Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Twenty-Second Dialogue

Montesquieu: Before listening to you, I knew neither the spirit of the laws, nor the spirit of finances. I am indebted to you for having taught me both. You have in your hand the greatest power of modern times: money. You could procure for yourself as much of it as you might want. With such prodigious resources, you would no doubt do great things; you could finally show that good can come from evil.

Machiavelli: This is indeed what I intend to show you.

Montesquieu: So, let us see.

Machiavelli: The greatest of my benefits would first of all be bringing domestic peace to my people. Under my rule, the bad passions would be repressed, the good people reassured and the wicked ones made to tremble. I would bring liberty, dignity and strength to a country torn apart by factions.

Montesquieu: After having changed so many things, would you end up changing the [very] meaning of words?

Machiavelli: Liberty does not consist of license; just as dignity and strength do not consist of insurrection and disorder. My empire would be peaceful within and glorious abroad.

Montesquieu: How?

Machiavelli: I would make war in all parts of the world. I would cross the Alps, like Hannibal; I would make war in India, like Alexander; in Libya, like Scipio; I would go from the Atlas to the Taurus [Mountains], from the banks of the Ganges to the Mississippi, from the Mississippi to the Amur River. The Great Wall of China would fall before my name; my victorious legions would defend the Tomb of the Savior in Jerusalem and the Vicar of Jesus Christ in Rome; their steps would tread upon the dust of the Incas in Peru, on the ashes of Sesostris in Egypt, on those of Nebuchadnezzar in Mesopotamia. Descendant of Caesar, Augustus and Charlemagne, I would avenge the defeat of Varus on the banks of the Danube; the rout of Cannes on the banks of the Adige; and the outrages against the Normans on the Baltic Sea.

Montesquieu: Deign to stop, I entreat you. If you would [try to] avenge the defeats of all the great captains, you would not be adequate to the task. I will not compare you to Louis XIV, to whom Boileau said: "Great King, cease to vanquish or I will cease to write"; this comparison would humiliate you. I will grant you that none of the heroes of Antiquity or modern times would want to be compared to you. But this is not the question. War is itself an evil; in your hands, it would serve to support an even greater evil: servitude. But where in all this is the good that you promised me you would do?

Machiavelli: This is not the moment to equivocate: glory is by itself already a great good; it is the most powerful of the capital that can be accumulated[1]; a sovereign who has glory would have all the rest. He would be the terror of the neighboring States; the arbiter of Europe. His credit would invincibly impose itself because, whatever you might say about the sterility of victory, strength never abdicates its rights. One simulates the war of ideas; one makes a display of being disinterested; and, one fine day, one finishes very well by seizing a province that one had coveted and by imposing a war tribute upon the vanquished.

Montesquieu: But permit me: in this system, one would do perfectly well by acting in this way, if one could; otherwise, the military trade would be too foolish.

Machiavelli: Fine! You see that our ideas begin to come together a little.

Montesquieu: Yes, like the Atlas and Taurus [Mountains]. Let us see the other great things of your reign.

Machiavelli: I would not disdain the parallel with Louis XIV as much as you appear to believe. I would have more than one trait in common with this monarch; like him, I would undertake gigantic constructions;[2] yet, beneath this connection, my ambition would go even further than his and that of more famous potentates. I would like to show the people that the monuments that previously required centuries to construct could be rebuilt by me in a few years. The palaces of the kings who preceded me would fall under the hammers of the wreckers so as to rise again, rejuvenated, in new forms; I would overturn entire towns so as to reconstruct them on more regular plans, to obtain more beautiful perspectives.[3] You cannot imagine the extent to which construction attaches the people to monarchs. One could say that they easily pardon the destruction of their laws on the condition that one builds houses for them. Moreover, you will see in a moment that construction serves particularly important purposes.

Montesquieu: After such constructions, what would you make?

Machiavelli: You go too quickly: the number of great actions is not unlimited. Please tell me, I beseech you, if -- from Sesostris to Louis XIV and Peter I -- the two cardinal points of great regimes have not been war and construction.

Montesquieu: This is true, but nevertheless one sees absolute sovereigns who have been preoccupied with making good laws, improving morals and introducing simplicity and decency. One has seen those who have been preoccupied with order in financial matters and the economy; who have dreamed of leaving behind them order, peace, durable institutions, sometimes even liberty.

Machiavelli: Oh, all this would be done! You will see that, according to you, absolute sovereigns do have some good [qualities].

Montesquieu: Alas, not enough. Nevertheless, try to prove the contrary to me. Do you have something good to tell me?

Machiavelli: I would bring prodigious growth to the spirit of enterprise; my reign would be the reign of business. I would launch speculation along new and until then unknown roads. My administration would even loosen some of its chains. I would free from regulation a crowd of industries: the butchers, the bakers and the theatrical entrepreneurs would be free.

Montesquieu: Free to do what?

Machiavelli: Free to sell meat, free to bake bread and free to organize theatrical productions without the permission of authority.

Montesquieu: I do not know what this means. Freedom of industry is a common right among modern people. Have you nothing better to teach me?

Machiavelli: I would constantly be occupied with the lot of the people. My government would procure work for them.

Montesquieu: Let the people find it themselves; this would be better. The political powers do not have the right to use the funds of their subjects to make themselves popular. The public revenues are nothing other than a collective assessment, the products of which must only serve the general services; the working classes that one accustoms to counting on the State would fall into debasement[4]; they would lose their energy, their spirit, their funds of intellectual industry.[5] The State's salaries would throw them into a kind of serfdom, from which they could only raise themselves by destroying the State itself.[6] Your constructions would gobble up enormous sums in unproductive expenditures; they would rarefy capital, kill small industry, annihilate credit in the lower strata of society. Hunger would be at the end of all your arrangements. [You should] make savings and build afterwards. Govern with moderation, with justice; govern the least possible and the people would have nothing to ask of you because they would have no need of you.

Machiavelli: Ah, you see the miseries of the people with a cold eye. The principles of my government would be quite different; I would carry in my heart the suffering creatures, the children. I would be indignant when I see the wealthy procure for themselves pleasures that are unavailable to the greatest number of people. I would do all that I could to improve the material conditions of the workers, the laborers, those who bend under the weight of social necessity.

Montesquieu: So, you should begin[7] by giving them the resources that you would have assigned to the emoluments of your great dignitaries, your ministers and your consular personages. You should reserve for them the largess that you would have squandered without limit upon your pages, your courtesans and your mistresses.

Do better: dispose of the [royal] purple, the sight of which is an affront to the equality of men. Get rid of the titles of [Your] Majesty, Highness and Excellency, which enter into proud ears like sharpened iron. Call yourself protector as Cromwell did, but perform the Acts of the Apostles; live in the thatched cottages of the poor, as Alfred the Great did; sleep in the charity hospitals; stretch out on the beds of the sick, as Saint Louis did. It is too easy to engage in evangelical charity when one passes one's life in the midst of banquets; when one reposes upon sumptuous beds all evening, with beautiful ladies; when -- upon going to bed and rising -- one has great personages hastening to dress you. Be the father of the family and not a despot; a patriarch and not a prince.

If these roles do not suit you, be the leader of a democratic republic, grant liberty, introduce it into customs, [even] by force, if this is your temperament. Be Lycurgus, be Agesilas, be a Gracchus, but I do not understand this spineless civilization, in which everything bends, everything fades next to the prince; in which all spirits are thrown into the same mold; all souls into the same uniform. I can understand that one would aspire to rule men, but not automatons.

Machiavelli: Here is an outburst of eloquence that I cannot stop. It is with such phrases that one overthrows governments.

Montesquieu: Alas! You have no other preoccupation than that of maintaining yourself. To put your love of the public welfare to the test, one would only have to ask you to step down from the throne in the name of the health [salut] of the State. The people, of whom you are the chosen one, would only have to express to you their will in this regard to know the esteem that you would truly have for their sovereignty.

Machiavelli: What a strange notion! Would it not be for their own welfare that I would resist them?

Montesquieu: What do you know about such a thing? If the people are above you, by what right would you subordinate their will to yours? If you were freely accepted, if you were not just right but also necessary, why would you expect everything from force and nothing from reason? You would be right to ceaselessly tremble about your rule, because you are one of those who would [only] last a single day.

Machiavelli: A day?! I would last all my life and my descendants after me, perhaps. You know my political, economic and financial systems. Would you like to know the last means by which I would push the roots of my dynasty into the deepest layers of the soil?

Montesquieu: No.

Machiavelli: If you refuse to hear me out, you are vanquished: you, your principles, your school of thought and your century.

Montesquieu: Since you insist, speak, but this interview will be the last.

[1] Note well Machiavelli's monetary assessment or "capitalization" of the value of glory.

[2] For example, the Palace of Versailles.

[3] A clear reference to Baron von Hausmann's destruction and rebuilding Paris in the 1850s and 1860s.

[4] The French word here, avilissement, also means depreciation.

[5] In John S. Waggoner's translation, this phrase -- leurs fonds d'industrie intellectualle -- is rendered as "intellectual skills," which completely misses the point. Montesquieu is referred to what is best described as a "money of the mind" or "intellectual capital."

[6] A hypothesis that would certainly appeal to anarchists.

[7] Note the use of the present tense in the following passage: it is not so much addressed to the absolute monarch whom Machiavelli would be, but the then-current absolute monarch, Napoleon III.

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! January 2008. All footnotes by the translator.)

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