Book Summary: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Book Cover for The 48 Laws of Power

This summary of The 48 Laws of Power outlines every law in Robert Greene’s book. Each chapter of the book establishes one law, along with examples of its transgressions and observances. Greene then explains why the law works. The final section of each chapter (“Reversal”) warns you of how each law might backfire. The chapters are standalone, so you can pick up the book and read about any individual law without reading the entire book.

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You should also check out my blog posts on or inspired by this book:

Table Of Contents
  1. Key Takeaways from The 48 Laws of Power
  2. Detailed Summary of The 48 Laws of Power
  3. My Thoughts

Key Takeaways from The 48 Laws of Power

Since 48 Laws are far too many to deal with in one go, I’ve tried to distil the elements of each law and group them along similar themes. While there are different ways to slice and dice things, I think my grouping is a useful way of “chunking” these laws:

  • Pay attention to people and understand human nature, including your own (Laws 19, 33).
    • Actions, symbols and emotions are more convincing than words (Laws 9, 27, 32, 37, 43).
    • Self-interest is a more reliable motivator than gratitude or mercy (Law 13). Gratitude is a burden and people will try to rid themselves of it (Laws 2, 13).
    • Beware of envy (Laws 1246).
    • Scarcity makes things more desirable – people want what they can’t have (Law 16).
    • People are conservative and don’t like a lot of change (Law 45).
    • Humans are affected by the moods and attitudes of those around us (Law 10).
    • In some groups, power is concentrated in the hands of a few (Law 42).
    • Distracting others gives you room to operate (Law 6, 12, 37, 44).
  • Appearances matter, sometimes more than reality (Law 5).
    • You can gain power by being or looking competent (Laws 7, 11, 26, 30), mysterious (Laws 3, 4, 6, 16, 17), regal and “above the fray” (Laws 34, 36).
    • You may look weak by getting angry or emotional over things you can’t have (Law 36) or being compared to someone greater than you (Law 41).
    • There are disadvantages to looking too powerful or perfect, as it could make others see you as a threat or “out of touch” (Laws 1, 18, 46). It may sometimes be better to look weak so that others underestimate you (Laws 21, 22).
    • Sometimes it is good to stick out (Laws 6, 37); other times it’s better to blend in (Laws 3, 38, 44).
  • Information is important.
    • Get information about others, particularly their weaknesses (Laws 14, 18, 19, 33).
    • Don’t reveal too much about yourself (Laws 3, 4, 17).
  • Make plans and think through different permutations (Law 29) but also be adaptable (Laws 20, 24, 38, 44, 48).
    • Direct, rather than react (Laws 8, 25, 28, 31).
    • Disrupt others’ plans (Laws 8, 28, 39)
    • Be patient and play the long game (Laws 22, 29, 35).
  • Be rational, not emotional (Laws 2, 39, 47). Don’t get distracted (Laws 36, 40)
  • Power sometimes requires a big show of force (Laws 15, 23, 28) but usually it is better to be subtle and indirect (Laws 11, 24, 31, 43, 44).

Detailed Summary of The 48 Laws of Power

Most laws have multiple elements or aspects. For example, Law 3 tells you to “Conceal your intentions”. This involves cultivating an air of mystery to get people to respect you, as well as undermining people’s attempts to plot against you by not giving much information away. As shown in my Key Takeaways above, many of these underlying elements (such as controlling your emotions) appear under multiple laws. Some examples are repeated -I believe the Bertolt Brecht example was used three times.

In my summary below, I try to separate out the different elements of each law. I also include a sample of the examples and quotations I enjoyed – there are many more in the book.

I didn’t like the gratuitous and over-the-top sleaziness in the way this book is written, so in some places, I have moderated the language without changing the meaning too much. For example, in my explanation of Law 21, I write that if people suspect they’re smarter than you, they’ll be less suspicious of your motives. In the original text, Greene talks about “victims” and “suckers” rather than merely “people”, and “ulterior motives” rather than just “motives”. Such language is unnecessary, and it assumes that you have nefarious reasons for seeking power, which may not be true.

Full list of the 48 Laws of Power

Law 1: Never outshine the master

  • Make your master look good.
    • All masters want to look good, so they’ll like you more if you can help with that.
    • However, it’s best to be discreet when you do so, because your peers may react badly to obvious flattery. One way to be discreet is to act naïve and make it seem like you need your master’s help. Another way is to give him credit for your (good) ideas.
  • Don’t make yourself look better than the master.
    • Everyone has insecurities, and some masters are more insecure than others. Displaying your talents – even inadvertently – can stir up resentment, envy and other forms of insecurity.
    • If you are naturally very good, you may have to downplay your impressive qualities.
    • Even if your master likes you, don’t take that for granted. You can easily fall out of favour.

If your superior is losing power, you don’t have to worry about outshining him. Sometimes it may make sense to hasten his downfall if he’s already weak

48 Laws of Power - Law 1 - Never Outshine the Master
Law 1: Never Outshine the Master

Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies

  • You may not know your friends as well as you think, so be wary of them. Friends tend to agree on things to avoid arguments or to avoid causing offence.
  • Mixing friendship with work can cause issues.
    • The right person for a job is the most competent one; chances are that won’t be one of your existing friends.
    • Hiring a friend can also unbalance a relationship. It’s almost condescending to hire someone because they’re your friend. Your friend may resent feeling like they “owe” you. Or, to the contrary, they could come to expect favours from you.
Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.
  • Former enemies can be useful:
    • Transforming an enemy into an ally gets rid of an “enemy”.
    • A former enemy can be more loyal than a friend, because they have more to prove, and expect no favours from you.
    • Enemies that remain enemies can also be useful, as they can make your cause look better and serve as a target for people to rally against. [Sebastian Junger made a similar point in Tribe.]

The key example in this chapter involved Michael III of the Byzantine Empire trusting his best friend, Basilius. Basilius, a former horse groomer, had saved Michael’s life when a horse got loose. In return, Michael gave him lots of gifts and promoted him to a position of trusted advisor. Basilius eventually accumulated so much wealth and power that he refused to pay back money he had borrowed from Michael, and instead had him killed.


Sometimes a friend can be more useful than an enemy. Greene suggests exploiting a friend’s affection for you to get them to do your dirty work and/or act as a scapegoat. This can be particularly effective as people are less likely to believe that you would sacrifice a friend unless they really did something wrong. [No wonder so many people ask if The 48 Laws of Power is evil].

Working with friends can cause issues because it can confuse boundaries. If both parties involved are clear on the boundaries and the risks, a friend can be very helpful. But you still should not let your guard down, and should remain alert for signs of envy and lack of gratitude.

Law 3: Conceal your intentions

  • Most people are open books. It’s natural for people to say what they think, and many believe that being honest and open will win over others. Greene argues that this is delusional, as honesty is likely to offend others.
  • You shouldn’t let people know what you are up to.
    • Concealing your intentions doesn’t mean saying nothing. That can make others suspicious. Instead, talk about your (false) desires and goals. This should be relatively easy, as people tend to default to truth.
    • Sharing your “heartfelt” thoughts will make you appear friendly and trustworthy, especially if you openly talk about how much you value things like honesty.
    • Pretending to support an idea or cause that you don’t can make others think you’ve had a genuine change of heart, since few people are so cavalier with what they believe.
  • Decoys and smokescreens will make it harder for others to plan and defend against you.
    • A decoy actively distracts, while a smokescreen lulls people into a sense of security.
    • Paranoid people are often easiest to trick with a smokescreen – they can be blinded by a smokescreen that plays into and confirms their suspicions.
    • Some smokescreens discussed include: facial expression (bland, unreadable), a noble gesture (people like to believe these are genuine), and pattern (we tend to think patterns will continue).
  • Cultivate an air of mystery. Being too open will make you predictable and familiar, such that people won’t respect or fear you.

Otto von Bismarck had been very keen to go to war against Austria in order to unify Germany. But in 1850, he thought it was better to wait and build up their army more. He therefore made an impassioned speech advocating for peace and even praising Austria. On the back of that speech, the king made him a cabinet minister. A few years later, Bismarck became the Prussian premier. He then led a war against Austria.

When trying to seduce someone, playing “hot and cold” can create a sense of excitement. People like being led along and confused. But when someone knows that you are doing that deliberately in order to seduce them, it’s very off-putting. Actions that initially appeared charming look skeevy once people know what you’re up to.


If you try to act naïve when you already have a reputation for deception, you’ll come off like a hypocrite. In such cases, it’s best to ‘fess up and act like a “repentant rogue”.

People eventually catch on to colourful smokescreens and spectacles, so they cannot be used forever.

Law 4: Always say less than necessary

  • Being vague and ambiguous can impress people and make you look better than you are.
  • The more you say, the more likely you are to trip up.
    • Words cannot be taken back, so must be controlled carefully.
    • For example, Coriolanus was a Roman general who sought to become consul. He was well-regarded because of his military successes, but he ruined it all by saying too much about what he truly thought of the plebeians.
  • In contrast, the less you say, the more room there is for other people to fill in the silence. That can give you valuable information. [Chris Voss has also written about how silences can uncover help information in Never Split the Difference.]

Silence can arouse suspicion and insecurity. People could also misconstrue an ambiguous comment in a way you had not intended. Sometimes it’s better to use words as decoys and smokescreens (for reasons explained in Law 3).

Law 5: So much depends on reputation – guard it with your life

  • Guard and control your own reputation.
    • Your reputation affects how the world judges you. Maintaining control over your reputation can therefore give you some control over others’ judgements of you.
    • Your reputation precedes you so it can work for you before you do anything.
    • Base your reputation on a single good quality.
    • If you’ve already tarnished your reputation, try to associate with someone whose reputation counteracts yours.
  • Destroy your enemies by attacking their reputations.
    • Attacking another’s reputation is particularly potent when you have less power than they do, as they have more to lose.
    • However, attacking someone else’s reputation can backfire and ruin your own reputation, by drawing attention to your own pettiness.

Greene uses the example of Zhuge Liang (referred to as “Chuko Liang” in the book) in China’s Three Kingdom period. Liang had a reputation for being extremely clever. He was able to use this reputation to great effect when he found himself in a small town with very few soldiers as his enemy, Sima Yi, approached with many troops. Instead of panicking, he opened the city gates, sat on top of the city wall, and played his lute. When Sima Yi arrived, he saw Liang and an apparently unguarded town. Suspecting a trap, he retreated.


No reversal – reputation is always critical.

Law 6: Court attention at all costs

  • Stand out and attract attention. Being ignored is terrible.
    • When you’re starting out, focus on attracting attention. One way to do this is to attack the most visible, powerful person you can find.
    • It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad attention, as it’s better to be attacked than ignored. [This contradicts some of the laws above. While Greene refers to the case of P. T. Barnum attracting all sorts of attention to get people to attend his shows, he says that this rule applies to all professions. That rule may work for show business, but I would wager that in most areas, negative attention is, well, bad.]
  • Create an air of mystery. [This is similar to Laws 3 and 4 above.]
    • Mystery creates anticipation and excitement. People never get sick of it because they have to constantly interpret it.
    • Being mysterious puts you in a superior position to others. They have to work to figure you out.
    • You don’t have to be grand or awe-inspiring to create mystery. Since people are generally open books, you can set yourself apart by simply holding back, keeping silent, and doing some unexpected or ambiguous things on occasion. People’s imaginations will do most of the work.

There’s quite a few ways in which this law can reverse:

  • While Greene recommends attracting attention at all costs at the start of your rise, he cautions that you have to adapt and change up your methods as you rise higher, else the public will get bored with you.
  • Be careful that your air of mystery doesn’t become a reputation for deceit. Mystery should feel like a game – it should not come off threatening.
  • Sometimes attention and scandal is the last thing you want. Know when to court attention and know when to withdraw. For example, the attention you attract shouldn’t challenge the reputations of those above you. [There seems to be some overlap with Law 1 (Never outshine the master).]
  • Being too desperate for attention looks insecure.

Law 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit

  • Credit for work is important.
    • Make sure others don’t steal credit for your work.
    • Getting credit for other people’s work can give you the appearance of efficiency and speed. [Overlaps with Law 30 (Make your accomplishments seem effortless).]
  • Using other people’s work will save you time and energy. This doesn’t have to be dishonest:
    • You could hire people to work for you and take their work that way.
      • Thomas Edison was really more of a businessman than a scientific thinker. He spotted opportunities and stole other people’s ideas, including those of Nikola Tesla.
      • Very few politicians write their own speeches; most use speech writers.
    • You could always use learnings from the past – standing on the shoulders of giants. [Steal Like an Artist, perhaps?]

It can look bad if people see you take credit for others’ work, especially when your power is shaky.

Sometimes you should let others share the credit, such as when you have a master above you. Henry Kissinger for example took credit for the work of those below him, while giving credit for his work to those above him.

Law 8: Make other people come to you – use bait if necessary

  • Making your opponent come to you achieves several things:
    • You have control over the situation. Being in familiar territory is an advantage – not just for war but also for negotiations and meetings.
    • Your opponent has to abandon their original plans, yet they maintain an illusion of control.
    • Your opponent wastes energy coming to you.
  • Making your opponent come to you is about staying back, keeping calm, and being patient. Resist the urge to act on your emotions – especially anger. Don’t react to events; direct them.
  • In contrast, aggressive or impulsive people react to events. They are not in control; they cannot see more than a few moves in advances, and they fail to consider the full consequences of their actions.
48 Laws of Power - Law 8 - Make People Come to You
Law 8: Make People Come to You – Using Bait, If Necessary

When Napoleon was exiled to Elba (in Italy), his former foreign minister, Talleyrand, believed he needed to be banished further away. Instead of arguing his case with the other statemen, Talleyrand lay a trap for Napoleon. Conspiring with the foreign ministers for England and Austria, Talleyrand set up an opportunity for Napoleon to return and take over France. However, Talleyrand knew that France was almost bankrupt, so Napoleon’s reign would not last long. Sure enough, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo merely four months after escaping from Elba. This time, Napoleon was exiled to Africa.

An interesting example in this chapter concerned signs saying “Beware of Pickpockets”. Pickpockets need to know which pocket to pick. When people see a sign reminding them of the dangers of pickpockets, they check the pocket where they keep their wallet. Apparently some pickpockets even put up their own “Beware of Pickpockets” signs to obtain this information.


Striking suddenly and aggressively can sometimes be more effective than holding back. A fast attack can force your opponent to react without having time to think. While it’s the opposite of making other people come to you, the underlying principle is the same – it’s about maintaining control (and wresting control from your opponent).

Greene recommends making your opponent come to you when you have time on your side, and you and your opponent are at least equal in strength. However, if your opponents are weaker, then time could just give them chance to recover. A sudden attack may then be the better option.

Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument

  • Arguments stir up resentment, even if (or especially if) you “win”. When you argue with someone more powerful than you, you implicitly impugn their intelligence. Even if someone agrees with you outwardly, they may still secretly resent you. Actions avoid making others feel offended and defensive.
  • Words have the potential for misinterpretation.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Their proof is salient. People can’t argue with something they’ve seen for themselves.

The only “reversal” Greene gives is that you can use arguments to distract and confuse when caught in a lie.

[Surely there are some points that simply cannot be demonstrated, though. Or they can only be demonstrated at great cost.

Also, when two people share the same goals, and are reasonably mature, it should be possible to resolve disagreements through argument in a collaborative way. I take the point that there is always a risk that the “loser” feels resentful, but that risk can be mitigated. For example, in my experience, asking questions to guide someone to your way of thinking is a lot less antagonistic than telling someone they are wrong. (Plus, it’s always possible you are actually the one who is wrong, and such questions uncover any flaws in your thinking and help you make better decisions in the long run.)]

Law 10: Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky

  • Humans are affected by other people’s moods, emotions and even ways of thinking. Emotionally unstable and unhappy people are particularly infectious because their emotions are so intense.
  • This can hurt you as you waste time and energy dealing with them. Your reputation can also suffer by associating with them.
  • You can recognise an infector by their turbulent past, unstable work history and relationships. When you suspect you know such a person, don’t argue or try to help – just get away as soon as possible.

On the flipside, some people have a good, cheerful energy around them. Associate with people who counter the worst qualities in you – e.g. if you are gloomy, befriend someone cheerful; if you are a loner, befriend someone outgoing. Don’t associate with someone who shares your defects, as that will reinforce them.



Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you

“Thus a wise prince will think of ways to keep his citizens of every sort and under every circumstance dependent on the state and on him; and then they will always be trustworthy.”
Niccolo Machiavelli
  • Being relied on gives you freedom and security.
    • When people depend on you, you can make them do as you wish without having to strong-arm them.
    • Independence is not power. Power involves a relation between people. A completely independent person in the woods has freedom, but not power.
  • How to make people depend on you:
    • You may have, or develop, a skill or talent that cannot be replaced.
    • Even if you can be replaced, you have power if you have better options than your master.
    • If you don’t have an indispensable skill or talent, you can make others think you do. But real dependence is stronger than the faked kind.
    • Knowing others’ secrets is another way to make others dependent on you.
  • Who to make depend on you:
    • People who are already powerful will not depend on you. It’s easier to make a weak master depend on you – this is what Otto von Bismarck did, first with the king, Frederick William IV, and later his brother, William.
    • You do not necessarily have to make yourself indispensable to the master. You could be indispensable to someone else in the chain, so long as that person is indispensable to the master (or to another indispensable person in the chain).
  • Note, however, that if your master depends on you, he may not love you – he may actually resent or fear you. But fear can be controlled more easily than love.

[I’ve definitely seen this Law at play at work. Workers generally have less power than their employers, because their worker depends on the employer more than the employer depends on the worker. After all, the employer usually has many workers, while each worker only has one job. But sometimes a worker has rare skills that are essential in the employer’s business. In such cases, the worker is treated very well and can get away with some pretty bad behaviour.]


Making others depend on you means that you are also dependent on them to some degree. [Not sure I agree with that.] There’s no real escaping this – independence comes at a cost.

Law 12: Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim

  • Most people have built-up defences. Acts that appear honest, noble or generous can distract them and disarm their defences.
    • Greene suggests that a gift “is often the perfect way to disarm people”, because people tend to view others’ actions cynically, but not a gift. The example used was the famous Trojan Horse. [Personally, I strongly disagree. I hate feeling indebted to others and I would find a random gift a lot more suspicious than a kind gesture or honest action.]
  • Selective honesty is best deployed during a first impression. Once someone thinks you’re honest, it takes a lot to shift their perceptions.
  • A single act of honesty may not be enough. A reputation for honesty, built on a series of acts (however inconsequential), is much more effective.

Since this Law involves people’s emotions, it is dangerous. If people find out that you’re disingenuous, their warm feelings towards you will be replaced with violent hatred.

If you have a reputation for deceit, acting honest will just look suspicious. In such cases, best to own up to your dishonesty and play the rogue. [This is like Law 3.]

Law 13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude

  • People are more likely to help you when you appeal to their self-interest:
  • If you remind someone of how you helped them in the past, or how they “owe” you, they can easily ignore you. Gratitude is a burden – people hate feeling like they owe you. [This point was also made in Law 2 (Never put too much trust in friends).] They can get rid of that burden by helping you, or by getting rid of you.
  • Don’t confuse your needs with the other person’s needs. Many people can’t see beyond their own needs. When you seek help from someone, they probably couldn’t care less about your needs.

Some people find an appeal to their self-interest off-putting. They may prefer to be able to help you out and look or feel magnanimous and superior. They don’t want to appear like they are simply motivated by their own self-interest.

The key is working out what the other person needs and values – what makes them tick.

Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy

  • Information about your opponents is very important. Good information can also make you look good. It can make you seem charming, able to anticipate another person’s needs, clairvoyant, even.
  • Most people won’t tell you everything and will often take care to hide important information such as their weaknesses, true motives, etc. [Heh. Under Law 3 (Conceal your intentions), he said most people were like an open book. I kind of agree with him on both though – most people are pretty loose with what they reveal, but they won’t tell you everything, either.]
  • Finding out information on other people is not that difficult.
    • You can use spies, but this is indirect. Your spies might not be very good, or they may turn on you. If you are the spy, you don’t have to worry about that.
    • The key is to get other people to talk while revealing very little. Talleyrand (the French foreign minister) was great at this. He might let slip some false information and see how others reacted. For example, he might tell others that he had heard the czar of Russia was planning to arrest his top general for treason. By watching others’ reactions, he could tell who seemed excited by a weakening of Russia’s army.
    • Social gatherings are a good place to obtain information as people tend to let their guards down. Moreover, not only will they give you information, they may think you’re interested in them personally and treat you like a friend.
    • Pretending to share a secret yourself, or sharing an innocuous one, can make others reciprocate by revealing valuable information. [Same as Law 12 (Use selective honesty to disarm).]
    • Another method is to deliberately contradict people and rile them up, so that they might lose self-control and let things slip.

You have to be delicate when spying – if people suspect you are trying to get information out of them, they will avoid you.

Be alert also to disinformation. For example, in WWII, the Nazis’ rocket bombs consistently missed their targets in England. This was because the German spies in England had been discovered and English-controlled agents fed them bad information.

Law 15: Crush your enemy totally

  • A weakened enemy can regain strength and come back to defeat you. An enemy that is crushed completely cannot do this.
  • Someone who has suffered a defeat may feel humiliated and eager to get revenge on you, even if they act friendly or repentant. This is even more likely if they were a former friend.
  • After a war, there is usually negotiation. If you’ve won just a partial victory, you can end up losing in negotiations what you won in the war. Whereas if your enemy is completely crushed, there is no room for them to negotiate or manoeuvre.
  • Greene clarifies that “crushing” your enemy doesn’t necessarily mean murdering them. They just have to be sufficiently weakened such that there is no chance of them coming back. If you can’t do this, then you will just have to rely on your own wariness. Treat with suspicion any friendliness they show you.

Several examples in this chapter are from China. One was the Empress Wu of China, who was about as ruthless as anyone gets. She killed anyone who threatened her power, which included her niece and her own sons, even one who was just a newborn baby. But she had to crush them or be killed herself. Her 40-year reign was one of the longest and in Chinese history, and she is generally considered to be a capable and effective ruler.

Another example was Chiang Kai-Shek’s failure to completely crush the Communists led by Mao Zedong in 1937. When China was invaded by Japan, Chiang stopped fighting the Communists and focused on the Japanese instead. At that time, Mao had fewer than 10,000 soldiers who were greatly outnumbered by Chiang’s army. Ten years later, the Communists recovered enough to force Chiang’s army to flee to Taiwan.


Sometimes it’s better to let your enemies destroy themselves, if that is possible, provided you are sure they have no hope of recovery. But Greene thinks it’s almost always wiser to crush your enemy.

Law 16: Use absence to increase respect and honor

  • Create value through scarcity.
    • Things that are abundant are not valued. Things that are rare are.
    • If people hear and see you often, they value and respect you less. [This overlaps with Law 4 (Always say less than necessary).]
  • Once you die, everyone has good things to say about you and respect you more. But you can create a similar (lesser) effect by simply being absent for a while.
  • This law is particularly relevant to seduction. If you’re trying to woo someone:
    • At the start, you need to be present so that you won’t be forgotten.
    • However, once you’ve gotten their attention, your absence can inflame and excite – especially if your absence is unexplained. Their imagination runs wild, and conjure up something more exciting than you could.
Absence diminishes minor passions and inflames great ones, as the wind douses a candle and fans a fire
– La Rochefoucauld

In the 8th century BC, Medea (now part of Iran) broke free of the Assyrian empire. They had to set up a new government, but were concerned about despotism and determined not to give power to any single person. One man, Deioces, was known for settling disputes fairly. He did it so well that everyone came to him, and his power increased. At the height of his power, however, he decided he’d had enough and wouldn’t settle disputes anymore. Chaos ensued and crime increased. The people of Medea held a meeting and, despite their reluctance to give power to any single person, they agreed to name Deioces king. He accepted, on the condition that he live in an enormous palace, with access to him strictly limited. Deioces ruled for 53 years and people’s respect for him grew to the point it became like a form of worship.


This law only applies once you have reached a certain level of power or attraction. Withdraw too early, and people will just forget you. In the initial stages, your presence has to be felt and recognised. [So it’s Law 6 (Court attention at all costs) first, and then this law after a certain point is reached.]

[Another way this can backfire is if people realise they do just fine without you. At work, for example, if you go on leave for an extended period, one of two things can happen. The first possibility is that things fall apart and your boss and co-workers realise just how much you are needed. More likely, however, is that everything works out fine. There may be a couple of a snafus but the business probably won’t go bankrupt and no one will die. I believe that most of us are far more replaceable than we like to think.]

Law 17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability

  • Predictability gives people a sense of control. If you are unpredictable, you will put people on the defensive and keep them trying to explain your actions. At an extreme, this can terrorise and intimidate others.
  • Unpredictability can also make you more interesting or exciting; more mysterious.
  • Most people are predictable because it’s easier and more natural. But you can deliberately be unpredictable to your advantage.
Understand: People feel superior to the person whose actions they can predict. If you show them who is in control by playing against their expectations, you both gain their respect and tighten your hold on their fleeting attention.
Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power, Preface

Acting predictable can lull people into a false sense of security. Your seemingly predictable actions can either set up a smoke screen behind which you do shady stuff, or they can allow you to occasionally do something completely unpredictable to unsettle your opponent.

Unpredictability can backfire, especially if you are a subordinate. Your unpredictable actions can disturb those higher up the chain.

Law 18: Do not build fortresses to protect yourself – isolation is dangerous

  • Isolation is bad because:
    • It cuts you off from valuable information.
    • It can make it harder for you to see things in perspective. [This one resonated with me. I’ve known or heard of quite a few good lawyers whose judgement appeared to worsen after becoming an independent barrister. They just seemed to get more and more odd over time.]
    • Power depends on social interaction – powerful people are at the centre of things. Particularly if you are someone who already has a lot of power, like a king or queen, isolation makes it easier and more likely that people will conspire and rebel against you.
  • It’s always a mistake to build a fortress (in the literal, military sense) because it tells everyone where you are and confines you to that small space, cutting off your flexibility. They are also vulnerable to plagues and infectious diseases. So they end up hurting you more than they protect you.
  • While it may be tempting to retreat and isolate yourself in times of uncertainty and danger, you should fight this feeling. Instead, this is when you should be making yourself more accessible, reaching out to allies, and branching out into new social circles.

Isolation is hardly ever the right choice, but one thing it is good for is to give you space to think. Machiavelli himself wrote The Prince while in exile. When you’re surrounded by others, it’s too easy to conform to what they do and harder to think deeply.

But choose isolation only in small doses. The more isolated you are, the harder it is to break out of it.

Law 19: Know who you’re dealing with – do not offend the wrong person

  • Different people will react to your actions in different ways. Some react very badly. Greene describes the 5 most dangerous types of “marks”.
    • Three of these (the Arrogant and Proud Man, Hopelessly Insecure Man and the Serpent with a Long Memory) are people who will hold a grudge and seek vengeance if slighted, even if not immediately. They can pursue a grudge beyond all reason, at enormous personal cost to themselves. To test if someone is of this ilk, try a mild joke at their expense and see if they laugh or act insulted.
    • The fourth (Mr Suspicion) is just someone who sees the worst in others and assumes everyone is out to get him. Joseph Stalin is an example. Greene suggests that the best way to deal with him is to focus his suspicion on someone else.
    • Lastly, the Plain, Unassuming and Often Unintelligent Man looks like a tempting victim at first. However, Greene argues that such a man may be too dumb or unimaginative to even recognise your bait. While you don’t have to worry about him harming you or seeking revenge, he may waste your time.
  • One of the most important skills is to read people and know who you’re dealing with:
    • Never rely on your instincts. It’s much safer to obtain reliable, concrete information.
    • Don’t trust appearances. A person could have very thin skin, but just be slow to show offence. The version of themselves that people give off is often unreliable.
  • Don’t make unnecessary enemies. If you have to turn people down, do so politely, even if you think their offer or request was ridiculous. Even if that person has little power today, they could gain power later and hold a grudge.


Law 20: Do not commit to anyone

  • Maintaining independence will make people bend over themselves to try to woo you.
    • If you commit to someone, they will feel they “possess” you to a degree, which makes you lose all power over them. You should give them hope but never satisfaction. The more independent you are known to be, the more that people will try to win you over to their side.
    • You may even be able to play people off against each other. Alcibiades for example went back and forth between the Greeks and the Persians, making promises to all sides but committing to none.
  • Stay neutral and don’t let people drag you into their fights. Resist your natural tendency to pick sides:
    • It’s easier to avoid committing to something than to get out of a commitment you’ve previously made.
    • A fight that is not of your choosing will usually not be to your benefit. If you get dragged in, you become someone else’s tool – you can’t win. By staying out of it, you preserve your options.
    • You can also gain power by staying out of others’ fights. One possibility is that you mediate and act as a go-between for the two sides. Your independence can win you respect. Another possibility is that, you may be able to pick up the spoils once the fighting is over and the two sides have exhausted themselves.
    • Standing aside completely could cause offense. In that case, you can seem interested in their problems, maybe even making an apparent gesture of taking a side. But in your heart, you should remain uncommitted.

Queen Elizabeth I was an example given of this Law. She knew that marriage often hurt a female leader, because she would then get sucked into conflicts she had no choice over, conflicts which could be very costly or disastrous. [Graham Allison has similarly pointed out how alliances can force a country into wars.] Plus, the husband can gain more power than the queen, and may try to undermine her. So she instead spent her life flirting with various suitors, and then withdrawing. The Queen remained the centre of attention and completely in control.


There is a delicate balance here. If you play people against each other and they catch on, they could gang up against you. Alternatively, people could just lose interest in pursuing you if you look like you’ll never commit. In that case, you may be better off committing (in appearance at least, if not in your heart).

Law 21: Play a sucker to catch a sucker – seem dumber than your mark

  • People want to feel more intelligent than others – it is a key part of most people’s vanity.
  • Offering others that feeling can lull them into complacency. It’s especially effective on people who are arrogant and overconfident.
  • There are other things you can downplay besides your intelligence. Examples may be your taste and sophistication – acting naïve can be very effective.

Revealing the true level of your intelligence rarely pays off but, at the start of your climb to the top, you can’t act too dumb and you may want to let your bosses know that you are smarter than those around you. But as you climb up the ladder, you should try to dampen your intelligence.

One situation in which displaying intelligence pays off is if you can use your air of knowledge and authority to sway others.

Law 22: Use the surrender tactic: transform weakness into power

  • When you are weaker, you should generally not fight – you have nothing to gain by fighting, and you could lose more by fighting.
  • Acting like you are surrendering gets your opponent to back off. Surrendering makes you look unthreatening. Faced with a surrender, your opponent is unlikely to respond with more violence. Instead, they will feel satisfied that they have won and that you respect them.
  • Your surrender should not be a genuine surrender, but is part of a larger plan, playing the long game. Power is always changing. Those with power now will find themselves weakened at another point and those temporarily weakened can gain power later. The surrender tactic gives you time to regroup and recover.

German writer Bertolt Brecht used the surrender tactic when he was forced to appear before a committee investigating Communist infiltration in Hollywood. Brecht was part of a group of writers, producers and directors known as the Hollywood 19. The others were all un-cooperative and put up a fight – they refused to answer questions and yelled and insulted the committee members. Brecht, however, appeared to co-operate (though he still fought back subtly with indirect, vague responses and enigmas). That was enough to earn him his freedom to continue writing.


If your opponent is unrelenting, then you may have no choice but to fight to the death. Your death could serve as inspiration for others for your cause. However, for every famous inspirational martyr, there are thousands more who have not inspired any real change.

Law 23: Concentrate your forces

  • Intensity generally defeats extensity.
  • Power is always concentrated. In any organisation, it’s a small group that calls the shots (and it may not be the ones with the apparent authority). To get to that power, you have to find the key person or people who control things behind the scenes and work on them.

Sometimes it is better to disperse your forces than to concentrate them. Particularly when you are weaker, dispersal (e.g. guerrilla warfare) may be the better move. Concentrating your forces would just give the other side an easier target.

Tying yourself to one source of power means that risk is concentrated on that single point of failure. If that person dies or loses power, you lose power too. When times are turbulent and changing, or when you have many enemies, it is better to diversify your sources of power.

Law 24: Play the perfect courtier

  • Historically, courts have formed around power, but some courtiers often end up more powerful than the ruler. Today, the royal court may have gone, but courts and courtiers still exist because power still exists.
  • Navigating the court environment requires a delicate balancing act. For example, a courtier has to appear gracious and polite, and can only display aggression in a veiled, indirect way. [This chapter really made me think of Varys, from Game of Thrones.]
  • A court is a place of mutual dependence. Don’t assume that the master is the only person who will affect your fate. Your peers and subordinates may also do so. You have to placate everyone who might someday be able to harm you.
  • It’s also a place where you can’t be too honest. In some ways, being honest is being self-absorbed. Pay attention to what other people need or want from you, rather than what you think.
  • Greene lists the many laws of court politics:
    • Avoid ostentation. It is never prudent to call too much attention to your actions. [This contradicts Law 6.] Talk less about yourself than about others.
    • Practise nonchalance. Appear naturally talented, and don’t seem to be working too hard. [This is Law 30.] Showing off how hard you work is actually a form of ostentation.
    • Be frugal with flattery. Too much flattery loses its value, [This is the same scarcity principle in Law 16] and can make others suspicious.
    • Arrange to be noticed. You must be noticed, but cannot be too brazen about it. Being noticed often requires being literally seen, so paying attention to your attention – trying to stand out in some subtle way – can often help.
    • Alter your style and language according to the person you are dealing with. [This need to be adaptable and read other people, so that you can appeal to them in a manner targeted to them, is also in Law 16, Law 19, and probably others.] This is acting, rather than lying. There are many different cultures in the modern court – don’t assume that your standards of behaviour and judgement are universal.
    • Don’t be the bearer of bad news. People tend to shoot the messenger, so try to bring only good news. This doesn’t mean you should ensure those in power don’t receive bad news – merely that you are not the one to deliver it.
    • Never affect friendliness and intimacy with your master. Masters don’t want to be friends with their subordinates, they want subordinates. If a master chooses to be friendly with you, that’s their prerogative. Don’t take it for granted or take it too far.
    • Never criticise those above you directly. If criticism is required, couch it as indirectly and politely as possible.
    • Be frugal in asking those above you for favours. Masters get annoyed by having to reject someone’s request – it can stir up guilt and resentment. It’s better to earn your favours, so that the master can give them willingly, without you having to ask. And certainly do not ask for favours on someone else’s behalf.
    • Never joke about appearances or taste. These are two highly sensitive areas. Never make a joke at the expense of someone else’s appearance or taste, especially those above you – even if they aren’t present at the time.
    • Do not be the court cynic. People get annoyed at cynical people. Criticising others’ work calls attention to your own. Instead, praise their good work.
    • Be self-observant. Try to see yourself as others see you, and correct your flaws as necessary.
    • Master your emotions. This applies both to positive and negative emotions. You must learn to disguise anger and frustration and fake agreement and contentment as the situation requires.
    • Fit the spirit of the times. Falling behind the times makes you look backward and silly. Yet being too forward-thinking is also dangerous – others won’t understand you. It’s not a good idea to stand out too much in this area.
    • Be a source of pleasure. This is critical – people like what is pleasant and delightful. Even if you are not blessed with charm or wit, you can at least control and obscure your unpleasant qualities.

There are many examples in this chapter, but one I found entertaining involved a painting depicting the historic Congress of Vienna following Napoleon’s defeat. Jean-Baptiste Isabey had been commissioned to paint it. But he was faced with a dilemma: Talleyrand, the main French negotiator, told Isabey he wanted to occupy centre stage in the painting. However, the Duke of Wellington, the main English negotiator, wanted the same thing. Isabey agreed to make the Duke the centre of attention. Ultimately, he managed to please both men – he put Talleyrand in the physical “centre” of the painting and the Duke at the side. But everyone’s attention is focused on the Duke, so he is the “centre” of attention.

Congress of Vienna by Jean-Baptiste Isabey
Congress of Vienna Painting by Jean-Baptiste Isabey

[There was no “Reversal” section in this chapter.]

Law 25: Re-create yourself

  • Take your image into your own hands, rather than letting others define it for you.
    • If you take the role that the world defines for you, your power is limited to the tiny part available in that role. But if you become an actor and play many roles, you are not so limited. You can take a role on and off like a costume – you don’t need to be wedded to it.
    • Even if you don’t want to keep changing roles, you can at least choose an identity for yourself, and set your own boundaries.
  • What your role should look like:
    • Make sure you are at the centre of attention, that you don’t bore the public, and are never upstaged.
    • Learn self-control and adaptability. [There’s a lot of overlap between this aspect of the Law and Law 40 (Assume formlessness).]
    • Master rhythm and timing. Rulers like Napoleon, Mao ZeDong and Franklin D Roosevelt have successfully used timing to surprise and divert the public.

Julius Caesar understood acutely the power of his public image, and he was said to be incredibly vain about his appearance. One reason he allegedly enjoyed being honoured by the Senate and people is that he could wear a laurel wreath, hiding his baldness.


None. Bad acting is just bad acting.

Law 26: Keep your hands clean

  • Mistakes are inevitable – the world is messy. How you deal with them is what’s important.
  • Scapegoats:
    • Powerful people don’t tend to use excuses and apologies. Excuses don’t satisfy anyone, and apologies raise questions about their competence. Mistakes make them look bad.
    • Instead, they put the blame on someone else – the scapegoat. They may even come off looking like they cleaned up the problem, even if they were the one who caused it in the first place. A scapegoat can also serve as a warning to others.
    • A close associate is often chosen as a scapegoat – this is referred to as the “fall of the favourite”. The choice is effective because the public find it hard to believe a king would willingly sacrifice someone they favoured, unless that person truly was guilty. The courtiers are happy, because they usually resented the favourite anyway. On top of all that, the king may be glad to be rid of someone who, by then, knew too much. He could always find a new favourite anyway.
  • Cat’s-paws:
    • A cat’s-paw is someone who does your work for you, saving you time and effort as well as the appearance of having done that action. The term comes from a fable where a monkey grabbed a cat’s-paw to get chestnuts out of the fire without hurting himself.
    • The key to getting other people to do things for you is to disguise your goal. the cat’s-paw will then think they’re doing something for their own benefit, rather than for your ends.
    • Overly aggressive people often make a good cat’s-paw, because they’re usually more willing to get into a fight.
    • Cat’s-paws are commonly used for dirty or dangerous work. However, one example in the chapter involved the mere granting of a favour. Kuriyama Daizen wanted to help his friend pay back a loan, but recognised that such a favour would make his friend feel burdened by the obligation to reciprocate. He managed to accomplish his favour indirectly, letting his friend gift him a painting and giving him a valuable vase in return. Daizen then suggested his friend might want to give that vase to his creditor, in exchange for having his debt forgiven.

This law requires extreme caution and delicacy. If people catch on that you’ve been pulling the strings behind the scenes, your actions could backfire. You may end up becoming the scapegoat yourself, being blamed for things you had nothing to do with. Sometimes it can benefit you to take responsibility for your own mistakes.

Using a scapegoat that appears too weak can also elicit too much sympathy. They could become seen as a martyr. Usually it is better to choose a weak scapegoat (so they cannot fight back), but occasionally it makes sense to pick a stronger one that elicits less sympathy.

Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following

  • Having a large following gives you a lot of power.
  • Creating a large following is not as hard as it may seem, because:
    • Humans are very gullible. We have a desperate need to believe in something, and cannot linger for long in doubt and emptiness.
    • Larger groups are easier to deceive because they reinforce each other. People get caught up in a communal mood, becoming more emotional and less prone to reason. Groups have an infectiousness that overwhelm an individual’s scepticism.
    • Cults and charlatans thrives in times of change and turbulence, such as when organised religion started to decline and science increased in prominence.
    • Once people have strong beliefs, they become self-fulfilling. [Confirmation bias, I think.]
Five steps of cult-making
  1. Keep it vague and simple.
    • Your appeal should be simple. Most problems have complex causes (and solutions) but few people have the patience to deal with this. They want simple solutions. Promising them this will give you power.
    • However, being too clear about how you do this is dangerous. So you have to be rather vague. But if you’re too vague, you’ll lack credibility, so you have to strike the right balance.
    • Some ways to be vague include using words rather than actions (actions are too clear); giving simple things fancy titles, creating new words, and using numbers to make you appear knowledgeable.
  2. Emphasise the visual and sensual over the intellectual. You have to overcome boredom and scepticism. Do this by using spectacle or theatre, encouraging enthusiasm over rationality. Appeals to nature can be particularly effective, given the romanticism many people hold about it.
  3. Borrow forms of organised religion. Give people rituals to perform, create hierarchies, rank people according to how devoted they are, and bestow on them names and titles.
  4. Disguise your source of income. If you come off greedy, you’ll lose your power. Yet there are advantages to surrounding yourself with riches, as it can act as “proof” that your methods work. You just can’t reveal that your wealth comes from your followers themselves.
  5. Set up an “Us versus Them” dynamic. This can be achieved by first making the “club” seem exclusive. Next, you manufacture an enemy – an outsider – who is determined to destroy the club. Anyone who expresses doubt about your claims can be painted as a member of this enemy group.

Once you’ve created a large group, if the group somehow sees through you it’ll become an angry mob with its attention focused on you. Dealing with people one-by-one, isolating them from each other, may therefore be safer.

Law 28: Enter action with boldness

  • Don’t do something if you’re unsure about it. You won’t be able to execute it well if you’re plagued by doubts.
  • Boldness makes you seem powerful. And seeming powerful is a big part of being powerful. Most people are timid and want to avoid conflict. Bold lies are more convincing, because people mistake boldness for authority. Your boldness can put others at ease, removing their doubts and hesitation.
  • People can sense weakness in others. If you’re perceived as weak or hesitant, you’ll become easy prey for others. Boldness and audacity can hide deficiencies. The sheer audacity of a bold lie for example can distract from any inconsistencies.
  • Hesitation gives others time to think and plan. Boldness obliterates such opportunities.
  • Few people are naturally bold. If you want to be bold, you have to practise it. A good place to start is in negotiations, especially when we are asked to set our own price. It’s better to make a bold demand than to make piecemeal concessions, trying to meet the other person halfway. Your fears of being too bold are usually disproportionate to the actual consequences; it’s usually worse to be too timid.

You shouldn’t be bold all the time; just at the right times. Being bold all the time would offend too many people, so you have to be able to control yourself.

While you should never be timid, acting timid can be helpful. At that point, it’s not true timidity but just a smokescreen.

Law 29: Plan all the way to the end

  • Most people have only vague plans that involve things largely going to plan, resulting in a happy ending. When faced with unexpected obstacles, they merely improvise. If you think and plan ahead, you can outmanoeuvre them.
  • Planning all the way to the end means you take into account all the various possibilities, permutations and obstacles that might stand in your way. If you’ve thought through all the possibilities, you won’t be surprised by them – you’ll be prepared. You will therefore be better placed to react calmly and thoughtfully.
  • Planning all the way to the end will make you better equipped to stop when you’ve reached your goal. [See also Law 47 (Do not go past the mark you aimed for).]
The most ordinary cause of people’s mistakes is their being too much frightened at the present danger, and not enough so at that which is remote.
Cardinal de Retz

Plans must include alternatives and some flexibility. A plan that is too rigid leaves you unable to deal with unexpected events. However, most people tend to plan insufficiently, rather than too much. There’s no benefit from refusing to think far into the future and planning to the end.

[I kind of disagree with this. Though I usually like to plan – more than most people – planning for every permutation can be time-consuming. Being too reliant on plans may also cause your ability to deal with unexpected events to atrophy. When stakes are relatively low, it’s probably better not to plan and instead practise your ability to improvise.]

Law 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless

  • Conceal all the effort and practice you put into your work. If your acts come off effortlessly, it will make people think that you have a natural gift or talent, and that you have the potential to do even more. People can’t then tell the actual limits of your power. An example in this chapter was the famous escape artist, Houdini.
  • Whereas if people find out how hard you work, it will make you look “weaker” – like anyone could do what you did, if only they put in the time and practice. Seeing performers put a lot of effort into their act breaks the illusion and makes us uncomfortable.
  • Don’t teach others your tricks and methods, else they can be used against you.

If you work too hard to conceal your acts, you can come off looking paranoid and unpleasant. Your secrecy should therefore be good-natured and light-hearted – like a magician hiding his tricks.

Sometimes it is helpful to show your work. It depends on your audience’s tastes and how you wish to be perceived. For example, P. T. Barnum revealed his tricks to make his audience feel closer to him. The key then is to be thoughtful about what you reveal versus what you conceal, rather than just blabbing uncontrollably.

Law 31: Control the options: get others to play with the cards you deal

  • Being too forceful can stir up resentment and risks creating a backlash against you. Instead of forcing people you could present people with options, where all the options work in your favour. This gives others a sense of agency, but also ensures your goals are advanced.
  • Controlling the options is particularly useful if your power is fragile and you cannot operate too openly.
  • Many of our choices are constrained in some way, but we hardly notice. We usually focus on the available options, rather than the missing ones. [This is very true. In a similar vein, I’ve increasingly noticed how a lot of misleading viewpoints are partially true, but omit some crucial consideration that would completely alter their conclusion. Some of this may be in good faith, with the people themselves not knowing about the crucial consideration. But it’s still misleading and results in a lot of bullshit.]
  • Common ways to control the options include:
    • Color the Choices. This is about framing the options in a way that makes your preferred options look most attractive. Henry Kissinger often did this.
    • Force the Resister. This is basically reverse psychology, where you order someone to do the opposite of what you want them to do.
    • Alter the Playing Field. Arrange affairs such that a person’s viable options all end up benefiting you. For example, when John D Rockefeller set out to form an oil monopoly, he started by buying railway companies. That way, when he tried to take over smaller oil companies, they couldn’t fight back because they were too dependent on the railway.
    • Shrinking Options. Give people worse options, or higher prices, as time goes on. Particularly useful on indecisive people.
    • The Weak Man on the Precipice. This is like “Color the Choices” but more aggressive. It involves playing on a person’s fear to force them into your preferred option.
    • Brothers in Crime. This option is commonly used by con-artists. By implicating someone in your deception (even if their involvement is minor), you make them more likely to choose the path that benefits you.
    • The Horns of a Dilemma. Trial lawyers lead a witness to two possible explanations, both of which benefit their side.
48 Laws of Power - Play the Perfect Courtier

Ninon de Lenclos was a courtesan who set up an unusual system that gave her suitors options, while letting her ultimately hold the cards. Some suitors – the payeurs – could pay to sleep with her as normal, but only as she wished. Their money merely bought them the chance to sleep with her. Another group – the martyrs – did not pay, and could visit her only for her company and friendship. They too had the possibility of sleeping with her, for Ninon would regularly select a man from the martyrs to become her lover for as long as she wanted. Even though martyrs did not pay, they still benefited her as this large group of men increased her perceived desirability. This system gave Ninon’s suitors options, and also gave her enough to power to free herself from dependence on any one man.


Limiting another’s options will sometimes also limit your own. In some situations, it’s better to give your opponents a lot of freedom as it gives you more opportunities to gather information on them.

Law 32: Play to people’s fantasies

  • The truth can be harsh and ugly. Fantasies and romance can be much more exciting and seductive. They make others feel good.
  • The truth is particularly unattractive when times are tough. No one wants to believe that their problems are their own fault, or that they will be hard – or impossible – to fix.
  • For example, the reality is that change is slow and requires hard work, sacrifice and some luck. The corresponding fantasy is that change is easy and possible, if only people do as you suggest.

If people start expecting you to produce results, and you can’t, they will turn on you. For that reason, fantasies have to be distant and vague – they can’t be within reach.

Law 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew

  • Everyone has a weakness. That weakness could be an insecurity, an uncontrollable need, or a secret desire.
  • Once you know someone’s weakness, you could use that to your advantage.
  • When trying to find other people’s weaknesses, remember:
    • Be observant. Lots of information is revealed in everyday conversation, so listen carefully and always seem interested. Pay attention to gestures and unconscious acts. Probe suspected soft spots indirectly. [Chris Voss has similarly written about the importance of active listening in negotiations.]
    • A weakness may stem from a person’s childhood. If you touch on such a weakness, the person will often act like a child.
    • Look for contrasts. People tend to overcompensate for their weaknesses. Someone who acts tough may secretly be a big coward; a shy person may be yearning for attention; timid people want to feel bold.
    • Find the weak link. In many settings, there is often a person behind the scenes who wields a great deal of power and influence over the person apparently on top. Find them.
    • Look for insecurity and unhappiness. These two are the most common emotional voids. If you can fill these voids for other people, you will gain power over them. You can exploit someone’s insecurity by making them feel better about whatever it is they feel insecure.
    • Feed uncontrollable emotions. When people cannot control a particular emotion – such as fear, lust, greed or vanity – you can control them. The stronger the emotion, the more vulnerable they are.

The danger of exploiting someone’s weakness is that you may find it cannot be controlled. The more intense and emotional the weakness, the greater the danger.

Law 34: Be royal in your own fashion: act like a king to be treated like one

  • How you carry yourself will determine how others treat you. Act regally, with confidence and nonchalance, and others will treat you with respect.
  • Act like you are a peer with those at the top. Give them a gift – this gesture suggests you two are equals.
  • Sometimes rulers try to escape the trappings of royalty and relate to the common people. Examples include King Louis-Philippe I of France and Franklin Roosevelt. Where Louis-Philippe failed was that his gestures came off fake. Even though he wore a hat and carried an umbrella around town like an ordinary man, people knew he wasn’t really one of them. By contrast, Roosevelt never pretended to be “one of the people”. While he shared values with the common people, he never acted as anything other than a patrician.

This law can be taken too far. Don’t increase your standing by humiliating others, and don’t act like you are far above everyone else, for that will make you an easy target. You have to convey confidence, not arrogance or disdain for others.

Law 35: Master the art of timing

  • Always seem patient, and not in a hurry. If you look like you’re in a hurry, that suggests you lack control. If you look patient, you’ll look like you have control of the situation.
  • Find the right time to act and stand back when the time hasn’t yet come.
  • There are three kinds of time:
    • Long time. This is about waiting and being patient. Controlling your emotions makes it easier to be more patient. When we feel inner turmoil, time seems to move faster. When we are patient, we can make better decisions, see things from a different perspective, and take advantage of opportunities that you had not originally anticipated.
    • Forced time. Forced time involves upsetting other people’s timing and getting them to play on your terms. [Sort of like Law 8 (Make others come to you).] This may involve forcing them to hurry and possibly make a mistake. Or the opposite – forcing them to wait in limbo and lose their minds. Magicians slow down time to capture attention and draw out suspense.
    • End time. When the time is right, you have to act quickly and decisively. End time is about being able to close the deal when the time calls for it.

Around the time of the French Revolution (and afterwards), Joseph Fouché had an uncanny ability to sniff out where the wind was blowing. Initially, he started out as a moderate. He joined the radicals when he cast the deciding vote to execute Louis XVI. For a while he then lay low , not wanting to be closely associated with any faction. As the mood of the country started to shift, he called for a halt to the killings. The new moderate government, the Directoire, then took over. He again lay low, but eventually managed to become minister of police. When Napoleon launched his coup, Fouché indirectly helped by pretending to be asleep. For this, Napoleon kept him on as minister of police. But once Fouché sensed Napoleon was on the downswing, he conspired with Talleyrand against him. After Napoleon fell, Louis XVIII kept Fouché on to serve in yet another government.



Law 36: Disdain things you cannot have: ignoring them is the best revenge

  • When your enemy is inferior, then giving them your attention makes them look stronger and you look weaker. By acknowledging something, you give it power and credibility. Even if you manage to defeat them, you may create sympathy for the weaker side – so it’s a lose-lose situation.
  • Wanting or being affected by something, particularly when that thing is minor, makes you seem weak. It can also be counterproductive – the more you desire something, the more it eludes you.
  • The same goes for mistakes. If you try to fix them, you may just make things worse.
  • Often it’s better to ignore something or show contempt for it. You can choose to let something bother you or you can choose to give it your attention. Ignoring someone can really infuriate them, especially if what they want is just to get to you.
  • If you really cannot ignore it, then do away with it in secret – just don’t shine a spotlight on it.

In 1916, Pancho Villa, a Mexican rebel leader, led a raid of a US town in New Mexico, killing 17 Americans. The US President, Woodrow Wilson, sent out an army of 10,000 soldiers – the Punitive Expedition – to capture Villa. But the longer the expedition went on, the weaker and more ineffective the US looked and the cleverer Villa looked. What started out as a minor annoyance became an international embarrassment for the US.

Another example was when the Catholic Church refused to recognise King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn (he was still married to Catherine). The King responded by breaking with the Catholic Church, disregarding the pope’s authority, and setting up the Church of England instead.


While most problems go away on their own, some will fester and grow. Publicly, you should appear to ignore and show contempt for it, but privately you should monitor the situation and deal with it if needed.

Law 37: Create compelling spectacles

  • Images and symbols are more powerful and convincing than words. They short-circuit the rational, thinking parts of our brain and go straight to the emotional parts.
  • Pay attention to how your arrange things visually. Colour affects how we feel about things. Red for example conveys power and urgency.
  • Spectacles can also act as a smokescreen, distracting others from what you do.


Law 38: Think as you like but behave like others

  • Being too unconventional can work against you. Others may think you look down upon them for being conventional and may punish you for it, even if’s just by isolating you.
  • Even something that seems relatively innocuous – like being enamoured with another culture – is threatening, because it implies that other culture is superior to your own.
  • Arguments do not tend to win people over to your views. Arguments offend more people than they convince, simply because people’s views tend to be emotionally held, rather than rationally held. The majority of people do not want to reconsider their thinking. They will therefore react in a hostile manner when you challenge them – even if indirectly.
  • Blending in is much safer, especially when you don’t have much power. You can still hold your true views privately, but you have to be careful in how you express them, and who you express them to. When you gain more power, you may work on trying to convince others to your views.
Disagreement is regarded as offensive because it is a condemnation of the views of others.
Baltasar Gracián

Tommaso Campanella was a monk and philosopher who held atheist views. At the time, however, the Catholic Church was dominant and was persecuting non-believers. Campanella wrote a book, Atheism Conquered, which purported to illustrate how wrong atheism was. However, in setting out the arguments for each side, he made the case against Catholicism much more eloquently than the case for it. But Catholics could not persecute Campanella for writing the book because it endorsed Catholicism at face value.


If you already stand out – such as when you already have a lot of power – then there’s less harm to being unconventional. However, even those in power would benefit from relating a little bit to the common people.

Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish

  • Anger and emotional reactions look bad. At first, anger may instil fear in others but as time passes it can backfire. People become concerned that the angry person is unstable, or they may resent what he says in anger. Showing frustration is showing weakness – it demonstrates your lack of power and control and comes off petulant. It also looks silly, as anger is usually disproportionate to the annoyance.
  • Don’t take things personally. If someone gets angry at you, and their anger is disproportionate to your offence, resist the urge to get angry back. Remember that you are not the sole cause of their anger. They probably have issues going back much further, and it’s not worth your time unpacking all those. The best response to a hothead is usually indifference.
  • You can turn this to your advantage by making your enemies angry and flustered. Emotions such as pride, vanity, love and hate tend to be uncontrollable once stirred up.

The most important of these skills, and power’s crucial foundation, is the ability to master your emotions. … Emotions cloud reason, and if you cannot see the situation clearly, you cannot prepare for and respond to it with any degree of control.
Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power, Preface

A large nettle-tree grew next to the monastery of High Priest Ryogaku. The people gave him the nickname, Nettle-tree High Priest. Annoyed by this, he cut down the tree. The stump was still left, so people called him Stump High Priest. More furious than ever, he had the stump dug up and thrown away, leaving behind a big ditch. People then called him Ditch High Priest.


Be careful – playing with emotions is like playing with fire. Test the waters first to understand your enemy. Don’t stir up sharks.

Law 40: Despise the free lunch

  • Things that appear “free” usually are not. Everything has a cost. Something that is offered for “free” may actually be a trick, or it may saddle you with a future obligation. Greedy people overlook the important things that power depends on, in their eagerness to get rich quickly.
  • When something is worth it, it’s worth paying for. Paying full price can protect your independence, freedom, reputation, time and peace of mind – in short, some of your most valuable resources.
  • Being generous with your money and paying full price makes you look powerful. Miserly people look petty. Money can buy power, but it has to circulate to do so.
  • Gifts are powerful because we receive gifts as children and see them as signs of love and approval. Giving others gifts places them under an obligation and softens them up. It implies that you two are equals, or that you are superior to the recipient. But you have to give discriminately. The more often you give, the less power each gift has. If you give freely to everyone, the recipients of your gifts won’t feel special.
The worth of money is not in its possession, but in its use.
Aesop’s fables

Dangling a free lunch can help you swindle and deceive others. [This doesn’t really seem to be a reversal of the law.]

Law 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes

  • If you come after a great person or have a famous parent, you’ll have to double your accomplishments to stand out. You cannot project power from the shadows of a mighty predecessor.
  • Famous and successful men often start out with nothing and gain success on their own merits. When they have children, they tend to be domineering and controlling, believing that their way is the only way – because it worked for them. Their children then become timid, cautious and risk-averse. They learn to apply old tactics that worked for their fathers even though the world has now changed.
  • Ways to get around this include:
    • Using symbolism to signify your difference. For example, Louis XIV did this by building a new palace at Versailles, instead of using the traditional French palaces.
    • Do something completely different, thereby thwarting any comparisons. For example, Augustus didn’t attempt to outdo Julius Caesar’s theatrical tendencies, instead opting for an austere and dignified style.
    • Make sure you don’t become complacent. Remain ever-vigilant to the demands of a changing world.

Alexander the Great is very unusual. His father, King Philip, had conquered most of Greece, but Alexander still managed to surpass him. Alexander intensely disliked his father and openly defied him, desperate to prove himself.


You can use a predecessor’s reputation to your advantage during your rise to power. But be prepared to discard it and differentiate yourself once you have gained power. For example, Napoleon III relied on the name of his granduncle Napoleon Bonaparte in his ascent to emperor of France. Once there, he showed how his reign would be different.

Doing things differently from your predecessors, just for the sake of being different, can look juvenile. There may be good practices from the past that are worth keeping. Make sure you can justify your actions on their own merit. If you can’t, if you are mediocre, it may be wiser to learn from your predecessors.

Law 42: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter

  • In every group, power is concentrated in the hands of just a few individuals, even there is a veneer of democracy. When you understand who controls the group dynamics, you can work on them directly.
  • Trouble and dissent can often be traced back to a single source that infects others. Troublemakers hide within the safety of a group. Once you identify a troublemaker, don’t bother trying to change them or attack them. Just isolate them, so they cannot infect the rest of the group. Isolating may be physical (e.g. banishment), political (removing their support), or psychological (alienating them with slander).
  • When someone is isolated, they are more vulnerable and susceptible to your influence. Con artists and pick up artists both seek to deliberately isolate people, or locate those who are already isolated.
Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter
Law 42: Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter

If you’re isolating someone, make sure they won’t be in a position to get revenge on you. Sometimes it’s better to keep them close to you, where you can watch them, than it is to risk creating an angry enemy.

Law 43: Work on the hearts and minds of others

  • It’s much better to make someone want to do something than to force them to. In the long run, seduction is more effective than coercion. Coercion may show quick results, but will eventually stir up resistance. Seduction may be slower, but it allows you to convert potential enemies into allies.
  • To work on others’ hearts and minds:
    • Read them and tailor your words accordingly. Some ticks are common to all people – basic emotions like fear, love and jealousy. But everyone has their individual quirks as well – things that particularly resonate with them.
    • Use contrasts. For example, push them to despair, then give them relief.
    • Symbolic gestures can win people over. An act of self-sacrifice makes others identify with you.
    • Appeal to people’s self-interest. For best results, use a noble veneer to cloak the self-interest.
    • Metaphors and imagery are great ways to communicate ideas. Kings have always employed writers for this reason. [I’ve seen this a lot in my work recently. A pithy metaphor can really drive home a point. You can tell someone has bought into it when they start repeating it to other people. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, so perhaps this is something I should work on in order to be more persuasive.]
  • The higher up you are, the more you need to remain attuned to the hearts and minds of those below you.


Law 44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect

  • There are four main mirror effects:
    • Neutralising effect. Do what your enemies do, so that your enemies can’t figure out your strategy, This has a mocking or infuriating effect. It’s also useful if you have no strategy yourself. The reverse of this is the Shadow – gathering information on your enemies by copying their moves without them seeing you.
    • Narcissus effect. Reflect back to people their innermost feelings. To be able to do this, however, you have to pay a lot of attention to people – follow their eyes, study their gestures, examine all details. People are entranced by this because it happens so rarely, and because they haven’t even asked for it.
    • Moral effect. Mirror what someone has done, to make them realise how unpleasant their behaviour has been.
    • Hallucinatory effect. Create a copy of something and use it as a dummy. Con artists love this one.
  • [These four mirror effects are all quite different. Seems dumb to combine them all under one law. Most of the chapter describes the Neutralising and Narcissus effects.]
  • Mirroring people around you makes them think you share their goals. People are narcissistic so are attracted to mirrors of themselves.
  • Even if they suspect you have different motives, your mirror makes it hard for them to work out what your true motives are.
  • A mirror also saves you mental energy, mirroring what others do instead of deciding what your own moves are.
  • Metaphors are a kind of mirror. They can be useful in expressing something more clearly or delicately than a direct statement.

Alcibiades was a general and statesman in Athens. Although he lived usually lavishly, when he was with Socrates, he mirrored Socrates’ simple and sober ways. Socrates felt flattered by this, and liked Alcibiades so much that he once risked his own life to rescue him in battle. Alcibiades later defected to Spartan and adopted their austere and, well, spartan, ways. This impressed the Spartans as it implied that he chose to be a Spartan because he recognised their ways were superior. They give him a lot of power, but he then goes and seduces the king’s wife. When found out, he fled to Persia. Again, he adopted their lavish lifestyles, which flattered the Persians.


Mirrored situations can be dangerous, because you may not understand the situation as well as the people around you. Moreover, you can suffer by comparison to things that have previously been in that situation and you have no control over those associations.

Law 45: Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once

  • Change that is not managed well will be met with resistance, chaos and possibly revolt. Getting rid of something familiar leaves a void, which you must fill.
  • People latch onto familiar habits and rituals. Even if they recognise the need for change, or desire change in the abstract, they may cling onto the past when faced with the actual threat of change. Don’t underestimate the conservatism of those around you – it may be hidden, but powerfully entrenched.
  • Make a show of respecting the past, especially if you are an outsider or new to a position of power. Superficial similarities, such as same titles, dates, or numbers, can make changes more palatable. Changes are more likely to be accepted if they seem like gradual improvements or if they hearken back to something old and familiar. Since the past is dead and buried, you have the freedom to play with and reinterpret it.
  • Pay attention to the zeitgeist. During tumultuous times, you can gain power by preaching a return to the past. During periods of stagnation, however, you can gain power by preaching change and reform – but beware that those who start a revolution are rarely the ones to finish it.
He who desires or attempts to reform the government of a state, and wishes to have it accepted, must at least retain the semblance of the old forms; so that it may seem to the people that there has been no change in the institutions, even though in fact they are entirely different from the old ones. For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.
Niccolò Machiavelli

December 25th was originally a holiday commemorating the birthday of the sun-god, Mithras. The Christian Church later co-opted that day to be Jesus Christ’s birthday.

When Mao ZeDong tried to win over China’s enormous peasant population to the Communist cause, he did so by using references to the past. He compared his army to the Robin Hood-esque robber band in the medieval Chinese novel The Water Margin. He also likened himself to ZhuGe Liang, the historical strategist who is depicted favourably in the popular Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


Obviously if the past was bad, you don’t want to associate yourself with it. But even ugly history can seem preferable to a void – people can’t stand the uncertainty of a vacuum. So you still have to fill that void, just with new rituals and forms rather than old ones.

Law 46: Never appear too perfect

  • It’s always dangerous to appear better than others, but there is even more danger in appearing to have no faults or weaknesses. Don’t be so naïve as to think that by flaunting your successes, others will admire and be charmed by you; you are simply stirring up envy.
  • Humans have a hard time dealing with feelings of inferiority. But it’s not socially acceptable to be jealous of others and sometimes we won’t even admit it to ourselves, as admitting envy is admitting we are inferior. Common disguises for envy include excessive praise, sarcastic jokes, or unfair criticism.
  • It is far easier to avoid creating envy than to get rid of it once it has grown. Ways to mitigate envy include:
    • Be conscious of your own actions. Don’t flaunt your accomplishments.
    • Downplay your successes, attributing them to luck, so that they seem more achievable to others (but beware that your modesty doesn’t come off fake, else it can create even more envy).
    • Show some harmless defects or vices occasionally. Similarly, act like your position is not one to be envied, because the responsibilities are so burdensome and require much sacrifice.
    • Make others think that your success will benefit them, perhaps by sharing your spoils. But be careful as those who already envy you may feel that your favours are descending.
  • When you’ve had a sudden success or sudden increase in power, the people most likely to envy you are your friends and peers from before that success – the people who you were ostensibly “equal” to. You may want to find new friends if their envy becomes too great.
  • If your recognise envy in yourself, channel it towards your goals. Use it as motivation to better yourself, instead of letting it fester inside you. But accept, too, that there will always be people better than you.
It takes great talent and skill to conceal one’s talent and skill.
La Rochefoucauld

Tiptoeing around those who envy you may make their envy worse. If they sense your caution, they may feel it is just another sign of your superiority. That’s why it’s important to act before the envy takes hold.

Once envy is there, sometimes it is best to just embrace it. Instead of hiding your perfection, make it obvious, and display disdain for those who envy you. If you are in a strong position of power, their envy will not affect you.

Law 47: Do not go past the mark you aimed for: in victory, learn when to stop

  • Victory may feel intoxicating, but it is dangerous. It can go to your head, making you arrogant, overconfidence, and inflexible. Use reason to guide you, rather than these emotions in the thrill of success.
  • Recognise the role that planning and luck played in your success, not just your character. Good luck is dangerous as it can cause you to incorrectly attribute your success to your own brilliance [In poker, this is called “resulting”.] Your luck may change, so you have to be vigilant to maintain that success.
  • Just because your strategy worked for you once, that same strategy may not work again in changed circumstances. Powerful people are adaptable and know how to vary their patterns to different circumstances.
  • If someone grants you a favour, don’t ask for more as it will make you look insecure, like you didn’t deserve the favour or won’t have another opportunity for favours. Earn your favours instead of asking for them.
  • The end point also has dramatic value. People remember the ending more than anything else, so it’s wise to stop on a high. If you keep going, you risk undoing your success. Lawyers always make sure to end their cross-examination in a victory.
The greatest danger occurs at the moment of victory.
Napoleon Bonaparte

Though you should be cautious after a victory, you shouldn’t hesitate or lose momentum. Greene points out, however, that momentum is greatly overrated. Belief in momentum makes you more emotional, less strategic, and more likely to repeat the same methods. Success should be founded on your own careful actions.

Law 48: Assume formlessness

  • If you don’t have a form, people won’t have anything to attack. They will exhaust themselves trying to figure you out, while you can sneak up and surprise them.
    • Train yourself never to take anything personally or to show any defensiveness. That way, no one will know how to get to your weaknesses.
    • A fluid ruler is easier to obey, because subjects feel less like they have to conform to their ruler’s ideology.
  • The world is ever-changing, so you have to be adaptable and change with it.
    • Bigger is not better. Creatures that are large are more likely to go extinct. They have less mobility, yet constantly have to keep feeding themselves.
    • Being formless is more important as you get older. It gets more tempting to stick to our old rigid ways and become predictable.
    • Formlessness is a tool that helps you gain power. It’s not the same as just “going with the flow” or being resigned to your fate.
In martial arts, it is important that strategy be unfathomable, that form be concealed, and that movements be unexpected, so that preparedness against them be impossible.
The Book of the Huainan Masters, China

The Chinese game of Go (wei-chi) is often compared to chess. However, Go is a more fluid game. You’re not meant to try and control a particular area; you want mobility so that you can isolate your opponent in small areas and surround them. The aim is not to take your opponent’s pieces directly, but to paralyse them. While chess is linear, position-oriented, Go is non-linear and fluid. [Interestingly, Go was invented more than 2,500 years ago and is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to today. There are also far more legal board positions in Go than the number of atoms in the observable universe (see Wikipedia).]

Greene refers to the war between Athens and Sparta, which Sparta actually won. But Athens was creative and adaptable, while Sparta was rigid and unyielding. Sparta had always prioritised warfare over everything else – they had little interest in politics and economics. After the war, Athenian money flooded into Sparta. Sparta didn’t know how to react. The city succumbed to corruption, and its discipline and rigid order slowly broke down.


Sometimes it makes sense to concentrate your power. While formlessness forces your enemies to exhaust themselves hunting all over for you, when you do finally assume a form and attack, you should hit with a powerful, concentrated blow.

My Thoughts

Writing this summary of The 48 Laws of Power generated many thoughts for me, not only about the book but also about power more generally. For me, it’s been worth reading for that alone. But it does require the reader to exercise a lot of independent judgement. It is not a “how to” book. Taken at face value, it’s kinda evil. And it doesn’t address the question of whether power is worth seeking at all – it just assumes everyone always wants more power.

One thing that really irked me was how Greene sometimes inserted very long quotes in the middle of a story. This was super distracting and interrupted the flow of reading. It may have been okay in a physical copy, but on my e-reader it forced me to flick back and forth between pages.

I wasn’t particularly fond of the structure, either. It was conducive to entertainment – each chapter was relatively short, making it easy to pick up and put down. But this wasn’t so helpful in understanding and drawing links and contrasts between different laws, and led to a lot of repetition. That’s why I think my grouping in the Key Takeaways section is so helpful (but I may be a wee bit biased there).

Still, The 48 Laws of Power was an entertaining read. Greene’s writing style is very accessible and the examples are engaging and well-written.

Buy The 48 Laws of Power on: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

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