I first heard of this book through a TikTok discussing one of the first laws presented. Even as someone who dislikes history, the video hooked me and I immediately knew I would love the book.
My interest was piqued as I found that rather than documenting the facts of war and industrialization, Greene builds connections between past historical people/events with the 48 laws. Social skills and an understanding of society are not explicitly taught, and therefore feels like an abstract subject.
It’s like art — there are no hard rules to follow, and everyone seemingly approaches it with some variation. I find the attempt to set ironclad rules for this “art” intriguing yet ironic; no one operates the exact same and there is no “one size fits all” rule for social interactions.
Another factor that influenced my interest was the fact that I learned social skills relatively late compared to my peers. Having something so peculiar to me be so deeply integrated into my life draws my fascination. I am curious about the unknown and any contradictions to my own understanding of the world.
Power, particularly, is an undoubtedly important aspect of society, being the determining factor in how people interact with one another. What better book to read than one that analyzes how the top reaches the top?
From the moment I began reading, I knew this was going to be a brutal book. The preface emphasizes for the reader to only “see circumstances rather than good or evil.” Intentions are trivial, and the sole important factor is the effect of people’s actions.
Essentially, the message is that a sense of morality must be abandoned in order to gain power and climb to the top. As a statement without solid evidence, I easily downplayed this claim in my mind. However, the more I read, the more I come to realize how serious this statement is (and the sadder I become).
Law 15: Crush your enemy totally
The 15th law is ruthless. In order to secure one’s position, mercy must not be shown to enemies or it will only foster more determination and resistance. The observance of the law features the famous Chinese empress Wu Chao, who stayed in power until she was forced to abdicate of old age.
Wu Chao started off as a concubine of the emperor, whose fate was to be trapped within the palace after his passing. To escape her damnation, she schemed to get close to both the new emperor and empress over the course of 7 years.
Her close relationship with the empress allowed her to return to the royal harem and her success led to her having the emperor’s baby (with the empress’s acknowledgment). However, she wanted more. One day, she smothered her baby and framed the empress, who was then executed, and Wu Chao took her position.
Throughout her reign, she continued to rid herself of any potential threats to her power — she poisoned and exiled her own sons and only let her weakest son take the throne, so she could continue ruling from the shadows. If she had not committed herself to her ruthless acts, her enemies would accumulate and sought revenge.
However, this ruthless nature of hers only works in the era she lived in, where the empress and emperor had total authority. With today’s structure of society reserving no position with absolute power, no one can execute their plans in such a way, or else they will be taken down.
If such force is detrimental, the only thing that can be done is by ruining the reputations of enemies until they are peripheralized by society.
Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies
The second law is all about betrayal. The basic message of this law is that friends will end up taking others’ generosity for granted and eventually betray them, while enemies will be grateful for their mercy and work hard to prove themselves.
Of course, it is much more intricate than my vague generalization, but that is the predominant message. It is not the transgression nor observance of the law that brings me to my dismay, but the reversal of the law: A friend can be used more effectively than enemies as a scapegoat.
The “fall of the favorite” is an effective tactic used by many kings and sovereigns in history to get away with mistakes by framing their closest friends. After all, who would be so cunning and cold-hearted to sacrifice a friend like that?
Using friends as sacrificial lambs will turn them into enemies, and just as the 15th law states, enemies must be crushed completely or else they will seek revenge. One must be prepared to face this fact when deciding to betray a friend and thoroughly commit to their actions, otherwise, security will be jeopardized.
To only “see circumstances rather than good or evil” regardless of people’s intentions is a dangerous message. It is an effective method to gain power, but it comes at the cost of abandoning all morals.
Empress Wu became known as one of the most effective rulers in Chinese history, but she killed family members and framed her friend (the Empress of the time) to succeed. She saw them — the people who were supposed to be the closest to her — as the enemy and sacrificed them for her security.
It didn’t matter whether they only had amicable feelings or intentions towards her; Wu Chao felt threatened by their positions and rid herself of everyone until “there was literally nobody left from the previous T’ang dynasty” to challenge her. Destroying relationships and viewing everyone as the enemy will only lead down the path of isolation.
Seeing circumstances without understanding the reasons behind them creates ignorance and apathy, effectively closing off all doors to potential solutions to address behaviors (unless one decides to burn all troublesome relationships down like Empress Wu did). By following in her footsteps, people become completely void of any compassion or empathy.
Moderation is needed — people cannot live without power, but power cannot be obtained without participating in this cunning game of deceit. The transgression of law 7 (never do any work, but always take credit for other people’s work) exemplifies the dangers of ignoring these laws.
Thomas Edison was more of a businessman than a scientist, yet his name is more well known in the realm of science than Nikola Tesla. Tesla was hired by Edison’s company and invented many products there, but almost none of his inventions have his name attached to them — it was Edison who received all the credit. Through this cycle of exploitation, Tesla was unable to receive any acknowledgment for his works and lived the end of his life in poverty.
To opt-out of participating in this ruthless game of power is to acknowledge the possibility of suffering the same fate as Nikola Tesla, but to be at the top of the social hierarchy is to fully commit to these cruel laws. Even at the top, not everything is perfect. Empress Wu took the throne, but she lived under fear and went to the extremes to rid herself of any minute threats. Severe consequences lie at both ends of the power spectrum: we choose our own paths.