Few authors so reliably divide interpreters by political affinity as Machiavelli.

For liberals, the strong tendency is to see Machiavelli as a realist. He is, as Salman Rushdie put it, merely the messenger reporting how things are, the way the world actually works rather than how we might wish it to be.

For conservatives, Machiavelli is better understood as, to quote Leo Strauss’ oft-quoted characterization of the “old-fashioned view” (often mistaken for Strauss’ own), “a teacher of evil.”

A host of subsidiary issues constellate around this division. For liberals, his advocacy of ‘Machiavellian’ means is excused, or at least ameliorated, by his putative republicanism and patriotism.  For conservatives, Machiavelli seems more interested in the workings of power for its own sake than in the goal of establishing a republican regime.  And they note that he gives an account of political life that sees it as permanent war between the classes. That in particular doesn’t much bother liberals who are perfectly prepared to see politics as fundamentally agonistic; but they are less ready to see his radicality in rejecting the legitimacy of their latent faith that the common good is really just the good of the many, a view that obliterates the very possibility of the common good which had served as the classical justification of republicanism.

What, I have often wondered, is responsible for this strange partisan divide?

Some years ago, one of my teachers commented that when it came down to it, he thought the most fundamental divide between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives believe in evil, whereas (by implication), liberals do not. They believe in complexity,  perspectivism, relativism, and the reality of power, and correspondingly resent and mistrust claims of moral order or universal truth as simply the reasonings of power.

Much of this is definitional. Still, at some basic level it seems to me to describe some fundamental dividing line among human types.

Perhaps the most basic question then is what really is evil?  And what disposes us to believe in it or not?

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