There are books which, like the heroic feats of brave knights, have helped to write new chapters in the big book of History. In this article, we’re going to look back at five works that are the building blocks for life today, books that have shaped our thinking and forever changed the way we see the world.
We’ll bring you some fascinating facts along the way and, wherever possible, show you their first editions. What did these books look like when they were first released into the world?
The Republic by Plato – 4th century BC
In the 4th century BC, Plato wrote The Republic, the work that would shape Western political thought more than any other. Comprising 10 books, the treatise outlines how to cure a city’s ills. To do so, it is necessary to study the causes and course of the “disease”, treating it and proposing an institutional model that is immune to it. And what is the “cure” suggested by Plato? The proper allocation of roles based on the abilities of each individual. Plato outlines an ideal model of a state ruled by philosophers and based on justice and the common good.
Some of the themes tackled by Plato remain at the centre of today’s political and philosophical debates. For example: individual ethics, the health of the soul and the health of the State, justice and the “danger” deriving from the private property of the ruling class (the very topical conflict of interests). The Republic laid the foundations for Western political thought in which there should be, at least in theory, a connection between justice of the soul and justice of the state. Something that is far from simple, as we well know.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Written between 1304 and 1321, Dante Alighieri’s magnus opus is “just” the mother of the Italian language, a text whose wide distribution helped to shape Italy’s linguistic identity. As well as being a seminal work in Italian literature, it’s also one of the most important cultural artefacts of the mediaeval era. The Divine Comedy recounts the poet’s journey through the Christian afterlife and its allegorical representation is the most vivid depiction of the medieval worldview.
: The original manuscript of the Divine Comedy has been lost. However, around 800 copies survive, including the copy made by Giovanni Boccaccio. It was Boccaccio who, in Trattatello in laude di Dante, a biography of the poet written between 1357 and 1362, affixed the adjective “Divine” to the poem, whose original title was simply “Comedy”.
In 1472, in Foligno, German printer Johannes Neumeister, with the help of “my friend Evangelista” (Evangelista Angelini), printed the famous editio princeps of the Divine Comedy.
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, 1513
What virtues should the ideal prince have? How should he take power? How should he maintain it? Niccolò Machiavelli answers these questions and more in The Prince, a treatise on political philosophy that is also a handbook for governing. The most talked about chapters concern the figure of the prince, his virtues and the behaviour he should adopt. Behaviour aimed at holding on to power and not always compatible with traditional ethical values. For the first time, a line had been drawn between the worlds of politics and morals.
It offered a new concept of man in the world too: the traditional divine view was replaced with a worldly one. In this vision, man is no longer at the mercy of luck, but takes his destiny into his own hands and shapes circumstances through his virtues and daring. Want to read a few passages from the text? Here’s a digital version.
: “Machiavellian”, as the dictionary tells us, describes cynical and unscrupulous behaviour. The term’s origin lies in the interpretation of Niccolò Machiavelli’s political thinking. The saying “the ends justify the means” is often attributed to Machiavelli too. However, there is no proof that he ever said this. But the phrase nicely sums up his philosophy.
The cover of the 1532 edition of The Prince.
The first English edition dates to 1640.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei, 1624-1630
It is the scientific treatise that forever changed the way in which we understand science and the cosmos, in a break with Aristotelian tradition. Galileo Galilei was a key figure in the great scientific revolution and introduced a modern approach to investigating the natural world: the scientific method, based on empirical observation. It was a modern approach because scientific evidence was no longer guided by philosophical reasoning but demonstrated by observation.
In the treatise, Galileo argues in favour of the theories of Copernicus, outlines the theory of classical relativity, the laws of dynamics and the principle of inertia. In understanding the world, science replaced philosophy and redefined the relationship between man, nature and God. Thanks to the revolutionary nature of his thinking, in 1633 Galileo Galilei was forced to abjure and condemned to life imprisonment, later commuted to house arrest.
: Galileo Galilei taught at the University of Padua and his students included Filippo Salviati and Giovanni Francesco Sagredo, both of whom died young. To honour their memory, Galileo Galilei used their names for the characters in the treatise.
Here is an image of the book that cost its author so dear. It was published by Giovanni Battista Landini in 1632 in Florence.
The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin, 1859
The last book on our list was another that rocked the Christian world. The Origin of the Species debunked the principles of creationism by introducing the concept of the evolution of the species through natural selection. This theory fundamentally changed how we understand the relationship between living creatures and their surrounding environment.
Here you can see scanned pages from the first draft of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of the species, which dates to 1842. You’ll also see pages from his travel diary complete with notes and sketches.
: Over the years, Darwin’s theory has been both attacked and distorted for political ends. “Social Darwinism” attempted to apply – with a racist twist – Darwin’s theory to human societies, attempting to demonstrate the supposed superiority of one “race” over another. As we all know, this twisting of the theory had horrific consequences.