Notes Psychology

Law 48: Assume Formlessness (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 48: Assume Formlessness

The Spartan Army
The Spartan Army

The final law in the book reminds us of the caveats of laws in general. There is no fixed law. There are guiding principles, but everything is susceptible to revision. And no strategy is invulnerable, thus it is important to be formless, to be able to adapt whatever pattern of behavior that is most suitable for a given situation.

In martial arts, it is important that strategy be unfathomable, that form be concealed, and that movements be unexpected, so that preparedness against them be impossible. What enables a good general to win without fail is always having unfathomable wisdom and a modus operandi that leaves no tracks. Only the formless cannot be affected. Sages hide in unfathomability, so their feelings cannot be observed; they operate in formlessness, so their lines cannot be crossed.


In the 8th century B.C, the Greek city-states grew so large and wealthy that they ran out of land to support their growing population so they went to see to establish colonies in across Asia, Europe, and Africa. But Sparta was landlocked and surrounded by mountains. The Spartans had no access to the Mediterranean, so they had to have a powerful land strategy. They engaged in a series of violent conflicts for over a century, and managed to conquer an immense amount of land. But they grew so large that it became difficult to maintain their rule over the hordes of people they had conquered, those that were subordinate to Spartan authority outnumbered the Spartans 10 to 1. There was always a risk of rebellion.

Spartan society was built to withstand conflict, however. The only way to preserve their power was to develop tougher and fiercer warriors than their neighbors. A spartan boy was taken away from his mother when he was 7 years old, placed in a military club, and was taught discipline and how to fight. The boys slept on uncomfortable beds, made out of beads, and the Spartans bans all form of arts, including music. Weak children were left to die in the mountains, and no system of money or trade was permitted in Sparta. The Spartans believed that wealth would corrupt its people so they only allowed people to work in agriculture, where they would use slaves to work for them.

This single-mindedness led to the creation of the most powerful infantry in the world. They were extremely disciplined  and braved, as the battle of Thermopylae against the Persians showed, were capable of overcoming an enemy ten times their size. The Spartans were highly capable, yet they didn’t want to creating an empire, but wanted to maintain what they had already conquered, and defend it well. Decades passed with the Spartans experiencing stability and very little change.

Athens, another Greek city-state were developing a different kind of society to the Spartans during this time. The Athenians took to sea and developed trade. They were not rigid like the Spartans, they solved problems creatively and adapted well to every occasion. Their society was culturally rich, with an appreciate of the arts, and was in constant flux. Athens grew powerful and began to pose a threat to the Spartans.

In 431 B.C, the war between Athens and Sparta finally took place. It lasted 27 years, but the Spartans finally emerged victorious. Sparta now commanded an empire, and this time decided to be more attack-minded. If they gave up their newly conquered territory, they would allow the Athenians to recuperate their strength and rebel against them.

After the war, the Athenians poured money into Sparta. This disrupted the Spartan way of life since they had no experience in economics or politics. Wealth had seduced and overwhelmed the Spartans, corrupting Spartan governors and leaders. Even though the Spartans won the war, they had allowed their society to be defeated by the Athenian culture. While Sparta was losing its discipline, Athens was thriving economically and culturally.

The Spartans sacrificed mobility for security and suffered for it. Athenian money ruined Sparta because the latter was not adaptable – accustomed to accommodating new technology. Unlike the animals that depend on their outer shells for survival, the animals that are formless and adapt to the changes in their environment are more likely to survive. The young embody this; since they are uncomfortable with the rigid structured, they have inherited from their predecessors, they destroy the status quo. They try on a variety of masks, and it is the willingness to experiment with their identity that is their strength – the powerful are people who managed to try on new forms when they were young. Society rewards new ideas. But when these young people grow older, they become conservative, and their rigidity makes them easy targets.

To carry out the instinctual inhibition demanded by the modern world and to be able to cope with the energy stasis which results from this inhibition, the ego has to undergo a change. The ego, i.e., that part of the person that is exposed to danger, becomes rigid, as we say, when it is continually subjected to the same or similar conflicts between need and a fear-inducing outer world. It acquires in this process a chronic, automatically functioning mode of reaction, i.e., its “character.” It is as if the affective personality armored itself, as if the hard shell it develops were intended to deflect and weaken the blows of the outer world as well as the clamoring of the inner needs. This armoring makes the person less sensitive to unpleasure, but also restricts his libidinal and aggressive motility and thus reduces his capacity for achievement and pleasure. We say the ego has become less flexible and more rigid, and that the abiliry to regulate the energy economy depends on the extent of the armoring.

– WILHELM REICH, 1897-1957

Human thinking has evolved towards more abstraction, replacing the material with the mental. This can be seen in art, where the discovery of abstraction and conceptualism was made in the previous century, and in politics – which has become less violent, more complex, nuanced and cerebral. War and strategy have also evolved in this direction. Strategy began by simply controlling the positions of their armies on land by commanding them to assimilate in ordered formations, but this strategy takes place in two dimensions – limited by the land’s topography. The great powers eventually adapted to the sea for trade and colonization. To protect their trading routes, they had to develop creativity and abstract thinking. Maritime warfare is more complex; the advantage goes to those who can confuse the enemy by properly blending in with the terrain through unexpected forms. This required them to operate in the third dimension: the mind.

Therefore the consummation of forming an army is to arrive at formlessness. Victory in war is not repetitious, but adapts its form endlessly…. A military force has no constant formation, water has no constant shape: The ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.

(Sun-tzu, fourth century B.C.)

Read The 48 Laws of Power

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.