“The 48 Laws of Power” is a 1998 book by Robert Greene, a best-seller, and a re-packaging of ideas from multiple sources, including “The Prince” and “The Art of War.” Those who wonder why it is that certain sub-cultures in the United States—business, Hollywood, the entertainment industry, politics, finance— appear to be incurably cynical, amoral, corrupt and untrustworthy would do well to read it, provided they are able to resist being persuaded by its brutal philosophy.
Greene, who has other similarly-oriented best-selling books on business success, is considered a guru by the music industry, and has been embraced with special enthusiasm by hip-hop moguls. What is remarkable about his 48 laws is how completely they discard all ethical virtues, as if fairness, honesty, integrity, responsibility, respect and trustworthiness were irrelevant to the topic of power. In fact, the five most important laws of power are…
1. You must prove your worthiness to hold power by your manner of acquiring it.
2. Power without competence, wisdom and good will lead to tragedy.
3. Do not use power to restrict the welfare, autonomy, freedom, and pleasure of others, but to enhance them.
4. Regard power as a means, not an end.
5. When retaining power itself becomes the goal, it is time to surrender it.
Naturally, Greene ignores all of these. Of his so-called “laws,” the majority (about 28) endorse unethical conduct; the rest are ethically neutral, describing pragmatic actions, not ethical ones:
1. Never outshine the master. PRAGMATIC
2. Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies. UNETHICAL: “using” others is inherently unfair and disrespectful
3. Conceal your intentions. UNETHICAL: deceptive
4. Always say less than necessary. UNETHICAL: deceptive, lack of candor.
5. So much depends on reputation. Guard it with your life. PRAGMATIC
6. Court attention at all costs. UNETHICAL: “at all costs” ignores the welfare of others.
7. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit. UNETHICAL: unfair
8. Make other people come to you; use bait if necessary. UNETHICAL: “making” people do what you want to is an abuse of respect and autonomy
9. Win through your actions, never through argument. UNETHICAL: rejects persuasion in favor of coercion
10. Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky. PRAGMATIC
11. Learn to keep people dependent on you. UNETHICAL: Golden Rule violation
12. Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim. UNETHICAL: dishonest, unfair, callous, Golden Rule violation
13. When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interests, never to their mercy or gratitude. UNETHICAL: encouraging unethical conduct in others.
14. Pose as a friend, work as a spy. UNETHICAL: dishonest; breach of integrity.
15. Crush your enemy totally. UNETHICAL: Golden Rule violation
16. Use absence to increase respect and honor. UNETHICAL: deceit, failure of diligence, manipulation of others
17. Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability. UNETHICAL: disrespect, unfair, uncaring
18. Do not build fortresses to protect yourself. Isolation is dangerous. PRAGMATIC
19. Know who you’re dealing with; do not offend the wrong person. PRAGMATIC
20. Do not commit to anyone. UNETHICAL: untrustworthy, Golden Rule violation
21. Play a sucker to catch a sucker: play dumber than your mark. UNETHICAL: dishonest
22. Use the surrender tactic: transform weakness into power. UNETHICAL: deception
23. Concentrate your forces. PRAGMATIC
24. Play the perfect courtier. UNETHICAL: deception
25. Re-create yourself. UNETHICAL: deception, lack of integrity
26. Keep your hands clean. PRAGMATIC
27. Play on people’s need to believe to create a cultlike following. UNETHICAL: deception, manipulation, unfair
28. Enter action with boldness. PRAGMATIC
29. Plan all the way to the end. PRAGMATIC
30. Make your accomplishments seem effortless. UNETHICAL: deception
31. Control the options: get others to play with the cards you deal. UNETHICAL: unfair, Golden Rule violation
32. Play to people’s fantasies. UNETHICAL: manipulation, disrespect
33. Discover each man’s thumbscrew. UNETHICAL: abuse of autonomy, Golden Rule violation
34. be royal in your fashion: act like a king to be treated like one. PRAGMATIC
35. Master the art of timing. PRAGMATIC
36. Disdain things you cannot have: Ignoring them is the best revenge. PRAGMATIC
37. Create compelling spectacles. PRAGMATIC
38. Think as you like but behave like others. UNETHICAL: deception
39. Stir up waters to catch fish. UNETHICAL: irresponsible; Golden Rule violation
40. Despise the free lunch. PRAGMATIC
41. Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes. PRAGMATIC
42. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. PRAGMATIC
43. Work on the hearts and minds of others. PRAGMATIC
44. Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect. UNETHICAL: deception
45. Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once. PRAGMATIC
46. Never appear perfect. PRAGMATIC
47. Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory, learn when to stop. PRAGMATIC
48. Assume formlessness. UNETHICAL: deception
There is a reason lists like Greene’s are popular: for those only interested in power for its own sake, they work. They also make American society more mean, inefficient, greedy and uncaring than it has to be. The irony is that one is better off having less power in an ethical and happy society than more power in an unethical and miserable one. Thanks to Greene and his followers, however, increasing numbers of Americans get the worst of both world: less power in an increasingly unhappy culture.