The Prince

by Niccolo Machiavelli (1532)

The word "Machiavellian" today means unscrupulous scheming, but this diminishes the significance of Machiavelli's ideas.  He wrote this little book to advise a prince (political ruler) about the methods and attitudes required to maintain power.  These methods have changed little over the centuries and are therefore relevant today.  The author notes that people are inveterate followers, a brutal spectacle is sometimes needed to keep them "appeased and stupefied," and dishonesty and force are frequently needed to maintain control.

Perhaps his most useful insight relates to a core distinction between rulers and ruled: "The people are more honest in their intentions than the nobles are because the latter want to oppress the people, whereas [the people] want only not to be oppressed."  Thus, don't be naive and think that political rulers see the world as you do: their motivations and perspectives are fundamentally different.