There are four themes that can be seen throughout Greene’s work.
The Struggle for Power
The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us — when we feel helpless we feel miserable. No one wants less power; everyone wants more.
– Robert Greene
The first, most basic concept we see in Greene’s work is the concept of power. When Greene talks about power, he does not mean winning a certain political position or being in control of a group. By power, he means something closer to “personal power” – the feeling of control an individual has over his or her life.
According to Greene, as humans, we are all driven towards increasing or maintaining our sense of control over our circumstances. Whenever we feel things are out of control, as if we have no say over the direction our life is going, we feel miserable and seek to change our situation. This drive for power takes precedence over everything else – even the desire to be good and upstanding.
The problem we face as living beings is that increasing or maintaining power is often a struggle. Because our feeling of power is often closely tied to our emotions, influencing whether we feel happy or miserable, feeling powerless can often drive us towards irrational or seemingly immoral ends.
For this reason, we will often face people in our lives who, in their desire for power or security, will resort to deception, manipulation, and aggression. If we are naive about people, then we will open ourselves up to being victims of these people’s aggression and reduce our own feeling of power.
The Democratization of Society
In the world today, however, it is dangerous to seem too power hungry, to be overt with your power moves. We have to seem fair and decent. So we need to be subtle — congenial, yet cunning, democratic, yet devious.
For Greene, it is not enough to know that life is a struggle for power. We must embrace this fact.
Power is essentially amoral and one of the most important skills to acquire is the ability to see circumstances rather than good or evil. Power is a game — this cannot be repeated too often — and in games you do not judge your opponents by their intentions but by the effect of their actions. You measure their strategy and their power by what you can see and feel.
How often are someone’s intentions made the issue only to cloud and deceive! What does it matter if another player, your friend or rival, intended good things and had only your interests at heart, if the effects of his action lead to so much ruin and confusion?
It is only natural for people to cover up their actions with all kinds of justifications, always assuming that they have acted out of goodness. You must learn to inwardly laugh each time you hear this and never get caught up in gauging someone’s intentions and actions through a set of moral judgments that are really an excuse for the accumulation of power.
All of us are born unique. This uniqueness is marked genetically in our DNA. We are a one-time phenomenon in the universe—our exact genetic makeup has never occurred before nor will it ever be repeated.
For all of us, this uniqueness first expresses itself in childhood through certain primal inclinations. For Leonardo it was exploring the natural world around his village and bringing it to life on paper in his own way. For others, it can be an early attraction to visual patterns—often an indication of a future interest in mathematics. Or it can be an attraction to particular physical movements or spatial arrangements.
How can we explain such inclinations? They are forces within us that come from a deeper place than conscious words can express. They draw us to certain experiences and away from others. As these forces move us here or there, they influence the development of our minds in very particular ways.
This primal uniqueness naturally wants to assert and express itself, but some experience it more strongly than others. With Masters it is so strong that it feels like something that has its own external reality—a force, a voice, destiny.
In moments when we engage in an activity that corresponds to our deepest inclinations, we might experience a touch of this: We feel as if the words we write or the physical movements we perform come so quickly and easily that they are coming from outside us. We are literally “inspired,” the Latin word meaning something from the outside breathing within us.
Let us state it in the following way: At your birth a seed is planted. That seed is your uniqueness. It wants to grow, transform itself, and flower to its full potential. It has a natural, assertive energy to it. Your Life’s Task is to bring that seed to flower, to express your uniqueness through your work. You have a destiny to fulfill. The stronger you feel and maintain it—as a force, a voice, or in whatever form—the greater your chance for fulfilling his Life’s Task and achieving mastery.
Power is a social game. To learn and master it, you must develop the ability to study and understand people. As the great seventeenth-century thinker and courtier Baltasar Gracito wrote: “Many people spend time studying the properties of animals or herbs; how much more important it would be to study those of people, with whom we must live or die!”
To be a master player you must also be a master psychologist. You must recognize motivations and see through the cloud of dust with which people surround
their actions. An understanding of people’s hidden motives is the single greatest piece of knowledge you can have in acquiring power. It opens up endless possibilities of deception, seduction, and manipulation.