Second Dialogue

Montesquieu: Your doctrines are nothing new to me, Machiavelli; and if I have difficulty in refuting them, this will less be because they disturb my reason but because, true or false, they have no philosophical basis. I quite understand that you are, above all, a political man and that deeds touch you more deeply than ideas. But, nevertheless, you agree that, when it is a question of government, it is necessary to have certain principles. You make no place in your politics for morality, religion or rights; you only have two words in your mouth: force and cunning. If your system only says that force plays a great role in human affairs, that cleverness is a necessary quality for a statesman, you understand quite well that these are truths that have no need of demonstration; but if you erect violence as a principle, and cunning as a maxim of government, if you do not account for any of humanity's laws in your calculations, the code of tyranny is no more than the code of the brute, because the animals are also adroit and strong, and indeed there is no other right among them than the right of brute force. But I do not believe that your fatalism goes that far, because you recognize the existence of good and evil.

Your principles are that good can come from evil and that it is permitted to do evil when it can result in good. Thus, you do not say: it is good in itself to betray one's word or it is good to make use of corruption, violence and murder. Instead, you say: one can betray when it is useful, to kill when it is necessary, to take the goods of others when it is advantageous to do so. I hasten to add that, in your system, these maxims are only applied to the princes and when it is a question of their interests or those of the State. Consequently, the prince has the right to violate his oaths; he can spill blood in torrents to seize power or to maintain his control over it; he can skin those whom he has banished, overturn all the laws, make new ones and violate them, too; squander finances, corrupt, repress, punish and strike down without cease.

Machiavelli: But was it not you yourself who said that, in despotic States, fear is necessary, virtue useless and honor dangerous; that blind obedience is necessary and that the prince would be lost if he ceased to raise his arm for an instant?[1]

Montesquieu: Yes, I said that, but after I found out, as you did, the frightening conditions in which tyrannical power maintains itself, I tried to weaken tyranny and not elevate it to the altar; it was to inspire horror in my homeland where -- fortunately for it -- the head has never bent under a similar yoke. How can you not see that force is only an accident in the progression of legitimate societies and that the most arbitrary powers are obligated to seek their sanction in considerations that are foreign to theories of force? This is not simply in the name of [self-]interest, but also in the name of the duty that stirs all oppressors. They violate it, but they invoke it; the doctrine of [self-]interest is thus as inadequate as the means that this doctrine employs.

Machiavelli: Here I must stop you: you make allowances for interest, which suffices to justify all of the political necessities that are not in accord with rights.

Montesquieu: This is the national security [la raison d'Etat] that you invoke. Thus, you remark that I cannot give as a basis for society precisely that which destroys it. In the name of [self-] interest, the princes and the people -- like the citizens -- can only commit crimes. The [self-]interest of the State, you say! But how could I know if it is really profitable for it to commit this or that iniquity? Do we not know that the [self-]interest of the State is most often the [self-]interest of a particular prince or that of the corrupt favorites who surround him? I am not exposed to the same consequences by presupposing rights as the basis for the existence of society, because the notion of rights traces the limits that [self-]interest must not cross.

If you ask me what is the foundation of rights, I would say to you that it is morality, whose precepts are neither doubtful nor obscure; because they are inscribed in all the religions and they are imprinted in luminous characters in the conscience of man. It is this pure source from which all civil, political, economic and international laws must be derived.

Ex eodem jure, sive ex eodem fonte, sive ex eodem, principio.[2]

But this is what bursts your inconsistency: you are Catholic, you are Christian; we adore the same God, you accept his commandments, you accept morality, you accept rights in the relations among men, and [yet] you tread upon all these rules when it is a question of the State or a prince. In a word, politics, according to you, has nothing to do with morality. You allow to a monarch what you deny to his subjects. Depending on whether the actions are accomplished by the weak or by the strong, you glorify them or your disapprove of them; they are crimes or virtues, depending on the social rank of those who commit them. You praise the prince for having committed them, and you send the subject to the galleys. Thus, you do not imagine that no society could live according to such maxims; you believe that the subjects would keep their oaths though they see the sovereign betray his; that they would respect the laws though they know that the one whom has given them has violated these laws and that he violates them all the time; you believe they will hesitate along the road to violence, corruption and fraud, though they see ceaselessly march along it those who are tasked with leading them. Enlighten yourself; know that each usurpation by the prince in the public domain authorizes a similar infraction in the sphere of the [private] subject; that each political perfidy engenders a social one; that each instance of violence above legitimates violence below.[3] This is what concerns the citizens.

As for what concerns them in their relations with the governors, I do not need to tell you that it is civil war introduced, at the state of ferment, into the heart of society. The silence of the people is only the respite of the vanquished, for whom complaining is a crime. Expect that they will awake; you have invented the theory of force; be sure that they have retained it. At the first opportunity, they will break their chains; they will break them under the most futile pretext, perhaps, and they will take back by force what force has taken from them.

The maxim of despotism is the Jesuits' perinde ac cadaver;[4] kill or be killed: this is its law; it is idiocy today, civil war tomorrow. At least this is the way things happen in the European climes: in the East, the people sleep in peace in the debasement of servitude.

Thus the princes cannot take liberties with what private morality does not allow: this is my conclusion; it is strict. You have believed that you have troubled me by proposing the example of many great men who, by bold action accomplished through the violation of the laws, have brought peace to their countries, sometimes [even] glory; and it is from this that you have derived your great argument: good comes from evil. I am not convinced; it hasn't been demonstrated to me that audacious men have wrought more good than evil; it has not at all been established that societies cannot be saved or sustained without them. The means of salvation that they provide do not compensate for the seeds of dissolution that they introduce into the States. Several years of anarchy are often much less harmful for a kingdom than many years of silent despotism.

You admire great men; I only admire great institutions. I believe that to be happy, people have less need of men of genius than men of honesty; but I grant you, if you would like, that some of the violent enterprises for which you have made apologies have turned out to be advantageous to certain States. These acts could have been justified in ancient societies in which slavery and the dogma of fatalism ruled. One again found them in the Middle Ages and even in modern times; but gradually customs grew milder, guiding lights spread among the diverse peoples of Europe; especially as the principles of political science became better known, rights were substituted for force in principles as well as in deeds. No doubt the storms of liberty still exist and crimes are still committed in its name: but political fatalism no longer exists. If you had said in your era that despotism was a necessary evil, you could not do so today, because despotism has become impossible in the current state of customs and political institutions among the principal peoples of Europe.

Machiavelli: Impossible? . . . If you can manage to prove this to me, I will agree to take a step towards your ideas.

Montesquieu: I will prove it to you very easily, if you will follow me further.

Machiavelli: Very willingly, but watch out: I believe that you promise much.

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[1] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book III, Chapter IX. [Translator's note: "But when a despotic prince ceases for one single moment to uplift his arm, when he cannot instantly demolish those whom he has entrusted with the first employments, all is over: for as fear, the spring of this government, no longer subsists, the people are left without a protector."]

[2] Latin for "Goodness is the source of rights, which are tantamount to natural law."

[3] Compare this to the following passage in Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little:

Bring before the assizes a malefactor of any sort: the thief will say to the judges: "The chief of State robbed the Bank of twenty-five millions"; the false witness will say to the judges: "The chief of State took an oath in the sight of God and man, and that oath he has violated"; the sequestrator will say: "The chief of State has arrested, and detained against all law, the representatives of the sovereign people"; the swindler will say: "The chief of State got his election, got power, got the Tuileries, all by swindling"; the forger will say: "The chief of State forged votes"; the footpad will say: "The chief of State stole the purses from the Princes of Orleans"; the murderer will say: "The chief of State shot, sabred, bayonetted, massacred passengers in the street"; and, all together, swindler, forger, false witness, footpad, robber, assassin, will add: "And you judges, you have seen fit to salute this man, to praise him for having perjured himself, to compliment him for committing forgery, to praise him for stealing and swindling, to thank him for murdering! What do you want of us?"

[4] Latin for "corpse or cadaver."