“The 48 Laws of Power”: Robert Greene’s Recipe for Power, Greed and Misery

“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.

4 thoughts on ““The 48 Laws of Power”: Robert Greene’s Recipe for Power, Greed and Misery

  1. I was involved with a manipulative, abusive, man. He was studying this book, before he went to PRISON. It’s full of evil. I feel many of the tactics were being used on me and other women he had pysically and mentally abused. Made my skin crawl. Who thinks this way? Sick!

  2. Well, I’m not so sure of what I’m about to say at all, but there it go.

    I think that this book is not meant for anyone, although it’s simple to understand, it’s not for use to simple people.

    It’s more like Machiavelli said, in my words, it’s meant for people that dealed with power issues for their whole life, but never realized with what they were really dealing exactly.

    I’m a 25 years old man, graduating in accounting and preparing for engineering, while I run two companies and prepare to start my third company and am thinking about my fourth company to be up before I graduate into my engineering course as means to build with it for governments from inside and outside of the country.

    I work with my companies in the free-market, I work with them into the corporative market, and I’m preparing to run it in as many other modes and markets as I can in the future, all of them.

    But, it wasn’t always this way, besides the fact that I’ve born to a man that was a genius and to a woman that was quite another genius, both into different areas of thought, I saw my life get miserable, and it was not my fault.

    With all the diverse facts that happened, I’ll not make drama, but there was poverty, bankrupcy and I wasn’t understanding it, my father were distant for more than a decade, they were divorced, my mother felt lost while we had my stepfather with his memory lost and with nothing but bills to pay.

    I had culture, good schooling, knew people but were distant, were always in the game before that moment, but left it pass me by.

    So, I was nothing and nobody, basically with no one for nothing, and with a mother that needed help with her depression, period.

    For life, I was crude, but I knew about that book, I refused to read it, my friends used it to play sociopathical games in the city, no criminal activity, but it was play for them, nothing serious, for me it was trash.

    Until the day I needed it.

    I could say things in detail, but to put it simple: I read it, and I had an epiphany.

    A general epiphany, In general, I knew I was crude and ignorant, not bad in the play itself, but not sure about everything…But, what came more into my mind was that it had more deep aspects than it pictures easily.

    I stuck into the preface, it was a clear method. I saw there an engine, a matrix at which I could put many things, and so I did.

    I corrected my visions of the world, of the people I knew and of me and the particular parts of what constitutes me, from first to third person, an so I did with the way I see the world. As a result of this, I saw that it lacked a lot of content.

    Then I started to research and to apply it into my life, from the first time I read it, the next day I started another way of living, I was wisest than a lot of elder people, nicest than a lot of “smart” people, and so on, I was able and capable, one of the choices I’ve made, was to be a good person in fact, for others and for my conciousness.

    Now I understand a lot of fields and I have utility for everything, it’s a book about heterodoxical thought, no room for “unethical” term, you may classify things as imoral, be simple, but we live in a postmodern world, don’t deny utility to your thoughts, make them useful, or clarify to me what is “unethical” because you’re simply blocking utility, while it can’t be blocked in fact.

    Now, for the social responsible part I’ll say something.
    I know that there’s a lot of problems that yeld from that type of reading.
    But you can’t barely find the theleology on sites like wikipedia, you ‘ll have to work to find about some useful stuff on some topics.
    And I’m sure it’ll be hard to find about psychology in a way which can help people understand and articulate a healthy way of conducting a daily thinking based on that book.

    Although the book says about the inteligent use of itself, it can’t obligate the reader to have a standard for good actions…I particularly have learned more from my mother than from the book, it is basically human respect.

    I have read about, I’ve studied about it in college, but I’ve read only Hegelian based stuff before college, I was used to understand that things often have a dualistic condition which is naturally inherent from everything because the book teached me this way, I’ve learned every corner of that book, even those not transcribed in characters.

    So, if someone have a good content which is deep into them, then you should give that book to this someone. You can’t add value to a person that have no correlation with such type of things, or you’re about to create a non-sense based monster.

    Balance is needed, when balance is there equilibrium will appear, will be learned and will not backfire on any weakness or delicate part of your matters, at the individual levels and at the collective levels.

    As for me, I had problems, but I work hard for my life, because I know the values that are linked to everything I’ve built in my life.
    I treat my self as freely as I can, I value the content I have, the intelect I have, the work I’ve done, the work others have done for me, and the precious whole reverse of this all, I am capitalist, I am socialist, I am a state supporter, I am a anarchy enthusiast, and I’ve studied about it all to do it this way, I don’t legitimate things, I do what is best, even the bad side has effects, some are useful into others and some are useful into me, nihilism at it’s most it may be, but this is actually intelligence, I simply let it flow, it’s not limited into me, your intelligence may be amazing to my poket if you’re just content in being my employee, or my friend, or “independent” of me, may be even thinking you’re my enemy, or thinking I’m indifferent, the fact is that I work with the nature, I see it, and Mr. Greene’s book have done a lot of help in the middle of my tools for making it possible, and I’m thankfull for that, not to him specially, but to people and even to God, or nature, I’m not the type of person dependent on a belief, I depend on certainty, for meta-dependence I use knowledge and pratice, so it get done as it should be…

    And to think I haven’t had outside help or funding and have no fear of crisis, I don’t depend on psychologists, or medications, it’s amazing.
    The other part, where I used third party help was wonderful, it was more than I could do alone, it started to be an art, to this day I haven’t had no need for monetary help… I once thought about having a bank, now I think about having a Hedge Fund, actually if I do get into it when I reach the corporate level, I’ll probably open a bunch of them, I’m an inveterate guy, I think about not being a megalomaniac specially for not being a collectivist, but step by step I’ve done far more than I thought it was possible, now I just live what I have refused to dream about for a lot of times…

    And, the last piece, for other people and to try to help because I can’t simply act as if I didn’t saw what I’ve saw.
    My mother had problems with a man that treated her badly in many ways, I’m talking about a sociopath and potentially a psychopath too.
    It is not a matter to be ignored, it is a serious problem, I know what I knew and I know that books like that are a weapon at the wrong hands, but, sick people are not meant to be only respected as human beings, they’re meant to be treated accordingly and sick people of that level are meant to be in jail or at places that treat crazy people, no joke, health is health not an ignorable thing and it extends to other people, I don’t support dangerous people and they need to be locked away.

    I refused for so many times to “act as a man”, I refused to call the police, I refused to do a lot of inutile things, I feared to transform my own mother into a sociopath or worse, but I dealed with that man at a superior level and so forth, I’ve made him pass what he have made my mother pass in other means, I didn’t quite forgive him and he didn’t even knew about it, nor did she forgive him. I learned a lot and studied a lot because of him, but I did it because nobody would do what we thought were fair to the situation, so we ignored the injuring aspects, commited to be loyal to the law and we acted accordingly, at his field we beated the sh!t out of him and we let him go as if he were just passing a bad time at his life (about 9 years) without learning nothing to help him self and without thinking to bother we, the ones who grew with the situation, I don’t support “sick” people, but I do support a healthy life, let justice be made, or helped because I know how to deal with nature by my self too.

    So, life beated me, I learned about it too and I’m still human and a good person, fact that you could check with pure reality.

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