He who forgets the past is destined to repeat it.

Book Summary — The 48 Laws of Power #4

Thrive in the game of power. Better to be an artist than a denier.

This is the third summary (Laws 25–36) of The 48 Laws of Power. Read the Laws 1–12 here, Laws 13–24 here, and Laws 25–36 here.

The 48 Laws of Power is a book of wisdom, a compilation of tactics, and a rich set of brilliantly tested ideas for thriving in any era. No matter how you feel about the dubious power plays that have occurred and the amoral instructions of this book, the fact is that they exist. The laws of this book you will either use or will experience being used against you.

“He who forgets the past is destined to repeat it.”

Let us stand on the shoulders of giants, therefore, and learn from 3,000 years of philosophies, legacies, statesmen, warriors and seducers.

Law 37 — Create Compelling Spectacles

  • Using words is risky: we reflect on words with words of our own and often end up believing the opposite of what they say. They stir up unintended associations, divisions and arguments.
  • Visuals contain great emotional power — it gives an immediate appeal to their emotions — they are not interested in rational explanations or words.
  • Visuals communicate instantly, leaving no gap for reflection and doubt. “The visual is the easiest route to their hearts”.
  • Like music, visuals leap over rational thoughts.
  • Images forge bonds that transcend social differences, bringing people together. Use them to rally and unite your team.

“The truth is generally seen, rarely heard.”

  • Our sight (visual) has come to dominate the other senses. Thus, never neglect the way you arrange things visually, taking factors like colour, position (centre) into account. Visuals have enormous symbolic resonance.
  • Visuals are often gentler than brutish words. They awe people and distract them from the chaos of the world and from unpleasant realities.
  • Visuals bypass the head and aim straight for the heart.

Law 38: Think as You Like, But Behave Like Others.

  • People who make a show of going against the times, who flaunt their infatuation with a different culture, create unintended consequences.
  • People will think you: want attention, are expressing disdain and contempt for their own culture, are expressing a sense of superiority.
  • The need to show your difference so dramatically makes you disliked by the people whose beliefs you challenge. They feel inferior and offended.
  • There is no point making displays of your dangerous ideas if it only leads to suffering and persecution.
  • Your arguments convince only a few and offend a great deal more: appeal to visuals and actions.
  • Others do not want to reform their habits and routines, so when you express your beliefs they are hostile.

The wise and clever people learn that:

  • You can display conventional behaviour without believing in it. Leave behind your own ideas and values when you go into society.
  • Put on the mask that is most appropriate to whom you are with. In blending in, you have the time alone to have the thoughts you want to have.
  • Once establishing themselves in power, then they can attempt to convince others of the correctness of their ideas, perhaps working indirectly.

Law 39: Stir Up Waters to Catch Fish

  • Anger is counterproductive — It may strike terror at first but resentment festers over what has been said, as well as embarrassment and uneasiness for going out of control.
  • In the end, they lose respect for you and realise that they can undermine someone with such little self-control.
  • The angry response often seems out of proportion for what occasioned it. Outbursts do not signify powerful but rather helplessness. They create doubts and uneasiness about your power.
  • Showing anger and frustration demonstrates you have lost power to shape events. You have resorted to the hysterical fit.
  • Instead, never let them see you sweat. Do not repress angry or emotional responses, which drains you of energy and pushes you into strange behaviours, but rather change your perspective:

Nothing is personal in the social realm: anger stems from problems in childhood, the disappointments and heartaches that we have suffered. Explosions of anger, perhaps out of proportion of what you did, are not exclusively directed at you — the cause is much larger.

Hence, do not overreact or become ensnared with people’s emotions, see it for what it is: an attempt to control or punish you cloaked in the form of hurt feelings and anger.

  • Once you can control your own emotional responses, you can play with the emotional responses of other people: bait the powerful into dividing their forces…
  • The best emotions to play on are the uncontrollable emotions: pride, vanity, love, and hate. The angrier they become, the less control they have. You create a whirlpool for them. They act before they are ready, you force them to the surface.

Law 40: Despise the Free Lunch

  • What is offered for free involves a trick or hidden obligation. You can use this to your own advantage, by giving appropriate gifts to soften people up and gaining a reputation for liberality. In doing so, you put the recipients under obligation. It’s the trick of “giving when you are about to take”.
  • Powerful people judge everything by what it costs, not just in money but in time, dignity, and peace of mind. These are incredibly important. Stop worrying endlessly about what you could have gotten elsewhere for a little less. Stop wasting valuable time digging for bargains.
  • The bargain item may cost less, but it might need repairs or will have to be replaced twice as fast… The bargain has hidden problems, material and psychological. Learn to pay and to pay well.
  • Financial sadists have no sense of the courtier element in money: they play vicious power games with money as a way of asserting their power. They make you wait for the money that is owed you, meddle in every aspect of the job they are paying you for… Accepting a financial loss may be better in the long term than getting entangled in their power games.
  • Indiscriminate givers want to be loved and admired by all. However, their generosity is so indiscriminate and needy that it does not have the desired effect: the recipient does not feel special. Do not accept from these people, you will feel burdened by their insatiable emotional needs.
  • Sudden wealth rarely lasts, for it is built on nothing solid. Never let lust for money lure you out of the protective and enduring fortress of real power.
  • The greedy neglect everything power really depends on: self-control, the goodwill of others, and so on.
  • Spend freely — create a reputation for generosity, which in the end will pay great dividends.
  • Never let financial details blind you to the bigger picture of how people perceive you. Their resentment will cost you in the long run.

Law 41: Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes

  • What happens first always appears better and more original than what comes after.
  • Power depends on appearing larger than other people.
  • Begin from zero psychologically — the past prevents you from creating your own world.
  • Throw off the weight of the past and chart a new direction.
  • Privileges of birth are impediments to power.
  • Establish distance from your predecessor which demands some symbolism, a way of advertising itself publicly.
  • Only after the father figure has been properly done away with will you have the necessary space to create and establish a new order.
  • Hunt out the vacuums — those areas in culture that have been left vacant.
  • With this you can become the first and principal figure to shine.
  • Make a name for yourself where no shadows could obscure your presence.

Finally, it is often wise to keep an eye on the young, your future rivals in power. Just as you try to rid yourself of your father, they will soon play the same trick on you, denigrating everything you have accomplished. Just as you rise by rebelling against the past, keep an eye on those rising from below, and never give them the chance to do the same to you.

Law 42: Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep Will Scatter

  • Trouble can often be traced to a single strong individual — the stirrer, the arrogant underling, the poisoner of goodwill. If you allow such people room to operate, others will succumb to their influence. Do not wait for the troubles they cause to multiply, do not try to negotiate with them — they are irredeemable. Neutralize their influence by isolating or banishing them. Strike at the source of the trouble and the sheep will scatter.
  • Do not attack them, whether directly or indirectly, for they are poisonous in nature and will work underground to destroy you.
  • Do as the Athenians did: Banish them before it is too late. Let one person suffer so that the rest can live in peace.
  • Once you spot them do not try to reform them or appease them — that will only make things worse.
  • It is often better to isolate your enemies than to destroy them — you seem less brutal.
  • Render their actions visible and they lose their power to upset.
  • Separate your victims from their power base or their usual social context.
  • However, if you act to isolate your enemy, make sure he lacks the means to repay the favour. If you apply this Law, in other words, apply it from a position of superiority, so that you have nothing to fear from his resentment.

Law 43: Work on the Heart and Mind of Others

  • You must seduce others into wanting to move in your direction
  • You are not owed attention.

Disastrous attitudes in the realm of power include:

  1. These types live in their own bubble.
  2. They seem to feel they are born kings and queens, and that attention is owed them.
  3. They do not consider anyone else’s nature, but bulldoze over people with the self-righteous arrogance.
  4. Pampered and indulged as children, so as adults they still believe that everything must come to them; convinced of their own charm.
  5. They make no effort to charm, seduce, or gently persuade anyone.
  • Attend to those around you, gauging their particular psychology by tailoring your words.
  • Create a base of support to maintain you.
  • Think before you act: patience turns potential enemies into pillars of support: it allows you to attune yourself to your targets’ emotional makeup and psychological weaknesses
  • Soften them up by alternating harshness with mercy. Play on basic fears.
  • Remember that self-interest is the strongest motive of all.

Law 45: Preach Change But Never Reform Quickly.

  • Change can be pleasant and even sometimes desirable in the abstract but too much of it creates an anxiety that will stir and boil beneath the surface and then eventually erupt.
  • Never let the seductive charm of an idea cloud your reason.
  • If reform is necessary, anticipate the reaction against it and find ways to disguise the change and sweeten the poison.
  • The duality of human change: whilst we understand the need for change, knowing how important it is for institutions and individuals to be occasionally renewed, we are irritated and upset by changes that affect us personally.
  • We know that change is necessary, and that novelty provides relief from boredom, but deep inside we cling to the past. Change in the abstract, or superficial change, we desire, but a change that upsets core habits and routines is deeply disturbing to us.
  • Habit and history give any act weight: what has happened before seems greater.
  • Cloak change in the comfortable clothes of the past.
  • Give your reforms the comforting appearance of older events and traditions.
  • The fact that the past is dead and buried gives you the freedom to interpret it. To support your cause, tinker with the facts.

“The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities” — Machiavelli

Law 46 Never Appear Too Perfect

  • Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses. Envy creates silent enemies.
  • Only a minority can succeed in the game of power — that minority arouses the envy of those around them, particularly friends and acquaintances they have left behind.
  • Envy is unhappy admiration.
  • Cloud your brilliance occasionally, reveal a defect, weakness, or anxiety, or attribute your success to luck. Or find yourself new friends.
  • Avoid the insidious nature of envy by appearing as one of them in style and values.
  • Make alliances with those below you.
  • Never flaunt your wealth, defer to others as if they are more powerful than you. You do not stir up admiration by flaunting the qualities that raise you above others.
  • The master of power understands that the appearance of superiority over others is inconsequential next to the reality of it.
  • Accept that there will always be people who will surpass you in some way and you may envy them. Use such envy to move to greater heights.
  • Emphasise how lucky you have been.
  • Give those who envy you something to feed on.
  • Be careful not to affect a false modesty that people can easily see through.
  • Your humility, and your openness to those you have left behind, has to seem genuine
  • Any hint of insincerity will only make your new status more oppressive.

Law 47: Do Not go Past The Mark You Aimed For, In Victory Learn When To Stop

The moment of victory is often the moment of greatest peril. In the heat of victory, arrogance and overconfidence can push you past the goal you had aimed for, and by going too far, you make more enemies than you defeat. Do not allow success to go to your head. There is no substitute for strategy and careful planning. Set a goal, and when you reach it, stop.

  • Always be guided by reason
  • When you attain success, step back, consolidate your gains, check if the path you are moving towards is the correct path for you. Reflect on what has happened.
  • Examine the role of circumstance and luck in your success
  • Success makes you feel invulnerable, less able to adapt to circumstance.
  • Bad luck teaches valuable lessons about patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst. Good luck deludes you into the opposite lesson, making you think your brilliance will carry you through. You need to keep your eyes open.
  • Do not be pressured into going past your mark and into dangerous waters.
  • Do not lose momentum but rather act as a safeguard against rash action. Remember, though, that momentum as a phenomenon is greatly overrated. Belief in momentum will make you emotional, less prone to act strategically, and more apt to repeat the same methods. Leave momentum for those who have nothing better to rely on.

Law 48: Assume Formlessness

By taking a shape, by having a visible plan, you open yourself to attack. Instead of taking a form for your enemy to grasp keep yourself adaptable and on the move. Accept the fact that nothing is certain and no law is fixed. The best way to protect yourself is to be as fluid and formless as water; never bet on stability or lasting order. Everything changes.

  • People weighed down by a system and inflexible ways of doing things cannot move fast, cannot sense or adapt to change.
  • Learn to move fast and adapt or you will be eaten.
  • Value movement over position — your speed and mobility makes it impossible to predict your moves.
  • Power can only thrive if it is flexible in its forms.
  • Take the form of whatever is around you.
  • Formlessness is in the eye of the enemy who cannot see what they are up to and so has nothing solid to attack.
  • This is the premier pose of power: ungraspable, as elusive and swift as the god Mercury, who could take any form he pleased and used this ability to wreak havoc on Mount Olympus.
  • When you play with formlessness, keep on top of the process, and keep your long-term strategy in mind. When you assume a form and go on the attack, use concentration, speed, and power.




Mathematician | Writer and Content Creator for the University of Nottingham | Self & Personal Development. How can we get unstuck and achieve our goals?

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Mathematician | Writer and Content Creator for the University of Nottingham | Self & Personal Development. How can we get unstuck and achieve our goals?

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