The 48 Laws of Power

February 27, 2015

Power is a game of options.

What is power? It is to social creatures like ourselves as water is to fish. Every action we take (or don’t), every thought we think (or can’t), happens within a knotty network of power relations. To most, these relations are invisible: “I don’t know why I have such a hard time saying no to John, I just do,” or “I can’t just ask for a raise.” And yet, there are some who can not only see the invisible threads of power which bind us, but who can manipulate them. This book is about such people.

The 48 Laws is a potentially shady book—I’ve taken to dubbing it “Sociopathy for Beginners” in conversation—though it’s more about brilliant strategists from history than how to influence people today. And it’s not only for aspiring sociopaths, but those interested in guarding against the machinations of such characters. (Or those who want to understand Game of Thrones, or office politics, a little better.)

Not everyone can follow these rules—and most wouldn’t want to. It strikes me as a profoundly lonely way to go about things. The price of treating everyone as a pawn, as a tool to be manipulated, is solipsism: you become utterly alone. There is, I’ve found, a certain pleasure in trusting others. This book doesn’t deny that; it’s simply not interested.

The Laws in General

While the title promises 48 Laws of power, I found that most can be generalized to just four: keep your options open, wait for the right time to act, persuade others with actions and not words, and always consider the endgame.

Keep Your Options Open, Never Commit Unless You Have To

If I had to pick “The One Law of Power,” it would be this. Power is a game of options. The surest way to get someone to do what you want is to arrange things so that it’s their best option, and one they freely (if grudgingly) choose. The obvious corollary is that if you want to prevent yourself from being manipulated by others, you must guard your options from being hemmed in.

Charles Talleyrand, the French statesman whose career spanned, against all odds, several revolutionary governments and the rise and fall of Napoleon, illustrates this principle. While it must have been tempting to choose sides in such tumultuous times, Talleyrand’s singular survival owes to his not doing so:

Talleyrand, now elderly, sat by his Paris window, listening to the pealing bells that signaled the riots were over. Turning to an assistant, he said, “Ah, the bells! We’re winning.” “Who’s ‘we,’ mon prince?” the assistant asked. Gesturing for the man to keep quiet, Talleyrand replied, “Not a word! I’ll tell you who we are tomorrow.” He well knew that only fools rush into a situation—that by committing too quickly you lose your maneuverability.

Remaining neutral also opens up the possibility of pitting rival factions against each other. The Italian noble Castruccio Castracani took advantage of this to capture the town of Pistoia in the fourteenth century:

Castruccio knew that Pistoia contained two rival factions, the Blacks and the Whites, which hated one another. He negotiated with the Blacks, promising to help them against the Whites; then, without their knowledge, he promised the Whites he would help them against the Blacks. And Castruccio kept his promises—he sent an army to a Black-controlled gate to the city, which the sentries of course welcomed in. Meanwhile another of his armies entered through a White-controlled gate. The two armies united in the middle, occupied the town, killed the leaders of both factions, ended the internal war, and took Pistoia for Castruccio.

A simple way to guard against committing too eagerly is to say not much at all, like King Louis XIV:

No one could try to deceive him by saying what they thought he wanted to hear, because no one knew what he wanted to hear. As they talked on and on to the silent Louis, they revealed more and more about themselves, information he would later use against them to great effect.

Although, it may sometimes be useful to bait enemies with talk of false goals:

Hide your intentions not by closing up (with the risk of appearing secretive, and making people suspicious) but by talking endlessly about your desires and goals—just not your real ones. You will kill three birds with one stone: You appear friendly, open, and trusting; you conceal your intentions; and you send your rivals on time-consuming wild-goose chases.

Wait For the Right Time, but Act Decisively When It Arrives

Keeping your options open is fine and well, but the whole point of having options is to pick the best one. When the time comes to act, do so quickly and forcefully. Act forcefully enough and you may even earn a moniker like “The Terrible”. When Vasily III, Grand Duke of Moscow and ruler of Russia, died in 1533, he named his three year-old son Ivan as a successor. The aristocracy quickly moved in and took control of the palace and the state, but kept young Ivan around as an object of mockery. His abuse was proof of their power.

To the boyars it seemed that their plan had worked: The young man had turned into a terrified and obedient idiot. They could ignore him now, even leave him alone. But on the evening of December 29, 1543, Ivan, now thirteen, asked Prince Andrei Shuisky to come to his room. When the prince arrived, the room was filled with palace guards. Young Ivan then pointed his finger at Andrei and ordered the guards to arrest him, have him killed, and throw his body to the bloodhounds in the royal kennel. Over the next few days Ivan had all of Andrei’s close associates arrested and banished. Caught off-guard by his sudden boldness, the boyars now stood in mortal terror of this youth, the future Ivan the Terrible, who had planned and waited for five years to execute this one swift and bold act that would secure his power for decades to come.

As Greene notes, inspired by Sun Tzu’s Art of War:

Patience is worthless unless combined with a willingness to fall ruthlessly on your opponent at the right moment.

It’s important that your action be decisive. If it’s likely to earn you bitter enemies, ensure they can’t strike back. Chiang Kai-shek learned this lesson the hard way in the Chinese Civil War:

Chiang was determined to eliminate every last Communist, and by a few years later Mao had less than 10,000 soldiers left. By 1937, in fact, when China was invaded by Japan, Chiang calculated that the Communists were no longer a threat. He chose to give up the chase and concentrate on the Japanese. Ten years later the Communists had recovered enough to rout Chiang’s army. Chiang had forgotten the ancient wisdom of crushing the enemy; Mao had not.

Win Through Action, Never Argument

Any follower of American politics in the 21st century should be well aware of this law, and its corollary:

Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity.

Our human brains suffer from what’s called the omission bias, a cognitive weakness toward not acting, even when that carries greater risk than acting, because of a misperception that we’re somehow less responsible for harm caused by a failure to act than an action. We also suffer from the status quo bias, an irrational preference for the way things are. Because of these implicit biases, it’s unduly difficult to convince people to take a risky action through reason alone. However, you can use this to your advantage by taking bold, even unwarranted action, because the burden of overcoming others’ preference for inaction and the status quo will now fall on your enemies.

Monsieur Talleyrand, a former Minister of Napoleon, is instructive here as well. In the years following the fallen emperor’s exile, Talleyrand knew of the danger the man still posed to Europe. He knew Elba was a fragile cage for a man of Napoleon’s ambition, but couldn’t convince his fellow statesman. So rather than remain nervous about the possibility of Napoleon’s escape, Talleyrand secretly engineered the escape himself at a time when he knew France was weak and could not sustain imperial ambitions. By bringing Napoleon back to power, Talleyrand finally convinced his colleagues of the former emperor’s danger, and the second time Napoleon was exiled would be the last.

First, he overcame the urge to try to convince his fellow statesmen that they needed to banish Napoleon far away. It is only natural to want to persuade people by pleading your case, imposing your will with words. But this often turns against you. Few of Talleyrand’s contemporaries believed Napoleon was still a threat, so that if he had spent a lot of energy trying to convince them, he would only have made himself look foolish. Instead, he held his tongue and his emotions in check. Most important of all, he laid Napoleon a sweet and irresistible trap.

A more amusing example of this law involved the Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. Florence’s mayor, Piero Soderini, was reviewing Michaelangelo’s latest work, the David. Soderini thought the nose was too big, which Michelangelo knew was only because Soderini was looking at it from below, but he could hardly contradict the mayor of the city. And so Michelangelo picked up his chisel and, furtively, a few pinches of marble dust, and asked Soderini to come with him up the scaffold (to a better vantage). Michelangelo pretended to chisel away some of the nose for a few minutes, all the while dropping marble dust to make it look like he was really working. When the artist was finished, Soderini (now up on the scaffold, and able to see the face from a better viewpoint), declared “I like it better, you’ve made it come alive.” Greene summarizes:

Michelangelo found a way to keep the perfection of the statue intact while at the same time making Soderini believe he had improved it. Such is the double power of winning through actions rather than argument: No one is offended, and your point is proven.

Plan Through to the End

This lesson comes from history as well as chess: before taking any action, consider the endgame. What are the possible states of affairs your action is likely to bring about, and what might your options be at those points?

Most men are ruled by the heart, not the head. Their plans are vague, and when they meet obstacles they improvise. But improvisation will only bring you as far as the next crisis, and is never a substitute for thinking several steps ahead and planning to the end.

The French elections of 1848 provide an object lesson in not thinking through to the end. The elections were between Louis-Adolphe Theirs, the establishment candidate, and Eugène Cavaignac, a populist. As Thiers fell farther back in the polls,

he searched desperately for a solution. His eye fell on Louis Bonaparte, grand-nephew of the great general Napoleon, and a lowly deputy in the parliament. This Bonaparte seemed a bit of an imbecile, but his name alone could get him elected in a country yearning for a strong ruler. He would be Thiers’s puppet and eventually would be pushed offstage. The first part of the plan worked to perfection, and Napoleon was elected by a large margin. The problem was that Theirs had not foreseen one simple fact: This “imbecile” was in fact a man of enormous ambition. Three years later he dissolved parliament, declared himself emperor, and ruled France for another eighteen years, much to the horror of Theirs and his party.

Before embarking on a plan to solve an immediate problem, think through to its conclusion and be sure it won’t bring about even more serious problems.

Of course, an important part of planning through to the end is to know the end when you see it, and not overreach. Otto von Bismarck knew this well: after deftly conquering and uniting the German kingdoms into a unified Germany, he stopped, even at the height of his strength. He had accomplished his goal, and would not press his luck.

In the realm of power, you must be guided by reason. To let a momentary thrill or an emotional victory influence or guide your moves will prove fatal. When you attain success, step back. Be cautious.

Conclusion

The 48 Laws is perhaps not as sinister as I’ve made it out to be1. Far from glorifying brute force, Greene is at his best when writing about underdogs and con artists, people of little wealth or power who rise up on the strength of their wits. I especially enjoyed the story of Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch woman who became the toast of the French court in the early 1900s by convincing them that she was an Indian dancer named Mata Hari. Or Count Lustig, a con man who tricked a greedy industrialist into buying the Eiffel Tower for scrap2. While these laws may be drawn on for offense or protection, they’re ultimately just truths about the kinds of creatures we sometimes are, together.


  1. Perhaps. Its chapters do contain such gems of social well-adjustment as “Law #2: Never put too much trust in friends,” “Law #7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit,” and “Law #17: keep others in suspended terror.”

  2. Lustig pretended to be a civil servant, and brilliantly assured his mark of the pretense’s authenticity by asking for a bribe.