Ad Hominem

Posted on 2012 November 26


Okay, so there’s this book that came out several years ago, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, that purports to list all the skills and wisdom you need to achieve dominance over your fellow humans. It’s sort of like Machiavelli’s The Prince for the modern age. (Power has gotten attention again recently because the author has come out with new, related books.) Each of its 48 chapters touches on a topic germane to the acquisition and use of raw power. Law 3 is “Conceal Your Intentions”; Law 14 is “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy”; Law 15 is “Crush Your Enemy Totally”; Law 42 is “Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep Will Scatter.” There are also laws that don’t sound as unfriendly, like “Re-Create Yourself” and “Keep Your Hands Clean” and “Master the Art of Timing.”

Greene doesn’t skimp: each chapter is chock-a-block with examples and stories from history, lengthy advice on how to proceed, and stark warnings about the penalties for failure in the power game. Even the margins are filled with wisdom from famous historical figures.

(There’s a sequel, The 50th Law, that adds instructions on being fearless. Greene co-wrote the book with Rap artist 50 Cent — get it? 50 Cent, 50th Law — largely because The 48 Laws of Power blazed through the hip-hop community like a fire in a book store.)

It’s fun to poke around in the book, which is designed as a reference volume — one you might keep on the shelf behind your desk, referring to it now and then as you work your way up the ladder of success. Much of the advice is good for anyone, including those not particularly focused on politics in their personal and work lives: there are plenty of pointers that’ll help defend against attacks from others.

And this is where I run into a concern with the book. In the preface, Greene intones, “No one wants less power; everyone wants more.” Okay, wait. I think there are other ways to look at human relationships than through the lens of dominance and submission. If the only way to succeed is through power, then cooperation and production are pointless, except as tools of power. How does the world move forward at all if we’re merely batting around a limited amount of power among ourselves? Greene seems to think productive workers are sheep, and the real winners simply take advantage of the workers’ productivity. True, there’s a lot of that going on. But isn’t it more important, in this high-tech age of amazing growth and opportunity, for us to work together to build a better life? Yes, politics enters into the equation — people are people — but the need to dominate others fades in importance as commerce and cooperation evolve and become more sophisticated. Power games, in an age of innovation, merely gum up the works.

I’d continue at length, but Greene is ready with a quick riposte:

To some people the notion of consciously playing power games — no matter how indirect — seems evil, asocial, a relic of the past. They believe they can opt out of the game by behaving in ways that have nothing to do with power. You must beware of such people, for while they express such opinions outwardly, they are often among the most adept players at power.

Greene is saying, “Don’t listen to him! He’s a liar! He’s trying to trick you into believing him for his own power agenda!” Basically, Greene answers my concerns by questioning my character. This is called an ad hominem attack, whereby the responder casts aspersions on the person who raises discussion points instead of addressing the issues directly. Everyone swivels their heads and stares suspiciously at the questioner, who can no longer debate Greene because the audience will doubt the questioner’s motives; Greene doesn’t have to answer the points themselves because the questioner has been tarnished. Greene wins, his assertions untouched. Clever!  

Green did say he was going to teach us how to use power, and there’s no point in listening if he’s not good at it himself. On the other hand, now that he’s laid out his cards, how can I trust him? He’s made it clear the goal in life is dominance through power, and I can’t expect him to restrain himself merely because he’s writing a book about it. Therefore, I must suspect his motives on every page. Probably there aren’t any subliminal messages that might convince me to become one of his servants — or buy all of his books in an orgy of slavish devotion — but, as Greene himself suggests, you can’t be too careful.

Admittedly, the power skills Green enumerates, if dark arts, are nonetheless useful — especially in defense, especially for those who’d rather not make it their life’s work to dominate others. And, yes, there are many people in the world who would use us and discard us in a heartbeat; with regard to those people, the advice in the book is well taken.

Still, the questions linger, despite Greene’s efforts to push them under the rug. For one thing, only some people get to win the game of life by using Greene’s advice, since others must lose if the winners’ power is to be complete. This is what’s known in math circles as a “zero-sum game”: there is no overall benefit that accrues to everyone. Is it possible, on the other hand, that the future of our crowded world lies in cooperation — a “positive-sum game” that benefits everyone involved — rather than struggle and dominance? We’ve seen more than enough of politics and war in modern times to know that those games don’t advance humanity, but instead merely improve the prospects of a few highly skilled power brokers at the expense of everyone else.

Yes, it’s good to be prepared, to be skilled in parrying power plays by others. But is it a virtue to practice the art of power on everyone else? If we do, one day we may wake up to realize we’ve turned ourselves into a society of sociopaths.

But don’t listen to me! I must merely be pretending to disdain power in an attempt to gain it for myself. BU-WAH-HAH-HAH-HAAAAAAH!!

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UPDATE: Robert Greene says, “I’m not evil; I’m a realist.