Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Twenty-Third Dialogue

Machiavelli: I cannot respond to any of your oratory flourishes. These eloquent recitations have only been made [down] here. To say to a sovereign, "Would you like to step down from your throne for the happiness of your people?" is this not folly? To say to him, "Since you are an emanation of popular suffrage, trust yourself to its fluctuations, allow yourself to discuss them," is this possible? Does not all constituted power have as its first law the defense of itself, not only in its own interests, but in the interests of the people whom it governs? Have I not made the greatest possible sacrifice to the modern principle of equality? Is not a government issued from universal suffrage, in short, the expression of the will of the greatest number of people? You tell me that this principle is the destroyer of public liberties: what can I do about it? When this principle has entered into customs, do you know any means of removing it? And if it cannot be removed, do you know a means of realizing it in the great European societies, other than by the arms of a single man? You are severe concerning the means of government: indicate to me another mode of execution, and if there is none other than absolute power, tell me how this power could separate itself from the special imperfections to which its principle condemns it.

No, I would not be a Saint Vincent de Paul, because my subjects would not only need an evangelical soul, but an arm [of strength]; I would not be an Agesilas, nor a Lycurgus, nor a Gracchus, because I would not be among the Spartans, nor among the Romans; I would be at the heart of a voluptuous society, which allies the fury of the pleasures with those of weapons, the transports of strength with those of the senses; [a society] that no longer wants divine authority, paternal authority or religious restraint. Am I the one who created the world in the midst of which I live? I would be such, because it is such. Would I have the power to stop its inclination? No, I could only prolong its life because it would dissolve itself even more quickly if it yielded to itself. I would grasp this society by its vices, because it only presents me with vices; if it had virtues, I would grasp it by them.

But if austere principles could criticize my power, would it be because they underestimate the real services that I would render, my genius and even my grandeur?

I would be the arm, I would be the sword of the Revolutions that cuts off the harbinger breath of the final destruction. I would contain the senseless forces that have no other motivation, at bottom, than the brutality of the instincts that pursue pillage under the veil of principle. If I would discipline these forces, if I would stop their expansion in my homeland -- if only for a century -- would I not deserve its gratitude? Could I not also claim the recognition of the European States that would turn their eyes towards me, as towards Osiris, who, all alone, had the power to captivate the shuddering crowds? Raise your eyes higher and bow before the one who carries upon his forehead the fatal sign of human predestination.

Montesquieu: Exterminating angel, grandson of Tamerlane, you who would reduce the people to the level of Helots: you would not be able to prevent the fact that, somewhere, there would be free souls who would brave you, and their disdain would suffice to safeguard the rights of the human conscience rendered imperceptible by God.

Machiavelli: God protects the strong.

Montesquieu: I beseech you, come to the last links in the chain that you would forge. Tighten it well; use the anvil and the hammer; do all you can. God will protect you: it is he himself who guides your star.

Machiavelli: I am having difficulty understanding the animation that now reigns in your words. Would I thus be so hard, me, who would not take violence for my final policy, but effacement? Thus, be reassured: I bring to you more than one unexpected consolation. Only let me take several further precautions that I believe would be necessary for my security; you will see that, with those with whom I have surrounded myself, a prince would have nothing to fear from events.

Our writings have more than one connection, whatever you might say about them, and I believe that a despot who wants to be complete must not dispense with reading you. Thus, you remark in the Spirit of the Laws that an absolute monarch must have a large praetorian guard;[1] this advice is good, I would follow it. My guard would be around a third of my army's personnel. I am a great partisan of conscription, which is one of the most beautiful inventions of French genius, but I believe that it would be necessary to perfect this institution by trying to retain in arms the greatest possible number of those who had completed their tours of duty. I believe that I could attain this goal by resolutely seizing the kind of commerce that is conducted in several States, in France for example, concerning voluntary engagements for money. I would suppress this hideous practice and I would personally exercise it honestly in the form of a monopoly by creating an endowment fund for the army that would allow me to summon [men to take their places] under the banners through use of the bait of money and to use the same means to retain there those who would like to devote themselves exclusively to military service.

Montesquieu: Thus, it would be a kind of mercenary corps that you would aspire to form in your own country!

Machiavelli: Yes, the hatred of the [political] parties would say this, when I would only be motivated by the welfare of the people and by the interests (quite legitimate, moreover) of my preservation, which would be the communal welfare of my subjects.

Let us pass on to other subjects. What will surprise you is that I now return to construction. I had already indicated to you that we would return to it. You will see that the political idea that arises from the vast system of construction that I would undertake. I would realize through it an economic theory that has produced many disasters in certain European States: the theory of the organization of permanent labor for the working classes. My reign would promise them an indefinite salary. [With] me dead, my system abandoned, [there would be] no work; the people would be on strike and would rise to assaults upon the wealthy classes. One would be in the midst of jacquerie[2]: industrial disturbances, annihilation of credit, insurrection in my State; uprisings outside of it; Europe in flames. I stop here. Tell me if the privileged classes, which quite naturally tremble concerning their fortunes, would not make common cause, the closest cause, with the working classes so as to support me, me or my dynasty; [tell me] if, on the other hand, the interests of European tranquillity would not provide the powers of the highest order to support me.

The question of construction, which appears slight, is in reality a colossal question, as you will see. When it is a matter of such importance, one must not spare the sacrifices. Have you remarked that nearly all of my political conceptions double as financial arrangements? This is what would happen here, too. I would institute a fund for public works that I would endow with several hundred million; with the aid of this fund, I would begin constructions over the entire surface of my kingdom. You have already divined my goal: to have worker Jacquerie make sense [tenir debout]: it would be another army that I could use against the political factions. But this mass of proletarians that would be in my hands: it must not be able to turn against me when it is without bread. This is what I would assure through construction projects, because what would be special in my arrangements would be that each one would furnish corollaries at the same time. The worker who builds for me would, at the same time, build the means of defense (against himself) that I would need. Without knowing it, he would be chasing himself from the great [city] centers where his presence troubles me; he would render impossible the success of the revolutions that are fought in the streets.[3] The results of these great constructions, indeed, would be to rarefy the space[s] in which the artisan might live, to drive him back to the outskirts,[4] and soon thereafter make him abandon them, because the high cost of food staples increases with the elevation of the rates of rent. My capital would hardly be more habitable for those who live from daily work than the parts closest to its walls. Thus, it would not be in the quarters neighboring the headquarters of the authorities that insurrections could form. No doubt, around the capital there would be an immense population of workers, redoubtable in days of anger, but the constructions that I would erect would all be conceived in accordance with a strategic plan, that is to say, they would yield passage to great boulevards through which cannons could be moved from one end to another. At the extremities of these great roads, there would be a number of barracks, kinds of small fortresses, full of weapons, soldiers and munitions. My successor would have to be an imbecilic old man or a child to let himself fall as the result of an insurrection, because -- with a wave of my hand -- a few grains of gunpowder would sweep away the rioters up to 20 leagues from the capital. But the [royal] blood that flows through my veins is burning and my race has all the signs of strength. Are you listening to me?

Montesquieu: Yes.

Machiavelli: But you quite understand that I would not intend to make material life difficult for the population of workers in the capital, and here I would incontestably encounter a stumbling block. But the fecundity of the resources that my government must have would suggest an idea to me: to build for the people of my country vast cities in which the houses would be low-priced and in which their masses could find themselves united by cohort, as in vast families.

Montesquieu: Mousetraps!

Machiavelli: Oh, the spirit of disparagement, the fierce hatred of the parties, would not fail to disparage my institutions. One would say what you have said. It would hardly matter: if the means did not succeed, one would find another.

I must not abandon the heading of construction without mentioning an apparently insignificant detail, but what is insignificant in politics? It is necessary that the innumerable edifices that I would construct would be marked with my name; one would find on them the trappings, bas-reliefs, and clusters that recall a part of my history. My coat of arms, my figure, will have to appear everywhere. Over here, one would see the angels who support my crown; over there, the statues of justice and wisdom, which bear my initials. These points would be of the greatest importance; I would hold to them essentially.

It would be by these signs, these emblems, that the person of the sovereign would always be present; one would live with him, with his memory, with his thought. The feeling of his absolute sovereignty would enter into the most rebellious spirits like the drops of water that incessantly fall from the crag and furrow a foothold in the granite. For the same reason, I would want my statue, my bust, my portraits to be in all the public establishments, especially in the auditorium of the courts; I should be represented in regal costume or on horseback.

Montesquieu: Alongside the image of the Christ.

Machiavelli: No, not at all: facing it, because sovereign power is an image of divine power. My image would thus ally itself with those of Providence and justice.

Montesquieu: It would be necessary that justice itself bears your likeness. You would not be a Christian: you would be a Greek emperor of the Lower Empire.

Machiavelli: I would be a Catholic, apostolic and Roman emperor. For the same reasons as those that I have just pointed out, I would want that one gives my name -- my royal name -- to all public establishments, whatever their nature. Royal Tribunal, Royal Court, Royal Academy, Royal Legislative Body, Royal Senate, Royal Council of State -- as often as possible, this same word would be given to the functionaries, agents and official personnel who surround the government. Lieutenant of the King, Archbishop of the King, Comedian of the King, Judge of the King, Lawyer of the King. In short, the royal name, imprinted on everything (men and things), would represent a sign of power. Only my birthday would be a national festival, and not a royal one. I add that it would be necessary that the streets, public places and squares bear names that recall the historical memories of my reign. If one were to follow these indications -- [even] if one was Caligula or Nero -- one would be certain of imprinting oneself forever in the memory of the people and transmitting one's prestige to the most distant posterity.

So many things I have not mentioned! But it is necessary that I restrain myself: "Because who can say all without a fatal tedium?"[5]

I have come to the little means: I regret it, because they are perhaps not worthy of your attention, but for me they would be vital.

The bureaucracy[6] is, one says, a plague upon monarchical governments. I do not believe so. Bureaucrats are thousands of servants who are naturally tied to the existing order of things. I would have an army of soldiers, an army of judges, an army of workers; I would also want an army of employees.

Montesquieu: You no longer take pains to justify anything.

Machiavelli: Do I have the time to do so?

Montesquieu: No, press on.

Machiavelli: In the States that have been monarchical -- and they have all been monarchical at least once -- I have ascertained that there was a veritable frenzy for sashes and ribbons. These things cost the prince almost nothing and he can, by means of a few pieces of fabric, a few baubles of money or gold, make happy (even better than that) the men who are loyal. In truth, so little would be necessary that I could decorate all those who ask it from me, without exception. A decorated man is a bought man. I would make these marks of distinction into a rallying sign for devoted subjects. I believe that I could have eleven-twelfths of my kingdom at this price. As much as I could, I would realize the egalitarian instincts of the nation. Remark this well: the more a nation holds to equality in general, the more individuals have a passion for distinction. Thus here would be a means of action of which it would be too clumsy to deprive oneself. Quite far from renouncing titles, as you have advised me to do, I would multiply them all around me. In my court, I would like to have the etiquette of Louis XIV, the domestic hierarchy of Constantine, a severe diplomatic formalism, and an imposing ceremonial: these would be infallible means of governing the spirit of the masses. Through all this, the sovereign would appear as a god.

One assures me that, in the States that are apparently the most democratic, ancient monarchical nobility has lost almost nothing of its prestige. I would give myself the gentlemen of the oldest salt for my chamberlains. Many antique names would have been extinguished, no doubt; by virtue of my sovereign power, I would revive them along with their titles and one would find in my court the greatest names in history since Charlemagne.

It is possible that these conceptions appear bizarre to you, but what I will affirm to you is that they would do more for the consolidation of my dynasty than the wisest laws. The worship of the prince is a kind of religion and, like all possible religions, this worship imposes contradictions and mysteries that are above reason.[7] Each of my actions, however inexplicable they might seem to be, would proceed from calculations of which the unique objects would be my well-being [salut] and that of my dynasty. Thus, I say in The Prince that what is really difficult is acquiring power, but preserving it is easy, because it is in sum sufficient to remove what is harmful and establish what is protective. The essential trait of my politics, as you have been able to see, will be to render myself indispensable;[8] I would destroy as many of the organized forces as would be necessary, so that no one could make progress without me, so that even the enemies of my power would tremble to overthrow it.

What would remain for me to do would only consist in the development of the moral means that are germinating in my institutions. My reign would be a reign of pleasure; you would not be able to stop me from cheering my people with games and festivals, which would make customs milder. One could not dissimulate that this has been a century of money; needs have doubled; luxury has ruined families; from all sides, one aspires to the material pleasures; it would be necessary for a sovereign to not be of his times for him not to know how to turn to his profit the universal passion for money and the sensual fury that consumes men. Misery squeezes them like a vise; lechery presses them; ambition devours them; they will be mine. But when I speak this way, it would basically be the interests of my people that guides me. Yes, I would make good come from evil; I would exploit materialism to the profit of concord and civilization; I would extinguish the political passions of men by appeasing their ambitions, their greed and their needs. I would have for the servants of my reign those who, under the preceding governments, had made the greatest noise in the name of liberty. The most austere virtues are like Joconde's wife[9]: it suffices to always double the price of defeat. Those who would resist money will not resist honors; those who would resist honors will not resist money. By seeing fall, each in their turn, all those whom one believed to be the purest, public opinion would weaken to such a point that it would end up completely abdicating. How could one complain? I would only be severe with those who were political; I would only persecute this [particular] passion; I would even secretly favor the others by the thousand subterranean routes that absolute power would have at its disposal.

Montesquieu: After having destroyed political consciousness, you would undertake the destruction of moral conscience; you killed society, now you must kill mankind. May it please God that your words ring out on earth; never could a more brilliant refutation of your own doctrines strike human ears.

Machiavelli: Let me finish.

[1] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book X, Chapter XV. [Translator's note: this is an incorrect citation. It is in Book X, Chapter XVI, that Montesquieu says: "There should be always a body of faithful troops near the prince, ready to fall instantly upon any part of the empire that may chance to waver. This military corps ought to awe the rest, and to strike terror into those who through necessity have been entrusted with any authority in the empire."]

[2] Peasant revolts.

[3] See Guy Debord, Chapter VII, "The Development of the Territory, The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Chapter IV of his Panegyric (1989).

[4] In contemporary French society, le banlieue.

[5] Publisher's note: see the preface to the Spirit of the Laws. [Translator's note: "The more we enter into particulars, the more we shall perceive the certainty of the principles on which they are founded. I have not even given all these particulars, for who could mention them all without a most insupportable fatigue?"]

[6] This is the first use of this word in the text. According to Cornelius Castoriadis, the modern bureaucracy ("bureaucratic capitalism") was a product of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution of 1917. See "The Problem of the USSR," in Political and Social Writings, Volume 1, 1946-1955.

[7] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XXV, Chapter II. [Translator's note: Book XXV, Chapter II, deals with "the Motives of Attachment to Different Religions," but does not mention either the worship of the prince or mysteries.]

[8] The Prince, Chapter IX: "Those who do obligate themselves and are not rapacious, one must honor and love."

[9] See "Joconde," a tale by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695).

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! January 2008. Footnotes by the translator, except where noted.)

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