A Take on the Second Law of Power:

Image shows two figures locked in a fight

A Case for Keeping Enemies

In my second installment of this series on Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, we have Law #2: 

Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies.

Upon reading this rule, I was very confused. Why would you choose an enemy over a friend?

Excerpt from The 48 Rules of Power by Robert Greene

To show what happens when we negate this rule, the story of Michael Ⅲ, ruler of the Byzantine empire, is told. Now, Michael was a very young emperor, brought onto the throne by an intelligent man named Bardas. Michael soon found he would need help ruling his nation, and considered his choices.

Despite being told the best choice would be the experienced Bardas, Michael chose to employ his best friend– a man named Basilius.

Basilius was once just a horse trainer, but rose through the ranks with the help of his friend Michael. Effectively, Michael had given Basilius everything he had.

When employed by Michael, it was nothing new to him, and he soaked up the riches and the power. When the emperor fell on hard times and asked for some of these riches back for the kingdom, Basilius haughtily refused. Michael saw his error then, but it was too late already.

The next time he’d see Basilius was the day of his murder.

The message of this story is that by choosing his closest friend he had already done so much for, he had created a greedy, ungrateful right hand man. His friend wasn’t happy to be side-by-side with Michael, and wanted much, much more.

To show an example of this rule being correctly followed, we receive the story of Emporor Sung, and how he built an empire that would last 300 years. Sung convinced those closest to him, the other ambitious generals, to retire to riches and new estates that he would provide. By doing this, his friends were pleased, while also far away from the throne. 

Greene says of this,

“In one stroke, Sung turned a pack of ‘friendly’ wolves, who would likely have betrayed him, into a group of docile lambs, far from all power.”

Excerpt from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Emperor Sung then began to employ his enemies one by one. A long time rebel of the throne, King Liu of the Southern Han Dynasty was captured and brought before Sung. Instead of punishment, the emperor offered Liu a place in the court.

To seal the deal, Sung offered Liu a glass of wine. Liu begged for mercy upon seeing the glass, knowing of the emperor’s famous poisoned cup– however when Sung took a drink from the cup, it was clear it wasn’t poisoned at all.

Liu was astonished at the generosity, and became one of the emperor’s most trusted friends. After all, there is no one more grateful than the person whose life is spared.

What is the overall takeaway of this chapter?

Greene interprets the events of these stories with the help of a Chinese proverb that compares friends to the jaws of a dangerous animal: If you are not careful, you will find them chewing you up.

The idea here is that you often don’t know as much about your close friends as you think. Friends choose to be agreeable in order to preserve the friendship, so really, their opinions can’t be trusted.

When giving these friends power, they may feel like you gave it to them because of the friendship, and not because they deserved it. This creates negative feelings that can become threatening to your own role.

In contrast, enemies will feel astonished at the opportunity and feel real gratitude. Without a good relationship to start with, they don’t have the same negative, envious feelings about helping you.

Greene even goes so far as to recommend having enemies. I have no enemies, and I honestly found it absurd to read advice to create enemies for myself. 

According to this book, enemies strengthen you, are people to trust, and make perfect scapegoats.

I never thought before there could be benefits to enemies.

Do I think this book is evil yet?

I am beginning to really see the manipulation in these strategies. However, this doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Now I know better how to keep an eye out for people attempting to manipulate me into being some sort of grateful servant.

Though, using this strategy is undeniably manipulative. Creating an enemy just to change them into a loyal subject is somehow both genius and also incredibly immoral. Machiavelli is really shining through here.

I still don’t believe in books being evil… but I am starting to see why this one isn’t allowed in prison.


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