The 48 Laws of Power

48 hours of power

The 48 Laws of Power (1998) is the first book by American author Robert Greene. The book, an international bestseller, is a practical guide for anyone who wants power, observes power, or wants to arm himself against power. 

Background

Greene initially formulated some of the ideas in The 48 Laws of Power while working as a writer in Hollywood and observing that today’s power elite shared similar traits with powerful figures throughout history. In 1995, Greene worked as a writer at Fabrica, an art and media school, and met a book packager named Joost Elffers. Greene pitched a book about power to Elffers and six months later, Elffers requested that Greene write a treatment.

Although Greene was unhappy in his current job, he was comfortable and saw the time needed to write a proper book proposal as too risky. However, at the time Greene was rereading his favorite biography about Julius Caesar and took inspiration from Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon River and fight Pompey, thus inciting the Great Roman Civil War. Greene would follow Caesar’s example and write the treatment, which later became The 48 Laws of Power. He would note this as the turning point of his life.

Synopsis

The 48 Laws of Power are a distillation of 3,000 years of the history of power, drawing on the lives of strategists and historical figures like Niccolò Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry Kissinger, P.T. Barnum and Baltasar Gracián. The book is intended to show people how to gain power, preserve it, and defend themselves against power manipulators. Each law is its own chapter, complete with a “transgression of the law,” “observation of the law,” and a “reversal.” Those laws are:

1. Never outshine the master.
2. Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies.
3. Conceal your intentions.
4. Always say less than necessary.
5. So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life.
6. Court attention at all costs.
7. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.
8. Make other people come to you; use bait if necessary.
9. Win through your actions, never through argument.
10. Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky.
11. Learn to keep people dependent on you.
12. Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim.
13. When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interests, never to their mercy or gratitude.
14. Pose as a friend, work as a spy.
15. Crush your enemy totally.
16. Use absence to increase respect and honor.
17. Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability.
18. Do not build fortresses to protect yourself. Isolation is dangerous.
19. Know who you’re dealing with; do not offend the wrong person.
20. Do not commit to anyone.
21. Play a sucker to catch a sucker: play dumber than your mark.
22. Use the surrender tactic: transform weakness into power.
23. Concentrate your forces.
24. Play the perfect courtier.
25. Re-create yourself.
26. Keep your hands clean.
27. Play on people’s need to believe to create a cultlike following.
28. Enter action with boldness.
29. Plan all the way to the end.
30. Make your accomplishments seem effortless.
31. Control the options: get others to play with the cards you deal.
32. Play to people’s fantasies.
33. Discover each man’s thumbscrew.
34. Be royal in your fashion: act like a king to be treated like one.
35. Master the art of timing.
36. Disdain things you cannot have: Ignoring them is the best revenge.
37. Create compelling spectacles.
38. Think as you like but behave like others.
39. Stir up waters to catch fish.
40. Despise the free lunch.
41. Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes.
42. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.
43. Work on the hearts and minds of others.
44. Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect.
45. Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once.
46. Never appear too perfect.
47. Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory, learn when to stop.
48. Assume formlessness.

Reception

The 48 Laws of Power has sold over 1.2 million copies in the United States and has been translated into 24 languages. Fast Company called the book a “mega cult classic,” and The Los Angeles Times noted that The 48 Laws of Power turned Greene into a “cult hero with the hip-hop set, Hollywood elite and prison inmates alike.” The book has been featured in publications like CNN, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, Entrepreneur magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, USA Today, The Guardian, Business Insider, Fast Company, ESPN, and Men’s Health.

Cultural impact

The 48 Laws of Power is taught in business management classes and is one of the most requested books in American prison libraries. The book is influential with a wide array of entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes, and movie stars. Dov Charney, founder and CEO of American Apparel, has handed out hundreds of copies of the book to friends and employees and frequently quotes the laws during board meetings (he would also later appoint Greene to American Apparel’s board of directors).

50 Cent stated that he related to the book “immediately,” and approached Greene with the prospect of a potential collaboration, which would later become The 50th Law, another New York Times bestseller. Busta Rhymes used The 48 Laws of Power to deal with problematic movie producers. DJ Premier has a tattoo inspired from Law #5, “Reputation is the cornerstone of power”, on his arm and DJ Calvin Harris has an “Enter with boldness” arm tattoo based on Law #28. The 48 Laws of Power has also been mentioned in songs by Jay Z, Kanye West, and Drake. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro is also reported to have read the book.
The Netflix adaptation series House of Cards reflects many of the themes displayed in “The 48 Laws of Power”.

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