Law 9

The 48 Laws of Power



Any momentary triumph you think you have gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.


In 131 B.C., the Roman consul Publius Crassus Dives Mucianus, laying siege to the Greek town of Pergamus, found himself in need of a battering ram to force through the town’s walls. He had seen a couple of hefty ship’s masts in a shipyard in Athens a few days before, and he ordered that the larger of these be sent to him immediately. The military engineer in Athens who received the order felt certain that the consul really wanted the smaller of the masts. He argued endlessly with the soldiers who delivered the request: The smaller mast, he told them, was much better suited to the task. And indeed it would be easier to transport.

The soldiers warned the engineer that their master was not a man to argue with, but he insisted that the smaller mast would be the only one that would work with a machine that he was constructing to go with it. He drew diagram after diagram, and went so far as to say that he was the expert and they had no clue what they were talking about. The soldiers knew their leader and at last convinced the engineer that it would be better to swallow his expertise and obey.

After they left, though, the engineer thought about it some more. What was the point, he asked himself, in obeying an order that would lead to failure? And so he sent the smaller mast, confident that the consul would see how much more effective it was and reward him justly.

When the smaller mast arrived, Mucianus asked his soldiers for an explanation. They described to him how the engineer had argued endlessly for the smaller mast, but had finally promised to send the larger one. Mucianus went into a rage. He could not concentrate on the siege, or consider the importance of breaching the walls before the town received reinforcements. All he could think about was the impudent engineer, whom he ordered to be brought to him immediately.

Arriving a few days later, the engineer gladly explained to the consul, one more time, the reasons for the smaller mast. He went on and on, using the same arguments he had made with the soldiers. He said it was wise to listen to experts in these matters, and if the attack was only tried with the battering ram he had sent, the consul would not regret it.

Mucianus let him finish, then had him stripped naked before the soldiers and flogged and scourged with rods until he died.


A vizier had served his master for some thirty years and was known and admired for his loyalty, truthfulness, and devotion to God. His honesty, however, had made him many enemies in the court, who spread stories of his duplicity and perfidy. They worked on the sultan day in and day out until he too came to distrust the innocent vizier and finally ordered the man who had served him so well to be put to death. In this realm, those condemned to death were tied up and thrown into the pen where the sultan kept his fiercest hunting dogs. The dogs would promptly tear the victim to pieces. Before being thrown to the dogs, however, the vizier asked for one last request. “I would like ten days’ respite,” he said, “so that I can pay my debts, collect any money due to me, return items that people have put in my care, and share out my goods among the members of my family and my children and appoint a guardian for them.” After receiving a guarantee that the vizier would not try to escape, the sultan granted this request. The vizier hurried home, collected one hundred gold pieces, then paid a visit to the huntsman who looked after the sultan’s dogs. He offered this man the one hundred gold pieces and said, “Let me look after the dogs for ten days.” The huntsman agreed, and for the next ten days the vizier cared for the beasts with great attention,

grooming them well and feeding them handsomely. By the end of the ten days they were eating out of his hand.

On the eleventh day the vizier was called before the sultan, the charges were repeated, and the sultan watched as the vizier was tied up and thrown to the dogs. Yet when the beasts saw him, they ran up to him with wagging tails. They nibbled affectionately at his shoulders and began playing with him. The sultan and the other witnesses were amazed, and the sultan asked the vizier why the dogs had spared his life. The vizier replied, “I have looked after these dogs for ten days. The sultan has seen the result for himself. I have looked after you for thirty years, and what is the result? I am condemned to death on the strength of accusations brought by my enemies. ”The sultan blushed with shame. He not only pardoned the vizier but gave him a fine set of clothes and handed over to him the men who had slandered his reputation. The noble vizier set them free and continued to treat them with kindness.



The engineer, whose name has not been recorded by history, had spent his life designing masts and pillars, and was respected as the finest engineer in a city that had excelled in the science. He knew that he was right. A smaller ram would allow more speed and carry more force.

Larger is not necessarily better. Of course the consul would see his logic, and would eventually understand that science is neutral and reason superior. How could the consul possibly persist in his ignorance if the engineer showed him detailed diagrams and explained the theories behind his advice?

The military engineer was the quintessence of the Arguer, a type found everywhere among us. The Arguer does not understand that words are never neutral, and that by arguing with a superior he impugns the intelligence of one more powerful than he. He also has no awareness of the person he is dealing with. Since each man believes that he is right, and words will rarely convince him otherwise, the arguer’s reasoning falls on deaf ears. When cornered, he only argues more, digging his own grave. Once he has made the other person feel insecure and inferior in his beliefs, the eloquence of Socrates could not save the situation.

It is not simply a question of avoiding an argument with those who stand above you. We all believe we are masters in the realm of opinions and reasoning. You must be careful, then: Learn to demonstrate the correctness of your ideas indirectly.


In 1502, in Florence, Italy, an enormous block of marble stood in the works department of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskillful sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole through it where there should have been a figure’s legs, generally mutilating it. Piero Soderini, Florence’s mayor, had contemplated trying to save the block by commissioning Leonardo da Vinci to work on it, or some other master, but had given up, since everyone agreed that the stone had been ruined. So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.

This was where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write to the artist, then living in Rome. He alone, they said, could do something with the marble, which was still magnificent raw material. Michelangelo traveled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a fine figure from it, by adapting the pose to the way the rock had been mutilated. Soderini argued that this was a waste of time—nobody could salvage such a disaster—but he finally agreed to let the artist work on it. Michelangelo decided he would depict a young David, sling in hand.

Weeks later, as Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the statue, Soderini entered the studio. Fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, he studied the huge work, and told Michelangelo that while he thought it was magnificent, the nose, he judged, was too big.

Michelangelo realized that Soderini was standing in a place right under the giant figure and did not have the proper perspective. Without a word, he gestured for Soderini to follow him up the scaffolding. Reaching the nose, he picked up his chisel, as well as a bit of marble dust that lay on the planks. With Soderini just a few feet below him on the scaffolding, Michelangelo started to tap lightly with the chisel, letting the bits of dust he had gathered in his hand to fall little by little. He actually did nothing

to change the nose, but gave every appearance of working on it. After a few minutes of this charade he stood aside: “Look at it now.” “I like it better,” replied Soderini, “you’ve made it come alive.”


Michelangelo knew that by changing the shape of the nose he might ruin the entire sculpture. Yet Soderini was a patron who prided himself on his aesthetic judgment. To offend such a man by arguing would not only gain Michelangelo nothing, it would put future commissions in jeopardy. Michelangelo was too clever to argue. His solution was to change Soderini’s perspective (literally bringing him closer to the nose) without making him realize that this was the cause of his misperception.

Fortunately for posterity, Michelangelo found a way to keep the perfection of the statue intact while at the same time making Soderini believe he had improved it. Such is the double power of winning through actions rather than argument: No one is offended, and your point is proven.


When Apries had been deposed in the way I have described, Amasis came to the throne. He belonged to the district of Sais and was a native of the town called Siuph. At first the Egyptians were inclined to be contemptuous, and did not think much of him because of his humble and undistinguished origin; but later on he cleverly brought them to heel, without having recourse to harsh measures. Amongst his innumerable treasures, he had a gold footbath, which he and his guests used on occasion to wash their feet in. This he broke up, and with the material had a statue made to one of the gods, which he then set up in what he thought the most suitable spot in the city. The Egyptians constantly coming upon the statue, treated it with profound reverence, and as soon as Amasis heard of the effect it had upon them, he called a meeting and revealed the fact that the deeply revered statue was once a footbath, which they washed their feet and pissed and vomited in. He went on to say that his own case was much the same, in that once he had been only an ordinary person and was now their king; so that just as they had come to revere the transformed footbath, so they had better pay honor and respect to him, too. In this way the Egyptians were persuaded to accept him as their master.



In the realm of power you must learn to judge your moves by their longterm effects on other people. The problem in trying to prove a point or gain a victory through argument is that in the end you can never be certain how it affects the people you’re arguing with: They may appear to agree with you politely, but inside they may resent you. Or perhaps something you said inadvertently even offended them—words have that insidious ability to be interpreted according to the other person’s mood and insecurities. Even the best argument has no solid foundation, for we have all come to distrust the slippery nature of words. And days after agreeing with someone, we often revert to our old opinion out of sheer habit.

Understand this: Words are a dime a dozen. Everyone knows that in the heat of an argument, we will all say anything to support our cause. We will quote the Bible, refer to unverifiable statistics. Who can be persuaded by bags of air like that? Action and demonstration are much more powerful and meaningful. They are there, before our eyes, for us to see—“Yes, now the statue’s nose does look just right.” There are no offensive words, no possibility of misinterpretation. No one can argue with a demonstrated proof. As Baltasar Gracián remarks, “The truth is generally seen, rarely heard.”

Sir Christopher Wren was England’s version of the Renaissance man. He had mastered the sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and physiology. Yet during his extremely long career as England’s most celebrated architect he was often told by his patrons to make impractical changes in his designs. Never once did he argue or offend. He had other ways of proving his point.

In 1688 Wren designed a magnificent town hall for the city of Westminster. The mayor, however, was not satisfied; in fact he was nervous. He told Wren he was afraid the second floor was not secure, and that it could all come crashing down on his office on the first floor. He demanded that Wren add two stone columns for extra support. Wren, the consummate engineer, knew that these columns would serve no

purpose, and that the mayor’s fears were baseless. But build them he did, and the mayor was grateful. It was only years later that workmen on a high scaffold saw that the columns stopped just short of the ceiling.

They were dummies. But both men got what they wanted: The mayor could relax, and Wren knew posterity would understand that his original design worked and the columns were unnecessary.

The power of demonstrating your idea is that your opponents do not get defensive, and are therefore more open to persuasion. Making them literally and physically feel your meaning is infinitely more powerful than argument.

A heckler once interrupted Nikita Khrushchev in the middle of a speech in which he was denouncing the crimes of Stalin. “You were a colleague of Stalin’s,” the heckler yelled, “why didn’t you stop him then?” Khrushschev apparently could not see the heckler and barked out, “Who said that?” No hand went up. No one moved a muscle. After a few seconds of tense silence, Khrushchev finally said in a quiet voice, “Now you know why I didn’t stop him.” Instead of just arguing that anyone facing Stalin was afraid, knowing that the slightest sign of rebellion would mean certain death, he had made them feel what it was like to face Stalin—had made them feel the paranoia, the fear of speaking up, the terror of confronting the leader, in this case Khrushchev. The demonstration was visceral and no more argument was necessary.

The most powerful persuasion goes beyond action into symbol. The power of a symbol—a flag, a mythic story, a monument to some emotional event—is that everyone understands you without anything being said. In 1975, when Henry Kissinger was engaged in some frustrating negotiations with the Israelis over the return of part of the Sinai desert that they had seized in the 1967 war, he suddenly broke off a tense meeting and decided to do some sight-seeing. He paid a visit to the ruins of the ancient fortress of Masada, known to all Israelis as the place where seven hundred Jewish warriors committed mass suicide in A.D. 73 rather than give in to the Roman troops besieging them. The Israelis instantly understood the message of Kissinger’s visit: He was indirectly accusing them of courting mass suicide. Although the visit did not by itself change their minds, it made them think far more seriously than any direct warning would have. Symbols like this one carry great emotional significance.

When aiming for power, or trying to conserve it, always look for the indirect route. And also choose your battles carefully. If it does not matter in the long run whether the other person agrees with you—or if

time and their own experience will make them understand what you mean—then it is best not even to bother with a demonstration. Save your energy and walk away.


The Most High God had promised that He would not take Abraham’s soul unless the man wanted to die and asked Him to do so. When Abraham’s life was drawing to a close, and God determined to seize him, He sent an angel in the guise of a decrepit old man who was almost entirely incapacitated. The old man stopped outside Abraham door and said to him, “Oh Abraham, I would like something to eat.” Abraham was amazed to hear him say this. “Die, exclaimed Abraham.”It would be better for you than to go on living in that condition.”

Abraham always kept food ready at his home for passing guests. So he gave the old man a bowl containing broth and meat with bread crumbs. The old man sat down to eat. He swallowed laboriously, with great effort, and once when he took some food it dropped from his hand, scattering on the ground. “Oh Abraham, ” he said, “help me to eat.” Abraham took the food in his hand and lifted it to the old man’s lips. But it slid down his beard and over his chest. “What is your age, old man?” asked Abraham. The old man mentioned a number of years slightly greater than Abraham’s old age. Then Abraham exclaimed: “Oh Lord Our God, take me unto You before I reach this man’s age and sink into the same condition as he is in now. ” No sooner had Abraham spoken those words than God took possession of his soul.


Image: The Seesaw. Up and down and up and down go the arguers, getting nowhere fast. Get off the seesaw and show them your meaning without kick ing or pushing. Leave them at the top and let gravity bring them gently to the ground.

Authority: Never argue. In society nothing must be discussed; give only results. (Benjamin Disraeli, 1804-1881)


Verbal argument has one vital use in the realm of power: To distract and cover your tracks when you are practicing deception or are caught in a lie. In such cases it is to your advantage to argue with all the conviction you can muster. Draw the other person into an argument to distract them from your deceptive move. When caught in a lie, the more emotional and certain you appear, the less likely it seems that you are lying.

This technique has saved the hide of many a con artist. Once Count Victor Lustig, swindler par excellence, had sold dozens of suckers around the country a phony box with which he claimed to be able to copy money. Discovering their mistake, the suckers generally chose not to go the police, rather than risk the embarrassment of publicity. But one Sheriff Richards, of Remsen County, Oklahoma, was not the kind of man to accept being conned out of $10,000, and one morning he tracked Lustig down to a hotel in Chicago.

Lustig heard a knock on the door. When he opened it he was looking down the barrel of a gun. “What seems to be the problem?” he calmly asked. “You son of a bitch,” yelled the sheriff, “I’m going to kill you.

You conned me with that damn box of yours!” Lustig feigned confusion. “You mean it’s not working?” he asked. “You know it’s not working,” replied the sheriff. “But that’s impossible,” said Lustig. “There’s no way it couldn’t be working. Did you operate it properly?” “I did exactly what you told me to do,” said the sheriff. “No, you must have done something wrong,” said Lustig. The argument went in circles. The barrel of the gun was gently lowered.

Lustig next went to phase two in the argument tactic: He poured out a whole bunch of technical gobbledygook about the box’s operation, completely beguiling the sheriff, who now appeared less sure of himself and argued less forcefully. “Look,” said Lustig, “I’ll give you your money back right now. I’ll also give you written instructions on how to work the machine and I’ll come out to Oklahoma to make sure it’s working properly. There’s no way you can lose on that.” The sheriff reluctantly agreed. To satisfy him totally, Lustig took out a hundred one-hundred-dollar bills and gave them to him, telling him to relax and have a fun weekend in Chicago. Calmer and a little confused, the sheriff finally left. Over the next few days Lustig checked the paper every morning. He finally found what he was looking for: A short article reporting Sheriff Richards’s arrest, trial, and conviction for passing

counterfeit notes. Lustig had won the argument; the sheriff never bothered him again.

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