The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

The name of this volume would lead you to believe it might be one of those pretentious self-help manuals. It’s nothing of the kind. In fact, it’s quite an unfriendly book that flies in the face of conventional ethics. I suspect some people would put the volume aside in disgust. As for me, I prefer to read on with a critical eagle-eye. And in the end I’m able to synthesise something realistic and useful without losing my soul in the process. Let me put it this way: if you followed all 48 laws to the letter, you would be a dangerous sociopath.

Power is the ultimate goal here, and it’s right there that I question the wisdom of the book’s premise. Power to what end? As an end in itself? Do I want power? Of course. I won’t deny it. But to me, power is merely an aid to survival. Too little of it and I may end up homeless, scrounging for food. But too much, and I create other hazards for myself, such as maintaining my empire against the plots of my enemies. The book presupposes that power is what we’re after. Power, power, power, and there’s never enough of it to be satisfied. And everything about your humanity should be sacrificed in the quest for it. Any principles you cling to are worthless and should be discarded at every opportunity for the accumulation of more power. No one should be trusted. Relationships should always be viewed with suspicion, and no one allowed to get too close. In fact, your friends are mere pawns to be manipulated at will to do your bidding. I pride myself on seeing through much of the nonsense that masquerades as ethics in the world, but it’s hard to see how you could embrace a philosophy like this and not end up feeling very alone and empty.

Don’t get me wrong. This was an immensely useful read. It gave me a sense of awareness about how some morally vacuous individuals might attempt to manipulate me. It also provided great insight into the arena of politics. Admittedly, there were also many genuinely useful insights in the book – principles a sensible person could use to improve his life. Some of the useful laws could be summarised as “act, don’t react.” Control of the emotions is paramount, as is focusing on long-term goals rather than hot-headed short-term satisfaction; diplomacy, acting always with full awareness of how your actions will be interpreted by the parties concerned.

Each law is presented with detailed historical examples of its usage. This helps makes the laws memorable, but it should also be noted that a few incidental examples don’t necessarily make these principles concrete, as they could just as easily be flukes. The first ten laws are:

  • Never outshine the master.
  • Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies.
  • Conceal your intentions.
  • Always say less than necessary.
  • So much depends on reputation. Guard it with your life.
  • Court attention at all costs.
  • Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.
  • Make other people come to you; use bait if necessary.
  • Win through your actions, never through argument.
  • Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky.

In light of my own personal “following” on YouTube, and my book on spirituality, Reality Check, I was highly amused by law 27: “Play on people’s need to believe to create a cultlike following.” Doing such a thing is utterly abhorrent to me. Greene is essentially justifying the turning of oneself into a cult leader. Of course, in his view, speaking the truth is not considered important at all. He emphasises the value of spouting vague flowery nonsense that makes your audience feel good.

Ultimately, there is a fundamental hypocrisy in this book. If the author truly believes in the 48 laws of power, why on earth would he share them with us? Isn’t that giving your power away? Staying at the top of your game involves being the smartest, not giving your opponents the tools to outwit you.

The 48 Laws of Power is a very useful book, but one to be read with a large pinch of salt.