Law 5

The 48 Laws of Power



Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once it slips, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen.

Meanwhile, learn to destroy your enemies by opening holes in their own reputations. Then stand aside and let public opinion hang them.


During China’s War of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 207-265), the great general Chuko Liang, leading the forces of the Shu Kingdom, dispatched his vast army to a distant camp while he rested in a small town with a handful of soldiers. Suddenly sentinels hurried in with the alarming news that an enemy force of over 150,000 troops under Sima Yi was approaching. With only a hundred men to defend him, Chuko Liang’s situation was hopeless. The enemy would finally capture this renowned leader.

Without lamenting his fate, or wasting time trying to figure out how he had been caught, Liang ordered his troops to take down their flags, throw open the city gates, and hide. He himself then took a seat on the most visible part of the city’s wall, wearing a Taoist robe. He lit some incense, strummed his lute, and began to chant. Minutes later he could see the vast enemy army approaching, an endless phalanx of soldiers. Pretending not to notice them, he continued to sing and play the lute.

Soon the army stood at the town gates. At its head was Sima Yi, who instantly recognized the man on the wall.

Even so, as his soldiers itched to enter the unguarded town through its open gates, Sima Yi hesitated, held them back, and studied Liang on the wall. Then, he ordered an immediate and speedy retreat.


A frightful epidemic sent To earth by Heaven intent to vent Its fury on a sinful world, to call It by its rightful name, the pestilence, That Acheron-filling vial of virulence Had fallen on every animal. Not all were dead, but all lay near to dying, And none was any longer trying To find new fuel to feed life’s flickering fires. No foods excited their desires; No more did wolves and foxes rove In search of harmless, helpless prey; And dove would not consort with dove, For love and joy had flown away. The Lion assumed the chair to say: “Dear friends, I doubt not it’s for heaven’s high ends That on us sinners woe must fall. Let him of us who’s sinned the most Fall victim to the avenging heavenly host, And may he win salvation for us all; For history teaches us that in these crises We must make sacrifices. Undeceived and stern-eyed, let’s inspect Our conscience. As I recollect, To put my greedy appetite to sleep, I’ve banqueted on many a sheep Who’d injured me in no respect, And even in my time been known to try Shepherd pie. If need be, then. I’ll die. Yet I suspect That others also ought to own their sins. It’s only fair thnt all should do their best To single out the guiltiest.” “Sire, you’re too good a king,“the Fox begins; ”Such scruples are too delicate. My word, To eat sheep, that profane and vulgar herd. That’s sin? Nay. Sire, enough for such a crew To be devoured by such as you; While of the shepherds we may say That they deserved the worst they got. Theirs being the lot that over us beasts plot A flimsy dream-begotten sway.” Thus spake the Fox, and toady cheers rose high, While none dared cast too cold an eye On Tiger‘s, Bear’s, and other eminences Most unpardonable offences Each, of never mind what currish breed, Was really a saint, they all agreed.

Then came the Ass, to say: ”I do recall How once I crossed an abbey-mead Where hunger, grass in plenty, and withal, I have no doubt, some imp of greed. Assailed me, and I shaved a tongue’s-breadth wide Where frankly I’d no right to any grass.”All forthwith fell full cry upon the Ass: A Wolf of some book-learning testified That that curst beast must suffer their despite, That gallskinned author of their piteous plight. They

judged him fit for nought but gallows-bait: How vile, another’s grass to sequestrate! His death alone could expiate A crime so heinous, as full well he learns. The court, as you’re of great or poor estate, Will paint you either white or black by turns.



Chuko Liang was commonly known as the “Sleeping Dragon.” His exploits in the War of the Three Kingdoms were legendary. Once a man claiming to be a disaffected enemy lieutenant came to his camp, offering help and information. Liang instantly recognized the situation as a setup; this man was a false deserter, and should be beheaded. At the last minute, though, as the ax was about to fall, Liang stopped the execution and offered to spare the man’s life if he agreed to become a double agent. Grateful and terrified, the man agreed, and began supplying false information to the enemy. Liang won battle after battle.

On another occasion Liang stole a military seal and created false documents dispatching his enemy’s troops to distant locations. Once the troops had dispersed, he was able to capture three cities, so that he controlled an entire corridor of the enemy’s kingdom. He also once tricked the enemy into believing one of its best generals was a traitor, forcing the man to escape and join forces with Liang. The Sleeping Dragon carefully cultivated his reputation of being the cleverest man in China, one who always had a trick up his sleeve. As powerful as any weapon, this reputation struck fear into his enemy.

Sima Yi had fought against Chuko Liang dozens of times and knew him well. When he came on the empty city, with Liang praying on the wall, he was stunned. The Taoist robes, the chanting, the incense—this had to be a game of intimidation. The man was obviously taunting him, daring him to walk into a trap. The game was so obvious that for one moment it crossed Yi’s mind that Liang actually was alone, and desperate. But so great was his fear of Liang that he dared not risk finding out. Such is the power of reputation. It can put a vast army on the defensive, even force them into retreat, without a single arrow being fired.

For, as Cicero says, even those who argue against fame still want the books they

write against it to bear their name in the title and hope to become famous for

despising it. Everything else is subject to barter: we will let our friends have

our goods and our lives if need be; but a case of sharing our fame and making someone else the gift of our reputation is hardly to be found.

Montaigne, 1533-1592


In 1841 the young P. T. Barnum, trying to establish his reputation as America’s premier showman, decided to purchase the American Museum in Manhattan and turn it into a collection of curiosities that would secure his fame. The problem was that he had no money. The museum’s asking price was $15,000, but Barnum was able to put together a proposal that appealed to the institution’s owners even though it replaced cash up front with dozens of guarantees and references. The owners came to a verbal agreement with Barnum, but at the last minute, the principal partner changed his mind, and the museum and its collection were sold to the directors of Peale’s Museum. Barnum was infuriated, but the partner explained that business was business—the museum had been sold to Peale’s because Peale’s had a reputation and Barnum had none.

Barnum immediately decided that if he had no reputation to bank on, his only recourse was to ruin the reputation of Peale’s. Accordingly he launched a letter-writing campaign in the newspapers, calling the owners a bunch of “broken-down bank directors” who had no idea how to run a museum or entertain people. He warned the public against buying Peale’s stock, since the business’s purchase of another museum would invariably spread its resources thin. The campaign was effective, the stock plummeted, and with no more confidence in Peale’s track record and reputation, the owners of the American Museum reneged on their deal and sold the whole thing to Barnum.

It took years for Peale’s to recover, and they never forgot what Barnum had done. Mr. Peale himself decided to attack Barnum by building a reputation for “high-brow entertainment,” promoting his museum’s programs as more scientific than those of his vulgar

competitor. Mesmerism (hypnotism) was one of Peale’s “scientific” attractions, and for a while it drew big crowds and was quite successful. To fight back, Barnum decided to attack Peale’s reputation yet again.

Barnum organized a rival mesmeric performance in which he himself apparently put a little girl into a trance. Once she seemed to have fallen deeply under, he tried to hypnotize members of the audience—but no matter how hard he tried, none of the spectators fell under his spell, and many of them began to laugh. A frustrated Barnum finally announced that to prove the little girl’s trance was real, he would cut off one of her fingers without her noticing. But as he sharpened the knife, the little girl’s eyes popped open and she ran away, to the audience’s delight. He repeated this and other parodies for several weeks. Soon no one could take Peale’s show seriously, and attendance went way down. Within a few weeks, the show closed. Over the next few years Barnum established a reputation for audacity and consummate showmanship that lasted his whole life. Peale’s reputation, on the other hand, never recovered.


Barnum used two different tactics to ruin Peale’s reputation. The first was simple: He sowed doubts about the museum’s stability and solvency. Doubt is a powerful weapon: Once you let it out of the bag with insidious rumors, your opponents are in a horrible dilemma. On the one hand they can deny the rumors, even prove that you have slandered them. But a layer of suspicion will remain: Why are they defending themselves so desperately? Maybe the rumor has some truth to it? If, on the other hand, they take the high road and ignore you, the doubts, unrefuted, will be even stronger. If done correctly, the sowing of rumors can so infuriate and unsettle your rivals that in defending themselves they will make numerous mistakes. This is the perfect weapon for those who have no reputation of their own to work from.

Once Barnum did have a reputation of his own, he used the second, gentler tactic, the fake hypnotism demonstration: He ridiculed his rivals’ reputation. This too was extremely successful. Once you have a solid base of respect, ridiculing your opponent both puts him on the defensive and draws more attention to you, enhancing your own reputation.

Outright slander and insult are too strong at this point; they are ugly, and may hurt you more than help you. But gentle barbs and mockery suggest that you have a strong enough sense of your own worth to enjoy a good

laugh at your rival’s expense. A humorous front can make you out as a harmless entertainer while poking holes in the reputation of your rival.

It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900


The people around us, even our closest friends, will always to some extent remain mysterious and unfathomable. Their characters have secret recesses that they never reveal. The unknowableness of other people could prove disturbing if we thought about it long enough, since it would make it impossible for us really to judge other people. So we prefer to ignore this fact, and to judge people on their appearances, on what is most visible to our eyes—clothes, gestures, words, actions. In the social realm, appearances are the barometer of almost all of our judgments, and you must never be mis led into believing otherwise. One false slip, one awkward or sudden change in your appearance, can prove disastrous.

This is the reason for the supreme importance of making and maintaining a reputation that is of your own creation.

That reputation will protect you in the dangerous game of appearances, distracting the probing eyes of others from knowing what you are really like, and giving you a degree of control over how the world judges you—a powerful position to be in. Reputation has a power like magic: With one stroke of its wand, it can double your strength. It can also send people scurrying away from you. Whether the exact same deeds appear brilliant or dreadful can depend entirely on the reputation of the doer.

In the ancient Chinese court of the Wei kingdom there was a man named Mi Tzu-hsia who had a reputation for supreme civility and graciousness. He became the ruler’s favorite. It was a law in Wei that “whoever rides secretly in the ruler’s coach shall have his feet cut off,” but when Mi Tzu-hsia’s mother fell ill, he used the royal coach to visit her, pretending that the ruler had given him permission. When the ruler found out, he said, “How dutiful is Mi Tzu-hsia! For his mother’s sake he even forgot that he was committing a crime making him liable to lose his feet!”

Another time the two of them took a stroll in an orchard. Mi Tzu-hsia began eating a peach that he could not finish, and he gave the ruler the other half to eat. The ruler remarked, “You love me so much that you would even forget your own saliva taste and let me eat the rest of the peach!”

Later, however, envious fellow courtiers, spreading word that Mi Tzu-hsia was actually devious and arrogant, succeeded in damaging his reputation; the ruler came to see his actions in a new light. “This fellow once rode in my coach under pretense of my order,” he told the courtiers angrily, “and another time he gave me a half-eaten peach.” For the same actions that had charmed the ruler when he was the favorite, Mi Tzu-hsia now had to suffer the penalties. The fate of his feet depended solely on the strength of his reputation.

In the beginning, you must work to establish a reputation for one outstanding quality, whether generosity or honesty or cunning. This quality sets you apart and gets other people to talk about you. You then make your reputation known to as many people as possible (subtly, though; take care to build slowly, and with a firm foundation), and watch as it spreads like wildfire.

A solid reputation increases your presence and exaggerates your strengths without your having to spend much energy. It can also create an aura around you that will instill respect, even fear. In the fighting in the North African desert during World War II, the German general Erwin Rommel had a reputation for cunning and for deceptive maneuvering that struck terror into everyone who faced him. Even when his forces were depleted, and when British tanks outnumbered his by five to one, entire cities would be evacuated at the news of his approach.

As they say, your reputation inevitably precedes you, and if it inspires respect, a lot of your work is done for you before you arrive on the scene, or utter a single word.

Your success seems destined by your past triumphs. Much of the success of Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy rested on his reputation for ironing out differences; no one wanted to be seen as so unreasonable that Kissinger could not sway him. A peace treaty seemed a fait accompli as soon as Kissinger’s name became involved in the negotiations.

Make your reputation simple and base it on one sterling quality. This single quality—efficiency, say, or seductiveness—becomes a kind of calling card that announces your presence and places others under a spell. A reputation for honesty will allow you to practice all manner of

deception. Casanova used his reputation as a great seducer to pave the way for his future conquests; women who had heard of his powers became immensely curious, and wanted to discover for themselves what had made him so romantically successful.

Perhaps you have already stained your reputation, so that you are prevented from establishing a new one. In such cases it is wise to associate with someone whose image counteracts your own, using their good name to whitewash and elevate yours. It is hard, for example, to erase a reputation for dishonesty by yourself; but a paragon of honesty can help. When P. T. Barnum wanted to clean up a reputation for promoting vulgar entertainment, he brought the singer Jenny Lind over from Europe. She had a stellar, high-class reputation, and the American tour Barnum sponsored for her greatly enhanced his own image.

Similarly the great robber barons of nineteenth-century America were long unable to rid themselves of a reputation for cruelty and mean-spiritedness. Only when they began collecting art, so that the names of Morgan and Frick became permanently associated with those of da Vinci and Rembrandt, were they able to soften their unpleasant image.

Reputation is a treasure to be carefully collected and hoarded.

Especially when you are first establishing it, you must protect it strictly, anticipating all attacks on it. Once it is solid, do not let yourself get angry or defensive at the slanderous comments of your enemies—that reveals insecurity, not confidence in your reputation. Take the high road instead, and never appear desperate in your self-defense. On the other hand, an attack on another man’s reputation is a potent weapon, particularly when you have less power than he does. He has much more to lose in such a battle, and your own thus-far-small reputation gives him a small target when he tries to return your fire. Barnum used such campaigns to great effect in his early career. But this tactic must be practiced with skill; you must not seem to engage in petty vengeance. If you do not break your enemy’s reputation cleverly, you will inadvertently ruin your own.

Thomas Edison, considered the inventor who harnessed electricity, believed that a workable system would have to be based on direct current (DC). When the Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla appeared to have succeeded in creating a system based on alternating current (AC), Edison was furious. He determined to ruin Tesla’s reputation, by making the public believe that the AC system was inherently unsafe, and Tesla irresponsible in promoting it.

To this end he captured all kinds of household pets and electrocuted them to death with an AC current. When this wasn’t enough, in 1890 he

got New York State prison authorities to organize the world’s first execution by electrocution, using an AC current. But Edison’s electrocution experiments had all been with small creatures; the charge was too weak, and the man was only half killed. In perhaps the country’s cruelest state-authorized execution, the procedure had to be repeated. It was an awful spectacle.

Although, in the long run, it is Edison’s name that has survived, at the time his campaign damaged his own reputation more than Tesla’s. He backed off. The lesson is simple—never go too far in attacks like these, for that will draw more attention to your own vengefulness than to the person you are slandering. When your own reputation is solid, use subtler tactics, such as satire and ridicule, to weaken your opponent while making you out as a charming rogue. The mighty lion toys with the mouse that crosses his path—any other reaction would mar his fearsome reputation.


A Mine Full of Diamonds and Rubies.

You dug for it, you found it, and your wealth is now assured.

Guard it with your life. Robbers and thieves will appear from all sides. Never take your wealth

for granted, and constantly renew it—time will diminish the jewels’ luster,

and bury them from sight.

Authority: Therefore I should wish our courtier to bolster up his inherent worth with skill and cunning, and ensure that whenever he has to go where he is a stranger, he is preceded by a good reputation…. For the fame which appears to rest on the opinions of many fosters a certain unshakable belief in a man’s worth which is then easily strengthened in minds already thus disposed and prepared. (Baldassare Castiglione, 1478-1529)


There is no possible Reversal. Reputation is critical; there are no exceptions to this law. Perhaps, not caring what others think of you, you gain a reputation for insolence and arrogance, but that can be a valuable image in itself—Oscar Wilde used it to great advantage. Since we must live in society and must depend on the opinions of others, there is nothing to be gained by neglecting your reputation. By not caring how you are perceived, you let others decide this for you. Be the master of your fate, and also of your reputation.

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