In November of 1979 I left the active duty Army. In January I started college at Penn State's Capitol Campus in Middletown, Pa. The campus was a former Air Force Base and was set up for only for Junior and Senior years of college and graduate school.
Since I was starting in 2nd semester in a trimester system, one of the courses I took in my first semester was Western Traditions II, taught by Theodora Graham. It was one of the two courses that most influenced my thinking for the rest of my life. One of the first books we read was Inferno by Dante Aligheri, book one of the three-part Divine Comedy. I was in love almost from the first page. Dante created an entire world based on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. The world was coherent, beautiful, terrifying and orderly from the very bottom of Hell to highest Heaven. Dante wrote the book in the late 1200s in exile from his home in Florence, Italy.
Later in the semester I read another book by a Florentine political exile. Niccollo Machiavelli wrote a short book on politics called The Prince trying to get back into the good graces of the prince who ruled Florence. Dante gave his readers a tour of the cosmos and pointed to the wonder of Heaven. Machiavelli never took his eyes off the Earth. At about 70 pages in most translations, The Prince is an evening read and easily the most concise book on how to go to Hell every written. Machiavelli says the only job of a prince (leader) is to take power and keep power. Otherwise the prince can do nothing. And Machiavelli makes no recommendations as to what to do with power--only that it is the first goal of a prince.
I felt like a butterfly crawling out of a cocoon. So much of the world made sense, in good and bad ways, through just these two books. In the years since these two books have been at the top of my re-reading list. I read The Prince every four years in January of the years in which we elect presidents. Machiavelli reminds of the goals and the limits of politics.
Currently, I am re-reading the Divine Comedy for the seventh time in a new translation by Clive James. I have read The Prince nine times.
And while I was in Heaven in Western Traditions II, the world seemed to be going to Hell and Machiavelli showed me just how that was happening.