Robert Greene is an American author known for five bestselling books on strategy, seduction and power. Besides The 48 Laws of Power, his other books are:
• The Art of Seduction
• The 50th Law
• The 33 Strategies of War
Greene comes from a background of classical studies and has worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, among many other professions. Throughout his work experiences, Greene claims to have noticed patterns and strategies used by people in positions of power that share traits with those of famous figures in history such as celebrities, military men and/or politicians. Borrowing from his classical studies as well as from his knowledge of modern history and philosophy, he uses well-known examples of such figures applying the same “Laws”, often reinforcing his examples through multiple illustrations and showing the fates of historical or literary figures who did not follow these “Laws.”
In fact, given the age of so many of the historical examples in the book, Greene is essentially claiming that despite the technology of our modern era and our ability to communicate more clearly and widely than ever, society is still not that different from the royal courts of medieval times or the political forums of the Roman era, when intrigue, jealousy, suspicion and below-the-belt dealing were the order of the day.
As with his other books, the sheer number of examples and anecdotes Greene provides are voluminous and nearly overwhelming. The precise number of 48 Laws that he cites seems arbitrary, and some critics of the book argue that many of its commandments are contradictory. Indeed, for stringent edicts such as “Behave Like Others” and “Be Conspicuous at All Costs,” there would seem to be some questions as to how not to create conflict when applying them.
Certainly, it will be hard for any reader to memorize all of the rules the book offers due to their quantity, but most readers, upon their first glance at the table of contents, will likely mentally nod their heads in agreement because the majority of the Laws are not new, nor are they original; a great number of them are fairly obvious and even pedantic; in many cases, they’re subjective and/or case-specific. For instance, Law One states that you should “Never Outshine the Master.” But throughout history, it could be contended that there are plenty of examples where just the opposite occurred, for instance, with scientific or political disciples who made discoveries or took specific actions and were promoted or rewarded over their superiors.
An example Greene gives to back up this Law is that of Nicolas Fouquet, the finance minister to King Louis XIV of France. Fouquet threw a particularly lavish party to celebrate the completion of his new estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte, and he thought it would be the perfect occasion to show off his connections and the admiration many of the king’s subjects had for him. This, he thought, would be a way of demonstrating to the king that he would make an excellent prime minister, the position for which he believed he was being groomed. However, the party was so celebrated and impressive to its guests that King Louis was offended and believed that his subjects appreciated Fouquet more than himself. To Louis, this was an unforgivable sin, and he had Fouquet arrested and thrown in jail. Greene claims that this is the perfect example of the law in practice. However, one can look at a number of other examples, such as that of Nikola Tesla, who worked under Thomas Edison, eventually left him, received his own patents and attracted his own financial backing, to see a different story.
One of the formatting devices Greene uses next to the body of the text are sidebars either mentioning additional examples to back up each of his parables or tales being discussed or burrowing further into the background of the story being told. This produces a kind of schizophrenic effect as the reader then has two choices of text to read, and it’s hard to know which order to read them in. In fact, the formatting of the book in general is fairly jarring, as Greene constantly seems to interrupt himself, revert to past themes, explain the position of the devil’s advocate and/or discuss what he calls “a reversal” whereby the opposite of the rule may be true or useful on specific occasions. It’s clear that his mind is meandering and capable of simultaneous thoughts, but to a reader, the text appears especially dense and fraught with detail. Certainly, the overall effect is the opposite of that of a typical “business book,” which generally seeks to simplify and reduce themes to bullet points, outlines and memorable, repetitive phrases. The fact that there are 48 equally important Laws in the book thwarts that possibility.
In fact, the work is essentially the antithesis of a standard “business strategy book,” as Greene is not merely content to offer examples to back up his claims, but revels in their detail and purposely introduces more referents than are necessary to drive his points home. One is left with a sweeping impression of the work as academic — that this book might have been someone’s dissertation or master’s thesis — complete with tangential sidebar notes that were included in the published edition rather than incorporated into the main body of the text. It seems evident that the publisher/promoter — a Dutch man by the conspicuous name of Joost Elffers — wanted to not just make an impression with the work itself, but also with the striking cover design and unusual formatting of the book’s content. As such, despite the fact that the title of the book might suggest it be classified in the business or strategy sections of a bookstore, it more likely belongs in the classical or history department.
One criticism of the work that some people have made is that many potential readers might assume that it serves as a guideline or recommendation to those persons seeking power, when in fact, reviews such as that of Newsweek’s have said otherwise — that if anything, the book presents examples of why humility and obscurity are valuable qualities to embody. The ugliness and offensiveness, discourtesy and/or assumptive self-centeredness of the book’s “Laws” are never addressed; it is simply presumed that the importance of the reader or the person for whom these Laws are written is supreme and that any compromise or deference to another entity’s will, position or authority is calculated. Thus, the book appears quite Machiavellian and loathsome in its intention and perspective. Indeed, Machiavelli himself is the subject of a good number of Greene’s parables.
What qualifies Greene to be an arbiter on the subject of “power,” other than perhaps his study of history, is never made clear. How much he’s applied these principles in his own life is a bit of a mystery; all we know about Greene thus far is that he is merely an author whose title attracted the attention of a publisher who was inclined to promote his work in an attention-getting and attractive enough package for it to sell at least a million copies. Greene’s success with this book led to his further works being written, formatted and designed in an identical style. Indeed, the success of his works has been so great that rapper 50 Cent enlisted him to collaborate on a volume entitled “The 50th Law,” inspired by this work and 50 Cent’s own autobiographical tales of his life on the streets. Other than this success as an author, it’s hard to know if Greene has ever been thrust into a position of any substantial power himself, and therefore, his ability to speak with authority on the subject would appear to be somewhat limited.