Law 18

The 48 Laws of Power



The world is dangerous and enemies are everywhereeveryone has to protect themselves. A fortress seems the safest. But isolation exposes you to more dangers than it Protects you from—it cuts you off from valuable information, it makes you conspicuous and an easy target. Better to circulate among people, find allies, mingle. You are shielded from your enemies by the crowd.


Ch‘in Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China (221-210 B.C.), was the mightiest man of his day. His empire was vaster and more powerful than that of Alexander the Great. He had conquered all of the kingdoms surrounding his own kingdom of Ch’in and unified them into one massive realm called China. But in the last years of his life, few, if anyone, saw him.

The emperor lived in the most magnificent palace built to that date, in the capital of Hsien-yang. The palace had 270 pavilions; all of these were connected by secret underground passageways, allowing the emperor to move through the palace without anyone seeing him. He slept in a different room every night, and anyone who inadvertently laid eyes on him was instantly beheaded. Only a handful of men knew his whereabouts, and if they revealed it to anyone, they, too, were put to death.

The first emperor had grown so terrified of human contact that when he had to leave the palace he traveled incognito, disguising himself carefully. On one such trip through the provinces, he suddenly died. His body was borne back to the capital in the emperor’s carriage, with a cart packed with salted fish trailing behind it to cover up the smell of the rotting corpse—no one was to know of his death. He died alone, far from his wives, his family, his friends, and his courtiers, accompanied only by a minister and a handful of eunuchs.


The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatur and its seal—the redness and horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution…. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour. But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half-depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knight, and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtier.s, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.” It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence. It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade…. … And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock…. And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many

individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked fzgecre which had arrested the attention of no single individual before…. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood

—and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was sprinkled with the scarlet horror … … A throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask, which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form. And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.



Shih Huang Ti started off as the king of Ch’in, a fearless warrior of unbridled ambition. Writers of the time described him as a man with “a waspish nose, eyes like slits, the voice of a jackal, and the heart of a tiger or wolf.” He could be merciful sometimes, but more often he “swallowed men up without a scruple.” It was through trickery and violence that he conquered the provinces surrounding his own and created China, forging a single nation and culture out of many. He broke up the feudal system, and to keep an eye on the many members of the royal families that were scattered across the realm’s various kingdoms, he moved 120,000 of them to the capital, where he housed the most important courtiers in the vast palace of Hsien-yang. He consolidated the

many walls on the borders and built them into the Great Wall of China. He standardized the country’s laws, its written language, even the size of its cartwheels.

As part of this process of unification, however, the first emperor outlawed the writings and teachings of Confucius, the philosopher whose ideas on the moral life had already become virtually a religion in Chinese culture. On Shih Huang Ti’s order, thousands of books relating to Confucius were burned, and anyone who quoted Confucius was to be beheaded. This made many enemies for the emperor, and he grew constantly afraid, even paranoid. The executions mounted. A contemporary, the writer Han-fei-tzu, noted that “Ch’in has been victorious for four generations, yet has lived in constant terror and apprehension of destruction.”

As the emperor withdrew deeper and deeper into the palace to protect himself, he slowly lost control of the realm. Eunuchs and ministers enacted political policies without his approval or even his knowledge; they also plotted against him. By the end, he was emperor in name only, and was so isolated that barely anyone knew he had died. He had probably been poisoned by the same scheming ministers who encouraged his isolation.

That is what isolation brings: Retreat into a fortress and you lose contact with the sources of your power. You lose your ear for what is happening around you, as well as a sense of proportion. Instead of being safer, you cut yourself off from the kind of knowledge on which your life depends. Never enclose yourself so far from the streets that you cannot hear what is happening around you, including the plots against you.


Louis XIV had the palace of Versailles built for him and his court in the 1660s, and it was like no other royal palace in the world. As in a beehive, everything revolved around the royal person. He lived surrounded by the nobility, who were allotted apartments nestled around his, their closeness to him dependent on their rank. The king’s bedroom occupied the literal center of the palace and was the focus of everyone’s attention. Every morning the king was greeted in this room by a ritual known as the lever.

At eight A.M., the king’s first valet, who slept at the foot of the royal bed, would awaken His Majesty. Then pages would open the door and admit those who had a function in the lever. The order of their entry was precise: First came the king’s illegitimate sons and his grandchildren, then the princes and princesses of the blood, and then his physician and surgeon. There followed the grand officers of the wardrobe, the king’s official reader, and those in charge of entertaining the king. Next would arrive various government officials, in ascending order of rank. Last but not least came those attending the lever by special invitation. By the end of the ceremony, the room would be packed with well over a hundred royal attendants and visitors.

The day was organized so that all the palace’s energy was directed at and passed through the king. Louis was constantly attended by courtiers and officials, all asking for his advice and judgment. To all their questions he usually replied, “I shall see.”

As Saint-Simon noted, “If he turned to someone, asked him a question, made an insignificant remark, the eyes of all present were turned on this person. It was a distinction that was talked of and increased prestige.” There was no possibility of privacy in the palace, not even for the king—every room communicated with another, and every hallway led to larger rooms where groups of nobles gathered constantly. Everyone’s actions were interdependent, and nothing and no one passed unnoticed: “The king not only saw to it that all the high nobility was present at his court,” wrote Saint-Simon, “he demanded the same of the minor nobility. At his lever and coucher, at his meals, in his gardens of Versailles, he always looked about him, noticing everything. He was offended if the most distinguished nobles did not live permanently at court, and those who showed themselves never or hardly ever, incurred his full displeasure. If one of these desired something, the king would say proudly: ‘I do not know him,’ and the judgment was irrevocable.”


Louis XIV came to power at the end of a terrible civil war, the Fronde. A principal instigator of the war had been the nobility, which deeply resented the growing power of the throne and yearned for the days of feudalism, when the lords ruled their own fiefdoms and the king had little authority over them. The nobles had lost the civil war, but they remained a fractious, resentful lot.

The construction of Versailles, then, was far more than the decadent whim of a luxury-loving king. It served a crucial function: The king could keep an eye and an ear on everyone and everything around him. The once proud nobility was reduced to squabbling over the right to help the king put on his robes in the morning. There was no possibility here of privacy—no possibility of isolation. Louis XIV very early grasped the truth that for a king to isolate himself is gravely dangerous. In his absence, conspiracies will spring up like mushrooms after rain, animosities will crystallize into factions, and rebellion will break out before he has the time to react. To combat this, sociability and openness must not only be encouraged, they must be formally organized and channeled.

These conditions at Versailles lasted for Louis’s entire reign, some fifty years of relative peace and tranquillity. Through it all, not a pin dropped without Louis hearing it.

Solitude is dangerous to reason, without being favorable to virtue….

Remember that the solitary mortal is certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad.

Dr. Samuel John son, 1709-1784


Machiavelli makes the argument that in a strictly military sense a fortress is invariably a mistake. It becomes a symbol of power’s isolation, and is an easy target for its builders’ enemies. Designed to defend you, fortresses actually cut you off from help and cut into your flexibility.

They may appear impregnable, but once you retire to one, everyone knows where you are; and a siege does not have to succeed to turn your fortress into a prison. With their small and confined spaces, fortresses are also extremely vulnerable to the plague and contagious diseases. In a strategic sense, the isolation of a fortress provides no protection, and actually creates more problems than it solves.

Because humans are social creatures by nature, power depends on social interaction and circulation. To make yourself powerful you must place yourself at the center of things, as Louis XIV did at Versailles. All activity should revolve around you, and you should be aware of everything happening on the street, and of anyone who might be

hatching plots against you. The danger for most people comes when they feel threatened. In such times they tend to retreat and close ranks, to find security in a kind of fortress. In doing so, however, they come to rely for information on a smaller and smaller circle, and lose perspective on events around them. They lose maneuverability and become easy targets, and their isolation makes them paranoid. As in warfare and most games of strategy, isolation often precedes defeat and death.

In moments of uncertainty and danger, you need to fight this desire to turn inward. Instead, make yourself more accessible, seek out old allies and make new ones, force yourself into more and more different circles. This has been the trick of powerful people for centuries.

The Roman statesman Cicero was born into the lower nobility, and had little chance of power unless he managed to make a place for himself among the aristocrats who controlled the city. He succeeded brilliantly, identifying everyone with influence and figuring out how they were connected to one another. He mingled everywhere, knew everyone, and had such a vast network of connections that an enemy here could easily be counterbalanced by an ally there.

The French statesman Talleyrand played the game the same way.

Although he came from one of the oldest aristocratic families in France, he made a point of always staying in touch with what was happening in the streets of Paris, allowing him to foresee trends and troubles. He even got a certain pleasure out of mingling with shady criminal types, who supplied him with valuable information. Every time there was a crisis, a transition of power—the end of the Directory, the fall of Napoleon, the abdication of Louis XVIII—he was able to survive and even thrive, because he never closed himself up in a small circle but always forged connections with the new order.

This law pertains to kings and queens, and to those of the highest power: The moment you lose contact with your people, seeking security in isolation, rebellion is brewing. Never imagine yourself so elevated that you can afford to cut yourself off from even the lowest echelons. By retreating to a fortress, you make yourself an easy target for your plotting subjects, who view your isolation as an insult and a reason for rebellion.

Since humans are such social creatures, it follows that the social arts that make us pleasant to be around can be practiced only by constant exposure and circulation. The more you are in contact with others, the more graceful and at ease you become. Isolation, on the other hand, engenders an awkwardness in your gestures, and leads to further isolation, as people start avoiding you.

In 1545 Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici decided that to ensure the immortality of his name he would commission frescoes for the main chapel of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. He had many great painters to choose from, and in the end he picked Jacopo da Pontormo. Getting on in years, Pontormo wanted to make these frescoes his chef d’oeuvre and legacy. His first decision was to close the chapel off with walls, partitions, and blinds. He wanted no one to witness the creation of his masterpiece, or to steal his ideas. He would outdo Michelangelo himself. When some young men broke into the chapel out of curiosity, Jacopo sealed it off even further.

Pontormo filled the chapel’s ceiling with biblical scenes—the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, on and on. At the top of the middle wall he painted Christ in his majesty, raising the dead on Judgment Day. The artist worked on the chapel for eleven years, rarely leaving it, since he had developed a phobia for human contact and was afraid his ideas would be stolen.

Pontormo died before completing the frescoes, and none of them has survived. But the great Renaissance writer Vasari, a friend of Pontormo’s who saw the frescoes shortly after the artist’s death, left a description of what they looked like. There was a total lack of proportion. Scenes bumped against scenes, figures in one story being juxtaposed with those in another, in maddening numbers. Pontormo had become obsessed with detail but had lost any sense of the overall composition. Vasari left off his description of the frescoes by writing that if he continued, “I think I would go mad and become entangled in this painting, just as I believe that in the eleven years of time Jacopo spent on it, he entangled himself and anyone else who saw it.” Instead of crowning Pontormo’s career, the work became his undoing.

These frescoes were visual equivalents of the effects of isolation on the human mind: a loss of proportion, an obsession with detail combined with an inability to see the larger picture, a kind of extravagant ugliness that no longer communicates. Clearly, isolation is as deadly for the creative arts as for the social arts. Shakespeare is the most famous writer in history because, as a dramatist for the popular stage, he opened himself up to the masses, making his work accessible to people no matter what their education and taste. Artists who hole themselves up in their fortress lose a sense of proportion, their work communicating only to their small circle. Such art remains cornered and powerless.

Finally, since power is a human creation, it is inevitably increased by contact with other people. Instead of falling into the fortress mentality,

view the world in the following manner: It is like a vast Versailles, with every room communicating with another. You need to be permeable, able to float in and out of different circles and mix with different types. That kind of mobility and social contact will protect you from plotters, who will be unable to keep secrets from you, and from your enemies, who will be unable to isolate you from your allies. Always on the move, you mix and mingle in the rooms of the palace, never sitting or settling in one place. No hunter can fix his aim on such a swift-moving creature.

Image: The Fortress. High up on the hill, the citadel be comes a symbol of all that is hateful in power and authority.

The citizens of the town betray you to the first enemy that comes. Cut off from communication and in telligence, the citadel falls with ease.

Authority: A good and wise prince, desirous of maintaining that character, and to avoid giving the opportunity to his sons to become oppressive, will never build fortresses, so that they may place their reliance upon the good will of their subjects, and not upon the strength of citadels. (Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527)


It is hardly ever right and propitious to choose isolation. Without keeping an ear on what is happening in the streets, you will be unable to protect yourself. About the only thing that constant human contact cannot facilitate is thought. The weight of society’s pressure to conform, and the lack of distance from other people, can make it impossible to think clearly about what is going on around you. As a temporary recourse, then, isolation can help you to gain perspective. Many a serious thinker has been produced in prisons, where we have nothing to do but think.

Machiavelli could write The Prince only once he found himself in exile and isolated on a farm far from the political intrigues of Florence.

The danger is, however, that this kind of isolation will sire all kinds of strange and perverted ideas. You may gain perspective on the larger picture, but you lose a sense of your own smallness and limitations.

Also, the more isolated you are, the harder it is to break out of your isolation when you choose to—it sinks you deep into its quicksand without your noticing. If you need time to think, then, choose isolation only as a last resort, and only in small doses. Be careful to keep your way back into society open

You'll Also Like