A comprehensive manual on how to gain worldly power. Not for the just, the kind, the ethical, or the fainthearted—but is that a surprise?
I acquired this book in December 2005. I was doing character research for my epic in progress, and wanted to know more about the thinking and actions of politically ambitious people. This looked promising, so I bought it (you’re welcome, Mr. Greene!). I started it, but was soon put off by its chilling tone. I characterized it as “a manual for psychopaths” when I referred to it in my review of another of Greene’s books, Mastery. Yes, I was intending to get inside the heads of those who seek power, but I found the point if view so depressing that I just couldn’t go on with it.
Now it’s 2018. Not long ago I read, with much interest and even excitement, The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith; this too is a book that most readers find depressing, but I found that I did not. No, in my case I found myself energized by exposure to truth: this is how things really work. The fundamental law of politics is to acquire power and keep it. It is not a game that is bound by rules. In the world of politics, we are all in what Thomas Hobbes would have called “the state of nature” with respect to each other: the war of every man against every other. It’s survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, to the victor go the spoils. Mesquita and Smith make a strong case that this is the real dynamic driving all political activity, not just at the state level but at every level where the leadership of a group is at stake. A leader takes power with the help of certain key supporters—supporters who expect to benefit from his rule and to help shape it. Once installed, his first and most pressing ongoing duty is to reward these backers. The more gravy he is able to ladle on them, the more loyalty he buys, and the stronger his grip on power.
When I finished that book I immediately wanted to know more: more about power, its psychology, its strategy, its tactics. Searching Amazon, I found that one of the most prominent results was The 48 Laws of Power. But wait a second—I already had a copy of that. Sweet! I searched my library, found it, and got reading.
My response was different than it was in 2005. People call Greene’s book and his advice amoral, but that might even be flattery, for injustice, deceit, and betrayal are the key implements in the power-seeker’s toolkit, and to me this means that we are setting out to be not just lacking in morality, bust positively seeking to be wicked. For while it’s true that the author sometimes speaks of one’s “opponents” or “adversaries,” his more usual vocabulary for the people in the power-seeker’s world is “victims,” “marks,” or “suckers.” You, the power-seeker, are the predator, and the people around you are the prey. Your object is to trick them, exploit them, and crush them. As you do this, you will conceal your chicanery and bad faith; you will take credit for others’ good work, and shift the blame for your own mistakes and crimes. You will seduce people and make them love you, then leave them in the lurch when the moment is right. All of your interactions with people will be instrumental: use those who can help you; ignore all others. Everything you do is a matter of calculation and cunning, with a single criterion governing every exchange: how will this help me get ahead?
There is no doubt that this is how we all behave some of the time, and how some of us behave all of the time. What is disturbing is to find a manual that speaks only to that dark side, that implicitly or sometimes explicitly puts the higher human feelings, the better part of our nature, down to mere weakness. The author gives the appearance that he genuinely thinks that this is the high path in life, that the pinnacle of human life is to hold power, that this is the only form that human happiness can take. The fact that the path there requires us to lie, cheat, and betray is simply the way things are; nay more: these things, as means to such a sweet and desirable end, are themselves a positive pleasure. I think of an interview I read years ago with the chess champion Bobby Fischer. He described how, for him, the sweetest part of the game was not simply victory; it was the moment when he realized that he had crushed his opponent’s ego. That was what got him off; that was what drove him. Fischer is held up as one of the examples in this book.
It’s a big book and Mr. Greene draws many examples from a wide variety of sources and times. Three of his favorite examples are Talleyrand, Bismarck, and Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, America’s most successful con man, at least in the early 20th century. Interestingly, he never draws on the lives of Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, even though in some cases they would have made especially striking examples of the principles he is setting out. But a number of the examples he does use are also people who came to a bad end: prison, destitution, or dying at the hands of those they have cheated. Greene does not dwell on those things, tending to treat them as the consequences of failing to follow the laws of power fully and properly. His eye is on the prize ahead, not on the abyss that may lie beyond it.
There’s no denying that death awaits us all, whatever we’ve done and whatever sort of life we’ve lived. Why not enjoy the crystal meth of political power for the short time we have on Earth, if we have the desire for it and “the illness should attend it”? After all, there are plenty of people around us who are perfectly willing to use us and discard us when it’s convenient. Do we want to be the patsies and suckers? Do we want our faces to be mere stepping-stones in others’ climb to the top? Why should other people get all the glory and all the gravy? Shouldn’t we at least take a shot at being winners too?
One of the people that Greene mentions as an example for one of his laws of power is Abraham Lincoln. Under Law 25, “Re-Create Yourself,” Greene observes that Lincoln invented an effective public image for himself: that of the homespun, common country man. He was an Illinois lawyer who wore plain clothes, a rustic beard, and spoke in earthy epigrams. He was a president for the man in the street.
But is that all there was to Lincoln? An effective chaser after power? Even if he did not originate this famous earthy saying, he apparently quoted it with approval:
When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.
To whatever extent Lincoln may have believed these words, to that extent he was not a powerful man, at least by the calculus of The 48 Laws of Power. The book certainly would acknowledge the necessity of professing spiritual values, of covering the tracks of one’s machinations; and Machiavelli does the same in The Prince; but can we really just write Lincoln and other admired leaders off as hypocritical knaves? Is the existence of tender feelings, spiritual feelings, in our breast a sign that we are cannon fodder, mere prey animals to be used by those who understand the world better?
The great psychologist Carl Jung, in his book Two Essays in Analytical Psychology, says:
Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.
Personally, I think he’s right. To use, betray, and crush people are not loving actions. In the game of power, the person we love is ourselves. All others are thrown under the juggernaut of our own ego. This is the path to the “happiness” of power. Such, presumably, was the happiness of Joseph Stalin, hiding in his fortified palace from the vengeance of those many he had harmed, having physicians around him—the Jewish ones, anyway—tortured and killed on suspicion of conspiring to remove him from office.
No, love is the path to human happiness. I suspect that power is what we seek if we feel, for whatever reason, that the path of love is closed to us. Power is a consolation prize. It may even be revenge on a world where one has failed to find love. And if you actually enjoy hurting others, then you can experience pleasure in your climb to the top and pleasure in keeping yourself there. Until, that is, you yourself are pushed out—or die.
The world we live in is, in many respects, a jungle, and it operates by the law of the jungle—the laws of power. But the world we can see and touch is not all that is; such is the unanimous teaching of the spiritual traditions of the world, and such is the intuition in the hearts of many or most of us. We may not know how, but we suspect that we will all face a reckoning for our actions in this world. The 48 laws of power are the laws governing Vanity Fair, the dazzling worldly fair created by Beelzebub in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where human pleasures and lusts are catered to. If you want to be a player there, then the 48 laws will certainly help you.
I can’t subscribe to the basic outlook and premise of The 48 Laws of Power, but I read this book with much appreciation and enjoyment. Robert Greene comes across as a cold but thorough and effective adviser. He at least takes on the persona of a hard-boiled realist who does not whitewash anything. He’s speaking to the prince in the privacy of his inner office while they relax at the end of the day, having a scotch. No pretenses here, just plain talk. The book is well thought out and well researched. If this doesn’t sound too contradictory, it reads like a labor of love. The writer may be helping you to deceive and betray, but he’s doing it because he wants you to succeed.
And there’s plenty in here that I think even a good-hearted person can use with benefit, not only to smoke out the ploys and stratagems being used by others, but also to adopt aspects of the 48 laws that do not cause harm to others. There’s nothing wrong, for instance, with guarding against outshining your superiors, or adopting an unhurried approach to things, or forbearing from pressing an attack too far. These strategies are about being smart in the real world. Indeed, it might be interesting if someone created a “white hat” version of the 48 laws—power principles for loving people.
In the meantime, loving people can study this book with profit. Just don’t forget what really matters.