You remember the photograph: President Obama hunched in a corner of the Situation Room with his national-security staff, including Hillary Clinton with a hand over her mouth, watching the live feed from the compound in Pakistan where the killing of Osama bin Laden is under way. This is a Machiavellian moment: a political leader taking the ultimate risks that go with the exercise of power, now awaiting the judgment of fate. He knows that if the mission fails, his presidency is over, while if it succeeds, no one should ever again question his willingness to risk all.
It’s a Machiavellian moment in a second sense: an instance when public necessity requires actions that private ethics and religious values might condemn as unjust and immoral. We call these moments Machiavellian because it was Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in 1513, that first laid bare the moral world of politics and the gulf between private conscience and the demands of public action.
The Prince’s blunt candor has been a scandal for 500 years. The book was placed on the Papal Index of banned books in 1559, and its author was denounced on the Elizabethan stages of London as the “Evil Machiavel.” The outrage has not dimmed with time. The greatest modern conservative political theorist, Leo Strauss, taught his students at the University of Chicago in the 1950s to regard Machiavelli as “a teacher of evil.” Machiavelli’s enduring provocation is to baldly maintain that in politics, evil deeds cease to be evil if urgent public interest makes them necessary.