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Notes Psychology

Law 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes (The 48 Laws of Power)

Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Don’t step into the shadow of the past. When you’re trying to fill the shoes of those who came for you, you will likely fail.

Throughout history, there have been many examples of men who had the wisdom of finding their own area of  competence, rather than emulate those who came before them. These men have found success, because they were not ruled by mimetic desire, they were ruled by an authenticity that came from within.

Greene’s message in this chapter is to defy the urge to conform to social expectations and tradition, no matter how strong. Many have wasted their potential because they felt an obligation towards the past, and have come to regret later on. Do not become a victim like them. Shine in your own way, establish your unique identity.

The Excellence of Being First

Many would have shone like the very phoenix in their occupations if others had not preceded them. Being first is a great advantage; with eminence, twice as good. Deal the first hand and you will win the upper ground…. Those who go first win fame by right of birth, and those who follow are like second sons, contenting themselves with meager portions….

Solomon opted wisely for pacifism, yielding warlike things to his father. By changing course he found it easier to become a hero…. And our great Philip II governed the entire world from the throne of his prudence, astonishing the ages. If his unconquered father was a model of energy, Philip was a paradigm of prudence….

This sort of novelty has helped the well-advised win a place in the roll of the great. Without leaving their own art, the ingenious leave the common path and take, even in professions gray with age, new steps toward eminence. Horace yielded epic poetry to Virgil, and Martial the lyric to Horace. Terence opted for comedy, Persius for satire, each hoping to be first in his genre. Bold fancy never succumbed to facile imitation.

A POCKET MIRROR FOR HEROES, BALTASAR GRACIÁN, TRANSLATED BY CHRISTOPHER MAURER, 1996

Louis XIV died in 1715. He reigned for fifty-five years and brought glory and prestige to his nation. His chosen successor was his great grandson, Louis XV, who was faced with the challenge of continuing the great legacy left behind. The great-grandson was surrounded by the best tutors and political minds while growing up, but when he finally came to the throne in 1726, everything changed. He didn’t have to study anymore or try to impress others. He was the leader of a great country with all of its wealth and power at his command. In the first years of his reign, Louis XV indulged in pleasure, and left the government to Andre-Hercule de Fleury, a trusted minister.

This was not troublesome at first. But it gradually became clear that this was not merely a stage that Louis was passing through. He had no interest in governing. He didn’t care about his country’s finances or the potential war with Spain, he only wanted to cure his own boredom. He spent his time hunting deer and chasing young girls. Otherwise, he would be seen at the gambling tables wasting huge sums of money in a single night.

The court became a reflection of the ruler’s tastes. The state was becoming decadent. Debts had increased, and the couriers had become corrupt, all looking out for their own interest by pleasing the king rather than being concerned about the well-being of France.

Louis continued to delegate responsibility to others and catered to his hedonic needs. He built an underground brothel in Versailles and matters of the state were handled by women who Louis fell in love with. The second of which, Madame du Barry, fired France’s best diplomat. As time passed, Versailles became home to swindler and charlatans, who enticed Louis in the occult, astrology, and fraudulent business deals. The young and pampered Louis had only gotten worse with age.

After his reign of debauchery, he died in 1774. His country and his personal finances were in disarray, and his grandson Louis XVI inherited a precarious state in need of a strong leader. But Louis XVI was even weaker than his predecessor idly watched as his country descended into revolution. His nickname was “Louis the Last” and was later killed by the people after the French Revolution in 1792.

Louis XIV managed to rebuild France after it had descended into civil war. He was feared by his staff and while he had many mistresses, their power ended in the bedroom. He filled the court with the best minds. Versailles was the symbol of power during his reign. Louis XV symbolizes the fate of anyone who inherits something large, or who follows in a great man’s footsteps. While it would seem easy for a son to build on the great foundations left for him, the opposite is true in the realm of power. The pampered, indulged son often squanders the inheritance, for unlike his predecessor, he had no void to fill.

Machiavelli says that necessity is what compels men to action, and absent the necessity, only rot and decay remain.

THE LIFE OF PIETRO PERUGINO, PAINTER, c.1450-1523

How beneficial poverty may sometimes be to those with talent, and how it may serve as a powerful goad to make them perfect or excellent in whatever occupation they might choose, can be seen very clearly in the actions of Pietro Perugino. Wishing by means of his ability to attain some respectable rank, after leaving disastrous calamities behind in Perugia and coming to Florence, he remained there many months in poverty, sleeping in a chest, since he had no other bed; he turned night into day, and with the greatest zeal continually applied himself to the study of his profession.

After painting had become second nature to him, Pietro’s only pleasure was always to be working in his craft and constantly to be painting. And because he always had the dread of poverty before his eyes, he did things to make money which he probably would not have bothered to do had he not been forced to support himself.

Perhaps wealth would have closed to him and his talent the path to excellence just as poverty had opened it up to him, but need spurred him on since he desired to rise from such a miserable and lowly position-if not perhaps to the summit and supreme height of excellence, then at least to a point where he could have enough to live on. For this reason, he took no notice of cold, hunger, discomfort, inconvenience, toil or shame if he could only live one day in ease and repose; and he would always say—and as if it were a proverb—that after bad weather, good weather must follow, and that during the good weather houses must be built for shelter in times of need.

LIVES OF THE ARTISTS, GIORGIO VASARI, 1511-1574

There was only one way out for Louis XV and it was to psychologically start from zero, to denigrate the past and the inheritance, to move forward in a new direction, creating his own world. Competing with a star in the sky is not advisable, it is wiser to find a different void to fill, a different challenge to undertake.

But when they began to make sovereignty hereditary, the children quickly degenerated from their fathers; and, so far from trying to equal their father’s virtues, they considered that a prince had nothing else to do than to excel all the rest in idleness, indulgence, and every other variety of pleasure.

Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527

Alexander the Great was the son of the King Philip of Macedonia. Alexander hated how his father rules. Philip was a cunning ruler, but he was cautious. Yet he indulged in the simple pleasures of life such as drinking and whoring and spent considerable time on trifling things such as wrestling. Alexander knew he had to be the opposite of his father, he would force himself to become bold and reckless. He spoke few words and didn’t waste his time on fruitless pursuits. He also lamented the fact that his father had already conquered most of Greece. Usually, sons of powerful men were happy to inherit wealth and live a leisurely life. But Alexander wanted to outdo his father, he wanted to surpass his predecessor’s greatness.

Alexander was desperate to show others that he was superior to his father. A horse-dealer once brought a horse named Bucephalus to sell to Philip. But none of the King’s grooms could tame the wild beast. Philip even berated the merchant for trying to sell him such a useless creature. But Alexander, watching the affair, commented, “What a horse they are losing for want of skill and spirit to manage him!” =

He had said this several times until Philip finally had enough and challenged him to try to tame the horse. Philip secretly hoped his son would have nasty fall and learn his lesson, but it was Alexander who came out on top. He successfully mounted Bucephalus and rode him at full pace, taming the beast that would eventually take him to India. The courtiers applauded excitedly but Philip was discontent, seeing in front of him a rival, not a son.

Alexander boldly defied his father with time. however, one day, when Alexander was 18, a disgruntled courtier killed Philip. Alexander continued his conquests and his reputation increased. Often, a young rebel’s struggle against his father wanes as he grows older. He gradually comes to resemble the man he had wanted to defy. But Alexander was not such a man. His loathing of his father didn’t stop when his father died. After taking over Greece, he marched on to Persia – a conquest his father didn’t manage to achieve. Against astounding odds, Alexander’s small army defeated the Persians. He had surpassed his father’s legacy. Most people expected him to rest on his laurels at this point. But Alexander continued to defy the past. His past successes resembled his father’s past successes; to Alexander, they were only obstacles in his way. He never allowed the past to outshine the present. He then went to India and extended the empire to it’s final limits.

Greene tells us that Alexander was an anomaly in history. Rarely does a son of a famous and successful man manage to surpass his father’s accomplishments. The reason is that the father starts with nothing. A desperate urge pushes him forward. He has nothing to lose by using cunning and boldness – he has no famous figure to compete against. This kind of man has faith in his abilities, because after-all, he owed his success to himself. But when this man has a son, he becomes oppressive and domineering. He forces his lessons on his son, who starts his own life in entirely different circumstances from those of his father. The father, instead of allowing the son to embark in a new direction, will put him in his own shoes – perhaps secretly wishing his son would fail as Philip did with Alexander. Fathers are envious of their sons’ youth and vigor, and of course, their will to dominate rarely wanes. The sons of this type of man grow up to be cautious and scared, terrified of losing what their fathers have accomplished.

Beware of stepping into a great man’s shoes—you will have to accomplish twice as much to surpass him. Those who follow are taken for imitators. No matter how much they sweat, they will never shed that burden. It is an uncommon skill to find a new path for excellence, a modern route to celebrity. There are many roads to singularity, not all of them well traveled. The newest ones can be arduous, but they are often shortcuts to greatness.

Baltasar Gracián, 1601-1658

The only way for the son to step out of his father’s shadow is by emulating Alexander. You must create your own path and forget about the past. Either your father will put you in the shadows, or you will do so to him. If you can’t start from zero financially – it would be silly to renounce an inheritance – then you should start from zero psychologically. Be merciless with the past, not just with your father’s accomplishments, but with your own. Never be overwhelmed by what has come before you. As tempting as it is to copy what worked for your predecessor, it is unwise for circumstances are rarely ever the same.

This isn’t to say that there is nothing from the past that should be preserved. Your father’s skill and knowledge are things you should take advantage of. You should learn from him and conserve whatever is still pertinent. If you are smart enough to carve out your own path, you should do so. Otherwise, you are better off spending more time emulating your predecessor, at least what they did worked.

Read The 48 Laws of Power

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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