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Law 16: Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 16: Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor

The Tulip
The Tulip

A man said to a Dervish: “Why do I not see you more often?” The Dervish replied, “Because the words ‘Why have you not been to see me?’ are sweeter to my ear than the words ‘Why have you come again?”’ – Mulla jami, quoted in ldries Shah’s Caravan of Dreams, 1968

The Assyrians ruthlessly ruled upper Asia for many centuries but in the eight centuries, the people of Medea (today north western Iran) revolted against them and broke free. The Medes now had to create a new government, but they were determined to avoid any form of dictatorship. They were afraid of giving too much power to one man.

But without a leader, Medea fell into chaos. There was constant fighting between villages and no way to reach a peace. One man, Deioces, lived in one of these villages. He started to build his reputation by acting as a fair arbiter of disputes. He was so successful in settling disputes that any legal conflict in the area was brought to him. Consequently, he became more powerful.

Eventually, he was overwhelmed with the amount of work he had to do to settle the affairs of others, so he stopped to tend to his own affairs. Once he no longer existed as a mediating option, chaos once again erupted. The Medes understood the value of Deoices and approached him again for help. He agreed, but under strict conditions. He was only to be spoken to through messengers and never directly, he was to have a palace built for him, in a newly constructed capital city. Everyone had to operate according to his schedule.

The Medes agreed to give him what he asked for, and he ruled for 53 years overseeing a great period of peace and prosperity. His grandson would be known as Cyrus, and he extended the reign of what we become the Persian Empire.

Greene’s historical lesson from this is that Deioces was a man who was only respected after he had withdrawn his services. In the beginning, when he was settling quarrels left and right, he had been taken for granted. People didn’t respect him and for that reason, he had to remove his services for a while so that the Medes could understand how valuable he was. And once this was proven, he got what he wanted all along, to rise to the heights of power in Medea.

The law of scarcity in economics confirms Greene’s point. Whenever something is withdrawn from the market, it becomes more valuable.  In seventeenth-century Holland, the elite classes wanted to make the tulip more valuable than any ordinary flower. They wanted it to be a status symbol. They made it scarce, almost impossible to obtain. This sparked what would become known as tulipomania. The value of a single tulip multiplied to unprecedented levels.

Use absence to create respect and esteem. If presence diminishes fame, absence augments it. A man who when absent is regarded as a lion becomes when present something com mon and ridiculous. Talents lose their luster if we become too familiar with them, for the outer shell of the mind is more readily seen than its rich inner kernel. Even the outstanding genius makes use of retirement so that men may honor him and so that the yearning aroused by his absence may cause him to be esteemed. – Baltasar Gracián, 1601-1658

Greene warns us that using this law too early could have an adverse effect. It is only possible to benefit from absence once you have established a presence already. If you have not already shown your worth in the first place, you will not be missed, but simply forgotten.

Read The 48 Laws of Power

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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