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The 48 Laws of Power - critical summary review

The 48 Laws of Power Critical summary review
Career & Business, History & Philosophy and Society & Politics

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The 48 Laws of Power

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ISBN: 0140280197

Publisher: Penguin Books

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Critical summary review

One of the most requested books in American prison libraries, “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene is an amoral but realistic how-to guide to supremacy and manipulation, in the vein of Niccolò Machiavelli’s “Prince.” If you are interested in gaining ultimate control, no need to look further: get ready to learn Greene’s 48 laws of power!

Law No. 1: Never outshine the master

“When it comes to power,” writes Robert Greene, “outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all.” Everyone has insecurities, but those who attain high standing in life want to feel secure in their positions. So, don’t go too far in displaying your charm in your desire to please them because you might accomplish the opposite – inspire fear and become a victim of their jealousy. Instead, make your masters appear more brilliant than they are, and they will promote you. Remember: it is not a weakness to disguise your strengths if this eventually grants you power. 

Law No. 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies

“Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure,” observed keenly Roman historian Tacitus in the first century. For the same reason, you should trust your enemies more than your friends – only the latter can betray you. Moreover, as modern philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb enjoys saying, former friends tend to become permanent enemies, but former enemies turn into permanent friends.

Law No. 3: Conceal your intentions

Do not give anyone the chance to see what you are up to – throw them off the scent by using red herrings and smoke screens. In other words, engage in false sincerity, set up misleading objects of desire, and put on your best poker face until the moment arrives when you can finally reveal your true colors. As French courtesan Ninon de l’Enclos once said, “Imitate those warlike people whose designs are not known except by the ravaged country through which they have passed.”

Law No. 4: Always say less than necessary

The more you say, the more common things come out of your mouth; and the more common you speak, the less interesting and the less in control you are. “Even if you are saying something banal,” notes Greene, “it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less.”

Law No. 5: So much depends on reputation – guard it with your life

Reputation is the cornerstone of power. It is like a mine full of diamonds and rubies: as long as you own it, you have the resources to control everybody. However, since everyone knows this, be prepared to deal with thieves and vagabonds daily: given a chance, they will either try to steal your wealth or drop some dirt on it, so that it might shine darker to other people’s eyes. At the same time, never take your jewels for granted – even diamonds’ luster fades away if you don’t polish the stones from time to time.

Law No. 6: Court attention at all cost

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” said once Oscar Wilde, the patron-saint of aphorists. Nineteenth-century American showman and circus owner Phineas T. Barnum phrased the same notion even more succinctly: “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” So, never let yourself get lost in the crowd. Stand out. Be conspicuous. Love them or hate them – it’s difficult to ignore eccentrics.

Law No. 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit

In his “Fables,” German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing tells the story of a sharp-sighted hen who follows a blind one accustomed to scratching up the earth in search of food. Thus, he was able to enjoy, without scratching, the fruit of the other’s labor. Follow his example: make the hard work of others yours. Learn something from the vulture: it has it the easiest of all the creatures in the jungle.

Law No. 8: Make other people come to you – use bait if necessary

Commenting on Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” an eleventh-century scholar noted that good warriors are those who make others come to them and do not go to others. Every bear hunter knows this. After all, it’s impossible to catch a bear that knows it is being hunted. But lay a trap baited with honey and you’re done – in just a few minutes and without risking your life in the pursuit.

Law No. 9: Win through your actions, never through argument

Back in the 17th century, Samuel Butler wrote the following distich: “He that complies against his will/ Is of his own opinion still.” This is not the only reason why winning an argument is really a Pyrrhic victory; the other is that it also engenders resentment and ill will. “Get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word,” suggests Green. “Demonstrate, do not explicate.”

Law No. 10: Infection – avoid the unhappy and unlucky

“He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas,” observed Benjamin Franklin in his famous “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Spend most of your time helping men in need, and you will become one of them. Associate with the happy instead – and you will give yourself a chance to share their fortune.

Law No. 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you

They say that you’ll feed a man for a day if you give him a fish, but you’ll feed him for a lifetime if you teach him to fish. What they don’t say is that, in the latter case, he’ll become independent, and you’ll lose your control over him. “To maintain your independence,” notes Greene, “you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have.” So, never teach anyone enough so that they can do without you.

Law No. 12: Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim

In 1926, a man named Victor Lustig asked Al Capone for $50,000 and promised to double the investment for him. Two months later, Lustig returned the money to the infamous mafia boss, claiming the deal had fallen through. Expecting either $100,000 or nothing, Capone was impressed with his honesty. So, he gave Lustig $5,000 to “tide him over” – somewhat disappointed that his business partner had lost money in the scam himself. In reality, that never happened: Lustig was, in fact, a highly skilled con artist going after the $5,000 all along; everything else was just part of the plan to get it. The lesson? To disarm other people’s suspicions and turn them into trusting children – use acts of apparent sincerity and honesty. Remember the Trojan Horse: nothing brings one’s defenses down as a timely gift.

Law No. 13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude

People are naturally selfish; if they weren’t, capitalism wouldn’t have worked as well as it does. That’s why appealing to someone’s mercy or gratitude when asking for help is bound to fail. Always aim for the other person’s self-interest instead of compassion. “The shortest and best way to make your fortune is to let people see clearly that it is in their interests to promote yours.” French satirist Jean de La Bruyère wrote that in the 17th century. It’s still true today.

Law No. 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy

Michael Corleone was right when he said that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. It’s because the more one knows about their rivals, the less they should fear them. So, learn to ask indirect questions to get your enemies to reveal their intentions and weaknesses while believing they are confiding to a friend. Then you know where to strike them – when the appropriate moment arrives.

Law No. 15: Crush your enemy totally

Niccolò Machiavelli, the father of modern political philosophy, claimed men “must either be caressed or else annihilated.” If you give your enemy the chance to revenge themselves, rest assured they will spend the rest of their lives finding an opportunity to do that. So, don’t ever stop halfway! As Greene warns, “if one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out.”

Law No. 16: Use your absence to increase respect and honor

Being too present is not too different from being too chatty – it kills the mystique and makes you too common. It’s the fundamental rule of economics – the law of supply and demand: abundance inflates value, but scarcity creates it. Therefore, once you establish your reputation in a group, disappear temporarily: absence will only augment your fame.

Law No. 17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability

We are creatures of habit, so nothing terrifies us more than the sudden and unpredictable. It’s often more difficult to play chess against a grandmaster making blunders than against one making all the right moves. That’s because the former puts you in unchartered territory. And when one has already attained the reputation of a genius, it’s difficult to not look for reasons for their errant behavior – even where there are seemingly none. Hence, don’t be consistent in your behavior toward your subjects: let them wear out trying to explain your inexplicable moves. 

Law No. 18: Do not build fortresses to protect yourself – isolation is dangerous

As we already said, you should be close to both your friends and your enemies – not isolated from them. Isolation keeps one away from important information and, counterintuitively, makes them more vulnerable than taking part. Nobody is more conspicuous than the one shielded from everybody.

Law No. 19: Know who you’re dealing with – do not offend the wrong person

“When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword: do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet,” says a famous Ch’an Buddhist proverb. The point is – there are different types of people, and some of them are dangerous. According to Greene, the five most dangerous types of people are the prideful, the hopelessly insecure, the suspicious, the unassuming, and the ones with a long memory. Either stay away from them – or deal with them severely.

Law No. 20: Do not commit to anyone

Committing to someone when you are in a position of power makes you vulnerable because it robs you from your independence. It is why Queen Elizabeth I never married – she knew that by marrying any one of her suitors, she’d make mad all the others while losing the power she had as a single ruler. Of course, this didn’t stop her from flirting with half the men at her court. Follow her example: make the others pursue you, but always leave them cold at the end. Give them hope – but never satisfaction.

Law No. 21: Play a sucker to catch a sucker – seem dumber than your mark

“There are occasions when the highest wisdom consists in appearing not to know,” remarked Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracián in the 17th century. “It is not much good being wise among fools and sane among lunatics. He who poses as a fool is not a fool. The best way to be well received by all is to clothe yourself in the skin of the dumbest of brutes.” His words are as true today as ever: nobody suspects people less smart than them, which is why playing a sucker is the best way to hide your ulterior motives.

Law No. 22: Use the surrender tactic – transform weakness into power

In 416 B.C., the city of Athens asked the island of Melos to surrender and become their ally in the war against Sparta – or risk devastation. The Melians chose to fight – even if merely for honor’s sake. It was the wrong choice: the Athenians invaded the island, killed all their men, and repopulated the island with their own colonists. Don’t make their mistake. When you are weaker than someone, don’t give them the satisfaction of defeating you. Instead, surrender and wait for their power to wane.

Law No. 23: Concentrate your forces

“Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point,” advises Greene. “You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another – intensity defeats extensity every time.”

Law No. 24: Play the perfect courtier

It’s not true that flattery will get you nowhere: if history has taught us anything, it is that – if used in the right amount – it will probably get you to the highest positions at the court. This is only one of the laws of court politics that you should learn how to apply if you want to acquire power. Some of the others are: avoid ostentation; practice nonchalance; never criticize those above you directly or joke about someone’s appearance or taste; don’t be the court cynic or a bearer of bad news; instead, always be self-observant and a source of pleasure.

Law No. 25: Recreate yourself

If you let others define your image for you, they inevitably will, and you will have no choice but to adapt. For this reason, become a master of your image: forge the identity you want to have and act your life out. Make the others adapt.

Law No. 26: Keep your hands clean

“Our good name and reputation depend more on what we conceal than on what we reveal,” writes Greene. “Everyone makes mistakes, but those who are truly clever manage to hide them, and to make sure someone else is blamed. A convenient scapegoat should always be kept around for such moments.”

Law No. 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cultlike following

People have an innate need to believe in something. That’s why – in the absence of religion – atheistic societies such as many former and current communist countries eventually end up creating cults around their leaders. You can do it too – in just five simple steps: 1. Keep it vague and simple; 2. Emphasize the visual and the sensual over the intellectual; 3. Borrow the forms of organized religion to structure the group; 4. Disguise your source of income; and 5. Set up an us-versus-them dynamic.

Law No. 28: Enter action with boldness

Many psychological studies have demonstrated that the bolder lie better and strike more fear in other people. Whatever you do – do it with audacity and utter dedication. If you have doubts over some action, don’t even attempt it: it’s better to make a mistake in your fearlessness than achieve your goal through timidity.

Law No. 29: Plan all the way to the end

Most men have only dreams and vague plans – and are forced to improvise when the inevitable obstacles come. Don’t think with your heart, but with your head. Pattern yourself after chess champions: plan several moves ahead and always include alternatives.

Law No. 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless

Most magic tricks involve misdirection: magicians create an illusion by providing the audience with something to focus on while performing the action they shouldn’t see. However, as most magicians know, the mother of all misdirections is the effortlessness with which they perform evidently difficult tasks. By hiding all the toil and practice that go into their most complex tricks, they leave their fans in awe and amazement. Just like them, you should always execute your actions with ease. And if you’ve found a shortcut – keep it to yourself: a magician never reveals his tricks.

Law No. 31: Control the options – get others to play with the cards you deal

Let’s stay with magicians a little more. As you probably know, in magic, choices rarely are what they seem: illusionists are capable of manipulating the audience into a false sense of free will while holding the puppet strings. In other words, they always give options that come out in their favor, whichever one the other person chooses. Do what they do: get others to play with the cards you’ve marked beforehand.

Law No. 32: Play to people’s fantasies

Nobody wants to hear the truth if it is unpleasant. That’s why self-help books are so successful: they are based on the idea that sudden transformations are possible, when – in fact – change is usually slow, gradual, and requires hard work. But who wants to be offered the obvious? A lie is much more palatable.

Law No. 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew

A thumbscrew – in case you didn’t know – is nothing more than a simple vise that was used as a torture instrument in Medieval Europe. The mechanism was simple: victims’ thumbs were placed inside the vise and slowly crushed with each turn. Use the same strategy: once you discover someone’s weakness, attack it constantly to not only gain an advantage but also push it to the breaking point.

Law No. 34: Be royal in your own fashion – act like a king to be treated like one

If you don’t respect yourself, others surely won’t. The opposite is just as true: if you act confident of your powers, you’ll make others think that you deserve them. Act regally to be treated like a king. And don’t ever step out of your role: fake it until you make it.

Law No. 35: Master the art of timing

Nobody seems more confident and more in control of everything than the patient and calm man. A man in a hurry betrays a lack of preparation, but the patient man looks as if certain that everything will come to them eventually. Master the art of timing: always look as if you have already seen and lived through the future.

Law No. 36: Disdain things you cannot have – ignoring them is the best revenge 

You’ve probably already heard the fable of the starving fox who, having failed to reach the bunch of grapes above her head, comforted herself by saying: “Ah, well, they were probably not sweet anyway.” According to Jean de la Fontaine – who wrote the fable – this was a pretty wise move on part of the fox: it was better for her to feign disinterest for the grapes than to whine and gripe about them. “It is sometimes best to leave things alone,” comments Greene. “The less interest you reveal, the more superior you seem.”

Law No. 37: Create compelling spectacles

To quote Machiavelli once again, “people are always impressed by the superficial appearance of things.” That’s why he suggests that “the prince should, at fitting times of the year, keep the people occupied and distracted with festivities and spectacles.” As far as the majority of them is concerned, fluff is better than stuff, and content less important than form and presentation.

Law No. 38: Think as you like, but behave like others

The herd shuns the black sheep. Analogously, people don’t trust someone who behaves differently from them in an obvious manner. They simply don’t know whether or not that someone belongs with them. “Stay with the herd,” counsels Greene. “Keep your differences in your thoughts and not in your fleece.”

Law No. 39: Stir up waters to catch fish

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is one of the most influential works of military strategy in history. In it, the Chinese general writes the following: “If your opponent is of a hot temper, try to irritate him. If he is arrogant, try to encourage his egotism […] One who is skilled at making the enemy move does so by creating a situation according to which the enemy will act; he entices the enemy with something he is certain to take.” Fish rise to the surface when you stir their water; in their anger, they will bite anything – including a freshly baited hook. The ones who can remain calm while infuriating their opponents are the ones who have a deciding advantage.

Law No. 40: Despise the free lunch

There is no such thing as free lunch. In other words, any time you accept one, you also accept a hidden obligation. Don’t put yourself in the position to owe someone anything. Pay your way out of gratitude and future favors.

Law No. 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes

When Alexander the Great succeeded his father, Philip of Macedonia, he was ruthless toward his memory: his main objective became “to obliterate Philip’s name from history by surpassing his accomplishments.” The young king knew what many people still don’t: it’s almost impossible to outshine a famous predecessor in glory and power unless you’re ready to disparage their legacy. And even then, you will still have to accomplish double their achievements to outdo them. Alexander ended up being the exception – but you probably won’t. Very few ever have.

Law No. 42: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter

More often than not, a single strong individual is enough to start a rebellion and challenge a ruler. Such individuals are incorrigible, so you should never try to negotiate with them or leave them be. Isolate and banish them as soon as you come across them; in their absence, their followers will scatter and take flight.

Law No. 43: Work on the hearts and minds of others

People don’t like being ordered around; however, they have nothing against being seduced. Don’t use coercion to make your subjects do what you want them to; instead, appeal to their hearts and minds through powerful words and images. If you can’t do it yourself, keep an artist or an intellectual next to you. Let them do the seducing for you. That’s what they do for a living.

Law No. 44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect 

If you do exactly what your enemies do, you will confuse and enrage them by simultaneously concealing your strategy and seducing them with the illusion that you share their values. A mirror is an interesting object: it both reflects reality and yet is the perfect tool for deception. 

Law No. 45: Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once

People want to change in theory, but in practice, they want to stay the same. Even if for the better, too much change is traumatic. So, don’t initiate a new order of things on your second day in command. On the contrary – change only when change is necessary and always make it feel like “a gentle improvement on the past.”

Law No. 46: Never appear too perfect

People admire the exceptional, but they envy the perfect. In fact, the only thing they want to see more than the triumphs of their idols is their breakdowns and failures. Therefore, try to make yourself appear more human and approachable by admitting to harmless vices from time to time.

Law No. 47: Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory, learn when to stop

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that the greatest danger occurs at the moment of victory. He knew – from experience – that victors tend to be overconfident and that overconfidence makes one go too far. Don’t ever make an unplanned move. Set a goal, and when you reach it, stop – and devise a new plan before proceeding.

Law No. 48: Assume formlessness

“By taking a shape, by having a visible plan, you open yourself to attack,” writes Greene. “Instead of taking a form for your enemy to grasp, keep yourself adaptable and on the move. Accept the fact that nothing is certain and no law is fixed. The best way to protect yourself is to be as fluid and formless as water; never bet on stability or lasting order. Everything changes.”

Final Notes

Read, enjoyed, and referenced by 50 Cent, Jay Z and Kanye West – to name just a few – “The 48 Laws of Power” turned Greene into a celebrity cult hero, especially with prison inmates and the hip-hop community. Supposedly, even Fidel Castro liked the book! Why shouldn’t you at least give it a try and discover what all the fuss is about?

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Who wrote the book?

Robert Greene is a bestselling American author with a degree in classical studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has written six books, all of them international bestsellers: “T... (Read more)