The 48 Laws of Power Summary (8/10)

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene is a book about pragmatism. Greene doesn’t attempt to indoctrinate his readers into believing a fixed philosophy, in fact, he does the opposite. At the end of each chapter, he includes a “reversal” section where he attempts to criticize the validity of his laws. Sometimes, there are no reversals and it is when he has been unable to find a strong enough counter-argument.

This honest, straightforward approach can be sensed throughout the book. As you read the laws, you find yourself being involved in an entertaining examination of human psychology, reflecting on your own life experiences and preconceived notions. If you keep an open mind, you have a lot to gain from the lessons contained in The 48 Laws of Power

Greene has combined historical anecdotes, Machiavellian quotes, and clever fables to defend the merits of each law, but much room is left for the reader to think for themselves and to discern whether these laws truly apply to their specific circumstances.

All of the laws are controversial, but they shouldn’t be. They are contentious, but that is exactly the point. Greene is not saying ‘this is how the human mind works’ or ‘that is how people behave’, but he is urging us to challenge what we presuppose are moral virtues. Nietzsche accomplishes this task through philosophy in the form of aphorisms, while Greene does the same through anecdotes from a variety of sources. The same parallel can be drawn between Jung and Campbell.

One can understand Greene’s philosophy after studying all 48 laws. He believes that human beings are fundamentally selfish, vain, arrogant, ignorant, emotional, vengeful, untrustworthy, duplicitous, egotistical, greedy, and predictable.

This is perhaps why some would see the book as controversial. But in reality, Greene’s worldview is at least half true. It is of course not true that everyone is fundamentally rotten, but there is no denying that each individual does contain some rotten elements within them. And it is not contentious to say that many people are more rotten than good. With these two rather conservative presuppositions in mind, it is important to know how to guard oneself from those with malicious intentions. it is important to study their ways in the same way that detectives should study how the minds of criminals operate.

There is no use in digging your head in the sand and convincing yourself that reality is something it isn’t. Idealism has a role to play, and it is necessary in sparking change, but even in order to so, one must be pragmatic. You must take into account how mass psychology works, and what individuals are fundamentally motivated by. To guard yourself, and to do good in the world, you must study reality, and not your idealized projection of it.

A Summary of the Laws

Law 1: Never Outshine your Master 

Many believe that flaunting your talents to your superiors is a good idea. But this is grave mistake

Law 2: Don’t Put Too Much Trust in Friends, Learn How to Use Enemies

Don’t trust friends, they are likely to betray you because they are predisposed to envy. 

Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions 

Greene recalls a story that took place in France in the seventeenth century, that was a violation of this law. There was a Marquee who wanted to seduce a Countess…

Law 4: Always say less than necessary 

When it comes to speech, less is more, and more is less. Remaining silent or saying only few words makes you sound more profound…

Law 5: So much depends on your reputation, guard it with your life 

There are two steps that could be taken to build your own reputation when you don’t have one

Law 6: Court Attention at all Costs

Appearance is everything, don’t get lose in a crowd. If you don’t stand out, you are sure to disappear into obscurity

Law 7:  Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit

Use the wisdom, knowledge, and legwork of others to reach your goals. This will not only save you time and energy but will increase your reputation.

Law 8: Make other people come to you

If you want to be in control, you have to make your opponent come to you. Lure your opponents with what they helplessly desire.

Law 9: Win Through your actions, never through your words

Greene tells us that unless you want to mislead or distract someone, it is better not to argue. It is more effective to display with actions the point you intend to make.

Law 10: Infection, avoid the unhappy and the unlucky

To avoid these people do not judge anyone by what they say, but on their effects on the world

Law 11: Learn to Keep people Dependent on You

The more you are needed by people, the more freedom and independence you have.

Law 12: Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim

Honesty can be used as a weapon in the realm of deception. This will especially work against the most suspicious people, for they will never see honesty coming.

Law 13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude 

People are generally motivated by their self-interest – and that is what you must appeal to if you want something from them. 

Law 14: Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy

The secret behind Talleyrand’s success was uncanny ability to suppress his own thoughts, he got others to talk and this made them reveal their plans and intentions.

Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally

Your enemies will crush you totally given the chance, therefore, you must crush them in the same way.

Law 16: Use Absence to increase respect and honor 

Deioces was a man who was only respected after he had withdrawn his services.

Law 17: Keep Others in Suspended Terror, Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability

Unpredictability is a potent weapon you can use to rattle your opponents. Human beings are creatures of habit and expect to see patterns of behavior in others.

Law 18: Do not Build Fortresses to Protect Yourself – Isolation is Dangerous

Isolation will not protect you from the dangers of the world, but it will cut you off from valuable information

Law 19: Know who You’re Dealing with – Do not underestimate your enemy

Some people are wolves in lambs’ clothing, don’t assume that everyone will react the same way to your strategies.

Law 20: Do not commit to anyone 

Instead of committing to someone, you should keep your options open. This isn’t the same as putting people off. You need to feign commitment, but never trap yourself.

Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker  – Seem Dumber than Your Mark

You should always appear dumber than you are. Make others feel smarter than you, and they will never suspect that you have hidden motives.

Law 22: Use the Surrender Tactic: Transform Weakness into Power

Sometimes, surrender is the best strategy. If your enemy is stronger than you, it is best to withdraw from confrontation, and wait until you have the advantage.

Law 23: Concentrate your forces

You have a finite amount of energy, conserve them by concentrating them at their strongest point. A single rich mine that is deep is more valuable to you than multiple shallow mines.

Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier

Of course, courts, king and couriers are antiquated terms, but the modern world is not without their equivalents. 

Law 25: Re-create Yourself 

Many people accept the default roles society imposes on them, but this is unwise. You should craft a new identity – either according to circumstance, or according to your own personal need.

Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean

Never allow your reputation to suffer, use a scapegoat for your mistakes, and if you choose to attack your enemy, do not dirty your hands but use a cat’s paw instead.

Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following 

People need to believe in something. By offering them something to believe in – a new cause or philosophy – you will have overwhelming power over them. 

Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness 

Don’t do anything halfheartedly. Being doubtful and hesitant will inevitably sabotage your project. Be audacious, everyone admires the bold, and no one cares for the timid

Law 29: Plan all the way to the end 

When planning, take everything into account. Since the ending is all that matters, you should think in advance about all the obstacles that you might encounter along the way. 

Law 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless

To become a master at anything, you need to invest considerable time and effort. But don’t tell others about your tricks, and how hard you had to toil – create an air of nonchalance and effortlessness.

Law 31: Control the options: get others to play with the cards you deal 

It is wiser to avoid exerting strength if you don’t have to. Forcing your will on others will lead to resentment and enmity.

Law 32: Play to People’s Fantasies

Avoid telling people the ugly truth unless you are prepared to face the anger that will result.

Law 33: Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew

Everyone has a weakness. Usually, it is an insecurity, an irrational need, or an emotion. It can even be a secret pleasure.

Law 34: Be Royal in your own Fashion, Act like a king to be treated like one 

Don’t be too humble. You will be treated the way you treat yourself. You will be thought of the way you think of yourself. Project confidence and a regal demeanor and others will respect you for it.

Law 35: Master the art of timing 

Being in a hurry will make it seem that you lack self-control. Don’t rush. Be a student of time, learn how to master it by being patient and striking at the right moment.

Law 36: Disdain the things you cannot have: ignoring them is the best revenge 

You should never make it apparent that you have been unable to attain something that you want. It is much wiser to treat what you secretly want with disdain…

Law 37: Create Compelling Spectacles

Grand symbolic gestures can be used as a powerful tool to influence, distract, and project an aura of power. Words are not as powerful, they are dangerous and often misinterpreted.

Law 38: Think as you like, but behave like others 

Rebelling against the times and flaunting your original and unconventional ideas is not wise. People will turn against you…

Law 39: Stir up Waters to Catch Fish

Angry people often end up looking ridiculous. Their out of proportion response does not give the impression that they are in power even though they may comically believe so

Law 40: Despise the Free Lunch

Don’t fall for “free” gifts. There is a saying in business, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

Law 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes 

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. Instead, establish your own identity, shine in your own way.

Law 42: Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter

A single individual can be the cause of trouble, this person is the stirrer, the arrogant subordinate, or the poisoner of goodwill. Strike at him to put an end to his poison.

Law 43: Work on the Hearts and Minds of Others

Coercion eventually backfires, you must seduce others into doing what you want. You must pay attention to their emotions, and slowly break down their defenses

Law 44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect 

The Mirror Effect is about exploiting people’s narcissism against them. And, as Greene shows, there are many variations of this technique.

Law 45: Preach the need for Change; Never Reform too much at Once

Change is necessary, but if you want to implement it, in must be gradual. If you change the status quo too quickly, people will revolt.

Law 46: Never Appear too Perfect

It is dangerous to appear better than others, it is especially dangerous to appear to have no faults.

Law 47: Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory; know when to stop

There is wisdom in knowing when to stop. After you have achieved victory, don’t tempt fate.

Law 48: Assume Formlessness 

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. 

Some people are master manipulators, but they are a minority. Most people are amateurs manipulators, and don’t do it pathologically. The problem is that it only takes one encounter with a master manipulator to ruin your life. When you inevitably come across a truly malicious and Machiavellian human being, and you are not educated in the ways of deception, then you are completely defenseless, especially if you are not Machiavellian yourself. I suspect Greene wrote this book because he knew he was not alone in wanting a way to defend himself against these people. An excellent book worth revisiting.

Other Robert Greene Book Summaries

If you’re interested in exploring the darker parts of human psychology that most people ignore, consider reading this short book The Dichotomy of the Self.

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