Here in the US we’re starting to boot up our presidential election cycle, a two year political circus we endure after a very brief two year vacation. It’s about this time in the four year cycle that I revisit a book that has been very influential in my thinking and writing, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. While not exactly ‘cool’ in the sense that it makes you go ‘wow’ or inspires you to shove it into the hands of random people on the street, this book is still a must read for anyone who intends to live in a theoretically free and democratic society like a constitutional republic.
The 48 Laws is nonfiction and, like most nonfiction, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. Greene opens his book with an introduction to power, why people seek it and why they keep it, and offers some basic warnings to the casual reader. This is not a book of right and wrong, not a thing of moral imperatives, but a book of things people have done in the past and that have resulted in those people amassing or keeping hold of power. It then plunges into each of the 48 laws, each with a short chapter on how the law has been proven, both by people who obeyed it and prospered and those who disobeyed it and suffered, and how the law might be implemented practically. Each chapter is packed with amusing anecdotes, cautionary tales and useful memory devices. The book ends with a bibliography of sources, in case you want to delve deeper into examples of any of the laws of power you’ve just studied. The book doesn’t need to be read in any particular order, and could just serve as a handy guidebook on manipulating people.
If you’re into that kind of thing.
Greene doesn’t waste any space in The 48 Laws. Each law is quickly explained and it’s implications explored thoroughly but succinctly. A powerful person will only spend as much time as is necessary on a thing, after all. For all that, it’s very informative and engrossing. The pages are populated by historical figures, well known and obscure, who’s cunning and wisdom has ensured that they find and stand in places of power. It’s much like entering an exclusive club and finding it full of witty, gregarious people who are willing to tell you anything you want to know. They probably realize that if you can understand what they’re telling you, you’d have figured it out on your own. So why not share? They’re not around for you to bother any more.
Why read The 48 Laws of Power? For starters, it’s a great villain’s guidebook. Both Circuit and Senator Brahms Dawson, the primary antagonists in my Project Sumter stories, use gambits or adopt policies that are derived from reading this book. Of course, Helix and others also demonstrate some of the laws but they rarely do so deliberately.
There’s also a goldmine of human psychology here. You don’t have to actively seek to amass power to glean lessons about how your mind and the minds of others works and benefit from them. And, of course, as you may already realize from reading this blog, I don’t think power in itself is a bad thing. Getting power for it’s own sake will undoubtedly make one a villain and advancing the wrong causes with your power can easily do more harm than good. But simply because you’re armed with the strategies and techniques of power doesn’t make you a bad person.
And that brings me to why I’m recommending this book at this time. Politicians are all about power and manipulation. They use the laws of power frequently and shamelessly. Reading Greene’s book will ready you for those techniques and equip you to see past them and analyze what lies behind the power. Is it selfishness? An unworthy cause? A worthy one? These are things worth knowing. And once you know, well, that’s half the battle.
And that’s very cool, indeed.