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Book Review: "The 48 Laws of Power", by Robert Greene

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan, describing the Earth in “Pale Blue Dot” (1994)

The above quote was much of how I felt while reading “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene. Much like dipping your face into a pensieve, reading this book felt very much like looking at somebody else’s memory in times past – regardless of how applicable the laws of power are today.

I picked this book up because I wanted to defend myself against those who would otherwise use these laws against me (which have happened several times in the past to great effect), and because I wanted to see further and wider in the future.

The laws of power do not shy away from the nasty or the brutish, and this book is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, multiple descriptions of beheadings and executions befall the examples of those who transgress the laws of power. This includes those who have done nothing wrong, such as Sir Walther Raleigh (who failed to cover up his accomplishments in front of other envious courtiers). The author does not necessarily paint those who obey the laws of power in a positive light either. Positive examples of those who exploited power successfully include con artists like Joesph “Yellow Kid” Weil and royal mistresses like Madame du Pompadour, among others. At certain times, such as the author’s description of Zhuge Liang sparing the king Menghuo seven times after seven attacks in order to earn his trust, the book has a certain hilarious flair. But one should not expect power to be anything else except a dismal art, as displayed throughout the book.

This book rather wisely uses older examples in history instead of newer ones. I was disappointed early on when example after example referenced times in history no sooner than the 1950s (Bertolt Brecht outwitting the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1952), when I was keen on hearing examples closer to those in the present (Mafia busts? Enron?) and more applicable to those I might find in my life. When I reflect back on this book, however, I think this was a highly prudent move. Those involved in and those who have a stake in these examples are long gone; this would obviously not be the case for newer examples. The author also leaves the reader to interpret how to use these laws of power, which is also a wise decision. Those who know how, will, no matter how outdated these examples are. Those who can’t, wouldn’t with newer examples anyways.

The author remonstrates that the laws of power are perfectly applicable to today’s world; I would agree, though I would wish that the author added the rule of law has significantly complemented laws of power considerations in many fields. In fields as diverse as finding a significant other, starting and running a business, or running for public office, the considerations of laws of power still exist. Humans change over time, but humanity mostly stays the same. What is different are the things that stay: the democratic institutions thoughtfully erected by founding fathers around the world, the knowledge distilled into laws, and the technology that makes it all go – all of these and more combine to make a world where the excesses of laws of power successes and failures are tempered and their effects blunted for the common man.

This book is a fun read, but the advice in here should be applied conservatively and only towards certain activities and persons. Only a master of this art can get away with scheming for so long, and for good people (people for whom applying the laws of power are painful), it’s not much of a life to live.