The 48 Laws of Power is perhaps Robert Greene’s most famous work. It’s the book that put him on the map.
The premise of the book is simple. Greene lays out the rules you need to heed if you wish to hold and keep positions of power.
All of these laws have some basis in history. One of the hallmarks of Greene’s writing is that he uses examples from the past to explain his points.
You have laws about not trusting your friends too much, why you should say less than necessary and win the argument through your actions, not your words.
As there are 48 laws, I’m not going to go into detail about all of them. You can buy the book for that!
In this The 48 Laws of Power summary, I’m going to look at three aspects of the book and sum up the lessons about power Greene shares.
Greene’s work such as Mastery and The Laws of Human Nature are brilliant books full of useful information.
His first book is no different.
Table of Contents
The 48 Laws of Power Summary
Takeaway 1 – Don’t trust your friends too much if you’re in a position of power
Friends will betray you quicker than enemies.
When Michael III became Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, he made Basilius, a man who saved Michael’s life a few years before, his chief councillor as he considered him a friend.
This was in spite of his uncle, Bardas, who had helped Michael to the throne and was an intelligent and ambitious man.
Michael was wary that Bardas would conspire against him. Instead, it was Basilius who betrayed him after he was made head of the army, stabbing him one night, proclaiming himself Emperor riding through the streets of Byzantium with Michael’s head on a pike.
Emperor Sung of China took a different approach. Instead of appointing his friends as advisers, he gave all his generals land and titles to ward off their threats.
Then when he conquered new lands, instead of killing the rulers of those lands he spared their lives and gave them ranks in the imperial courts. This surprised his enemies and turned them into loyal servants of Sung.
As Robert Greene states in his book:
“While a friend expects more and more favours, and seethes with jealousy, these former enemies expected nothing and got everything. A man suddenly spared the guillotine is a grateful man indeed and will go to the ends of the earth for the man who pardoned him.”
It’s a paradox that our friends are more likely to betray us than our enemies, but that’s one of the many quirks of humans.
Friends can tend to expect too much and become slighted if they don’t get what they believe they deserve. This is similar to what Anne Applebaum describes as a motivation for some of the figures in her book, Twilight of Democracy.
Be careful who you choose to keep close to you. It may be more beneficial to keep your enemies closer than your friends.
Takeaway 2 – Guard your reputation with your life
Protect your reputation; your power builds up with a solid reputation and diminishes when it slips.
Chuko Liang dispatched his army to a camp while he rested in a small town with a handful of soldiers. He was then told that an army of over 150,000 was marching toward their location.
Instead of accepting his fate, he ordered his troops to take down their flags, open the city gates and hide. He then proceeded to take a seat on the most visible part of the city’s wall, wearing a robe.
He lit some incense, strummed a lute and began to chant. When the enemy army reached the gates, he continued to play his lute. The enemy leader, Sima Yi, recognised Liang and hesitated and eventually ordered a speedy retreat.
Liang’s reputation as someone who always had a trick up his sleeve worried Yi and was what coursed him to retreat.
As Greene states:
“A solid reputation increases your presence and exaggerates your strengths without your having to spend much energy. It can also create an aura around you that will instil respect, even fear.”
If you lose your reputation, it’s almost to recover it. If you act like you don’t care about your reputation, then others will decide it for you.
This is one of the things Tiger Woods did zealously until his cheating was exposed. He relentlessly controlled his image to give the impression he was a model athlete, husband and father.
Ever since that facade came crashing down in November 2009, he’s not been able to restore it. The same applies to Lance Armstrong. The revelations in The Secret Race and Seven Deadly Sins about doping damaged his reputation beyond repair.
A reputation takes a long time to build, but it can evaporate in an instant.
Takeaway 3 – Conceal your intentions
Keep people off-balance by keeping the motives behind your actions under wraps
A courtier, Marquis de Sevigne, was trying to woo a woman in the French court but was not succeeding. With the help of a lady of the court, Ninon de Lenclos he was able to get her interested by acting as if he wasn’t interested.
However, the ploy failed when he revealed his intentions early when they were alone. After he told her he loved her, she stopped being interested and drifted out of his life.
Had he not acted on impulses and concealed his intentions for longer, he may have seduced her.
Bismarck rose to power in Prussia by astutely concealing his intentions. He wanted war with Austria as a means to unite Germany. However, the idea of war was unpopular as it was likely that Prussia would lose against Austria.
Well-known as a war hawk, Bismarck gave a speech against starting a war in parliament which astonished many. After the speech, the King made him a cabinet minister and a few years later he became the Prussian premier.
In the end, he led his country to war against Austria which he won, they then defeated France which led to a united Germany.
Had Bismarck acted like de Sevigne, he would have jeopardised his plans. By keeping them concealed and signalling to everyone his intention was something else, he was able to advance his true motive.
It may seem underhand to conceal what you want to do, but in some cases, it’s better if you want them to actually come to fruition.
As Mark Manson might say, if you give too many f*cks about your desired outcome, it becomes obvious to everyone else. By caring less, or acting like you do, you put people off the scent.
The 48 Laws of Power review
My The 48 Laws of Power summary has looked at Robert Greene’s seminal book on how to achieve power and how to wield it.
I’d heard about this book for so long, mainly through Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle Is The Way, who worked with Greene.
The book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it was a fascinating read nonetheless.
I didn’t expect there to be so many historical stories, but I’m glad there are. They are the perfect way to express Greene’s point and help you understand the various laws.
The detail Greene goes into is fantastic and it gives you the sense this book was a labour of love.
He explains the various laws, and whether you agree with them or not, a lot of reasoning is behind each one.
If you find you’re too passive or seen as a nice guy, this book will help you understand how humans operate. It may seem Machiavellian in nature, but there’s a benefit to understanding the laws of power.
Who should read The 48 Laws of Power?
If you want to become a politician or the boss of a big firm, this is a book you have to read. It’s an unvarnished look at how power works all over the world.
Much like Machiavelli’s The Prince, it’s a useful book that will help anyone in a large firm, politics or a workplace.
If none of this applies to you, then the book will entertain on an educational level.