Robert Greene - The 48 Laws of Power
If the title leaves the impression that we’ve taken a bit of a sharp turn, let me quickly reassure everyone that we’re still following Ryan Holiday’s recommendations. And while the “looking up to the mentor” aspect is definitely there, – our friend Ryan worked for Robert Greene as a research assistant when he started out – but the zillion copies sold and the ka-chillion positive reviews are probably no coincidence either.
The 48 Laws of Power reveals the general mindset that makes people successful in life. Unfortunately, it often involves deception, exploitation and cruelty. But it’s important to make it clear from the outset that knowledge of the tricks of power does not in itself have any morality! Using what you learn here for good is good; using it for bad is bad. Using it to defend against bad is, again, good. This is just information…
What I particularly liked about this book is that it doesn’t string you along. All 48 rules are listed right at the beginning. And then, of course, there is a dedicated chapter for each rule with a lot of useful extra info. Structurally, they are (almost) all related, containing:
- a “transgression” section, with examples and interpretations of how breaking the law sucks,
- an “observance” section, with examples and interpretations of how it can benefit us if we obey it,
- some general commentary,
- a mental picture for easy recall, and
- possible exceptions (if any).
But 48 is too many of anything, let alone laws, so I’ll try to be very concise and efficient! The good news is that the headlines themselves are quite verbose, so apart from a few comments of my own, I’ll just summarize the best transgression/observance examples in 2-2 sentences. As a personal – and humorous? – side-challenge, I’ve tried to stick to this 2-sentence limit explicitly. It turned into a few semicolons, but technically it worked! So; get; ready; for; semicolons!
More good news is that after the Foreword, the laws themselves are quite self-contained and can be read at any pace (or even in any order), so don’t be alarmed by the length of the post… And for quicker accessibility, here are the numbers from 1 to 48:
#1 • #2 • #3 • #4 • #5 • #6 • #7 • #8 • #9 • #10 • #11 • #12 • #13 • #14 • #15 • #16 • #17 • #18 • #19 • #20 • #21 • #22 • #23 • #24 • #25 • #26 • #27 • #28 • #29 • #30 • #31 • #32 • #33 • #34 • #35 • #36 • #37 • #38 • #39 • #40 • #41 • #42 • #43 • #44 • #45 • #46 • #47 • #48
One more note before we start: the distinction between certain laws is often very weak and superficial. The point is not necessarily the arbitrary structure imposed on us by the author, but the lessons the chapters teach. And the lessons are useful, so let’s get to work!
The world is like a Renaissance court: everyone is jostling to get closer to the source of power. But if you look really hungry for it, then you’re not “cool”; and if you try to push away the competition by force, the others will eventually gang up on you. So the goal is to trick, cheat, and tactically maneuver so cleverly that no one notices what you’re doing. Until, in the end, it’s “Golly Gee! Didn’t I end up right next to the source of power? How curious!”.
Many people say they don’t care about all this power-chasing. Now, either they are idiots or it’s just part of their strategy. For the former, the book offers the following insight: just because the sheep, in its great moral superiority, doesn’t join the predators, the wolf will devour it all the same.
Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.
– Niccolò Machiavelli
The others – who are supposedly not playing this game – are in fact just playing like that; even if they themselves aren’t aware of it! Appearing weak can also lead to strength. Demanding equality can also mean that we want to be the ones to redistribute power. Being completely honest can also be just part of a strong persuasion strategy. Appearing naïve can hide an ulterior motive.
So if all this is inevitable, let’s learn the rules and grab the power, lest we leave it for someone else who wouldn’t use it “properly”, right?
Prerequisite skills, which all further laws depend on, and which all should be developed over time:
- Control of emotions ⇒ to think clearly,
- Looking ahead ⇒ preparing for potential trouble instead of daydreaming,
- Looking back ⇒ self-development through personal or external experiences instead of regret or nostalgia,
- Disguise and deception ⇒ to be able to perceive cheating as an artform,
- Patience ⇒ to be the shield next to the “sword” of deception,
- A playful attitude ⇒ to realize that intentions and value judgments don’t matter, only circumstances,
- Time and energy management ⇒ to always know the cost, and whether it is worth it,
- People skills ⇒ to be able to manipulate,
- Indirection ⇒ to never take a straight path to our goal!
And with all this in mind, let’s take a look at the Greene’s 48 laws:
#1 – Never outshine the master
Transgression: The finance minister of Louis XIV gave such a wonderful dinner party (to impress the king) that he actually ended up offending the king. He was arrested on trumped-up charges the very next day and spent the rest of his life in prison.
Observance: Leaving all his other sponsors behind, Galileo dedicated a great discovery to the Medici family, putting them in the spotlight instead of the discovery (or himself). As a result, he soon became a well-paid court philosopher.
#2 – Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies
Transgression: A Byzantine emperor trusted a stable boy (who saved his life) so much that he lifted him out of poverty and made him his advisor. The stable boy, as a “best friend”, gradually took over, and the emperor’s head eventually ended up on a spear.
Observance: The first emperor of the Sung dynasty wanted nothing to do with “friends”, so he paid off the generals who were likely to betray him with titles of nobility (thereby distancing them from his seat of power). He filled their places with his defeated enemies, whom he pardoned; thus his dynasty survived for centuries.
#3 – Conceal your intentions
Transgression: An inexperienced gentleman took lessons from one of the greatest womanizers of his time on how to seduce his chosen lady. And the methods worked – until the idiot prematurely revealed his true intentions, blowing any chance he might’ve had.
Observance: Despite his heartfelt desire for war against Austria, Bismarck urged his peers to make peace, because he saw that their army was not yet strong enough. In doing so, he got on the good side of the pro-peace king, who made him a minister; from which position he could later force his war, only now it could be to his liking.
#4 – Always say less than necessary
Transgression: Coriolanus was a legendary warlord, but as a politician, he was simply unable to shut the fuck up (despite his very unpopular views). The gap between his heroic legend and his obnoxious reality was something that no one could stomach for long, so he was soon exiled (which was already a step up from the death penalty).
Observance: Louis XIV typically responded to the lengthy arguments of his ministers by saying “I shall see”; and they never heard from him again on the matter, only saw the results of his decision. By remaining silent (deliberately, by training himself to be silent), no one could “just” tell him what he wanted to hear, for no one knew what he wanted to hear.
#5 – So much depends on reputation – guard it with your life
Observance: Chuko Liang, the greatest military strategist of his time, still somehow found himself trapped in a city with only a few hundred men against an army of 150,000; whereupon he decided to simply sit on the city wall alone with a lute and sing. Because of his reputation, the enemy commander thought it was an ambush, so they retreated instead to be safe.
Observance 2: P.T. Barnum, who, when told that his lack of reputation was the reason he didn’t get a deal, immediately went underground to destroy his opponent’s reputation; thereby making himself seem like a better alternative in comparison. Later, when he did have a reputation already, he used it to parody his opponents, messing with them once again.
Note: Like it or not, we will have some sort of reputation anyway. Not giving a fuck about it doesn’t make it go away – it only means that we’ll be known as someone who doesn’t give a fuck about reputation. So if it’s inevitable, shouldn’t it be us who control the world’s image of us rather than the world?
#6 – Court attention at all cost
Who did it “sensationally”: P.T. Barnum (again) drew audiences with bums stepping on bricks, deliberately awful free music, and fake mermaid exhibits; and the audiences came. On the principle of “no such thing as bad publicity”, he welcomed smear campaigns with open arms; he anonymously wrote several of these himself.
Who did it “mystically”: Mata Hari wrapped France (and then Europe) around her finger with her mysterious, oriental-influenced dance, clothing, and stories. As it later turned out, her original name was Margaretha Zelle, and she was “just” a Dutch girl who was aware of the power of mysticism and the unknowable.
#7 – Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit
The observance and the transgression sections can be merged together here, because the story is the same; the distinction just depends on whose point of view you’re looking at it from. On one side is Nicola Tesla, responsible for a number of significant discoveries that should have made him a millionaire at the very least. But he wanted to achieve everything on his own, and was so focused on science that he didn’t bother with the business side of his research at all.
On the other side is Thomas Edison (among others), who was much more concerned with who got the credit, the glory and, not least, the money. He delegated what he could, and was not “ashamed” to steal from others when he could. Was what he did moral? No. Was he the more brilliant of the two? Also no. But, unlike Tesla, did he become rich and successful? You bet.
#8 – Make other people come to you – use bait if necessary
Transgression: Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba under the influence (and with the help) of others to take back power. He continued playing the aggressor, his strength soon ran out, and after his second great defeat, he was “permanently” eliminated.
Observance: Napoleon’s former adviser organized the above “escape” behind the scenes and let Napoleon come back to power. He expected what Napoleon would do afterwards, saw that he would be weak, and knew that he could then be dealt with for good.
#9 – Win through your actions, never through argument
Transgression: A Roman consul needed a battering ram during a siege, so he sent for a large mast as material. The engineer in charge – who knew that a smaller mast would have actually been better suited to this specific task – argued his case until he was literally beaten to death.
Observance: Michelangelo was making a sculpture for a client with a very “sophisticated sense of beauty” (read: a very insultingly meddlesome temper). When the client remarked (because of the bad viewing angle) that “the nose is a bit big”, instead of arguing, Michelangelo lead him to a better viewing position, pretended to “adjust it”, and lo and behold, it was instantly fine.
#10 – Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky
Transgression: For the sake of “moving up”, Lola Montez found herself a wealthy newspaper owner – who soon fell on hard times and died in a duel. Lola then set her sights on the beloved King of Bavaria, whom she mesmerized so much that they were almost at the point of civil war before he had to resign.
Note: Lola devoured a few more men, but I think everyone gets the point. Of course, this has nothing to do with the female gender; anyone who brings upheaval and bad luck is to be avoided. And the reverse is also true: whoever could be a good influence, we should try to get close to them!
#11 – Learn to keep people dependent on you
Transgression: The greatest mercenaries of the Italian Renaissance grew in power and influence through their actions until they were unexpectedly beheaded. There were simply too many alternatives available; and if there are alternatives who can do the same thing cheaper, while also posing less of a threat to the powerful… Well, then there’s not much need to worry about retirement.
Observance: Instead of joining one of the already strong political parties, Bismarck went straight for the weak king (and later the new king). No one in the strong party would have depended on him and he would’ve been “eaten up”; instead, he made the king strong, thereby also making himself indispensable, and soon grabbing real control.
Note: Independence is very rarely compatible with power, and even then only at great cost. We should accept that we live in a society, fit in, make ourselves indispensable, and so instead of independence, we gain power by having others depend on us!
#12 – Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim
Observance: Victor Lustig borrowed from Al Capone himself, promising to double the money in 60 days; but the Mafia boss, expecting a trick, was preparing the punishment for the zero returns option as well. What he was not prepared for was getting the original amount back from the “financially troubled” conman 60 days later, amidst a flurry of apologies; and the apparent honesty was so touching that he willingly gave him a share of the money – which was Victor’s real purpose from the start.
Note: The above was the “official” example in the book, but I think the Trojan Horse mentioned at the end of the chapter is even more illustrative. Seem like you’re giving, so that you can then take unabashedly.
#13 – When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude
Transgression: The Poggio family turned against Prince Castruccio, and incited a rebellion in his absence; until the eldest member of the family cooled the tension and put things in order. On Castruccio’s return, the old man went to make peace with the prince, where he tried to rely on his “tidying up” and older favors; but within days, the whole family was executed.
Observance: With the conflict between Corfu and Carthage brewing, both went to Athens to seek support, where Carthage appealed to their current alliance and the many benefits it provided in the past. Corfu, on the other hand, openly accepted that they had no past or present, but could offer a fleet of ships in the future that would be good for Athens; and Athens preferred the latter appeal overwhelmingly.
#14 – Pose as a friend, work as a spy
Observance: A successful art dealer, with some extra information gained through his spies, was even able to “win over” a client who considered him unsympathetic by default. I’m so good that I managed to sum that up in a single sentence, so here’s a second.
Note: Good metaphors at the end of the chapter too: extra intel it like having 3 eyes to everyone else’s 2. And the advice is also useful in the other direction: if we drop false intel from time to time, the enemy will only have one eye.
#15 – Crush your enemy totally
Transgression: Of the two rival generals (Hsiang Yu and Liu Pang), “HY” couldn’t stand that “LP” was more successful, so he turned against him; but then he couldn’t stomach crushing him completely either. “LP” had no such reservations, so as the tides turned (which they could, since he was left uncrushed), he did crush “HY” for the final victory.
Observance: As a member of the harem, Wu Chao was to be a prisoner of a monastery for the rest of her life after the emperor’s death. Instead, she made her way up the ranks with no regard for anyone – seducing the new emperor on the toilet, strangling her own child and thus framing the empress, exiling and manipulating heirs, and of course, countless executions – to eventually become Empress Wu.
#16 – Use absence to increase respect and honor
Who complied accidentally: A troubadour (inspired by his friend’s experiences) wanted to experience the joy of reconciliation by introducing some fake drama into his relationship with his lady. What he didn’t expect was that it only made her pine for him more.
Who complied intentionally: As a famous judge, Deioces realized that his excessive accessibility meant he was not appreciated as much as he should have been. After his retirement and absence, the people begged him to be their ruler; and under his reclusive and inaccessible rule, his legend only grew.
Note: Just think of how our “relationship” with a dead person changes! Our minds amplify the good things, suppress the bad, we regret our disputes, and we practically form an aura around them… Now, for this kind of effect, no one has to actually die. If we stay away deliberately from time to time, the return will only be that much sweeter.
#17 – Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability
Observance: Boris Spassky just wanted to get his world title fight against Bobby Fischer over with at all costs, because everything pointed to him being favored. Fischer, however, realized that Spassky had figured him out, so he messed up his own strategy so much (through tantrums, delays, deliberate blunders, or even outright throws) that he ended up winning by “psychological knockout”.
#18 – Do not build fortresses to protect yourself – isolation is dangerous
Transgression: Ch’in Shih Huang Ti (such a lovely name), despite being a great conqueror, became really reclusive in his old age. In the end his ministers made regulations without his permission (or knowledge) and he died almost without anyone noticing.
Observance: Louis XIV (ruling after a revolt by the nobility) deliberately organized court life at Versailles so that everything and everyone revolved around him. He may have given up private life, but during his relatively peaceful reign of 50 years, not a pin fell in France without his knowledge.
#19 – Know who you’re dealing with – do not offend the wrong person
In this chapter there are only “violations” against different types of people:
Anyone who repeatedly disrespects the proud Genghis Khan should not be surprised if his entire empire is taken by force.
Anyone who robs a deeply insecure farmer should not be surprised if he is then hounded by said farmer to the ends of the earth, even if their entire life/savings/marriage is at stake.
Anyone who unjustifiably insults an exiled prince (who’s quietly brewing vengeance) should not be surprised if he himself is exiled after the prince has regained his power.
And anyone who tries to sell millions of dollars worth of paintings to a man who (although rich) has no appreciation of art whatsoever, should not be surprised if he can’t sell shit.
#20 – Do not commit to anyone
Observance: After Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, the first thing on everyone’s mind was to find her a husband, but she, learning from her cousin’s mistake, didn’t want any of that. She strung along many prospects instead of making a commitment, so she was able to establish good diplomatic relations and still remain independent.
Observance 2: Isabella d’Este tried to preserve the autonomy of little Mantua by keeping on good terms with all the many potential vultures, but not committing herself to any of them. During her reign, much happened in the area (popes came and went; Cesare Borgia rose and fell; Venice, Milan, Florence, and Rome all fared badly), but Mantua remained independent and prospered.
#21 – Play a sucker to catch a sucker – seem dumber than your mark
Observance: Two swindlers have successfully sold a nonexistent “gem mine” to the most sophisticated businessmen of the day for a juicy profit. Their greatest defense against being caught was not the actual uncut gems they hid as decoys, but their disguise: they looked and acted like naïve peasants of the redneck-iest caliber, so who would have thought!
#22 – Use the surrender tactic: transform weakness into power
Transgression: When the island of Melos came next in the conquest queue, Athens tried negotiation first (which they absolutely didn’t need to, considering their numbers). Melos however, citing loyalty and honor instead of being reasonable, stuck with Sparta; and after the massacre and deportation, its population was completely replaced.
Observance: Bertold Brecht and 18 other “communist” writers were summoned before a committee for questioning over their politics. Brecht (in the face of open defiance from the others) feigned surrender to the authority of the committee, cleverly explained himself, and got away with it without any further action.
And a wonderful quote that sums this law up nicely:
When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts.
– Ethiopian proverb
#23 – Concentrate your forces
Transgression: The ruler of Wu engaged the Middle Kingdom in a battle for glory, but was so weakened in the process that he was later defeated on another front. The example could be the Athenian or Roman empires as well; if you spread yourself too thin, you will eventually collapse under your own weight.
Observance: The Rothchild family, holding on to the values they brought from the ghetto, resisted dissension at all costs. They stuck so close together that they even arranged marriages within the family; which is yuck on one hand, true, but on the other hand, look where they are today, financially and power-wise…
#24 – Play the perfect courtier
Note: This can almost be considered a summary chapter marking the halfway point (indeed, we’re only halfway through), where we first gather the basics of good courtly behavior, and then cite some examples.
Transgression: Alexander the Great complained to his mentor Aristotle that he had no one to philosophize with during the campaigns, so Aristotle sent him one of his promising students to work alongside him. Callisthenes had studied courtly etiquette, but he despised it, saying that pure, honest philosophy was worth much more; and he, of course, kept on running his big mouth until Alexander the Great finally had him executed.
Observance: Jules Mansart, a French architect, was aware that his social skills were as much an asset as his knowledge and talent. So he often made deliberate mistakes in his designs, so that the king could “correct” them and he could fix them while praising His Majesty’s astuteness; thus he became court architect.
#25 – Re-create yourself
Observance: Caesar paid a lot of attention to appearances and public opinion, both in everyday life and on the battlefield, which only made him all the more powerful in the eyes of his followers. Even his last words were like a direct quote from a play.
Observance 2: Aurore Dudevant wanted to make a living writing as a woman in Paris at a time when such a thing was “impossible” for women. But she decided not to let anyone set limits for her, and under the pseudonym “George Sand” she pretended to be male for the whole world, gaining the right to write.
#26 – Keep your hands clean
Observance: Cesare Borgia knew that the only way to clean up a lawless region was to do it brutally; which is hard to accomplish with clean hands. So he entrusted a brutal man with the task, and when he had succeeded in cleaning up the mess (and was duly hated for his brutality), Cesare had him executed as a savior.
Observance 2: Cleopatra, learning from her sister’s mistake, knew that she could not publicly compete with his remaining brothers for power, because then people would probably rebel against her, too. Instead, she wrapped Julius Caesar around her finger and manipulated him into doing her dirty work for her.
#27 – Play on people’s need to believe to create a cultlike following
Here, the book covers the 5 simple steps to building a cult, which I think is so relevant in the age of gurus, success coaches, and “divisive” political parties that I must include a quick summary here:
Your message should be simple (everyone wants to hear that their problem can be solved in one fell swoop) and vague (so that everyone can imagine whatever specifics they want).
Emphasize theatricality over thinking! This way you both entertain the bored (who would leave you otherwise) and evade the cynics (who would otherwise have a chance to realize how stupid it all is).
Borrow structure and hierarchy from organized religion! Appoint people to positions, give them nice-sounding names, develop rituals, etc.
Always hide the fact that your money and power actually comes from the pockets of the “believers”! Show that it is following your teachings that leads you here, so that they will follow you all the more enthusiastically.
Find a common enemy (or if there isn’t one, invent it yourself) to unite your followers against!
And then, of course, there are a few examples of people who have used this strategy effectively:
Observance: A 27 year old man from Milan was so changed after a “vision” and so eager to tell everyone about the Philosopher’s Stone (which he would soon discover) that people couldn’t help but believe him. He divided his followers into 6 tiers by “seeing into the spirit”, who had to then give him almost everything they had because of their vow of poverty; so we can say that, at least for himself, he really did find the Philosopher’s Stone.
Observance 2: When Franz Mesmer tried to promote his animal “magnetism” theories scientifically, he was practically laughed out of Vienna; so he moved to Paris and abandoned the scientific pretense altogether. He rose to power and popularity by theatricality, color, scent, group hysteria, and the exploitation of latent sexuality; success with the same ridiculous hocus-pocus.
#28 – Enter action with boldness
Observance: Victor Lustig not only started boldly (selling the Eiffel Tower to a metal dealer), but when his target started to suspect him, instead of backing down, he even asked for a bribe! What he did was simply so brazenly large-scale that it didn’t look like a scam.
Observance 2: Pietro Aretino (a young nobody who wanted to be a writer) launched his career with the “David vs. Goliath” tactic. In his first satirical piece (which we would probably call a “Roast” today), he mocked the cardinals and the Pope himself; and it got him a job from the Pope.
#29 – Plan all the way to the end
Transgression: Balboa was so focused on conquering El Dorado that he often had to improvise when obstacles came his way. If he had planned for the long term, perhaps no one else would’ve reaped the rewards of all the work he had started – and his head wouldn’t have ended up in a basket.
Observance: Bismarck’s long-term plan was to create a unified Germany ruled by the Prussians. To achieve this, he knew not only what to do (a seemingly pointless war) or what not to do (skipping a territorial grab he could have exploited), but also where to stop (deliberately avoiding further wars).
#30 – Make your accomplishments seem effortless
Observance: Teamaster Sen no Rikyu became famous because he always seemed so natural and effortless in what he did. The noticeable preparations and tricks of his competitors only hurt their image in comparison.
Observance 2: Houdini, despite countless hours of practice and preparation, never gave any indication of how difficult what he did really was. This only increased how much his particular tricks were appreciated; and it also made the audience wonder what else he might actually be capable of (if what he showed was so easy for him).
#31 – Control the options: get others to play with the cards you deal
Observance: Ivan the Terrible faced many enemies, both inside and outside his borders; but to keep them in check, he would have needed more power. He got it by “bluffing” a resignation, forcing the people to choose between anarchy and his will; and as a bonus, they could not complain afterwards, because they had chosen his way.
Observance 2: Kissinger, although being better at foreign affairs, still couldn’t issue decrees without Nixon. So he usually presented Nixon with three or four options, of which only one (his choice, of course) would actually seem viable.
#32 – Play to people’s fantasies
Observance: Bragadino took advantage of the fact that Venice, still raw from losing its former glorious wealth, was dreaming of a quick and easy answer. He pretended to be an alchemist who would solve all their problems with the Philosopher’s Stone, took advantage of their hospitality (while it lasted), and then quickly moved on.
#33 – Discover each man’s thumbscrew
Observance: The first thing Richelieu exploited on his way to power was how controllable the King’s mother became when bathed in compliments and male attention. This later gave him access to the king, where he could then exploit the king’s childlike naïveté – herding him into situations where he increasingly needed his advice.
Observance 2: Arabella Huntington, the newly rich wife rumored to be a gold-digger, only wanted to be treated as an equal within high society. Joseph Duveen took advantage of this by “buttering her up” for years through VIP treatment, all the while quietly shaping her taste so that after her husband’s death she would buy nice and expensive paintings from him.
#34 – Be royal in your own fashion: act like a king to be treated like one
Transgression: As the “bourgeois king”, Louis-Philippe didn’t give a shit about pretense, walking the streets with a hat and umbrella instead of a crown and a scepter; proclaiming how “equal” he was to the people. But the wealth and power relations remained unchanged, and this charade only provoked resentment among the people; so he soon needed to flee…
Observance: Christopher Columbus was neither rich nor of noble birth, yet he moved in the highest noble circles, and was commissioned by the Queen herself to go on his voyages of discovery. The primary reason for this is that he always approached his affairs with the same calm confidence and “destined for great things” aura; he could be “noble” without actually being noble.
#35 – Master the art of timing
Observance: Joseph Fouché’s timing skills helped him rise higher and higher in a dangerous, fast-changing time when others were happy to just keep their heads. As important as the “what” that he sniffed out from social trends and hidden contexts was the “when”; and he knew when to hunker down in the shadows, and when to strike quickly and decisively.
#36 – Disdain things you cannot have: ignoring them is the best revenge
Transgression: When a bandit named Pancho Villa moved on from Mexico to raiding American territories, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to punish him in a massive show of force. Not only did this fail, but thanks to all the hype around the mission, the Americans were also pretty badly embarrassed in the process.
Observance: His admirers nominated “George Sand” as an Academy member; who, as we know, was actually a woman writing under a pseudonym, and as such, she was all but guaranteed to be dismissed. Instead of lamenting the fact (or even admitting that she cared), she declared that the Academy was a collection of dusty old men, and who wants to join them anyway!
#37 – Create compelling spectacles
Note: This law strongly resembles the cult one (#27). Not that we aren’t swimming in similarities all over the place, but here it’s really almost the same point, only this time we’re focusing on how visuals, symbols, and theatrical gestures help us achieve it. Words can be misinterpreted, but visual communication is a way of messing with people’s feelings directly, so we shouldn’t neglect it!
Observance: As mistress of Henry II, Diane de Poitiers was in a very privileged position; but the twenty-year age difference was definitely not to her advantage. Nevertheless, with symbolic connections (Greek goddess Diane, virginity, hunting), logos (her and the king’s initials intertwined), and other such “showmanship”, she managed to completely sweep the king off his feet for far longer than it should have been possible.
#38 – Think as you like but behave like others
Transgression: During his battle against the Persians, the Greek general Pausanias became so enamored with their culture that he began to behave in an increasingly eccentric manner (in the eyes of the Greeks, at least). The change in his tastes would not have been a problem in itself, but because it made him look down on all his countrymen in a completely open way, he was gradually ostracized…
Observance: Campanella was imprisoned and tortured for his atheistic views; until he learned that maybe he shouldn’t spit so openly and directly in the face of the majority. After his release, he proceeded to write a book in which, although ostensibly arguing against atheism, he made atheism look like the better alternative; he could not be punished for it this way, but those who needed to understand the underlying message could still understand it.
#39 – Stir up waters to catch fish
Note: There are two halves to this point: 1) keep your own emotions on a short leash, and 2) try to bait others so they can’t do the same.
Transgression: When Napoleon found out that his two most important ministers (Talleyrand and Fouché) were conspiring behind his back, he threw a childish tantrum in front of everyone. Talleyrand took the onslaught with bored indifference; thus scoring a social victory of sorts over the unhinged Napoleon.
Observance: Haile Selassie knew that an opponent posing as a loyal subject was plotting against him, so he chose not to wait until the preparations were ready. He baited his rival into a (hasty) rebellion instead that he knew he could control, and being able to play by his own rules, he won easily.
#40 – Despise the free lunch
Transgression: The Spaniards had no shortage of gold flowing to them after the conquest of Peru, but they didn’t use it for useful purposes, of course, only for further expeditions for more free gold. The legend of El Dorado beautifully symbolizes the attitude that eventually led to their complete destruction (figuratively for the country, literally for the explorers).
Observance: It was only after James Rothschild had become rich that the real challenge began: money and status had to be accompanied by social acceptance, because without it, neither money nor status would stay for long. So he gave weekly lavish dinners to demonstrate that he valued French culture even more than money, and in doing so he finally won the support he could not have obtained with “raw money” alone.
#41 – Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes
Transgression: Louis XIV left behind such order and wealth that one might (naïvely) think that his successor had it pretty easy. Instead, Louis XV, feeling that he could not outshine the Sun King (but not realizing that he could go in another direction), gave himself over to pleasure; and let the country rot.
Observance: Alexander the Great started from a similar privileged position (his father was a great king who conquered much of Greece), but he reacted very unlike Louis XV. Maybe not financially and power-wise, but he did start from scratch psychologically; he struck out into unknown territory, did things differently than his father would have, and forged his own path.
#42 – Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter
Observance: One of the pillars of Athenian democracy was the ability to deal with “undesirable elements” firmly but without violence. That’s why they used annual tile votes to hand out 10 years of exile to those who they suspected would be capable of causing a larger shitstorm down the line.
Observance 2: Pope Boniface VIII saw that the “backbone” of the Florentine class fighting against his influence was Dante Alighieri (yes, the Divine Comedy dude). So, in a ruse disguised as a peace treaty, he called Dante away from Florence to keep him in Rome until the situation there inevitably collapsed without him.
#43 – Work on the hearts and minds of others
Transgression: During Marie-Antoinette’s reign, she did nothing but attend to her own needs and pleasures, which gradually earned her the hatred of the people. Even then she would have had a chance to repent after being driven out of their mansion, but she continued to not give a fuck; right up to her execution.
Observance: Chuko Liang, at the head of a much stronger army, could have chosen to brutally suppress the southern rebellions, but he also considered the distant future (where his brutality would only breed new enemies). So he preferred to capture and pardon the enemy (thus appealing to their feelings) until the rival warlord became one of his most loyal supporters.
#44 – Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect
Observance: Alcibiades realized early on that few people could be convinced through argument, while many more could be straight up alienated – so he perfected his ability to mimic the other side’s tastes. It was a skill that endeared him to Athenian, Spartan and even Persian circles.
Observance 2: Many of Joseph Weil’s hoaxes were based on showing his victims a mirage of reality. If all was apparently well in a “bank”, for example (i.e., an abandoned bank building with some decorations), no one had any concerns about “depositing” large sums of money.
#45 – Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once
Transgression: Thomas Cromwell’s plan wasn’t wrong from the perspective of power (converting England to Protestant doctrines while the old Catholic wealth would “inadvertently” fall right into the hands of the Crown), but how he implemented it sure was. He took an extreme change and then tried to shove it down people’s throats so quickly that, however secure his position at court may have seemed, he ended up paying with his head.
Observance: Mao Zedong was well aware of the hopelessness of bringing about significant change in the lives of perhaps the most deeply traditional people. He therefore did his utmost to tie communism (and his own “brand”) to the glorious events and values of the past as closely as possible, thus creating the appearance of gradual change.
#46 – Never appear too perfect
Transgression: Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell tried to “make it” together, but only Orton succeeded. Unfortunately, he didn’t notice his partner’s envy, didn’t even try to downplay his superiority, but didn’t leave him either; he ended up being perfect right up until Halliwell beat him to death with a hammer.
Observance: Learning from the downfall of other powerful families, Cosimo de’ Medici did his best to disguise his wealth and influence. He ran everything through others, never politicized in public, avoided luxury, was deferential to those “above him”… and still had all the power in the background.
#47 – Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory, learn when to stop
Transgression: Cyrus achieved victory after victory during the expansion of the Persian Empire, but there was always at least one more territory to conquer. It was enough to miscalculate just one, and after his bloody defeat, everything he had built up to that point fell apart.
Observance: Louis XV changed his official mistresses quite often, something that wasn’t lost on Madame de Pompadour. She did not, therefore, fight tooth and nail to stay on after she had grown old, but deliberately took a step back; and this “voluntary yielding” gave her the opportunity to keep many other threads in hand.
#48 – Assume formlessness
Transgression: Sparta had trained itself to be too one-sided and rigid with its military ethos, so it couldn’t handle the influx of money and new responsibilities after defeating Athens. And because it wasn’t used to getting used to new things, it slowly crumbled.
Observance: As the embodiment of guerilla warfare (and the Chinese boardgame Go), Mao Zedong didn’t ever let his men get face-to-face with the nationalist army that obviously outnumbered them. He stayed formless, adapted effectively to new situations… and eventually won.
Note: An interesting insight is that in evolution, developing a suit of armor is almost always a dead end, because it locks the creature into a rigid form that becomes its weakness over time. It is much better to learn to adapt, as is shown by how the not-too-big, not-too-strong, not-too-fast, not-too-armored, and vulnerable little homo sapiens has managed to subjugate every other species.
Note 2: This also includes the fossilization of our personality (especially as we age). It may have been the correct way of thinking in the past, but it’s far from certain that it still is today. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that we should blindly follow every trend or fad… What it does mean, though, is that we should remain open to new things and dare to adapt our world view!
To sum up, I would simply like to echo what we’ve already discussed in the introduction: these “laws” are not here to teach us to be despicable worms! But in order to break the rules, we must first know what the rules are. And, of course, nothing is stopping others from trying to be despicable worms against us – only they won’t be so successful, hopefully, as we’ll be prepared now.
So, if some of these don’t really sound like a good fit, ignore ‘em. If they do fit, though, then get dressing! I for one will definitely try to A) shut my mouth a bit more often, B) argue with my actions instead of my words, C) be more mindful of my “reputation”, and D) be bolder in what I do.
Not knowing the law does not excuse anyone.
Ignorantia legis neminem excusat.