Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Twenty-Fourth Dialogue


Machiavelli: Now it only remains for me to indicate to you certain particularities of my manner of acting, certain habits of conduct that will give my government its ultimate physiognomy.

In the first place, I would like my designs to be impenetrable even to those who are the closest to me. In this respect, I would be like Alexander VI and the Duke of Valentinois,[1] of whom one proverbially said at the court of Rome: "The first never does what he says; the second never says what he does." I would only communicate my projects when I have ordered their execution and I would only give my orders at the last moment. Borgia never did otherwise; his own ministers knew nothing and one was always reduced to simple conjectures about him. I have the gift of stillness, it is my goal; I look away and, when it is in my reach, I suddenly look back and I pounce on my prey before it has had the time to utter a sound.[2]

You would not believe what prestige such powers of dissimulation give to the prince. When it is joined with vigorous action, a superstitious respect surrounds him; his advisers wonder what might spring from his head; the people can only place their confidence in him; in their eyes he personifies Providence, whose ways are unknown. When the people see him pass by, they dream with an involuntary terror what he could do with a nod of his head; the neighboring States are always in fear and heap upon him signs of deference, because they never know if some already-ready enterprise will fall upon them today or the next day.

Montesquieu: You would be strong against your own people because you hold them down with your knee, but if you were to deceive the States with which you deal in the same way that your deceive your subjects, you would soon be choked by the arms of a coalition.

Machiavelli: You divert me from my subject, because here I was only occupying myself with my domestic politics; but if you want to know one of the principal means by which I would keep foreign hatreds in check, here it is. I would reign over a powerful kingdom, as I have told you: so, I would seek around my State some great, fallen country that aspired to raise itself up again; I would restore it completely under the cover of some general war, as was done for Sweden, for Prussia, as could be done someday for Germany or Italy; and this country -- which would only live thanks to me and which would only be an emanation of my existence -- would, as long as I stand, give me three hundred thousand men more against armed Europe.

Montesquieu: And [what about] the salvation of your State, next to which you would thus elevate a rival power and, consequently, a future enemy?

Machiavelli: Above all, I would preserve myself.

Montesquieu: Thus you would have nothing, not even the care of the destiny of your kingdom?[3]

Machiavelli: Who told you this? To provide for my salvation: is this not to provide for the salvation of my kingdom at the same time?

Montesquieu: Your royal physiognomy becomes more and more visible; I would like to see all of it.

Machiavelli: Deign to not interrupt me.

It is necessary that a prince, whatever his brain power, always finds in himself the necessary resources of spirit. One of the greatest talents of the statesman consists in appropriating for himself the advice that he hears around him. One very often finds luminous opinions in his entourage. Thus, I would make them discuss and debate before me the most important questions. When the sovereign distrusts their opinions or does not have sufficient language skills to disguise his real thoughts, he should remain mute or only speak to engage further discussion. It is very rare that, in a well-composed group of counselors, the real position to be taken in such a situation cannot be formulated in one manner or another. One would seize upon it; very often the one who had very obscurely given his opinion is completely surprised to see it executed the next day.

You have been able to see in my institutions and my actions the attention that I have always paid to the creation of appearances, in words as in deeds. The height of skillfulness would be to make the people believe in one's frankness, even though one has a Punic faith.[4] Not only would my designs be impenetrable, but my words would almost always signify the contrary of what they seem to indicate. Only the initiates would be able to penetrate into the meaning of the characteristic words that, at certain moments, I would let fall from the heights of the throne. When I say "My reign means peace," I would mean war; when I say that I would appeal to moral means, I would use the means of force.[5] Are you listening to me?

Montesquieu: Yes.

Machiavelli: You have seen that my press would have a hundred voices and that they would incessantly speak of the grandeur of my reign, of the enthusiasm of my subjects for their sovereign; and that these voices would place into the mouths of the members of the public the opinions, the ideas and even the linguistic formulae that must be the subjects of their conversations[6]; you have also seen that my ministers would ceaselessly astonish the public with the incontestable testimonies of their efforts. As for me, I would rarely speak, only once a year, as well here and there, in several great circumstances. Each of my manifestations would be welcomed, not only in my kingdom, but also in all of Europe, as an event.

A prince whose power is founded upon a democratic base must speak in polished and yet popular language. If need be, he must not fear to speak as a demagogue, because, after all, he is [of] the people and he must have their passions. He must have [lavished upon him] certain attentions, certain flatteries, certain demonstrations of feeling that occasionally find their places. It would hardly matter that these means seem trifling or puerile in the eyes of the world: the people would not look so closely and the [necessary] effect would be produced.

In my book, I recommend that the prince take some great man of the past as a model whose tracks he must follow as closely as possible.[7] These historical comparisons still have a great effect on the masses; one grows in their imaginations, one gives oneself (from one's own life) the place that posterity reserves. Moreover, one finds in the histories of these great men the parallels, useful indications, and sometimes identical situations from which one can draw precious instruction, because all the great political lessons can be found in history. When one has found a great man with whom one has similarities, one can do even better: you know that the people love a prince who has a cultivated mind, who has a taste for literature, who even has talent. So, the prince should know no better use of his leisure time than to write, for example, the history of the great man from the past whom he has taken as his model. A severe philosophy could tax such things with weakness. When the sovereign is strong, one will pardon him for them and they would even give him a certain grace.

Certain weaknesses and even certain vices can serve the prince as much as virtues. You have been able to recognize the truth of these observations due to the usage that I have made of duplicity and violence. For example, one must not believe that a vindictive character can harm him: quite the contrary. If it would often be opportune to utilize clemency or magnanimity, it would also be necessary that, at certain moments, the prince's anger weighs down in a terrible manner. Man is in the image of God, and the Divinity does not have less rigor in his blows than in his mercy. When I have resolved upon the downfall of my enemies, I would crush them until nothing remains but dust. Men only take revenge against slight wrongs; they can do nothing against the great ones.[8] This is what I expressly state in my book. The prince has only the choice of the instruments that must serve his wrath; he will always find judges ready to sacrifice their consciences in favor of vengeance or hatred.

Do not fear that the people would riot in response to my blows. First of all, they love to feel the vigor of the arms that command, and then because they naturally hate those who raise themselves up, they instinctively rejoice when one strikes those above them. Moreover, perhaps you do not know the ease with which the people forget. When the moment of rigor has passed, even those whom one has struck hardly remember. In Rome, at the time of the Lower Empire, Tacitus reported that the victims ran with I-don't-know-what pleasure to their torturers. You will understand perfectly well that there is nothing similar in modern times; customs have become much softer; a few banishments, prison sentences, forfeitures of civil rights -- these are quite light punishments [in comparison]. It is true that, to attain sovereign power, it is necessary to shed blood and violate rights; but -- I repeat -- all will be forgotten. The least cajolery by the prince, some good behavior by his ministers or his agents, would be welcomed with the signs of the greatest recognition.

If it is indispensable to punish with an inflexible rigor, one must compensate with the same punctuality: this is what I would never fail to do. Whomever had rendered a service to my government would be compensated the very next day. Positions, distinctions, and the greatest dignities would be so many certain stages for whomever would possess them in exchange for useful service to my politics. In the army, in the magistracy, and in all the public positions, advancement would be calculated according to opinion and degree of zeal for my government. You are silent.

Montesquieu: Continue.

Machiavelli: I return to certain vices and even certain faults of character that I regard as necessary to the prince. The handling of power is a formidable thing. As clever as a sovereign might be, as infallible as his look might be, and as vigorous as his decisions might be, there would still be an immense risk to his existence. He must be superstitious. Keep yourself from believing this would be of slight consequence. In the lives of princes, there are situations so difficult, moments so serious, that human prudence no longer counts [for anything]. In such cases, it is almost necessary to play dice with the outcome. The game that I indicate and that I would follow consists, in certain circumstances, of connecting oneself to historical dates, of consulting fortunate anniversaries, of placing this or that bold resolution under the auspices of a day on which one won a victory or landed a fortunate blow. I must tell you that superstition has another, very great advantage: the people would know this tendency. Such auguring combinations often succeed; it would also be necessary to use them when one is sure of success. The people, who only judge by results, would get accustomed to believing that each of the sovereign's actions correspond to celestial signs, that historical coincidences force the hand of fortune.

Montesquieu: The last word has been said: you are a gambler.

Machiavelli: Yes, but I would have unheard-of good luck, and I would have such a sure hand and such a fertile brain that my fortunes would never turn.

Montesquieu: Since you make your [own] portrait, you must have other vices or virtues to pass on.

Machiavelli: I ask your grace for lust. The passion for women serves a sovereign much more than you might think. Henry IV owed a part of his popularity to his adultery. Men are made such that this penchant pleases them among those who govern them. Dissolute morals has, in all times, been a passion, a gallant career in which the prince must arrive ahead of his equals, as he must advance his soldiers ahead of those of the enemy. These ideas are French, and I do not think that they will displease the illustrious author of the Persian Letters[9] too much. It is not permitted me to fall into too-common considerations; nevertheless, I can allow myself to tell you that the most real result of the prince's gallantry[10] would be to win him the sympathy of the prettiest half of his subjects.

Montesquieu: You sing a madrigal.

Machiavelli: One can be serious and gallant: you have furnished the proof. I will not take back my proposition. The influence of women on the public mind is considerable. In good politics, the prince is condemned to gallantry, even though, at bottom, he may not care for it, but such cases would be rare.

I can assure you that, if I would follow the rules that I have traced out, one would care little for liberty in my kingdom. One would have a vigorous sovereign, profligate, full of the spirit of chivalry, adroit at all the exercises of the body: one would love him. The austere people could do nothing about it; one would follow the [general] torrent; even more, the independent men would be placed on the index[11]; one would turn away from them. One would not believe in their character nor in their impartiality. They would seem to be malcontents who want to get themselves bought off. If, here or there, I would not encourage talent, one would repel it from all sides, one would walk on consciences as one walks on the pavement. But, at bottom, I would be a moral prince; I would not allow one to go beyond certain limits. I would respect public modesty everywhere I see that it wants to be respected. Stains would not touch me, because I would shift the odious parts of the administration on to others. At worst, one might say that I am a good prince with a bad entourage, that I always do the right thing when one points it out to me.

If you know how to do it, it is easy to govern when one has absolute power. No contradiction, no resistance; one could follow one's designs at one's convenience; one would have the time to repair one's mistakes. Without opposition, one could make one's people happy, because this is what would always preoccupy me. I can affirm to you that one would not be bored in my kingdom; minds would be ceaselessly occupied with a thousand diverse objects. I would give to the people the spectacle[12] of my retinue and the pomp of my court; one would prepare great ceremonies; I would draw up gardens; I would offer hospitality to the [other] kings; I would bring the ambassadors of the furthest-away countries. Sometimes there might be rumors of war; sometimes [there might be] diplomatic complications about which one would gossip for months: I would go even further; I would even give satisfaction to the monomania for liberty. The wars made under my reign would be enterprises in the names of the liberty of the people and the independence of the nations, and while the people were acclaiming me during my passages [abroad], I would secretly say into the ears of the [other] absolute kings: "Fear nothing, I am with you; I wear a crown like you do and I intend to keep it: I embrace European liberty, but so as to suffocate it."

There is one thing that could compromise my fortunes: this would be the day that, on all sides, one recognizes that my politics are not frank, that all my actions are marked by the die of calculation.[13]

Montesquieu: Who would be so blind as to not see this?

Montesquieu: My entire people, except for a few cliques, about whom I would care very little. Moreover, I would have formed around me a school of politicians of a very great, relative power. You would not believe the degree to which Machiavellianism is contagious and how its precepts are easy to follow. In all the branches of my government, there would be men of little or no consequence who would be real Machiavellis and who would scheme, dissimulate, and lie with an imperturbable cold-bloodedness; the truth would not come to light anywhere.

Montesquieu: If you had only joked around from one end of this conversation to the other -- as I believe you have, Machiavelli -- I would regard this irony as your most magnificent work.

Machiavelli: Irony?! You deceive yourself if you think so. Do you not understand I have spoken without a veil and that it is the terrible violence of the truth that has given my words the color that you believe you have seen?

Montesquieu: You have finished.

Machiavelli: Not yet.

Montesquieu: Then finish.


[1] The Duke of Valentinois was Cesar Borgia.

[2] A detournement of Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little, Book I, Chapter VI: "To feign death, that is his art. He remains mute and motionless, looking in the opposite direction from his object, until the hour for action arrives; then he turns his head, and leaps upon his prey."

[3] Publisher's note: One cannot dissimulate that, here, Machiavelli is in contradiction with himself, because he absolutely says in Chapter IV "that the Prince who serves another power works towards his own ruin." [Translator's note: this dubious point sets aside what Maurice Joly's Machiavelli said in Dialogue XIX: "The times are no longer the same, and one of my most essential principles is to accommodate myself to the times."]

[4] Untrustworthy, treacherous.

[5] A strong foreshadowing of the slogan "War is peace" from George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[6] The French phrase here, defrayer ses entretiens, suggests a monetary pun ("defray [the costs of] their supports").

[7] Author's note: The Prince, Chapter XIV. [Translator's note: as translated by Angelo M. Codevilla: "But for the exercise of the mind, the prince must read the histories, and in those consider the actions of excellent men see how they have carried themselves in the wars, examine the causes of their victory and losses, to be to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all to do as some excellent man has done in the past, who took up imitating someone before his time who had been lauded and glorified, and always kept his deeds and actions close to him."]

[8] Author's note: The Prince, Chapter III. [Translator's note: as translated by Angelo M. Codevilla: "One has to note that men must either be caressed or extinguished; because they avenge themselves of light offenses, but of grave ones they cannot. So the offense one does to a man must be such that one not fear vengeance for it."]

[9] Montesquieu himself.

[10] The French word used here, galanterie, also means "libertinism."

[11] A possible reference to the Index librorum prohibitorum.

[12] See Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967).

[13] The French phrase here, marques au coin du calcul, evokes the die that is used to stamp coins.


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




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