Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Twenty-Fifth Dialogue

Machiavelli: I would reign ten years[1] in these conditions, without changing anything in my legislation; definitive success would only come at this price. Nothing, absolutely nothing, must make me waver during this interval; the lid on the boiler must be made of iron and lead; it would be during this time that the repression of the seditious spirit is elaborated. Perhaps you believe that one would be unhappy, that one would complain. Ah! I would be inexcusable if things went this way; but when the latches [ressorts] are the most violently held in place, when I bear down with the most terrible weight upon the breast of my people, this is what one would say: "We are only getting what we deserve; let us suffer."

Montesquieu: You would be quite blind if you took this an an apology for your reign; if you did not understand that these words would express a violent regret for the past. These are stoic words that would announce to you the day of your punishment.

Machiavelli: You trouble me. The hour will have come to relax the tension; I would now yield liberty.

Montesquieu: The excesses of your oppression would be a thousand times better. Your people would respond to you: "Keep what you have taken."

Machiavelli: Ah! Here I recognize the implacable hatred of the parties: grant nothing to one's political adversaries, not even their benefits.

Montesquieu: No, Machiavelli, nothing to you, nothing! The immolated victim does not receive any benefits from his executioner.

Machiavelli: Ah! Here I would easily penetrate into the secret thoughts of my enemies. They flatter themselves, they hope that the expansive force that I compress[2] would sooner or later throw me back. The madmen! They would only know me at the end. In politics, is it not necessary to anticipate all dangers with the greatest repression [compression] possible? An imperceptible opening: one would have it.

I would certainly not grant considerable liberties; so, you nevertheless see the degree to which absolutism will have already penetrated into customs. I wager that, at the first indications of liberty, there would rise around me frightening rumors. My ministers, my counselors would exclaim that I am abandoning the helm, that all is lost. One would entreat me -- in the name of the health [salut] of the State, in the name of the country -- to do nothing of the sort. The people would say: "What is he thinking? His genius decreases." Those who are indifferent would say: "He is exhausted." The hateful would say: "He is dead."

Montesquieu: And they all would be right, because a modern publicist[3] has said with great truthfulness: "Does one want to snatch men's rights from them? One must not do it half-way. That which one leaves to them, serves to help them recover what one has taken away from them. The hand that remains free disengages the other one from its irons."

Machiavelli: This is very well thought out; this is very true; I know that such a step would greatly expose me. You see that one would have been unjust towards me, that I love liberty more than one will have said. A little while ago, you asked me if I would abnegate, if I knew how to sacrifice myself for my people, to step down from the throne if need be: now you have my response; I would step down in martyrdom.

Montesquieu: You have softened. What liberties would you grant?

Machiavelli: Each year, upon the new year, I would allow my legislative chamber to testify to its wishes in an address to me.

Montesquieu: But since the immense majority of the chamber would be devoted to you, what could you gather if not thank-yous and testimonies of admiration and love?

Machiavelli: Yes, you are right. Would not such testimonies be natural?

Montesquieu: Are not all the liberties?

Machiavelli: But this first concession would be considerable, whatever you say. Nevertheless, I would not limit myself to it. Today in Europe there is a spirited movement against centralization -- not among the masses, but the enlightened classes. I would decentralize, that is to say, I would give to my provincial governors the right to settle many of the small, local questions previously submitted to the approval of my ministers.

Montesquieu: If the municipal element is not involved in this reform, you would only make tyranny more unsupportable.

Machiavelli: Here indeed is the fatal haste of those who clamor for reform: one must take prudent steps along the road to liberty. Nevertheless, I would limit myself: I would grant commercial liberty.

Montesquieu: You have already spoken of this.

Machiavelli: It is the industrial aspect that still concerns me: I would not want that my legislation -- due to an excess of distrust of the people -- proceeds as far as preventing them from providing for their own subsistence. It is for this reason that I would present to the chambers laws that have as their object slight departures from the provisions that prohibit association. Moreover, my government's tolerance would render these measures perfectly useless and, since in the final analysis it would not be necessary to disarm oneself, nothing in the laws would be changed, just the formulae of their redaction. Today, one has deputies in the chambers who lend themselves very well to innocent stratagems.

Montesquieu: Is that all?

Machiavelli: Yes, because this would be much, perhaps even too much, but I believe I could reassure myself: my army would be enthusiastic, my magistracy would be loyal, and my penal laws would function with the regularity and precision of the all-powerful and terrible mechanisms that modern science has invented.

Montesquieu: And so you would not touch the laws concerning the press?

Machiavelli: You would not want me to.

Montesquieu: Nor the municipal legislation?

Machiavelli: Would this be possible?

Montesquieu: Nor your suffrage-protection system?

Machiavelli: No.

Montesquieu: Neither the organization of the Senate, the organization of the Legislative Body, your domestic system, your international system, your economic regime, nor your financial regime?

Machiavelli: I would only touch what I have mentioned to you. Properly speaking, I would have left behind the period of terror and entered into one of tolerance; I could do so without danger; I could even grant real liberty, because one would have to be quite denuded of political spirit to not recognize that, at the imaginary moment that I have supposed, my legislation would have already borne all of its fruit. I would have accomplished the goal that I announced to you: the character of the nation will have been changed; the slight faculties that I would return will, for me, have been the probe with which I measured the depths of the results. Everything will have been done, everything will have been completed; no more resistance will be possible. No more stumbling blocks, no more anything! And yet I would restore nothing. You have said so: this is the practical truth.

Montesquieu: Hasten to finish, Machiavelli. May my shadow never encounter you again and may God efface from my memory what I have heard, down to the last word!

Machiavelli: Be careful, Montesquieu: before the minute that has begun slips into eternity, you will seek my steps with anguish, and the memory of this conversation will eternally distress your soul.

Montesquieu: Speak!

Machiavelli: Then let us return. I will have done all that you know. By these concessions to the liberal spirit of my times, I would disarm the hatred felt by the parties.

Montesquieu: Ah! Thus you would not take off the mask of hypocrisy with which you will have covered the heinous crimes[4] that no human tongue has described. Thus you would want that I leave the eternal night so as to denounce you! Ah, Machiavelli! Even you have not taught one to degrade humanity to such a point! You did not conspire against conscience; you did not conceive the idea of making the human soul into a mud in which the Divine Creator himself no longer recognizes anything.

Machiavelli: It is true: I am surpassed.

Montesquieu: Vanish! Do not prolong this conversation an instant longer.

Machiavelli: Before the shadows that advance in tumult here below have reached the black ravine that separates them from us, I would like to finish; before they have reached it, you will no longer see me and you will call to me in vain.

Montesquieu: So finish; this will be my atonement for the temerity I committed by accepting this sacrilegious wager!

Machiavelli: Ah, liberty! Such is the force with which you are kept in a few souls when the people scorn you or console themselves with baubles.

Let me provide you with a quite short apologue about this subject: Dio recounts that the Roman people were indignant with Augustus because of certain, very harsh laws that he had made, but that as soon as he brought back the comedian Piladus, and the agitators were chased from the town, the discontent ceased. This is my apologue. Now, here is the conclusion of the author, for it is an author whom I quote: "Such people would more vividly feel tyranny when one has chased away a mountebank than when one had taken from them all their laws."[5] Do you know who wrote this?

Montesquieu: It hardly matters!

Machiavelli: Thus, recognize yourself. I only see base souls around me: what can I do about it? Mountebanks would not be lacking under my reign and it would be necessary that they conduct themselves quite badly for me to decide to chase them away.

Montesquieu: I do not know if you have recalled my words exactly, but here is a quotation that I can guarantee to you: it will eternally avenge the people whom you calumniate: "The morals of the prince contribute as much to liberty as do the laws. Like them, he can make men into beasts and beasts into men; if he loves free souls, he will have subjects; if he loves base souls, he will have slaves."[6]

Here is my response; and if today I have something to add to this citation, it would be this: "When public honesty is banned from the heart of the courts, when corruption spreads itself out without modesty, it still cannot penetrate into the hearts of those who approach a bad prince; the love of virtue continues to live in the hearts of the people, and the power of this principle is so great that the bad prince has only to disappear for honesty -- through the very force of things -- to return to the practice of the government at the same time that liberty returns."

Machiavelli: This is very well-written, in a very simple form. There is only one misfortune in what you have said, and it is that -- in the mind as in the soul of my people -- I would personify virtue; even better, I would personify liberty (do you hear?), as I would also personify revolution, progress, the modern spirit, all that there is of the best in the basis of contemporary civilization. I do not say that one would respect me; I do not say that one would love me; I say that one would venerate me; I say that the people would adore me; [I say] that, if I like, I could have altars erected for me, because I would have the fatal gifts that act upon the masses. In your country, one guillotined Louis XVI, who only desired the welfare of the people, who wanted it with the complete faith, with the complete ardor, of a sincerely honest soul and, several years previously, one had erected altars to Louis XIV, who cared less for the people than for the most recent of his mistresses; who, at the least impulse, would have bullets fired at the rabble while he played dice with Lauzun. But much more than Louis XIV, I would be based upon popular suffrage; I would be Washington, Henri IV, Saint Louis, Charles the Wise; I mention your best kings so as to honor you. I would be a king of Egypt and Asia, at the same time; I would be Pharaoh, Cyrus, Alexander, Sardanapolus; the soul of the people would light up when I passed by; they would run after my steps in rapture; the mother would invoke my name in her prayers; the young woman would regard me with sighs and would dream that, if my glance should happen to fall upon her by chance, she could perhaps repose upon my couch for a moment. When the unfortunate one is oppressed, he would say: "If the King only knew"; when one wanted to get revenge, when one hoped for help, one would say: "The King would know how." Moreover, one would never approach me without finding my hands full of gold. Those who surround me would be harsh, violent; they would sometimes deserve a beating, it is true; but it would be necessary for them to be this way, because their hateful, contemptible character, their base cupidity, their excesses, their shameful wastefulness and their crass avarice would make a [strong] contrast with the sweetness of my character, my simple aspects and my inexhaustible generosity. One would invoke me, I tell you, like a god; in hailstorms, during shortages, in conflagrations, I would rush in; the population would throw themselves at my feet; they would carry me to the heavens in their arms, if God were to give them wings.

Montesquieu: Which would not prevent you from crushing them with artillery fire at the least sign of resistance.

Machiavelli: True, but love cannot exist without fear.

Montesquieu: Is this frightening dream finished?

Machiavelli: A dream?! Ah, Montesquieu: you will weep for a long time. Tear up the Spirit of the Laws, ask God to give you forgetfulness for your part in the heavens, because here comes the terrible truth of which you already have a presentiment. There was nothing of the dream in what I have spoken to you of.

Montesquieu: What are you telling me?

Machiavelli: What I have described to you -- this ensemble of monstrous things before which the spirit recoils, terrified; this work that only Hell itself could accomplish -- all this has been done, all this exists, all this thrives under the sun, right now, on a part of the globe that we have left.

Montesquieu: Where?

Machiavelli: No, [to tell you] this would inflict upon you a second death.

Montesquieu: In heaven's name, speak!

Machiavelli: Well. . . .

Montesquieu: What?

Machiavelli: The time has passed! Do you not see that the whirlwind carries me away?

Montesquieu: Machiavelli!

Machiavelli: Do you see the shadows that pass not far from you, covering their eyes? Do you recognize them? They are the glories that are the envy of the entire world. They now ask God for their homeland back!

Montesquieu: Eternal God, what have you permitted?[7]

[1] The period between 1851 and 1860.

[2] The French word used here, comprime, means both "repress" and "compress."

[3] Publisher's note: Benjamin Constant.

[4] The French word used here, forfaits, can also mean "contracts" or "forfeitures."

[5] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XIX, Chapter II. [Translator's note: it is in fact Book XIX, Chapter III, that Montesquieu writes: "The same writer [Dio] informs us that the Romans were exasperated against Augustus for making certain laws which were too severe; but as soon as he had recalled Pylades the comedian, whom the jarring of different factions had driven out of the city, the discontent ceased. A people of this stamp have a more lively sense of tyranny when a player is banished than when they are deprived of their laws."

[6] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XII, Chapter XXVII. [Translator's note: "The manners of a prince contribute as much as the laws themselves to liberty; like these he may transform men into brutes, and brutes into men. If he prefers free and generous spirits, he will have subjects; if he likes base, dastardly souls, he will have slaves."]

[7] See the epiphany that appears near the very end of Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little: "It is, however, true, it cannot be denied, we must admit it, we must acknowledge it, even though we expire of humiliation and despair, -- that which is lying there, on the ground, is the nineteenth century, is France!"

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

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