The Cheesy and The Powerful

India kookyI spent the day doing one of my all-time favorite things: wandering around a foreign city with no set agenda.  The place was Mysore, India, an inland city in the south, comparable to San Francisco in total land mass and population.

With two hours to spare before meeting some friends for a concert, it was time to relax in a coffee shop and read.  I didn’t have a book with me, and I’d already read the English language newspaper.  So I turned to one of the street vendors sitting behind a book table.

He had the usual selection: self-help books, business school texts, yoga manuals, and Hindi comic books.  There were curious fiction choices, such as the pulpy Love Story by Erich Segal, surprisingly popular in India.  I settled for The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene: an Indian edition of a U.S. best seller touted on the back cover as “a master class for Machiavelli.”  Not my usual fare, but for 125 rupee ($3.00) I figured I couldn’t go too wrong.

I was, in fact, hoping for the experience I’d had many times already in India: finding U.S. entertainment imports that were so bad they were good.  I enjoyed the incongruity when sampling India’s kooky taste for lowbrow Americana while in a setting so unlike America.  I was growing accustomed to feeling jarred in an amusing way, as when I saw the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” hosted by Bollywood’s biggest movie star, Shah Ruhk Khan.  Imagine Brad Pitt hosting “The Price is Right.”

But with The 48 Laws of Power my need for the cheesy was denied, and gladly so.  As advertised, the book is an amoral analysis of the nature of power and manipulation.  It is also a serious, lucid and unsentimental exposition on human nature, full of irony and fascinating insight.  Not unlike, dare I say it, Machiavelli’s The Prince.

The author Robert Greene unapologetically advocates subterfuge and seduction to acquire and maintain power in relationships (tactics used, he says, by many claiming to abhor them).  His analysis is full of attention-grabbing gems about relationships such as, “To experience envy is to feel inferior,” and, “People want to believe they deserve their good fortune.  The receipt of a favor can become oppressive.”  All this is based on the premise that the desire for power and control, not love or fairness, drives human interactions.  Greene writes, “The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us – when we feel helpless we feel miserable.”  Hard to argue with that.  Every one of us venerates our own sense of agency and autonomy.

Since, in the author’s view, leveraging power involves exploiting the flawed thinking of others, he identifies a common false belief about change that leaves people vulnerable:

The Reality: Change is slow and gradual.  It requires hard work, a bit of luck, a fair amount of self-sacrifice, and a lot of patience.

The Fantasy: A sudden transformation will bring a total change in one’s fortunes, bypassing work, luck, self-sacrifice, and time in one fantastic stroke.”

Indulging in the fantasy version of how our lives improve makes us weak and easier to exploit, he says.  We tend to prefer the easy way, the path of least resistance, making us susceptible to those who would lead us down that path for their own gain.  I can see this in people’s drinking behavior, particularly those using alcohol to feel more at ease in social situations.

Learning how to tolerate unpleasant emotions is a slow and gradual growth process.  It requires hard work and patience to learn to accept ourselves in the present.  A few drinks can bring quick, welcome relief from self-conscious anxiety.  But, applying the ideas of Robert Greene, this apparent social gain actually puts us in a position of weakness.  Not because of the perils of intoxication, but because taking the easy way to remove emotional resistance deprives us of essential insight; a deficit that the shrewd exploit.

Machiavelli calls this vulnerability fortuna, an inferior position of reliance on external forces.  This he contrasts with virtú, a quality of self-possession and agency that is highly desirable and essential for self-governance and political governance.  “… a prince wins… either by fortuna or by prowess [virtú]…. the less a man has relied on fortune the stronger he has made his position.”  It’s worth considering that conducting our social lives free of the dubious prop of alcohol is virtú: an expression of personal power.

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