Of the many self-help books to be published back in 1998, few have had the impact of Robert Greene’s cult bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power. Written between 1995 and 1998, this book has become a favourite of politicians, celebrities and even prison convicts, and it was as much a life-changing experience for the author to write it as it had proven to be for those who study the book and apply its principles in real life.
And it all began when Robert chanced upon Joost Elffers, while Robert was working as a writer in the art and media school Fabrica.
At the time, Robert Greene was unhappy in his job, but he observed keenly how much the power elites, including those in Hollywood, shared similar traits with rulers in history such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar and Cesare Borgia. Similar traits, and similar ruthlessness.
The book lists 48 principles, which he has codified into what are called “Laws of Power,” and each Law is given its own, extensive, chapter, complete with side notes, notes on observances of, and transgressions of, each of the Laws, interpretations on what went right, or what went wrong, and notes which provide a key to understanding each Law.
The Preface begins with the following words.
The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us–when we feel helpless we feel miserable. No one wants less power; everyone wants more. In the world today, however, it is dangerous to seem too power hungry, to be overt with your power moves. We have to seem fair and decent. So we need to be subtle-congenial yet cunning, democratic yet devious.
The book plays like a self-help guide for those seeking to make the best use of what power they have in their social circles, because to the student of these Laws, power equates with happiness: the more power one has, the happier one is.
As the Preface points out:-
If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power. In fact, the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.
In a Guardian interview, Robert Greene described himself as a realist, and said that The 48 Laws of Power came about as a reaction to the sappy, insipid self-help books being published at that time:-
“I believe I described a reality that no other book tried to describe,” he says. “I went to an extreme for literary purposes because I felt all the self-help books out there were so gooey and Pollyanna-ish and nauseating. It was making me angry.”
Making Sense Of The 48 Laws
Central to mastering the 48 Laws is one crucial skill, described in the Preface:-
The most important of these skills, and power’s crucial foundation, is ] the ability to master your emotions.
The rest of the book focuses on the different ways that you, the reader, could be affected by circumstances and, through mastering your emotions, you can learn to rise above a situation, apply a Law or combination of Laws, and not only prevail but come out of a social situation on top.
The 48 Laws are:-
Law 1: Never outshine the master
Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn to use enemies
Law 3: Conceal your intentions
Law 4: Always say less than necessary
Law 5: So much depends on reputation – guard it with your life
Law 6: Court attention at all cost
Law 7: Let others to do the work for you, but always take credit
Law 8: Make other people come to you – use bait if necessary
Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument
Law 10: Infection: Avoid the unhappy and the unlucky
Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you
Law 12: Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim
Law 13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy
Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy
Law 15: Crush your enemy totally
Law 16: Use absence to increase respect and honor
Law 17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability
Law 18: Do not build fortresses to protect yourself – isolation is dangerous
Law 19: Know who you’re dealing with – do not offend the wrong person
Law 20: Do not commit to anyone
Law 21: Play a sucker to catch a sucker- seem dumber than your mark
Law 22: Use the surrender tactic: transformer weakness into power
Law 23: Concentrate your forces
Law 24: Play the perfect courtier
Law 25: Re-create yourself
Law 26: Keep your hands clean
Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cultlike following
Law 28: Enter action with boldness
Law 29: Plan all the way to the end
Law 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless
Law 31: Control the opinions: get others to play with the cards you deal
Law 32: Play to people’s fantasies
Law 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew
Law 34: Be royal in your own fashion: act like a king to be treated like one
Law 35: Master the art of timing
Law 36: Disdain things you cannot have: ignoring them if the best revenge
Law 37: Create compelling spectacles
Law 38: Think as you like but behave like others
Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish
Law 40: Despise the free lunch
Law 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes
Law 42: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter
Law 43: Work on the hearts and minds of others
Law 44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect
Law 45: Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once
Law 46: Never appear too perfect
Law 47: Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory know when to stop
Law 48: Assume formlessness
Making sense of this list of Laws takes a lot of study, but it is like dancing with someone beautiful whom you would like to seduce: you need to learn the steps, and rehearse them, so that they will be effortless when you are actually dancing – so that you can stop concentrating on the dance moves and focus on plying your seductive wiles on your beautiful partner instead.
The first thing to notice is how some of the Laws seem to fall into natural groupings. For instance, Laws 5 and 10 seem a natural fit – reputation is the cornerstone of power, so avoid those whose negative and infectious personalities would erode that reputation.
Similarly, Laws 27, 34, 32, 37 and 43 are made to compliment one another. To build a cultlike following, you must learn to be royal in your manner and mannerisms, to create compelling spectacles and to work on the hearts and minds of others.
Laws 15, 23, 28, 29, 39, 42, 44 and 47 seem to fall into a natural grouping – one of bringing the Laws of Power to the battlefield as a proactive philosophy, bringing your enemies down with active applications of these Laws to destroy the enemy, starting with his reputation first.
Similarly, pairings or groupings of the Laws allow you to develop your power within a hierarchical structure (Never Outshine The Master; Play The Perfect Courtier) and others emphasise being a social chameleon to stop being too predictable (Do Not Commit To Anyone; Assume Formlessness) – so if you can see these natural groupings, you can find it easier to make sense of the book overall, by observing how some of these Laws are effectively looking at the same thing, only at different angles, through different filters or with a narrower or broader focus.
The book outlines the 48 Laws, and each Law has its Keys: but what does the book give you, the reader? The answer is that The 48 Laws of Power gives you the tools you need to survive a cutthroat social environment, by developing your power and learning how to apply it surgically and judiciously to maintain that power.
The tools you must learn to develop are:-
Self-Control: Master your emotions, lest they be your master.
Analytical Mind: Learn to observe who holds the reins of power in any situation. Hint: It might not always be the man sitting in the big chair in the centre of the room.
Eloquence and Articulation: The most powerful people govern with words. Words can build up or destroy; can ennoble or vilify. Use your words, sparingly and to maximum effect.
Adaptability: When a situation changes, you must learn to change with the times. Failure to adapt can bring about your extinction; the dinosaurs who evolved into birds survived the Cretaceous extinction level event – the rest became part of the fossil record.
Allure: Some power can only be accrued; gathered from afar, by being the most powerful magnet in the area and letting power come to you. Once that power is yours, it sticks and must become so much a part of you as to be impossible to remove without huge effort.
Reciprocity: Power is a two-way street. It is as much about how you are perceived as how you perceive others. By learning to be a Great Soul, others can look to you, respect you, honour you, even love you; and most of all, be unable to imagine what the world is like without you.
The 48 Laws of Power is not a book for psychopaths. People can often be jerks; and they have their own ways of seizing power and holding on to it, often by force. This book is not for those people. Instead, think of it as a guide to people who want to have lives where they are not being trodden upon by the jerks of this world.
Use The 48 Laws of Power to increase the strength of your profile, to learn to apply your power to a social environment to alter it to better suit your needs, and to seize a niche for yourself in your social environment that allows you to be able to enjoy your life, rather than be squeezed into the unsuitable social niche that others would put you.
Next Week: Next week’s book will be Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction.