HALF a millennium ago, Florentine philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli tried to codify "the nature of power". His scholarly disquisition Il Principe - The Prince - was subsequently denounced as the devil's work. Variously banned and burned, it has nevertheless survived as a classic guide for power strategists, while its author's name has become enshrined in dictionaries as a synonym for "cunning, amoral and opportunistic". It's moot whether the latest entrant in the "secrets of power" lists will linger linguistically, but American author Robert Greene has aroused some passion with his recently released book, The 48 Laws of Power (Hodder).
For Greene, a graduate of classic studies and "a dedicated history nut", the exercise began as a plus ca change fascination. He was inspired, he says, by the "behind the arras-stabbing antics" he witnessed while working in "the scheming world" of the Fabrika art school in Venice in 1995. The naked ploys for ascendancy he saw there were, he realised, exactly those that had been played out throughout history. So he decided to trawl the histories of both the powers behind the throne and the powers that be (or have been) to compile his compendium, which he modestly describes as "the ultimate encyclopedia on the subject".
He canvassed the classic writings on power of the past 3000 years from ancient Asia to modern America, studying en route noble Romans, Renaissance princes and a colossal cast of Chinese emperors, generals and courtiers. "After analysing the actions of hundreds of historical figures, I deduced certain laws that were timeless and definitive."
The 48 Laws of Power is a classy package - the layout design by Jost Effers (responsible for producing the bestselling The Secret Language of Relationships and Play with Your Food) is chicly stylish, with catchy epigrams and examples red-typed in the margins. Each law is a section unto itself, with a catchy, user-friendly title - "Pose as a friend, work as a spy" or "Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit". There are laws of strategy ("Always make the opponent come to you"), of warnings against dangerous behavior ("Never outshine the Master"), and on how to use seduction and deception. And each is elucidated in four ways: how to use it correctly, how not to, key aspects of the law, and when not to apply it.
Illustrations are drawn from the courts of modern and ancient Europe, Africa and Asia, and devious and ingenious strategies are culled from noted powermongers of the Brutus, Metternich, Tallyrand, Bismarck, Kissinger, Haile Selassie and Bourbon monarchs ilk, as well as from the excellent adventures of various con kings.
So what gives? Is this book a power tool or a power trip? Is Greene a new kind of power broker into power sharing, or is the exercise more a power drive to create a power base? The unequivocal answer to both is probably "all of the above".
Reviewers have certainly been confused, split between opting for the jocular and going for the jugular. The book's chatty "amorality" offended many on the moral right after its American release late last year. "But generally it has been surprisingly well received," says Greene. "Too much so, really - I'd have preferred more controversy, I enjoy debating the disenchanted." Among the latter count Newsweek's Jerry Adler, who sniped that Greene has "produced one of the best arguments since the New Testament for humility and obscurity". Or Business Week, which intoned that "the (book's) moral advice adds up to a grim portrait of a ruthless, duplicitous universe". Or Kirkus Review, which thundered that it was an "anti-Book of Virtues (whose) laws boil down to being "selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible."
Some have seized on apparent contradictions as proof of an I Ching-like each-way bet: how does "Court attention at all cost" align with "Behave like others", or "Be frugal with flattery" tally with "You can never be too obsequious"? Greene is perfectly sanguine. "All the great writers on power and strategy, from Sun Tzu to Machiavelli, have emphasised the need for constant adaptability and the changing of tactics. At some junctures in your rise to the top you need to court attention, at others you must do all you can to blend in. There's no contradiction because the laws are not a formula. In fact Law 48, Assume Formlessness, advocates complete fluidity. Only those who are na´ve or inept at power are frightened of contradicting themselves."
As many critics have responded with "this will change your life" enthusiasm. In Britain, where it was published in January, PM Tony Blair has been cited as a disciple. As for the Kirkus attack, Greene used the Internet to accuse its reviewer of playing "one of the oldest power tricks in the book - attacking it for what it isn't." Power, like life, defies easy answers, he wrote. "(My) book is about the essence of power, not a discourse on the need for virtue, or the lack of ethics in our world. Those who ... deny that power games permeate our world are often the most adept players, critics most definitely included." And those who find the book too strong, he added, "prefer to believe that people generally have good and noble intentions. Any hint the world is otherwise makes them nervous and jumpy. They would rather censor the realist and Machiavellians among us, for the truth is far too dangerous."
On the surface, Greene allows, his book might seem cynical but "if you read it closely you'll see I'm personally uncommitted". And there's "an ironic edge, which too many appear to have overlooked". For him, Concentrate your Forces (Law 23) is the most personally relevant edict, "or at least it is this week," he laughs. "But I have learned that the single-mindedness of a Napoleon or a Lenin is the only way to achieve something significant." Take him as the proof. This 450-page tome has "brought about all these great, great changes to my life". For one thing, he now shares "a big house with a cat and garden" in Los Angeles' relatively silvertail suburb of Silverlake with his girlfriend of eight years, Anna Biller (to whom the book is dedicated). They moved in together only in the past year after seven years in Santa Monica as "close neighbours living in apartments a block apart". (Obviously not a man of precipitate personal action, I suggest. "Ah, but I've proved I'm not a commitment phobe," he counters.)
He's also learnt Law 4 well - Always say less than is necessary. In fact he's the archetypal 20th century media massager, keen to surf the waves of public fame yet still guard the right to personal reserve. His own life and career apparently conform to Law 25: "Recreate yourself." The book's cover blurb claims the 39-year-old author was "an editor at Esquire" magazine. Waspish American reviewers determined this meant "sometime editorial assistant", not quite the same prestige. "Also a playwright" allegedly translated as a decade's work in Hollywood without cracking it for a script production.
The few personal details he will allow are these: He is a history buff, he's lived in London, Paris, New York and Hollywood, this is his first book although "I have been writing forever" and he is now completing his second, Seduction, an historic investigation of the psychological, physical and political elements of enticement.
Has the book helped him? Powerfully so. "Before I wrote it, I was toiling away as a mid-level writer. Suddenly life has opened up in strange ways. I learnt from my research and from the book. And I realised just how many mistakes I had made in my career. I used to talk too much for one thing - I'm doing it again here aren't I? - but I have learnt to hold my tongue and conceal my intentions (Law 3) when I need to."
I could suggest his book is the perfect exploitation of Law 27: "Play on people's needs to believe to create a cultlike following". But that would be too cynical. 48 Laws is actually a seductive if episodic narrative - there's a hint of Castiglione, an anchoring of Machiavelli, wrapped in campfire-cosy sharings of wisdom. And the Dale Carnegie meets Carlos Castenada overtones are reined in with enough millennial scepticism to quell guruship. Is it a valuable resource? If I were to play by the rules, I'd pan it mercilessly. Why should potential opponents get a break?