By Chet Yarbrough
48 Laws of Power
By: Robert Greene
Narrated by: Richard Poe
Robert Greene (Author, B.A. in classical studies.)
Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power” is an interesting journey through the history of leadership, and war. It is an interesting contrast to what some authors have written about Machiavelli’s “Prince”.
Greene’s history is timely in respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and America’s Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan failures. Though these events were for ideologically different reasons, Greene’s 48 laws are relevant.
Greene offers so many anecdotes, this review focuses on Wu Zetian, Mao Zedong, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (aka Talleyrand), and Henry Kissinger. These are four among many accomplished leaders Greene reviews from the 7th to the 21st century. Each exercise some variation of Greene’s “48 Laws of Power”. The story of Wu Zetian is the most amazing of the four.
Wu Zetian (624 CE to 705 CE, died at age 81, Empress from 649-683, Emperor 690-704 CE)
One presumes this a mature rendering of Wu, not the young concubine who attracted Emperor Taizong.
Wu Zetian is the only female emperor in 2000 years of China’s imperial rule. She is alleged to have indirectly and directly ruled the Tang Dynasty from 649 to 704CE. She became the concubine of emperor Taizong but was exiled to a nunnery by the wife of Taizong’s son. Wu returned to marry Taizong’s son. According to Greene, Wu strangled her daughter and accused Gaozong’s wife. Upon conviction, Gaozong’s wife is executed. This paved Wu’s way to become first wife of Gaozong. Gaozong became the putative emperor from 649-683 CE.
Greene explains Wu was the power behind Gaozong’s rule. When Gaozong died in 683, Wu formally proclaimed herself emperor in 690 CE and died in 705 CE at the age of 81. Whether precisely true or not, Greene gives this as evidence of steely determination and willingness “to do whatever it takes” to gain power. Ruthless leadership is one of the “48 Laws of Power”.
When Mao gathered a force to overthrow China’s government, he and his recruits were defeated in battle and scattered to the country by Chiang Kai-shek. (Mao in 1943 when Chiang Kai-shek was exiled to Taiwan.)
Chiang Kai-shek failed to eliminate Mao when he had the chance. (Official portrait of China’s leader in 1943.)
Mao gathers more followers and returns to force Chiang Kai-shek into exile in Taiwan. An opposing army’s leader must be eliminated to ensure security of an existing government. Greene explains this is another of the “48 Laws of Power” required to maintain leadership.
Tallyrand served France from 1789 to 1834 under Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVIII, and Louis Philippe I. Tallyrand’s skill in keeping his plans to himself allows him to remain a power behind the thrown throughout his adult life.
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838).
Greene notes Tallyrand’s reputation was to never talk about himself while talking to others. This is at the heart of his rise to power. Tallyrand’s purpose for talking to others is to gather information to know how to use information to accomplish his personal objectives. Greene suggests Tallyrand lured Napoleon out of his banishment in Elba because he knew Napoleon would be defeated and no longer a threat to France’s leadership. Greene notes keeping one’s own council secret is one of the “48 Laws of Power”.
In modern times, Greene implies Henry Kissinger is a master of the “48 Laws of Power”. Greene notes Kissinger acted as a power behind the throne of Presidents of the United States.
Greene is not arguing Nixon was not the leader of America during his time as President but that much of what is accomplished in his administration is traced to the power of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, like Tallyrand, kept his own thoughts and ambitions to himself. When necessary, he publicly praised his superiors to assure his place of power and influence. His intellectual curiosity involved him so many government’ policies beyond his role as Secretary of State that he became an indispensable source of information and counsel.
Greene notes Kissinger insured his ascendence in American government by courting both candidates for the Presidency when the war in Vietnam is raging. Kissinger would work for either a Democratic or Republican President as long as he could achieve his personal and undisclosed objectives. As noted in the biography of Kissinger by Niall Ferguson, Kissinger is closer to Nelson Rockefeller than to Nixon as he pursues his personal ambition.
As one listens to “48 Laws of Power” and Greene’s anecdotes, one realizes the Russian/Ukrainian war is unlikely to end soon. The leaders of both countries exercise their respective “…Laws of Power” at the expense of their citizen’s lives. The same seems applicable to America’s mistakes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.