The 48 Laws of Power examines 3,000 years of history to distill the essence of power using examples from the works of Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz as well as historical figures including Queen Elizabeth I, Henry Kissenger and Napoleon.
The 48 Laws Of Power Summary
The 48 Laws Of Power is the original bestselling book by Robert Greene.
Considered a modern-Machiavelli, Greene attempts to unpick the principles of power from a wide ranging historical survey providing 48 maxims as well as observations, transgressions and reversals of the laws throughout history.
Since it’s first publication in 2000, the book has become a perennial favourite for all those seeking to exert, maintain or seize power in business, media, governance and various other fields.
Below are some of the key insights from the book.
- The practice of conscious power is all around us despite the commonly held notion that the modern world has rendered politik redundant.
- Mastery of your own emotions and conscious observation are the core fundamentals of anyone seeking to exert power effectively.
- Power is essential amoral making love, affection, loyalty, morality and honour irrelevant in the exercise and practice of power.
- Rather, it is better to see power as the practice of a social game where your opponent sits opposite you who you must learn to outthink and outwit.
Law 1 – Never Outshine The Master
- Those in power are suspicious of usurpers, so take great care not outshine them [Nicolas Fourquet / Louis XIV] and instead play the game like Galileo who consciously associated his greatest successes with the ego of his patrons.
Law 2 – Never Put Too Much Trust In Friends, Learn How To Use Enemies
- Don’t assume that your closest friends will always have your best interests at heart [Michael III / Basilius ] but rather take the opportunity to convert enemies to your own interests [Sung / Liu]
Law 3 – Conceal Your Intentions
- Otto von Bismarck was an expert at concealing his intentions arguing for peace in order to build up the Prussian army and then successfully persuading the Kaiser to enter into two strategic conflicts to secure German unification.
- By contrast, Marquis de Sevigne blew his chance at seduction by failing to conceal his love for a young countess despite the advice of Ninon de Lenclos. Once his intentions were revealed, his previous actions became transparent.
Law 4 – Always Say Less Than Necessary
- Those who speak less convey the appearance of power. Learn to speak like Louis XIV rather than the Roman general Coriolanus who blew his popularity and chance at power once he opened his mouth in the forum.
Law 5 – Guard Your Reputation With Your Life
- Your reputation is a treasure to be hoarded and guarded as it forms the cornerstone of power. Even when cornered in a hopeless situation the reputation of Liang “The Sleeping Dragon” was enough to deter a large army from attacking.
Law 6 – Court Attention At All Cost
- Attention always dwells where power lies. So if you can find innovative ways to seek out the attention of the crowd [PT Barnum, Louis XIV] you will convey the essence of power and suck the life out of your enemies at the same time.
Law 7 – Allow Others To Work For You, But Take Credit.
- Nikola Tesla was a far more talented inventor than Thomas Edison but the former was a purist who died penniless while the latter created a public persona of a genius but allowed others to complete most of the work for him.
Law 8 – Make Others Come To You, Use Bait If Necessary
- France finance minister Talleyrand baited Napoleon to escape from Elba by pulling the strings behind the scenes manipulating events to increase his own personal power. Likewise an emerging Japanese navy ensured that the Russians would have to come to them to fight a decisive naval battle.
Law 9 – Win Through Action, Never Argument
- Winning the argument is a Pyrrhic victory that stirs up discontent in your opponent. Instead, decide to win the argument with action like Christopher Wren with his false columns or Michaelangelo mimicking the act of carving the nose of David.
Law 10 – Avoid The Unhappy and Unlucky
- Lola Montez ruined the fortunes of every aristocrat she came into contact with including the King of Bavaria while an envious Cassius eventually won over Brutus to the conspiracy to kill Caesar. Beware infection.
Law 11 – Keep People Dependent On You
- Even if you do well, it’s important to keep your superiors dependent on you or else you will face the prospect of being replaced by another in time. Those who stay indispensable like Bismarck or the astrologer of Louis XI, retain power.
Law 12 – Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm
- Selective honesty or generosity can be used to great effect as ‘giving before you take’ such as when Count Lustig conned Al Capone or the Greeks built a Trojan horse to signal peace with Troy.
Law 13 – When Seeking Help, Appeal To Self Interest.
- Emotional arguments fall flat while those couched in the language of self interest will always appeal to the true masters of power. This is the story of the Peloponnesian War where Athens dropped Corinth for Corcyra.
Law 14 – Pose As A Friend, Work As A Spy.
- Talleyrand posed as a superb conversationalist and would often blurt out supposed secrets in order to see the reactions of those as they heard the news, which would then inform his true purposes.
Law 15 – Crush Your Enemy Totally
- It is important to utterly crush your enemy or else they will come back to rival you for power with greater vigour [Hisang Yu / Liu Pang]. To secure power, you have to be utterly ruthless [Empress Wu]
Law 16 – Use Absence To Increase Respect and Honour
- Tactical absence is an important tool to increase power and mystery. As Napoleon understood, if he is often seen in the theatre people would cease to notice him.
Law 17 – Keep Others In Suspended Terror With Unpredictability
- Humans are creatures of habit who thrive on predictable narrative so you can set your opponent off guard by scrambling accepted patterns [Bobby Fischer v Boris Spassky]
Law 18 – Do Not Build Fortresses, Isolation is Dangerous
- Those who shut themselves off from their source of power quickly fall while intelligent rulers such as Louis XIV place themselves at the center of attention and activity.
Law 19 – Know Who Your Dealing With
- As well as knowing your enemy it is also important to know the whims and character of anyone you deal with to avoid unwittingly offending someone as Joe Furey found out by conning J Frank Norfleet who then spent his life chasing down the gang.
Law 20 – Do Not Commit To Anyone
- The fool rushes to take sides. Instead master the art of feigning commitment [Queen Elizabeth I / Isabella d’Este] I but never tying aligning your interests completely with another party so that you can preserve your independence.
Law 21 – Play A Sucker To Catch A Sucker
- Famous con artists Arnold and Slack managed to outwit the most intelligent men in US finance by playing dumb throughout their diamond mine con, ensuring that no suspicion arose among their otherwise savvy marks.
Law 22 – Use The Surrender Tactic
- Never fight for honour [Melos] but instead use surrender as a tactic to allow you to rebuild your strength and learn about your opponent as the Japanese did when opening their island up to Western trade.
Law 23 – Concentrate Your Forces
- The Rothschild banking dynasty became so powerful as they concentrated their strength among a close knit group of family members who then spread out across Europe but always worked in unison.
Law 24 – Play The Perfect Courtier
- Avoiding ostentation, bad news, bad taste, flattery, cynicism, criticism and open emotion while practicing generosity, observation and nonchalance is a constant process that should never leave you even when you become powerful.
Law 25 – Recreate Yourself
- Great leaders like Caeser, Lincoln and Roosevelt understand how to use drama to recreate themselves in difficult circumstances such as crossing the Rubicon or addressing the nation in times of economic crisis.
Law 26 – Conceal Your Mistakes
- Use scapegoats and trusted favourites to act as the fall guys for your own misfortunes or employ allies as cats paws to strike the blows you need but can’t be associated with as Cleopatra secured with Caesar and Mark Anthony.
Law 27 – Play On People’s Need To Believe
- Adopt the practices of Charlatanism [Mesmer / Borri] by keeping things vague/simple and visual/sensual while disguising your sources of income and employing the forms of organised religion and them/us mentality to ensure a cult like following for your power base.
Law 28 – Enter Action With Boldness
- Once entering into action, always be bold and show no sign of doubt as going halfway will dig a deeper grave in the long run. Instead be like Ivan the terrible who murdered his enemies on assuming the throne.
Law 29 – Plan All The Way To The End
- Make provisions to complete your goals entirely [Bismarck] or else suffer the risk of being usurped along the way [Balboa/Pizzaro]
Law 30 – Make Your Accomplishments Seem Effortless
- Houdini practiced his art relentlessly but never seemed to require any effort in order to free himself during his acts, making his power and allure even more mysterious.
Law 31 – Control The Options
- When exercising power you can construct false choices where your opponents have to choose freely from the cards that you have dealt. This is why Ivan the Terrible left the Kremlin by surprise forcing his opponents to choose between unrest or inviting him back as a dictator.
Law 32 – Play To People’s Fantasies
- Humans have a natural desire to accept and seek out good news rather than bad so if you can work your power around a popular fantasy [Bragadino / Venice] your actions will have much stronger potency.
Law 33 – Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew
- Everyone has a weakness to exploit and the smartest operators will always seek to exploit a chink in the armour to full advantage whether it be a subtle influence [Richeliau / Queen Mother] or character trait [ Count Lustig / Herman Loller]
Law 34 – Be Royal In Your Own Fashion
- Christopher Colombus wasn’t the greatest explorer but he acted with an air of royalty when approaching patrons conveying himself as a man of equal importance and destiny, eventually securing the patronage of Queen Isabella of Spain.
Law 35 – Master The Art of Timing
- Joseph Fouche stayed in power throughout the most turbulent parts of French history but ensured that he always knew in advance which way the wind was blowing moving from conservative to radical and back and between monarchy and emperor with ease.
Law 36 – Disdain Things You Cannot Have.
- If you cannot have something it is better to adopt an air of contempt rather than attempt to crush the problem based on bad advice. This is how Pancho Villa outsmarted Woodrow Wilson while King Henry VIII outsmarted the Pope.
Law 37 – Create Compelling Spectacles
- Use symbols and drama to heighten the senses of others [Dr Weisleder \ Diane de Poiters] linking your own personal power with universal motifs and ideas that reach beyond your own terrestrial power.
Law 38 – Think As You Like But Behave As Others
- Unorthodox behaviour attracts the wrong kind of attention so conceal your thoughts while behaving in a way that advances your ability to act upon them [Campanella]
Law 39 – Stir Up Waters To Catch Fish
- Emotion can be used to put your opponents off guard at the critical moment allowing you to act. [Selassie / Gugsa]
Law 40 – Despise The Free Lunch
- Understand that nothing given for free comes without a cost. So learn to treat gifts with suspicion and expect requests to be made.
Law 41 – Avoid Stepping Into A Great Man’s Shoes
- Try not to step into the shoes of someone powerful as your rule will always be compared against what came before. If this happens, learn to forge power in your own image as Alexander The Great achieved by superseding the accomplishments of his father.
Law 42 – Strike the Shepherd to Scatter Sheep
- Trouble can often be traced to one individual who can be ostracised as the Athenians did in order to preserve the peace [Pope Boniface / Dante]
Law 43 – Work On The Hearts And Minds Of Others
- Power always comes with consent so avoid the mistakes of Marie-Antoniette and be more like Chuko Liang who continually captured his enemy until eventually he overwhelmed him with his mercy.
Law 44 – Disarm and Infuriate with The Mirror Effect
- Learn to study, adopt and reflect the actions of others to achieve your aims as Fouche, Yellow Kid Weil and Marie Mancini worked to great effect by outwitting their opponents with smokescreens, staged banks and studied behaviours.
Law 45 – Preach Change But Never Reform Too Much At Once
- Both Thomas Cromwell and Mao understood and preached the need for change but while Cromwell pushed for reformation too strongly Mao learnt how to balance his goals against the consent of the Chinese people.
Law 46 – Never Appear Too Perfect
- Kenneth Halliwell murdered his partner Joe Orton at the very moment where his growing fame and success strained the relationship to breaking point. To avoid this fate, it’s important to allow a few imperfections to creep into your actions that others can take comfort from.
Law 47 – Do Not Overshoot Your Mark, Learn When To Stop
- Unlike Cyrus who fell victim to imperial overstretch, Otto von Bismarck achieved everything he wanted and then stopped, ensuring that Germany unified successfully around the Prussian state.0
Law 48 – Assume Formlessness
- Rigid structures collapse under pressure [Sparta] but those who learn to assume formlessness can exert power in subtle ways by isolating and overwhelming the opponent akin to a game of Go rather than Chess [Athens / Mao]