I caught a glimpse of an old favourite book of mine on my exceptionally cluttered bookshelves and pulled it out to have another look. It’s Robert Greene’s ’48 Laws of Power’, which is, I suppose, a sort of psychology book illustrated with some literary (and other) quotations. I’ve always thought that an awful lot of human motivation is about power and the book likes to allude to military strategies as quoted by Machiavelli or Sun Tzu:Â I’ve had a fair amount of what recruitment agents call ‘board level exposure’ and know how much like medieval courts the top tier of management in plcs and AGs are — and the laws can also be applied to business relationships and office politics. Additionally most of the ‘laws’ in the book can be applied to the most intimate or domesticated of human relationships. So in many ways the book could be seen as quite a resource for novelists.
Here is a short selection of my favourite laws — the full list can be found on a website associated with the book (and Wikipedia).
- Law 1 Never Outshine the Master
- Law 4 Always Say Less than Necessary
- Law 12 Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim
- Law 15 Crush your Enemy Totally
- Law 16 Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor
- Law 17 Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability
- Law 32 Play to People’s Fantasies
- Law 33 Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew
- Law 41 Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes
- Law 42 Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter
- Law 46 Never appear Perfect
Probably the most insightful law is the fifteenth. It stems from the famous Machiavelli quotation ‘men must either be crushed or else annihilated; they will avenge themselves for small injuries but cannot do so for great ones’. Law One is also extremely important as it takes into account people’s jealousies. This is why all job advertisements that ask for thrusting, confident, assertive types are fundamentally misconceived — anyone who performs too well in front of their boss and makes him or her look quite ordinary is going to be stitched up sooner or later in a corporate environment. Law 46 is fairly similar — no-one likes anyone who’s perfect but if you’re calculating make sure that your imperfections are carefully selected to be relatively cosmetic.
I wonder if it’s my interest in such theories of scheming and treachery that has led to a lot of feedback on the writing I’ve read so far to emphasise the reader’s dislike of my characters — who it’s been noted are quite often trying to stitch each other up?
Of course the law I ignore most myself is the fourth — ‘always say less than necessary’ as the length of this blog entry and the others confirms.