When you think of classic books, you probably think of books that are two hundred years old at most. Hugo, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Shelly, and so on. The great works of Shakespeare being the oldest literature that most people ever really read, outside of religious texts. But one work of Renaissance literature in Italy still stands out as one of the most important books ever written, and still strikes us with an uncanny feeling of understanding and dread when we think of it; The Prince, by Machiavelli.
Few books have garnered as much controversy during their existence as The Prince. It has been banned by the Catholic Church, seen as cynical by many, and was the basis for the naming of one of the worst psychological traits a person can have-Machiavellianism. This is the book that gave us such quotes as “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot have both”, and “The ends justify the means”. History’s greatest how-to-rule guide has also been one of the most widely reviled books of all time
Victor Hugo may have summed up our distaste for The Prince best in Les Miserables:
“Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a demon, nor a miserable and cowardly writer; he is nothing but the fact. And he is not only the Italian fact; he is the European fact, the fact of the sixteenth century.”
We dislike him because he told us that our politicians cannot all be saints, if any of them can be. We know that Richard Nixon was both unscrupulous and effective, while our sense of justice tells us it shouldn’t be so. Machiavelli’s The Prince reminds us to focus on the real, understand that the virtuous politician is not the same as a saint by any measure, and that it is better to be feared than loved not only for kings, but also for political books.