May 29th, 2011

48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

48 Laws of Power is a fantastic book, most interesting because of its heterodox approach to power. While it’s definitely connected to a tradition of books approaching power from the perspective of military strategy, it has much more sex appeal.

Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations deals with power from a military strategy point of view, and bores me to tears. (Likely due to my own immaturity). It is dry, and lacks passion. I wouldn’t argue with Morgenthau’s main ideas, or call them unimportant. All I’m saying is that the book put me to sleep, and might put you to sleep, too.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is more abstract and philosophical. It treats power as a combination of factors that one can understand and master in order to produce a favorable outcome. It communicates grand ideas simply, and leaves you with extremely memorable images that remind you to conserve energy and focus on big wins. Although I would take Sun Tzu over Hans Morgenthau any day, it can still seem impractical, or too daoist/cosmological at times.

Greene’s approach includes extensive references to military history (and would be enjoyed by those who like writers like Morgenthau), I found it much juicier and more personable than either of the books I mentioned above. 48 Laws of Power reminded me more of The Story of O than lifeless texts on international politics. I loved the book because of the level of depth in went into on psychological, emotional, and sexual aspects of power that other books I’ve read stay away from. If you’re interested in power and different conceptions of power, I’d definitely encourage you to check this book out. It sparked some interesting thoughts for me, and might do the same for you. Here are some of my favorite quotes / passages from 48 Laws of Power:_____

Do Not be one of the many who mistakenly believe that the ultimate form of power is independence. Power involves a relationship between people; you will always need others as allies, pawns, or even as weak masters who serve as your front. The completely independent man would live in a cabin in the woods—he would have the freedom to come and go as he pleased, but he would have no power. The best you can hope for is that others will grow so dependent on you that you enjoy a kind of reverse independence: Their need for you frees you.

- P. 85

In 433 BC, just before the Peoplonnesian War, the island of Corcyra (later called Corfu) and the Greek city-state of Corinth stood on the brink of conflict. Both parties sent ambassadors to Athens to try to win over the Athenians to their side. The stakes were high, since whoever had Athens on his side was sure to win. And whoever won the war would certainly give the defeated side no mercy.

Corcyra spoke first. Its ambassador began by admitting that the island had never helped Athens before, and in fact had allied itself with Athens’s enemies. There were no ties of friendship or gratitude between Corcyra and Athens. Yes, the ambassador admitted, he had come to Athens no out of fear and concern for Corcyra’s safety. The only thing he could offer was an alliance of mutual interests. Corcyra had a navy only surpassed in size and strength by Athens’s own; an alliance between the two states would create a formidable force, one that could intimidate the rival state of Sparta. That, unfortunately, was all Corcyra had to offer.

The representative from Corinth then gave a brilliant, passionate speech, in sharp contrast to the dry, colorless approach of the Corcyran. He talked of everything Corinth had done for Athens in the past. He asked how it would look to Athens’s other allies if the city put an agreement with a former enemy over one with a present friend, one that had served Athens’s interest loyally: Perhaps those allies would break their agreements with Athens if they saw that their loyalty was not valued. He referred to Hellenic law, and the need to repay Corinth for all its good deeds. He finally went on to list the many services Corinth had performed for Athens, and the importance of showing gratitude to one’s friends.

After the speech, the Athenians debated the issue in an assembly. On the second round, they voted to ally with Corcyra and drop Corinth.

- P. 97 - 98

I’ve heard of sentinels posted by the shore Who, spotting something far-away afloat, Couldn’t resist the shout: “A sail! A sail!” A mighty man-of-war!” Five minutes later it’s a packet boat, and then a skiff, and then a bale, and finally some sticks bobbing about. I know of plenty such to whom this story applies — People whom distance magnifies, Who, close to, don’t amount to much.

- Selected Fables, Jean de la Fontaine P. 116

A man said to a Dervish: “Why do I not see you more often?” The Dervish replied, “Because the words ‘Why have you not been to see me?’ Are sweeter to my ear than the words ‘Why have you come again?’”

- Mulla Jami, quoted in Idries Shah’s Caravan of Dreams

Once you die, everything about you will seem different. You will be surrounded by an instant aura of respect. People will remember their criticisms of you, their arguments with you, and will be filled with regret and guilt. They are missing a presentce that will never return. But you do not have to wait until you die: By completely withdrawing for a while, you create a kind of death before death. And when you come back, it will be as if you had come back from the dead—an air of resurrection will cling to you and people will be relieved at your return. This is how Deioces made himself king.

- P. 120

To make yourself powerful, you must place yourself at the center of things, as Louis XIV did at Versailles. All activity should revolve around you, and you should be aware of everything happening on the street, and of anyone who might be hatching plots against you. The danger for most people comes when they feel threatened. In such times they tend to retreat and close ranks, to find security in a kind of smaller and smaller circle, and lose perspective on events around them. They lose maneuverability and become easy targets, and their isolation makes them paranoid. As in warfare and most games of strategy, isolation often precedes defeat and death.

- P. 135

(Here’s One of my favorite stories in the whole book. Tea. Go Figure.)

The Japanese tea ceremony called Cha-no-yu has origins in ancient times, but it reached its peak of refinement in the sixteenth century under its most renowned practitioner, Sen no Rikyu. Although not from a noble family, Rikyu rose to great power, becoming the preferred tea master of the Emperor Hideyoshi, and an important adviser on aesthetic and even political matters. For Rikyu, the secret of success consisted in appearing natural, concealing the effort behind one’s work.

One day Rikyu and his son went to an acquaintance’s house for a tea ceremony. On the way in, the son remarked that the lovely antique-looking gate their host’s house gave it an evocatively lonely appearance. “I don’t think so,” replied his father, “it looks as though it had been brought from some mountain temple a long way off,  and as if the labor required to import it must have cost a lot of money.”  If the owner of the house had put this much effort into one gate, it would show in his tea ceremony—and indeed Sen no Rikyu had to leave th ceremony early, unable to endure the affectation and effort it inadvertently revealed.

On another evening, while having tea at a friend’s house, Rikyu saw his host go outside, hold up a lantern in the darkness, cut a lemon off a tree, and bring it in. This charmed Rikyu—the host needed a relish for the dish he was serving, and had spontaneously gone outside to get one. But when the man offered the lemon with some Osaka rice cake, Rikyu realized that he had planned the cutting of the lemon all along, to go with this expensive delicacy. The gesture no longer seemed spontaneous—it was a way for the host to prove his cleverness. He had accidentally revealed how hard he was trying. Having seen enough, Riku politely declined the cake, excused himself, and left.

Emperor Hideyoshi once planned to visit Rikyu for a tea ceremony. On the night before he was to come, snow began to fall. Thinking quickly, Rikyu laid round cushions that fit exactly on each of the stepping-stones that led through the garden to his house. Just before dawn, he rose, saw that it had stopped snowing, and carefully removed the cushions. When Hideyoshi arrived, he marveled at the simple beauty of the sight—the perfectly round stepping stones, unencumbered by snow—and noticed how it called no attention to the manner in which Rikyu had accomplished it, but only to the polite gesture itself.

After Sen No Rikyu died, his ideas had a profound influence on the practice of the tea ceremony. The Tokugawa shogun Yorinobu, son of the great Emperor Ieyasu, was a student of Rikyu’s teachings. In his garden he had a stone lantern made by a famous master, and lord Sakai Tadakatsu asked if he could come by one day to see it. Yorinobu replied that he would be honored, and commanded his gardeners to put everything in order for the visit. These gardeners, unfamiliar with the precepts of Cha-no-yu thought the stone lantern misshapen, its windows being too small for the present taste. They had a local workman enlarge the windows. A few days before Lord Sakai’s visit, Yorinobu toured the garden. When he saw the altered windows he exploded with rage, ready to impale on his sword the fool who had ruined the lantern, upsetting its natural grace and destroying the whole purpose of Lord Sakai’s visit.

When Yorinobu calmed down, however, he remembered that he had originally bought two of the lanterns, and that the second was in his garden on the island of Kishu. At great expense, he hired a whale boat and the finest rowers he could find, ordering them to bring the lantern to him within two days—a difficult feat at best.  But the sailors rowed day and night, and with the luck of a good wind they arrived just in time. To Yorinobu’s delight, this stone lantern was more magnificent than the first, for it had stood untouched for twenty years in a bamboo thicket, acquiring a brilliant antique appearance and a delicate covering of moss. When Lord Sakai arrived, later that same day, he was awed by the lantern, which was more magnificent than he had imagined—so graceful and at one with the elements. Fortnuately he had no idea what time and effort it had cost Yorinobu to create this sublime effect.


To Sen no Rikyu, the sudden appearance of something naturally, almost accidentally graceful was the height of beat. This beauty came without warning and seemed effortless. Nature created such things by oits own laws and processes, but men had to create their effects through labor and contrivance. And when they showed the effort of producing the effect, the effect was spoiled. The gate came from too far away, the cutting of the lemon looked contrived.

You will often have to use tricks and ingenuity to create your effects—the cushions in the snow, the men rowing all night—but your audience must never suspect the work or the thinking that has gone into them. Nature does not reveal its tricks, and what imitates nature by appearing effortless approximates nature’s power.

May 6th, 2011
April 23rd, 2011

First Test Post

I know you think you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

- Alan Greenspan