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Machiavelli, evil and the academy

July 6, 2010

Via Marginal Revolution comes a story about a Youtube video that bluntly declares, “US Naval War College Professor Advocates Rape.” It would be tedious to recount the content of the video, but if one watches it, it becomes quite obvious that the professor is not advocating Machiavelli’s thought, but explicating and critiquing it. If one is still unconvinced, perhaps reading the entire transcript of Walling’s lecture (worthwhile in its own right), linked at the Inside Higher Ed article, would suffice to show that he is no proponent or apologist of Machiavelli in general or the rape of Fortuna in particular, but instead a strong critic of Machiavellian thought.

There is no doubt that a political teaching that employs pornographic imagery and rape in its language is disturbing, but there is also no doubt that Machiavelli presents it. It is part of The Prince. Perhaps Walling’s vulgarity was too strong, but it puts Machiavelli’s thought in clear perspective, there can be no equivocation about what that chapter discusses, and to Walling, the ugliness of those words is a distillation of the moral repugnance of Machiavelli’s thought.

I am less concerned with any particular punishment and recrimination (or lack thereof), and more concerned with the broader idea of confronting evil in an academic setting. Simply put, even the most virtuous have a lot to learn from evil men and evil teachings, so long as they remember that they are evil. But in a modern liberal society (and I mean liberal in the grander sense, this is a problem with the right as much as the left today), particularly one navigating an amoral political reality where goodness and power are by no means linked, confronting evil is necessary. And it is not possible if we wish to extinguish or minimize evil from the content we teach. Especially at a war academy, where confronting amorality and evil is the professional problem at hand, we do not have the option of ignoring evil teachings, or, if we do present them, sanitizing them for popular dissemination. I hope I am simply generating too much noise over a minor problem. But the ridiculous nature of the complaint seems to me demonstrative of the dogmatism and political grandstanding that modern societies cannot permit to hold sway but at their own moral and strategic peril.

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