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Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier

In this chapter, Greene persuades us to be the perfect courier. Of course, courts, king and couriers are antiquated terms, but the modern world is not without their equivalents. Since power exists, a hierarchy of power exists; the employee is the modern courier and the employer is the modern king. But how should you play the role of courier and what should you avoid at all costs?

In ancient times, the courier was so subservient to the king that he would fall off a horse if his master did. That is, whatever pain the king felt, the courier would be keen on feeling pain too. Even though you don’t have to go through such lengths today, it would be wise to be mindful of some best practices.

Avoid too much flattery since it could have the opposite effect. Avoid ostentation for you may offend others. There is no good that can come out of boasting about yourself. Don’t tell others about how hard you work for it is a form of ostentation. Be mindful about your style since appearances are important and standing out is key. You should know how to stand out. Don’t treat everyone equally. Know where you stand in relation to others in the power hierarchy. Don’t criticize those who are more powerful than you directly and don’t ask for too many favors from your superiors.

Throughout history, there have been many couriers who made costly errors when they violated these guidelines.

It is a wise thing to be polite; consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude. To make enemies by unnecessary and wilful incivility, is just as insane a proceeding as to set your house on fire. For politeness is like a counter—an avowedly false coin, with which it is foolish to be stingy. A sensible man will be generous in the use of it…. Wax, a substance naturally hard and brittle, can be made soft by the application of a little warmth, so that it will take any shape you please. In the same way, by being polite and friendly, you can make people pliable and obliging, even though they are apt to be crabbed and malevolent. Hence politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

George Brummel was an elegant man who popularized shoe buckles. He was the authority in all matters related to fashion. If he did not approve of your taste, you had no choice but to change it. It I said that Lord Byron spent many nights in front of the mirror trying to learn the secret behind Brummel’s perfect knots.

Brummel had many admirers. The Prince of Wales was one of the greatest admirers he had, and the prince thought of himself as a fashionable young man. At the time, Brummel was given a royal pension and had taken his own authority for granted. He even took liberty in making fun of the Prince’s weight. But a trim figure was an important trait, and the prince would not take these insults lightly. During a dinner, when service was slow, Brummel said to the prince, “Do ring, Big Ben.” The prince rang for the valet and asked him to show him out and never let him in again.  

Brummel lost favor with the prince but continued to treat people with the same arrogance. He no longer had the patronage of the prince and soon sank into debt. His insolent manners caused everyone to abandon him. He died lonely, poor, and deranged.

One of the reasons Beau Brummel became popular with the prince was his devastating wit. But not even he could get away with making a joke about the prince’s appearance.  Be careful about making jokes on your master’s expense.

Greene tells us another short story about Alfonso I of Aragon. The king had a servant who told him about a dream he had the night before. Alfonso had given him weapons, horses, and clothes as gifts. Alfonso was a generous man and thought it would be amusing to make this dream come true. He gave his servant these gifts. A while later, the same servant told Alfonso about another dream, but this time Alfonso had given him a pile of gold florins. The king smiled and told him, “Don’t believe in dreams from now on; they lie.”

Alfonso was in control when he fulfilled his servant’s first dream. He felt like a god, even if in a humorous way, but the second dream was empty of any magic. The ugly con game became obvious. Never ask for too much; you should know when to stop. It is better to win favors by deserving them than giving the master the chance to reject your requests.

Read The 48 Laws of Power

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

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