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History, Philosophy, Politics and Society | Popular Psychology, Personal Growth and Self-Help

A Guide to

Robert Greene’s

The 48 Laws of Power

Summary and Analysis,

Key Ideas and Facts

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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Throughout history it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.

Haile Selassie

In his book, The New World Order, H. G. Wells, a British writer who is famous for his novels War of the Worlds, Invisible Man, Time Machine and others, discussed the necessity for building a new economic and political system that would be fair and merit based, unlike those systems that we have today. H. G. Wells pointed out that certain negative traits of human nature would stand in the way of a fair society. These traits include envy and the desire of an individual to be placed somehow above his or her fellow humans.

His argument echoes the fact that a capitalist economic system, which has been adopted in almost all the countries of the world, is based on greed and desire for dominance over other people. Many economists and politicians insist that our civilization can prosper only when its progress is driven by such an economic system. In other words, they are saying that we can have better standards of living, better culture and science only as long as our economies are ruled by our negative qualities—greed and quest for dominance.

In many countries that are mostly Christian ones, this situation raises a double standard because of the different values promoted by religion and those who are wealthy. Christianity perceives greed in the way that is described by W. Jay Wood in his article, “Three Faces of Greed,”

Greed is an inappropriate attitude toward things of value, built on the mistaken judgment that my well-being is tied to the sum of my possessions. Greed is more than mistaken belief—as if knowing a few more facts would somehow solve the problem. It also involves emotions (perhaps longing, unfulfillment, fear) and attitudes (a sense of entitlement, rivalry). Greed alienates us from God, from our neighbor, and from our true self.

Every Sunday, millions of Christians go to churches and read the Bible, which has many warnings about giving in to greed and the desire for riches. According to the Bible, Jesus warned, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Then, on Monday morning, Christians go back to their work and businesses, following the foremost principle of capitalism that greed is good.

The way in which our society received Greene’s book indicates that double standards are not limited to the conflict between religious and economic convictions. Today, we recognize that most of the laws of power described in Greene’s book, The 48 Laws of Power, contradict the principles of human morality, as well as the principles of ethics, democracy and equal rights. Does this recognition mean that we all reject dishonest methods of manipulation of our fellow humans? Greene does not think so.

He emphasizes that these laws of power are not just a thing of the past when he writes, “Today we face a peculiarly similar paradox to that of the courtier: Everything must appear civilized, decent, democratic, and fair. But if we play by those rules too strictly, if we take them too literally, we are crushed by those around us who are not so foolish.” Therefore, Greene recommends to “play along” when he writes, “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game…”

He advises that a direct quest for power is conventionally considered as vulgar, and, therefore, a person cannot pursue power in an honest and forthright way. This is why Greene proposes that people who wish to gain power have to use the laws described in his book. Greene’s laws of power tell us that people have to conceal their true intentions and objectives for pursuing power. Furthermore, they must disguise their means and ends and pretend that they have no interest in power and that they only care about other people.

The popularity of Greene’s book supports his belief that the laws of power continue to exist in our modern society, contradicting the ideas of democracy. Many the laws described in Greene’s book oppose the idea of openness, fairness and equal rights when they advise exploiting the bad side of human nature. At the same time, Greene’s book remains on the list of bestsellers (here, I take the liberty to assume that people’s interest in Greene’s studies in the history of humankind is not the only source of their motivation for reading his book).

Even if I do not agree with the methods of achieving power that Greene recommends in his book, I have to admit that some of his ideas can be applied to our lives without a conflict with commonly accepted moral principles. For example, in his book, Greene makes a very valid observation about the importance of the ability to master your own emotions. Emotions cloud judgment, and a person who cannot see the situation clearly also cannot handle the situation in a rational way.

Greene also emphasizes the ability to think objectively about the future and past, while distancing oneself from the present moment. For the future, one has to think of problems before they become real, analyzing every possible danger and obstacle that might arise. Greene also discusses the importance of educating yourself about the past in order to learn from your own past experience, as well as from the experience of other people, and to apply the lessons to your life.

When Greene uses the term “power,” he refers to “soft” or “not-so-soft” force and coercion. Indeed, this is how power is often viewed in politics and the corporate world. People who wish to dominate other people promote this definition of power. However, modern psychology offers a broader definition of power, namely, that power refers to a person’s ability to change another person’s state of mind or social situation by providing or withdrawing resources or by punishing another person. This definition of power implies that even when people influence one another, their interactions do not necessarily have to involve dominance and submission. If a society strives for equality, then its citizens have to make every effort to achieve a balance of power that supports social cohesion and cooperation, not just obedience to the will of those few who hold all the power.

Greene supports the Machiavellian idea that manipulative, emotionally-detached and forceful people are the ones who achieve power. However, studies of nonhuman primates tell a different story. For instance, among chimpanzees, social power is based less on physical strength, strong-arming and proclamation of self-interest, and more on the primates’ ability to negotiate conflicts, to distribute resources fairly, and to facilitate group norms. Moreover, those chimpanzees who attempt to exercise their power by dominating others and serving only their own interests are challenged and overthrown.

Does this mean that a chimpanzee “society” might be more civilized than human society? Is it possible that the idea of power as something that can only be forcefully and deceitfully accumulated in the hands of few is not really an expression of true human nature?

It’s just that someone wants us to believe that humans can prosper only by following their own worst qualities. Someone wants us to believe that humans are genetically predisposed to seek power and use it in order to control and dominate over other people.

In his article, “Political Primates,” anthropologist Christopher Boehm writes,

Discoveries in the fields of anthropology and primatology suggest that though we may have a deeply rooted instinct to exert power over others, we also have what may be an equally strong aversion to abuses of power, along with some natural tendencies to punish people who commit those abuses. Consider this fact: Before 10,000 years ago, only egalitarian societies existed on our planet—tiny societies with no strong leaders at all. Keeping in mind that gene-selection requires at least a thousand generations to change our nature significantly, we must assume that most of our genes have evolved from the genetic makeup of people living in these small Paleolithic bands.

Boehm’s argument provides an interesting insight into human nature. It tells us that if we want to understand who we really are, then we have to take into consideration our genetic predisposition to fairness and collaboration. We cannot move into the better future without having real strategies to defuse with the past experiences that are in conflict with our human nature. We must not forget what we want to change.  This is why I view Greene’s book as a valuable resource that helps us realize how quest of a few for control and domination fills the history of humankind with so many appalling and dreadful experiences.

However, if you decide to live your life in accordance with Greene’s laws of power, you should be aware of the following. Once we agree to play the game that is governed by these laws, the game will never end. It will involve more and more people, and it will become more and more ruthless over time. History tells us that many people lived by such laws before us. But do we have to blindly follow their example? As long as we agree that this is the only way in which humankind can exist, we remain captives of the game of wealth and power.

Before you accept these laws of power and live your life in accordance with them, ask yourself the following questions:

  • If you did not accumulate great power and wealth by following these laws of power, and your children and grandchildren would have to start their lives from the same starting line as you did, would you want to see them living in a world that obeys Greene’s laws of power?
  • Would you want to see how your children and grandchildren, instead of discovering and developing their talents and living among decent and caring people, would live in the world where they would have to bend in front of the wealthy and powerful, squabble with their rivals and those who envy their talents and accomplishments, being passed over at work by those who are better at manipulating their superiors and other people?
  • Even if you accumulated wealth and power by following Greene’s laws of power and passed your wealth and power on to your children, your children and grandchildren still would have to live in a world full of self-absorbed, greedy, power-thirsty and callous people. Do you really wish that for your children and grandchildren?
  • Is this really the legacy that you want to leave for your posterity?



Boehm, C. 2007. Political Primates. [available at]

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. 2013. Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt. Hudson Street Press

Eyal, T., Epley, N. (2010). “How to Seem Telepathic: Enabling Mind Reading by Matching Construal.” Psychological Science

Johnson, S. 1984. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Penguin Classics

Machiavelli, N. 1992. The Prince. Dover Publications

Mill, J.S. 1991. Considerations on Representative Government. Prometheus Books

Robert Greene. 2000. The 48 Laws of Power. Penguin Book

Wells, H. G. 1940. The New World Order.

Wood, W. J. 2005. “Three Faces of Greed: Another Vice that Looks Like a Virtue” [available at]

Go Back to Part I A Summary of Laws 41-48

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