make a quite ingenuous use of my control over education: in general, I believe that it is a great wrong to neglect contemporary history in the schools. It is at least as essential to know one's own time as that of Pericles. I would like the history of my reign to be taught in the schools while I am still alive. This would be how a new prince enters into the hearts of a generation.

Montesquieu: Of course, this would be a perpetual apology for all of your actions.

Machiavelli: It is obvious that I would not let myself be denigrated. The other means that I would employ would aim at acting against free instruction, which one cannot directly proscribe. The universities contain [veritable] armies of professors whom one can use -- outside of the classroom, in their spare time -- for the propagation of good doctrines. I would have them open free courses in all the important towns; through these means would I mobilize the instruction and influence of the government.

Montesquieu: In other words, you would absorb, you would confiscate the very last glimmers of independent thinking for your profit.

Machiavelli: I would confiscate nothing at all.

Montesquieu: Would you permit professors other than yours to popularize science by the same means and without diplomas, without authorization?

Machiavelli: What? Would you want me to authorize clubs?

Montesquieu: No: let us pass on to another subject.

Machiavelli: Among the multitude of regulatory measures that assure the health[2] of my government, there would be those concerning the bar, to which you have called my attention: this would extend the action of my hand beyond what is necessary for the moment. Here I would be touching civil interests and you know that, in this matter, my rule of conduct would be to abstain as much as possible. In the States in which the bar is constituted as a guild, those who are accountable regard the independence of this institution as a guarantee that is inseparable from the right to [legal] defense before the courts; that it is a question of their honor, their [self-]interest, or their lives. It would be quite serious to intervene here, because public opinion could become alarmed over a cry that would not fail to be echoed throughout the entire guild. Nevertheless, I would not be unaware that this order would be a center of influence constantly hostile to my power. You know better than I, Montesquieu, that this profession develops characters who are cold and opinionated in their principles; it develops minds of which the tendency is to seek in the acts of power the element of pure legality. The lawyer does not have the same degree of the elevated sense of social necessity that is possessed by the magistrate; he sees the law from too close and from sides that are too small to have the just sentiment, whereas the magistrate --

Montesquieu: Spare me the apology.

Machiavelli: Yes, because I have not forgotten that I have before me a descendant of the great magistrate who so brilliantly defended[3] the throne of the monarchy in France.

Montesquieu: And who showed themselves to be seldom willing to record edicts that violated the law of the State.

Machiavelli: Thus they ended up overthrowing the State itself. I do not want my courts of justice to be parliaments and the lawyers to be policymakers under the immunity of their robes. The greatest man of the century, whom your homeland had the honor of producing, would say: "I want things such that one can cut the tongue of a lawyer who speaks ill of the government."[4] Modern customs being gentler, I would not go so far. On the first day and in the circumstances that are suitable, I would limit myself to doing a rather simple thing: I would issue a decree that, with full respect for the independence of the guild, would force the lawyers to receive the nominations for their profession from the sovereign. In the exposition of the motivations for my decree, I believe that it would not be too difficult to demonstrate to those who are accountable that they would find this method of nomination a more serious guarantee than when the guild recruits for itself, that is to say, with elements that are necessarily a little confused.

Montesquieu: It is only too true that one can give to the most detestable measures the language of reason! But let us see: what would you do with respect to the clergy? Here is an institution that only depends upon the State on one side and that wields a spiritual power of which the seat[5] is located somewhere beyond you. I declare to you that I know nothing more dangerous for your power than the power that speaks in the name of the heavens and whose roots are everywhere on the earth: do not forget that the Christian word [parole] is a word of liberty. No doubt the laws of the State have established a profound demarcation between religious authority and political authority; no doubt the word of the ministers of the religion only makes itself heard in the name of the Gospels; but the divine spiritualism that was extracted from the Bible is the stumbling block of political materialism. It was this humble and gentle book, it alone, that destroyed the Roman Empire, Caesarism and its power. The frankly Christian nations still escape the clutches of despotism because Christianity elevates the dignity of mankind too high for despotism to reach it, because it develops the moral forces that human power cannot seize.[6] Beware of the priest: he only depends on God and his influence is everywhere, in the sanctuary, in the family, and in the school. You could have no power over him: his hierarchy is not yours; it obeys a constitution that does not decide things according to the law or the sword. If you reigned over a Catholic nation, and if you had the clergy as an enemy, you would perish sooner or later, even though the entire population was behind you.

Machiavelli: I do not know why it pleases you to make the priest the apostle of liberty. I have never seen this, neither in ancient nor modern times; I have always found a natural support for absolute power in the priesthood.

Remark it well, if -- in the interests of my establishment -- I would have to make concessions to the democratic spirit of my age, if I would take universal suffrage as the basis of my power, these would only be artifices demanded by the times; I would no less claim the benefit of divine right; I would no less be king by the grace of God. By virtue of these things, the clergymen would have to support me, because my principles of authority would be in conformity with theirs. If, nevertheless, they were seditious, if they would profit from their influence so as to make an undeclared war against my government --

Montesquieu: So?

Machiavelli: You who speak of the clergy's influence: are you ignorant of the extent to which it knows how to make itself unpopular in several Catholic States? In France, for example, journalism and the press have ruined it so much in the mind of the masses, they have so ruined its mission, that, if I were to reign there, do you know what I would do?

Montesquieu: What?

Machiavelli: I would provoke a schism in the Church that would break all the ties that bind the clergy to the Court of Rome, because that is the Gordian Knot. I would have my press, my publicists and my politicians say the following: "Christianity is independent of Catholicism; what Catholicism prohibits, Christianity permits; the independence of the clergy, its submission to the Court of Rome, are purely Catholic dogmas; such an order of things is a perpetual threat to the security of the State. Those loyal to the kingdom must not have a foreign prince as a spiritual leader; this leaves domestic order at the discretion of a power that could turn hostile at any moment; this hierarchy from the Middle Ages, this tutelage of people in their infancy, can no longer be reconciled with the virile genius of modern civilization, with its luminaries and its independence. Why seek in Rome a director of consciences? Why would not the leader of political authority also be the leader of religious authority at the same time? Why should the sovereign not be the pontiff?" Such would be the language that one would have published by the press, especially the liberal press, and it is very probable that the people would listen to it with joy.

Montesquieu: If you believe this, and if you dared to try such an enterprise, you would promptly learn -- and in a terrible manner, certainly -- the power of Catholicism, even in the nations in which it seems to have weakened.[7]

Machiavelli: Try it?! Great God! On bended knee, I beg pardon from our divine master for simply espousing this sacrilegious doctrine inspired by hatred of Catholicism; but God, who instituted human power, did not forbid it from protecting itself from the enterprises of the clergy, which furthermore violates the precepts of the Gospels when it is not subordinate to the prince. I know well that the clergy would only conspire due to an elusive influence, but I would find the means of stopping the intention that directs the influence, even if it came from the Court of Rome.

Montesquieu: How?

Machiavelli: It would be sufficient for me to point out to the Holy See the moral state of my people, shuddering under the yoke of the Church, aspiring to break it, capable of separating itself in its turn from the heart of Catholic unity, and throwing itself into the schism of the Greek or Protestant Church.

Montesquieu: A threat instead of action!

Machiavelli: How you deceive yourself, Montesquieu, and you seem to underestimate my respect for the pontifical throne! The only role that I would want to play, the only mission that would belong to my [hypothetical] Catholic sovereign, would precisely be defender of the Church. In contemporary times, as you know, temporal power is seriously threatened by irreligious hatred and the ambition of the northern regions of Italy. So, I would say to the Holy Father: "I will defend you against them all; I will save you; this would be my duty, my mission; but at least do not attack me, support me with your moral influence." Would this be too much to ask when I myself expose my popularity by coming to the defense of temporal power, which today, alas, is completely discredited in the eyes of what one calls European democracy? This would not stop me; not only would I put into check any enterprise against the sovereignty of the Holy See on the part of the neighboring States, but if by misfortune it was attacked, if the papacy was chased from the pontifical States (as has already been seen), only my bayonets would be able to bring it back and would always maintain it, while I am alive.

Montesquieu: Actually, this would be a master-stroke, because if you would make Rome a perpetual garrison, you could almost dispose of the Holy See, as it would reside in a province of your kingdom.

Machiavelli: Do you believe that, after such service rendered to the papacy, it would refuse to support my power; that even the Pope would refuse to crown me in my capital? Are such events without example in history?

Montesquieu: Yes, one sees everything in history. But, finally, if instead of finding in the pulpit of Saint-Peter a [Cesar] Borgia or a [Pierre] Dubois -- as you appear to reckon -- you would have in front of you a pope who would resist your schemes and brave your anger: what would you do?

Machiavelli: Why, then it would be quite necessary to come to a decision: under the pretext of defending temporal power, I would determine his fall.

Montesquieu: You have what one calls genius!


[1] Here Maurice Joly is speaking (ironically) from experience: at the age of 18, he undertook the study of law; his studies were interrupted by the 1848 Revolution.

[2] The French word used here, salut, can also mean "safety" or "salvation."

[3] The French word used here, soutinrent, can also mean "supported."

[4] Emperor Napoleon I, on 14 Decembre 1810.

[5] The French word used here, siege, can also mean "see" in the ecclesiastical sense.

[6] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XXIV, Chapter I. [Translator's note: "The Christian religion, which ordains that men should love each other, would, without doubt, have every nation blest with the best civil, the best political laws; because these, next to this religion, are the greatest good that men can give and receive."]

[7] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XXV, Chapter XII. [Translator's note: this appears to be an inaccurate reference: Book XXV, Chapter XII concerns "penal laws." None of the discussions of Catholicism in Book XXV take up the theme of its power in nations where this power seems to have weakened.]


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




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