Reviewed by Daniel A. Doneson

The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu: Humanitarian Despotism and the Conditions of Modern Tyranny
by Maurice Joly (John S. Waggoner, ed. and trans.)
Lexington Books, 2002, 392 pages.


Few books are more famous for what subsequent forgers do with them than for their original contents. Maurice Joly’s The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, first published in Brussels in 1864, is indeed a very strange book. And its strangeness is multiple. The history of its genesis and multiple fates is bizarre—and its content no less so.

Who was Maurice Joly? By best guess he was born in Lons-le-Saunier, France in 1821 to a French father and an Italian mother. An unreformable truant, he successfully completed his legal studies and was finally admitted to the Paris bar in 1859.

In Joly’s day, open criticism of the rule of Napoleon III was strictly forbidden; Joly’s solution was to hide behind his characters, to place his understanding of the motives, aims, and methods of the emperor in the mouth of the notorious Machiavelli in order to expose his tyranny. But he was too clever by half: The Dialogue in Hell, printed in Belgium and smuggled into France for distribution, was seized by the police immediately upon crossing the border. The police swiftly tracked down its author, and Joly was arrested; on April 25, 1865, he was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment. His Dialogue met a similar fate: Confiscated and banned, it was to remain unread for quite some time. Fortune did not smile upon Joly, whose life was a series of disappointments, ending in his suicide in 1879.

In his 1870 Autobiography, Joly relates how, one evening by the Seine, he was suddenly struck with the idea of writing a dialogue between Montesquieu and Machiavelli. The noble baron Montesquieu would make the case for liberalism; the Florentine wizard Machiavelli would present the case for cynical despotism. In this manner, Joly would communicate the secret ways in which liberalism may spawn a despot like Napoleon III.

It was the strange fate of Joly’s Dialogue in Hell, however, to serve also as a basis of hell on earth. One of the few editions to survive the confiscation of Napoleon III’s secret police found its way to Switzerland, where it was picked up by the Russian secret police. Forgoing suppression, the Russians instead turned to forgery; they rewrote its twenty-five dialogues and interspersed them with plagiarized snippets of anti-Semitic drivel. The result was an instant classic: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book that to this day competes with the Bible as the world’s best-seller.

According to scholars, the Protocols, which ostensibly reveals the secret behind the Zionist Congress convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, was hurriedly pieced together in Russia to exert pressure on Czar Nicholas II. Alfred Rosenberg brought the Protocols to Hitler in 1923. Hannah Arendt famously observed in her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism that the Protocols was “a model for the future organization of the German masses for ‘world empire.’” In her eyes, “the delusion of an already existing Jewish world domination formed the basis for the illusion of future German domination.” Fate works in mysterious ways: Whenever the smoke cleared from the twentieth century’s bloodiest and most cataclysmic events, this ne plus ultra of conspiratorial texts is somewhere, somehow at hand.

Nor did its pernicious influence end with the Third Reich. Egyptian state-run television recently aired a forty-one-part miniseries which dramatized the Protocols. In the new Alexandria library, there rests in a display case of the holy books of monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths a copy of the first Arabic translation of the Protocols along with several Tora scrolls. Yousef Ziedan explains his curating thus:

Although the [Protocols] is not a monotheistic holy book, it has become one of the sacred [texts] of the Jews, next to their first constitution, their religious law, [and] their way of life.

It is an irony worthy of such ironists as Machiavelli and Montesquieu that a brilliant, long-forgotten defense of liberalism was to serve as the foundation for an appalling, graceless tract whose popularity sees no signs of abating anytime soon.


While Napoleon III’s police confiscated what were thought to be all extant copies of the Dialogue, another copy mysteriously resurfaced in Istanbul. In 1921 a correspondent for the London Times immediately made the connection with the Protocols upon reading Joly’s work. The prestigious Times had already previously published the Protocols in English translation and was deeply embroiled in a controversy over its authenticity.

The recovered text drew considerable interest from two of France’s most illustrious political thinkers of the twentieth century: Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel. The Dialogue in Hell was published by Aron in France in 1968 as an integral text. A famed member of the Académie Française, Revel wrote the introduction to the French version with the FifthRepublic in mind; he found Joly’s “startlingly prophetic powers” ever illuminating in his descriptions of the modern media and its implications.

Yet despite its profound meditation on modern politics, and because of its notorious past, scholars have paid scant attention to Joly’s work on its own terms. It has been translated into English only once. Herman Bernstein translated it in the context of his study of the Protocols, The Truth About the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: A Complete Exposure. A measure of the weakness of that translation is that even the title of Joly’s work is mistakenly rendered “Dialogues” and not the proper “Dialogue.”

It is this gap that John S. Waggoner, a professor of political science who has taught at the Sorbonne, the AmericanUniversity of Paris, and the AmericanUniversity of Cairo, aims to fill by giving English-language readers a complete translation at once accurate and nimble, together with an illuminating commentary. There he shows us why The Dialogue in Hell remains an indispensable guide to the vulnerabilities of modern politics to new forms of tyranny, the conditions of which Joly sensed in the project of Napoleon III.


In Joly’s dialogue, Machiavelli, the proponent of tyranny, converses with Montesquieu, the advocate of liberal democracy. The subject of their debate is whether a constitutional republic, equipped with all the institutional bulwarks against tyranny that Montesquieu ingeniously describes in his Spirit of the Laws, can nonetheless give rise to tyranny.

A brief word about Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) is virtually synonymous with the Italian Renaissance; a Columbus of the human spirit (in his own words) who claimed to discover a new moral continent. He claims to teach all he knows in his two most infamous books, The Prince and The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, both published posthumously. He is the founder of modern political philosophy, intentionally effecting a break with the whole tradition that preceded him. The substance of his political teaching is his wholly new teaching regarding the “wholly new prince”—that is, regarding the essential necessity of immorality in the foundation and structure of society. Machiavelli’s principle in a sentence: One must lower moral standards in order to make probable, if not certain, the actualization of the right or desirable social order, or in order to conquer chance.

Montesquieu’s (1689-1755) political intentions, like those of Hobbes and Locke before him, were to find those political institutions that ensure the security of persons and goods. Montesquieu’s doctrine, however, unlike that of his liberal predecessors, was not founded on an analysis of man’s original condition or an inquiry into the basis of political legitimacy. His doctrine, rather, depends upon the interpretation of political experience, the English experience to be exact. Montesquieu was uniquely situated between the active sovereignty of kings (ending with the English revolution), and the active sovereignty of the people (beginning with the French Revolution) when the question of legitimacy seemed less urgent. About his doctrine it has been remarked that by finding the heart of the political problem in the conflict between power and liberty, Montesquieu determines the definitive language of liberalism.

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