48 Laws of Power: A con man’s guide to the big bad world

Published: February 16, 2014
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Popular rappers such as 50 Cent, Jay Z and Kanye West have mentioned this book as a personal inspiration. PHOTO: GOODREADS

When I first read Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of PowerI found it difficult to decide whether the writer was being pragmatic or just plain evil.

Take these two ‘Laws of Power’, discover each man’s thumbscrew (Law 33) and pose as a friend, work as a spy (Law 14). The wickedness of what Greene is suggesting will shock some, while others will appreciate the practicality of the book.

Greene himself has said that he does not consider himself a genius, just a realist.

In an interview with Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian for an article, he said,

“I believe I described a reality that no other book tried to describe… I went to an extreme for literary purposes because I felt all the self-help books out there were so gooey and Pollyanna-ish and nauseating. It was making me angry.”

The book is not just for politicians or power players. It contains useful, albeit rather twisted, advice that anybody in any profession can use to get the best out of the system they live in.

The book is basically a self-help guide. It’s a bit like the book ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’. In the context of the book, ‘power’ means better pay, better treatment by your peers and better social standing. It takes the political tactics and tricks that famous politicians and businessmen used to become successful and condenses them into 48 laws or principles that anybody can use to get more ‘power’.

It’s not entirely moral because it includes statements such as

“Court attention at all costs,”

“Have no attachments.”

It tells its readers to lie and cheat their way to success. In simple words it’s a con man’s guide.

I grabbed it at the bookstore because its cover and its first few pages were so striking that it stood out. I’ll be honest, I read it more for entertainment purposes than for its advice because it has some good stories to tell. Some of the book’s ideas did blow me away though, simply because I noticed how many people actually used them in real life.

In chapter four of the book, he talks about the fourth law – always speak less than necessary.

He says,

“When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended and sphinx-like. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.”

Greene does not explain the laws using abstract ideas or concepts from political science. He mentions basic principles of human nature and tells stories of real people and their rise to or fall from power.

The examples Greene gives range from political leaders such as Alexander the Great and Otto von Bismark to businessmen such as P T Barnum and the Medici Banking family.

The public’s reaction to the book has largely been positive. It has high ratings on Goodreads and Barnes and Noble. Articles praising the book have been published in ForbesThe Los Angeles Times and other prominent publications.

It sold over a million copies in the United States. Popular rappers such as 50 Cent, Jay Z and Kanye West have mentioned it as a personal inspiration. According to The New York Times, it is one of the most widely read books amongst American prison inmates.

Like everything that is consumer-based, the book is not without its criticism.

Kirkus Reviews published a scathing review and management guru Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University, slammed the book on CNN. Criticism revolves around the fact that the book frequently contradicts itself and does not offer research-based evidence to support its ideas. It relies on historical records instead, whose accuracy is uncertain.

Should you read the book?

Well, yes and no.

On one hand, it contains some sound advice about the workings of political power and is a cut above most of the self-help literature in the market.

On the other hand, the book encourages people to lie, be deceptive and cheat through life.

“The best deceivers… cultivate an air of honesty in one area to disguise their dishonesty in others. Honesty is merely another decoy in their arsenal of weapons.”

In the long term, this would mean alienating people and having no real friends.

Personally, I believe the book deserves respect purely for its boldness and usefulness in certain situations. However, I do not agree with all of its ideas. Basing my life on principles such as ‘get others to do the work for you but always take the credit’ and ‘keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability’ would earn me too many enemies for my taste.

So if you are interested in a self-help book that can tell you how you can earn greater power (read ‘popularity, privileges, greater pay’) in whatever organisation you work in and have no qualms about making some enemies in the process, this book is for you.

If you are beyond all of that and believe in simple hard work, and a positive attitude or if you have inherited all the power and money you need and do not want any more, do not pick this book up yet, it definitely isn’t for you.

Waqar Ahmad

Waqar Ahmad

The author is a student at Shifa College of Medicine in Islamabad. He likes reading, movies, music and chinese food.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.