Understanding The 48 Laws of Power

48 Laws of Power
“Do not leave your reputation to chance or gossip; it is your life’s artwork, and you must craft it, hone it, and display it with the care of an artist.” – Robert Greene

Contents:
1.) Introduction
2.) What The Book Lacks
3.) The Spectral Nature of The Laws
4.) Perfecting The Learning Process
5.) In Closing

1.) Introduction:

The 48 Laws of Power is the modern man’s Machiavellian bible; based on the incisive strategic thought of prominent classical thinkers Niccolo Machiavelli and Baltasar Gracian, Robert Greene sets out to elucidate the reader on the nature of power. He explores power by dissecting its elements, explaining each element’s uses, and exemplifying its manifestation through regaling historic tales of Europe’s elite.

The 48 Laws of Power is so thoroughly potent in its capacity to teach cunning, that it is not only a bestseller, but likewise the most loaned book in U.S prison libraries. In some prisons the book is even banned, as such one is almost certain that if the text had been released in an earlier era, it would have ended up on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts in the same way Machiavelli’s “The Prince” did.

2.) What The Book Lacks:

It’s important for the aspiring Machiavellian to know what The 48 Laws of Power lacks in order to compensate for the gap in understanding they will be left with. Some of the things left unsaid in the text will be outlined within the confines of this essay, whilst others will require further reading.

The 48 Laws of Power is not a complete treatise on power. Although a detailed set of in-depth maxims, it focuses predominantly on the micro and omits near all mention of the macro. It focuses on the optimisation of personal affects to enhance social power, but does not offer strategic models or blueprints.

Realising The 48 Laws of Power was an incomplete treatise, Greene released The 33 Strategies of War. The 33 Strategies is The 48 Law’s complementary sister text, because where the 48 Laws focuses on the micro, The 33 Strategies focuses on the macro. Only once an individual has studied both texts will they possess a complete understanding of the Machiavellian world that Greene elucidates, neither book is sufficient in and of itself.

To expound on what I mean by this, The 48 Laws of Power will make you shrewder with people, but it won’t help you formulate effective business strategies. Whilst the 33 Strategies of War will arm a man with the understanding necessary to engage in corporate warfare, it will do little to assist him interpersonally. As such, neither is a comprehensive education in power, but together they form a complete and unassailable treatise. Combine these texts with Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and one has both the psychological tools and philosophical understanding to develop a masterful competency in cunning.

The examples used to illustrate the book’s laws take place among a social class most cannot relate to in an era alien to all who live today. As such, it is necessary to transfer the elements of power represented in a classical paradigm into a contemporary one. Whilst competent abstract thinkers will have no problem doing this, the average person will find it challenging to translate some of the laws into a modern context and will as such struggle to truly understand the precepts of the text.

Greene exposes the granular building blocks of power, but that’s where he stops. The book does not provide methodological instruction to help the reader implement the laws. And likewise, it does not teach the reader which law takes precedence when two contradicting laws are relevant to one’s situation. It is down to the reader to work these things out for themselves, and if they cannot, they will be unable to derive the entirety of what the book has to offer.

3.) The Spectral Nature of The Laws:

A common erroneous tendency I have noticed in those studying The 48 Laws is to treat the laws too rigidly, ironic, considering law 48 is “assume formlessness”, the advocation of adaptability as a strategem. In so much as one should adapt their strategy based on the ever-changing nature of the battlefield, one should likewise tailor each stratagem to suit the situation they find themselves in.

Generally one should not outshine the master, but it is important to remember that “generally” does not equate to “never.” There will come a time when defying a law is necessary to maximise your options.

Say your boss takes the credit for all your hard work and does not properly respect or compensate you. This makes you want to leave, and you suspect your boss wants to fire you anyway. In a meeting with your boss and your bosses’ boss, it would pay to outshine your boss. By impressing your bosses’ boss, you gain the favour of somebody more important and become less disposable. Double this up with an anonymous smear campaign of your boss, and perhaps your boss will be fired by his boss and you will retain your job.

After all it was your boss that was the problem, not the job. If the gambit fails, your already anticipated exit will likely hasten, but with little to lose the gamble is worth it.

The laws are generalised aspects of power, moldable to the dynamics of the situation in hand. When applying a law, one should generally consider two things: is the timing right? (law 35) and is the current strategy working? (law 48). If the answer to the first question is yes and the second no, one should use a law reversal. If the answer to the first and second questions is no, continue as you are, mindful to execute a law reversal at an opportune moment.

“Assume formlessness” was specifically chosen as the final law because it is the single stratagem that encompasses and concludes all others. There is no one specific way of perceiving or using a law, and although not specifically and explicitly communicating this, Robert Greene demonstrates the dual nature of laws by exploring their reversals. In the same way that an organism must adapt to its environment for natural selection to favour it, the changing tides of power demand the same of the Machiavellian.

Do not see the laws as monolithic entities, but rather as stratagems that encompass a contradicting and varied nature. Each law falls on a spectrum between 0 and 100, the law in its default form is the law at 100, whilst the reversal is the law at 0. You may employ the law at different gradations and still effectively utilise the power of said law. Although a law at 0 will utilise the same element of power as a law at 100, it will be completely antithetical to it.

With the law “always say less than necessary” for example, 100 would be the default interpretation of the law, meaning one would say as little as necessary to communicate. The reversal would be the same law of power at 0 on the spectrum, meaning the individual would speak verbosely without revealing any substance. This bombards the victim with excess information, which is not merely concealment, but likewise distractive. That which is typically a defensive move gains a subtle attacking component when reversed.

The mid-point at 50 would be to reveal information, but keep your trump card hidden. Essentially, the individual would say less than necessary whilst appearing open. Each law thus falls on a spectrum and can be rotated and rendered in any way one’s imagination deems fit, to know when and how to apply a law is to know the art of finesse. I cannot teach you how to do this through essays, essay reading will only make you aware of the possibility. To teach the skill would require one-on-one tutelage and some practice.

4.) Perfecting The Learning Process:

If one simply reads The 48 Laws of Power as quickly as possible, they do themselves a disservice. It is a book that should be read at one’s pace and savoured. My recommendation for learning the text is as follows:

Read a law and do your best to understand it. See if you can transfer the historical example into a contemporary one, this will allow you to better relate to the aspect of power being discussed.

Read the law again, this time taking notes on what you think are the key points which make up the crux of the law. Write down any hypothetical examples relevant to the law you can come up with.

Listen to the law in question narrated on YouTube (or buy the audiobook) to promote further internalisation. If I’ve written an essay on the law in question, you can glean understanding from my insights. My essays on the laws will appear on this page. Eventually I’ll have a write-up on all the laws.

Analyse present and past situations for examples of where the law took place (efficacy of this step is obviously limited by the strength of your memory) – this will compound your understanding of a law’s applicability on top of any hypothetical examples you came up with.

Practice exercising the laws defensively with your social groups.

Join a disposable social group (a club of some sort you don’t really care about) where you can practice a more aggressive use of the laws without any meaningful or lasting consequence.

Utilise the laws aggressively with your main social groups should you deem it necessary.

5.) In Closing:

The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War and The Prince are the three principal books on which an aspiring Machiavellian should base their understanding of cunning. As a recommended reading order, I advise first reading The Prince in order to acquaint yourself with the holistic philosophical and ethical viewpoint of the Machiavellian. This should be followed up with a reading on The 48 Laws of Power, as the text will acquaint the reader with people’s personal affects and teach them how to handle these.

The third and final book that makes up the core foundation of Machiavellian knowledge is The 33 Strategies of War. If you are an entrepreneur or businessman, you will find the strategies outlined in The 33 Strategies of War to be invaluable. Essentially the text teaches one how to wage warfare on a military scale, and being on the institutional scale, that which applies to the military is likewise transferable to the corporate.

Each foundational text will expand and change the way you think about people and power. Machiavelli’s The Prince will encourage you to critically examine the Judeo-Christian view of morality and how it relates to political power – this is why the Vatican originally banned it. The 48 Laws of Power will teach you to behave in a way that elicits respect from your peers, whilst enhancing your perception of their manipulations. And The 33 Strategies of War will open your eyes to strategy on a larger scale, highlighting the relationship between human and institutional behaviour.

These three texts form the foundational fulcrum necessary to make a Machiavellian of a man. Additional texts on power are out there, but they are merely additive rather than necessitative for the power and strategy aficionado.

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Blog:

How To Apply The 48 Laws of Power: Machiavellian Social Competencies
Machiavellian Thinking vs. Conventional Logic

Book(s):

The Prince
The 48 Laws of Power
The 33 Strategies of War


23 comments

  1. Great analysis on these two books

    Weird thing is, I’ve read all three of these books in the wrong order, the exact opposite of what you just mentioned..

    I agree with much of what you just said. Fluidity is one of the most important rules of power and of life. Using the laws rigidly would only work if there were a infinite amount of laws, that is because there are a infinite amount of conflicts or situations in life, and applying one law one way to each is not possible. There are no books that can really do that, for if there was a book like that, then everyone would just buy it and not need to think for themselves, they will just pull one of the infinite amount of laws there are.

    Now there are a few short questions I would like to get your opinion on.

    First of all, do you think reading classics, or classics in general are that more useful than modern day work? Do you think they are necessary to read at all? Beyond the short length and deep sentences, I just mind that modern day works such as 33 strategies are a lot more useful than the prince. Now, I know that I am wrong to think this for classics can be very useful, for if not, then why are there people still studying it? I would like too hear your thoughts on it.

    Have you heard of the I Ching? The ancient chinese source of oriental culture? If there were a book of infinite outcomes, then I think the I Ching would be it, or the closest one would come to finding one.

    What are some suggested reading other than these books? Fiction biographies are all welcomed suggestions. You being so machaivellian should know many.

    This is the most important question of mine, rearding fighting a stronger opponent. Some say you should stay low and wait for the right opppurtunity, but wouldn’t that just allow the others to get more powerful? Also, Greene says that never stagnate, when nothing is happening, make a move, for one to react and wait for oppurtunities there. That I find very true, the worst is when there is tension but no one is doing anything, then after a while moral starts to fade. But the problem is, it is always bothersome to attack someone more powerful than you or is at a advantage, doing nothing of course is not an option, what should one do. Do you think that it is true that in war, one right move can turn the tables immediately?

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    1. First of all, do you think reading classics, or classics in general are that more useful than modern day work? Do you think they are necessary to read at all? Beyond the short length and deep sentences, I just mind that modern day works such as 33 strategies are a lot more useful than the prince. Now, I know that I am wrong to think this for classics can be very useful, for if not, then why are there people still studying it? I would like too hear your thoughts on it.

      Classics do less of the work for the reader whilst modern books are more explicit in handing ideas to the reader on a platter. Many modern books are marketed and thus written from the viewpoint of “generate as many sales as possible” rather than “write a good piece of literature.” You find modern books are more instructional and less well-written than classics. Classics use a higher calibre of language. If you appreciate the written word classics are better, if you just want to learn things as quickly as possible and as easy as possible then modern texts are the way to go.

      Have you heard of the I Ching?

      Is that by Lao Tzu? It’s on my Amazon wishlist with a bunch of other philosophy texts. Not read it, but it’s on the radar so to speak.

      What are some suggested reading other than these books? Fiction biographies are all welcomed suggestions. You being so machaivellian should know many.

      You’re in the forum right? Check the sticky!

      This is the most important question of mine, rearding fighting a stronger opponent. Some say you should stay low and wait for the right opppurtunity, but wouldn’t that just allow the others to get more powerful?

      If you cannot beat them now and they are only getting stronger, you need to befriend them.

      Also, Greene says that never stagnate, when nothing is happening, make a move, for one to react and wait for oppurtunities there.

      You don’t want to stagnate, but it’s better to make no move than make a bad move. It’s better to not attack and conserve your strength than be decimated by your enemy.

      Do you think that it is true that in war, one right move can turn the tables immediately?

      Only really if a key person in the enemy’s circle betrays them and informs you of their movements/weaknesses etc.

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  2. Any particular translations of The Prince that you recommend?
    Addressing the topic of using the 48 Laws is always an interesting topic, one which you have touched on several times. The tricky thing about power is that if you must have someone to hold your hand during the entire process, then you will never truly be powerful. Power that can easily be template into easy-to-follow steps is not power at all…at least, not lasting power.

    Situations are dynamic and plans and strategies must be adapted, hence the importance of the final law.

    Are there any movies/ shows that you feel are decent representations of power?

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    1. Two shows that I can personally recommend for their machiavellian content are Code Geass and Death Note. I don’t know how you feel about anime, but exceptions should be made for these two if nothing else. For the regular viewer they are mere entertainment. For the learning Prince they serve as lessons in action (while still being highly entertaining of course).

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      1. Try the manga The Liars Game. Its much more impressive than both you have mentioned. The amount tact and critical thinking in that book is crazy. Art is not to good though.

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      2. I agree. Lelouch and Light are the living embodiment(in their respective anime universes) of the aforementioned ‘prince’ who is as shrewd, strategic and machiavellic as they come.

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    2. Any particular translations of The Prince that you recommend?

      The Penguin Classics version linked at the bottom of the article gets good ratings. That’s the one I personally own, it’s a good book.

      Power that can easily be template into easy-to-follow steps is not power at all…at least, not lasting power.

      Right, I’m not trying to give men fish, but rather, trying to teach them how to fish.

      Situations are dynamic and plans and strategies must be adapted, hence the importance of the final law.

      Bingo.

      Are there any movies/ shows that you feel are decent representations of power?

      There are some, but I don’t put too much stock in television as the dramatic element makes a lot of the schemes less plausible. “The Borgias” probably fits the M.O. The first 2 seasons of House of Cards as well. Game of Thrones does.. to an extent, but again, way too much fantasy and drama to really bother studying it.

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  3. Bravo. Recommending practicing the laws in a disposable social group is a masterstroke. This reminds me of the PUA method of “crashing the car” when first starting out – going on full escalation/alpha just to find your balls until you swing back to a calibrated individual who knows what to apply when. Thank you for this.

    Do you intend to dissect the 36 stratagems in the future? There are so mant interpretations and applications for these stratagems, it’s quite mind frying.

    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A great way to fully understand the law and properly dispensing it as the situation requires is to practice it in your in-group or join a club like Illimitable Man recommends. Don’t wait till the situation arises. Create one and tackle accordingly.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, I have a question but I am not english so sorry but my english is not very good.

    How do you conjugate psychopathy, course for power and every “bad” things that you have to do to achieve power (like walking over someone) AND the “classical” virtues like honor, purity, being a decent human being, honnesty etc.?

    Thank you.

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    1. Conjugate? I think you mean “reconcile” as conjugate makes no sense. Simplest way to be more empathic with your in-group than your out-group, dial down empathy with those who prey on you.

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  6. Just a quick message to you IllimitableMan – Thank you. This blog is a great service to men, I re-read articles daily. I would absolutely love an article on the Sigma male.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I like how you talked about finding a contemporary context equivalent to the settings about which R. Greene writes. For example, the law of making others depend on you could be strongly utilized by a modern day databank administrator, who devises computer codes that allow for access (or denial) of massive amounts of data. If he never shares his coding with anyone else, he could become indispensable for a company, or at least very difficult and expensive to replace.

    Each law has interpretations that fit into modern day situations, even though Greene illustrates the concepts with stories for a century ago. The key is to utilize the laws in ways that suit a particular strategy, and play upon one’s natural inclinations. Play to your strengths.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great piece, I have also found people approach the book and the laws with strange rigidity, they apply what Robert Greene himself styles as the western approach to warfare instead of the eastern which is indirection and adaptability

    Liked by 1 person

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