Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this piercing work distills 3,000 years of the history of power into 48 well-explicated laws. This bold volume outlines the laws of power in their unvarnished essence, synthesizing the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and other infamous strategists. The 48 Laws of Power will fascinate any listener interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control.
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This is an absolutely amazing book. It will help you to tell your true friends apart from people who just want to use you. It will tell when to give more to your employer, or when to tone down your enthusiasm. It will warn you about going too far in your quest for power.
If you really are a power-hungry maniac, this book will do just as much to help you reach your goals as it will if you are an average joe with no ambitions. I'm an idealist myself - I like to see the good in everyone and I don't like to think of myself as someone who wants "power" over other people.
But that is not an excuse to avoid encountering the incredibly valuable information in this book. At the very least, it will keep you from making poor moves that will cause you to fall out of favor with others. At the most, you will be able to spot when someone else is playing "the game" and use their techniques against them.
I don't like to play the game myself; I don't think power is a game. But I sure as hell like to watch the people who DO live like it's a game spin their wheels as they try and fail to pin me down and make themselves look totally incompetent in the process.
If you're an honest person and if you think rewards and status should be earned by merit and not by raw power or deception, then your reputation and character will go before you and these laws of power will walk behind you.
Don't use this book to grow in power for power's sake. This is a fool's errand, and ends in your annihilation. Rather learn the laws of power to attain mastery over your own spirit, and to defend against those who would prey upon your honesty and integrity.
This book would be easier to enjoy if it were written as a study in how people attain power, rather than a how-to guide. Not once is it the least bit apologetic or remorseful as it urges you on down the road of complete sociopathy.
At its least harmful, this book merely describes how to pander to the worst aspects of human nature, such as "don't outshine or criticize your master", "don't speak your mind" and just generally "be as fake as possible". And to some extent I can understand this - you do what you have to do, right? It's not your fault if the people around you are judgmental twats or your master is an insecure selfish asshole. And if you wanna attain power in order to change the world for the better, then you can't act like a saint all the time, right? On the other hand, it doesn't just take a strong leader to effect change. The real difference between "better" and "worse" societies lies not in their laws, but in their people. And to attain a society of (intellectually and ethically) better people, it requires people from every social stratum being the best person they can possibly be.
(Also, improved material conditions are a big factor here, but it's not the only factor.)
Let's take science, for instance - do we want a scientific community of rational, enlightened people who put the truth above all, who, while having the same kinds of human flaws as everyone else, do their best to overcome these flaws? Or do we want a scientific community where no one speaks up against whatever unfairness or incorrectness they perceive, where everyone is afraid to step out of line? Because that's exactly the kind of attitude that this book promotes (again, at its least harmful). Everyone is a yes man, unless it is in their own selfish interests not to be.
Also, most people who attain power probably set out to do good, but then end up like everyone else in their position. No one is qualified to evaluate whether they themselves will be better than other powerful people, so the excuse of wanting to attain power so you can do good later doesn't do much to justify the means. I'm not saying you have to be perfect all the time. If you're a politician, just be more honest (or whatever other positive trait) than the politicians around you and reward honesty in colleagues and subordinates (and obviously do your best to not be fooled by fake honesty like this book describes), and you'll have influenced the culture of politics in a positive way.
Also, this book always assumes the worst about everyone. I think most professors would encourage rather than be offended by criticism from their Ph.D. students, and I don't think they'd be concerned about being outshone. And this book says that arguing for your point of view is a bad strategy because you'll win over some but offend many more, but with people being far more intelligent today than in centuries past due to the Flynn effect, and with modern education encouraging argumentation and critical thinking, I don't think this is true anymore. At the very least it's far less true than it once was.
The book also says "don't overstep your bounds", and gives an example of a king who had a crown-keeper and a coat-keeper. The crown-keeper's only task was to handle the crown, but he once saw his king sleeping in the garden without a coat, and placed his own coat over the king to keep him warm as it was getting cold. The coat-keeper was punished for negligence, and the crown-keeper was beheaded. Here the book literally assumes the worst. Your employer may be a psychopathic evil tyrant, therefore, never do more than you are assigned to do.
At its worst, this book explicitly encourages you to commit any horrendous act you can possibly gain power from. Steal, leech off of, and take credit for your friends' hard work! Ruin others' reputation for your own benefit! Sacrifice your friends as scapegoats to save your own skin!
(Also in arguing for that last thing, it quoted some ancient guy saying "I would rather betray the whole world than let the world betray me" like that guy's a fucking role model. Is the author actively trying to say the most fucked up shit imaginable?)
Law 15 is "Crush your enemy totally". This might be useful in some situations if you're a medieval king at war, but what if you're running for president of your neighborhood association? Should you crush your rivals completely? Manipulate their kids to hate them, plant child porn on their computer, burn their house down and frame them for insurance fraud? Again, this book is completely unapologetic. It insists that power games are amoral, and never pays lip service to the idea that maybe some things are just fucked up to do. It doesn't say "for medieval kings it was often a prudent strategy to crush their enemies completely". It says to crush your enemies, completely. Out of all the people who have enemies or rivals today, how many do you think are even close to warranted to crush them completely?
While morally reprehensible to the extreme, this book also has some flaws in its reasoning. First of all there is no empirical data whatsoever. Main points of each law are backed up by anecdote and sometimes argumentation of varying quality, but lots of details are merely stated in a way that sounds convincing without being motivated at all. There was also plenty of advice that appeared contradictory to what had been said earlier
I get that some things are just very hard to study scientifically, but surely there are plenty of things to be said about power that can and have been studied, and that have plenty of overlap with what is being discussed here. Power has much to do with the human mind and ways in which it is irrational, and there's plenty of data on that that could have been woven into this book. I also get that you can't argue incessantly for every little detail, but at points it feels like the author wasn't trying hard enough. Also, this probably happened a lot more than I noticed, because it's easier to notice the lack of argumentation (or the bad argumentation) when you don't already agree.
At one point the book said to seem like your success comes from talent rather than hard work, and it motivated this by some seemingly sound but rather arbitrary reasoning. I could just as well make up some reason for the opposite view; you should downplay your talent because it's a lot harder to become talented than hard working, so people will be jealous of your talent but not your hard work. Which of these hypotheses is true probably depends a lot on the culture in as well as your specific situation, so the book shouldn't just authoritatively state "do this" as if it were a general law.
Still, for all its flaws, this book contains valuable insight into the world of power games, so I do not regret reading it.
Verdict: 60%, or 2.4 on a 0-4 scale, or 3.4 rounded to 3 on a 1-5 scale.