Notes politics Psychology

Law 46: Never Appear too Perfect (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 46: Never Appear too Perfect

The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel

It is dangerous to appear better than others, it is especially dangerous to appear to have no faults. Envy creates secret enemies; it is wise to display defects and vices to deflect envy from others. Only the gods and the dead can get away with appearing perfect.

A greedy man and an envious man met a king. The king said to them, “One of you may ask something of me and I will give it to him, provided I give twice as much to the other. ” The envious person did not want to ask first for he was envious of his companion who would receive twice as much, and the greedy man did not want to ask first since he wanted everything that was to be had. Finally the greedy one pressed the envious one to be the first to make the request. So the envious person asked the king to pluck out one of his eyes.


Medieval Florence had a merchant class and craft guilds, these people were able to protect themselves from oppression by the nobility. Nobody could be dominant for very long since positions of high office lasted only for a few months. Although this created many warring political factions, it also kept out tyranny. The Medici lived for hundreds of years under this system without making a dent, until the late 14th century. That is when they made a small fortune from banking.

When Giovanni died, his son Cosimo took over the family business. The business did well under him, and the Medicis became one of the prominent banking families in Europe. The Albizzis were their rival in Florence, and despite the republican political system, this family managed to monopolize government control – creating alliances that allowed them to elect their own members into important positions. Cosimo did not fight this – he gave the Albizzis his support. However, whereas the Albizzis started to flaunt their power, Cosimo stayed in the background inconspicuously.

An admirer who feels that he cannot be happy by surrendering himself elects to become envious of that which he admires. So he speaks another language—the thing which he really admires is called a stupid, insipid and queer sort of thing. Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion.

– KIERKEGAARD, 1813-1855

Eventually, the Medici wealth could not be ignored. In 1433, the Albizis felt threatened by the Medicis and used their political muscles to arrest Cosimo on conspiratorial charges. There was disagreement as to what to do with Cosimo. In the end, they exiled him from Florence. Cosimo did not fight the sentence, but merely left quietly.

In the following year, people began to fear the reign of the Albizzis, who began to resemble a dictatorship. Cosimo used his wealth to stir up tensions in Florence, until a civil war broke in the city. The Albizzis were sent into exile, and their power was abdicated. Cosimo went back to Florence. But now he faced a dilemma: if he stayed quiet, another family similar to the Albizzis would emerge, and if he seemed too ambitious, he would stir up opposition against him the way the Albizzis did.

The envious hides as carefully as the secret, lustful sinner and becomes the endless inventor of tricks and stratagems to hide and mask himself Thus he is able to pretend to ignore the superiority of others which eats up his heart, as ifhe did not see them, nor hear them, nor were aware of them, nor had ever heard of them. He is a master simulator. On the other hand he tries with all his power to connive and thus prevent any form of superiority from appearing in any situation. And if they do, he casts on them obscurity, hypercriticism, sarcasm and calumny like the toad that spits poison from its hole. On the other hand he will raise endlessly insignificant men, mediocre people, and even the inferior in the same type of activities.


Cosimo’s solution was to use his wealth to buy influence among key citizens. He promoted his formerly middle-class allies to positions of power. Those who complained were instantly punished. The republic survived only in name, Cosimo was now in control.

As he worked behind the scenes to maintain power, he presented a different image to the public. He dressed modestly when walking the streets and showed respect to older citizens. He rode a mule, rather than a horse. He did not speak about politics even though he controlled Florence’s foreign affairs for over thirty years. He donated money to charities and maintained his relationship with Florence’s merchant class. He turned down lavish designs for his home in favor of simple, modest architecture.

“The palace was a symbol of Cosimo’s strategy—all simplicity on the outside, all elegance and opulence within.”

In 1465, Cosimo died. The citizens of Florence wanted to celebrate his memory by building a great tomb, but on his deathbed, he asked to be buried without “pomp or demonstration.” Decades later, Machiavelli considered Cosimo the wisest of all the princes, “for he knew how extraordinary things that are seen and appear every hour make men much more envied than those that are done in deed and are covered over with decency.”

It takes great talent and skill to conceal one’s talent and skill LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, 1613-1680

Cosimo knew the dangers of envy, he often remarked, “Envy is a weed that should not be watered.” He purposefully avoided the appearance of greatness, for in a democratic environment, it would only spell trouble. Do not be foolish into thinking that others will admire you if you flaunt the qualities that make you superior to them. When you make others feel inferior to you, you stir up envy or “unhappy admiration.”

Of all the disorders of the soul, envy is the only one no one confesses to.

Plutarch, c. A.D 46-120

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors…. And his brothers envied him…. And when they saw him afar off, they conspired against him to slay him. And now they said to one another, “Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we shall say, some evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams” OLD TESTAMENT, GENESIS 37:3—20

Gracian recommends the powerful to display a weakness, a harmless vice to deflect envy. That is, to give those who envy you something to feed on to distract them from your larger sins. In some Arab countries, men avoid arousing envy by showing wealth only on the inside of his house.

Did ever anybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime. And not only does everybody disown it, but the better sort are inclined to incredulity when it is in earnest imputed to an intelligent man. But since lodgment is in the heart not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies a guarantee against it.


The reason being wary of the envious is important is that they will find many ways to undermine you. If you tread too carefully, you will make them more envious. It will reveal your superiority even more. Thus, acting according to Gracian’s advice is a good preventative measure. But if envy already exists, sometimes it is better to do the opposite.

To make every triumph an “opportunity to make the envious squirm.” That is, to trap them in their own envy, while you are untouchable in your position of power.

Michelangelo did this to the venomous architect Bramante, who influenced Pope Julius to oppose Michelangelo’s design for his tomb. Bramante envied Michelangelo’s natural talent, and to punish him more, he got the pope to commission Michelangelo to paint the murals in the Sistine Chapel. This project would take many years and would stop Michelangelo from creating more brilliant sculptures. Bramante knew that Michelangelo’s skill in painting did not match his skill in sculpting, and thus, by forcing Michelangelo to do this, he would ruin his legacy as the perfect artist.

Michelangelo knew this was a trap, and while he wanted to reject the commission, he could not say no to the pope. He accepted. But he used Bramante’s envy to light a fire in him to reach even greater heights. He made the Sistine Chapel his best work of all. And every time Bramante heard about it or saw it, he would be even more oppressed by his own envy, and that is perhaps the sweetest revenge one could force upon the envious.

Read The 48 Laws of Power

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

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