Thursday, May 1, 2014

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Title: The 48 Laws of Power
Author: Robert Greene
Publisher: Viking Adult
Original Publication Date: September 1, 1998
Pages: 480

In the confines of my sociological classes, where my known companions were Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Mills, saying that I loved this book would perhaps even amount to an affront to the value I have assigned to it back then. 

When I entered law school and got oriented in the ways of the law, the cunning, ruthless, and decisive ways of the legal world, I appreciated this book. 

It was practical and in these present days it simply made sense. In a dog-eat-dog world, you had to arm yourself. This was the perfect weapon. But power can be achieved in a multitude of ways and Greene wrote this handbook in perspective of a certain limited spectrum. 

To avoid any definitional debate and to put this review's foundation on the right track, POWER as used in this book needs to be defined. I would mention Thomas Hobbes' working definition of power as derived from the Leviathan (4 STARS) as  “a man’s . . . present means, to obtain some future apparent good, which is divided into two kinds: (1) natural, derived from inborn abilities of the body and mind, including intellect, strength, wit, and artistic ability, and (2) instrumental, derived from the acquired faculties and advantages of friends, money, or reputation (1651),” but there is greater propensity to consider the definition written by Robert Dahl in his article: The Concept of Power (1957), (here's an online link to the article) stating that, "power is the ability of A to get B to do something he or she would otherwise not do. In the case of authority, B’s behavior is driven by obligation, not force, but the operative condition is the same: B does something he or she would otherwise not do because of A’s will."

The kind this book talks about is rooted in deception, it is sustained by cunning, and realized by manipulation. Yes, that is the kind of power this book seeks to achieve. So if dear reader, you seek such kind of power, continue on and revel in this book. The draconian, the Machiavellian, the power hungry, the deceiver, the cynic, now this one's for you. 

To which in the same sense I would caution the veracious and the pure souls in reading this. If you're one seeking the generous and the warm kind, I would go as far to suggest that you instead read the succeeding selections, for this book is effective like that, it can change someone. 

The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm (3 STARS)
A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis
A Lover's Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
Because love is a powerful force just like that. :)

The title says it all. This book contains 48 laws of power to which one chapter is adroitly dedicated to the discussion of each law. The chapters' form can be generally characterized through first a discussion of the law itself and a recommendation on how to apply and realize this law. Greene further indurates these discussions by providing the nuances in every law and countering the said nuances themselves. The foregoing discussion is followed either by an allegory or an anecdote lifted from the lives of people who have been notable in the fields of war, politics, and deception, a list which the likes of Talleyrand, Clausewitz, Bonaparte, and Bismarck populate. Green concludes the chapters by providing a summary of the discussion through an approximated equivalent imagery representation and a brief quotation from a notable individual to probably stand as an authority on the matter. 

The writing is simple and direct as it should be for books categorized under the self-help genre. The typesetting is interesting, it somehow adds to the appeal of this book. Every chapter contains stories separate from the allegories and anecdotes directly infused in the discussion of the law itself (personally, I give thanks to this book for introducing me to Clausewitz, Gracian, and several other authors and books). These references are pivotal if not indispensable as Greene derives the strength of his arguments and laws from historical figures. Of course, his statements, however overreaching and cynical at times, seem to resonate with a certain veracity when kings, emperors, warlords, and philosophers of incomparable renown are included in the picture. What is surprising though is that a number of his references come from Baltasar Gracian, a Jesuit. 

Coming across the numerous reviews of this book, the discussion and debate of whether this book is amoral or immoral, sometimes bordering what some people designate as 'evil' strikes me as discussion that can be easily resolved, if not clarified. You see, people are not simply engaging in a definitional debate here. The contention of what is good and evil is a value judgement dispute, something that has been in place even before the history of man was conceived. I say this in recognition of the dangers that cultural relativity presents. This right here is the dilemma, if everything is relative, can there exist a universal moral code operative not only over a single class or culture but for the entire race that would help us in qualifying the contents of this book? Kant and his Categorical Imperative would agree that it exists, but let us not stray to far from this review. 

The point of all this is that, if you think  selectively trusting your friends (Law #2), concealing your intentions (Law #3), taking credit for others work (Law #5)... is good, then you may as well validly and relatively argue that this is a "good, heaven-sent" book, and so too does the converse work and I will leave you at that.  

The truth however is that a fine line does exist between what is good and evil. True, it is a fine line, but it is not something that is indiscernible. The sad thing is that most people choose to turn a blind eye rather than being critical and responsive. People furthermore tend  to consciously complicate simple things resulting in the unduly blurring of the boundaries, leading to our own undoing.   

If it helps, here's what Robert Greene thinks of what you've just read; 
"Everyone assumes I practise all of my own laws but I don’t. I think anybody who did would be a horrible ugly person to be around." (The Telegraph, 2010)

For all that, this still occupies a special space on the permanent bookshelf on my reading table, along with Machiavelli, The Little Prince, my hard won thesis, my camera's manuals and my journal, cradled securely by my direwolf bookends. It remains to be special, certainly not as valuable as when I first read it, but still worthy of the place it occupies.

If your looking for an academic read on power, read Power: A Radical View by Steven Lukes (4 STARS), a book containing a number of articles by key contributors in the field like Hobbes, Foucault, and Dahl. It explores the conception, aspects, derivatives and several perspectives in viewing power.
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