Shepherd or Sheep?

Knowledge is power.

Creative Commons photo by marklarson. Source: Flickr

Glancing at the back of the Harvard Leadership Magazine, I saw in bold, aggressive letters: “YOU HAVE GAINED ACCESS TO THE BEST EDUCATION IN THE WORLD.” This access instills in me a great deal of happiness and pride. But it also carries with it something else — I now bear a heavy responsibility, the meaning of which is rather illusory. We are all here to learn, to be educated. But how should we use this education? Over the summer, I read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. For me, the book was a revelation, a breath of fresh air in the world of self-help marketing schemes and promises of quick and easy success. Greene exposes the most basic human interest, the desire for power, in a beautifully crafted light. Even if one isn’t the Machiavellian type, it must admitted that upon reading the book one gets the feeling that there is something sacred about its contents. I mean that quite literally, as the book has become something almost biblical in prison libraries across the world. While all of us studious little library trolls have relished the beauty of learning since we could read Dr. Seuss, Greene would argue that for just as long, our lives have been affected by the quest for power, a quest that is as ancient as it is ubiquitous.

Don’t think that I’m talking about getting rich. Well, I am, but not exclusively. The power that Robert Greene writes of is not the ability to attain wealth. It is the ability to get whatever you want out of the world at any time, to influence everyone and anyone around you to do your will, to arrange them like chess pieces in your mind. Yes, this does sound cold and conniving. Surely there must be a nobler goal for which to aim. Greene’s answer is a flat, unwavering “no.” According to him, “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game.” Too much of society has been permeated by the lust for power to just cover your eyes and ignore it. I did, however, give it the ole’ college try.

I shelved the 48 Laws, seeking an escape from its brutal honesty. I could not, however, silence its cries for glorious conquest. The laws resurfaced, and in the most unlikely of places: my homework. I was reading a four thousand year old text for a philosophy class when I was startled to find a whisper in the corner of my mind pointing out connections to the Laws. The ancient Egyptian, Ptahhotep, demands that “Your silence will be more profitable than babbling” (Law 4: Always Say Less Than Necessary), that you “Do not attempt to upstage an important official” (Law 19: Know Who You’re Dealing with — do not offend the wrong person), and that you “Bow respectfully to him who is superior to you” (Law 1: Never Outshine the Master). In the ancient text, The Teaching for King Merikare, the author points out that “it is expedient to work for the future” (Law 29: Plan All the Way to the End) and, in regards to competition, “Obliterate his name, and destroy his supporters, banish all memory of him and of the partisans who respect him” (Law 15: Crush your Enemy Totally). Next is a reading of the Books of Samuel where David defeats Goliath, then very deliberately decapitates him and carries around his head (Law 5: So Much Depends on Reputation — Guard it with your Life and Law 37: Create Compelling Spectacles).

All right, let’s try a different class. Polybius’ account of the rise of the Roman Empire? The whisper was now a howl. Instead of destroying their enemies, the Romans forced them to fight for Rome, absorbing their armies (Law 7: Get Others to do the Work for You but Always Take the Credit). Their government was a difficult machine to describe, with the senate constituting an aristocracy, the consuls representing a monarchy, and the power of the people advocating for a democracy (Law 48: Assume Formlessness). Children were raised to believe that Rome was the greatest empire in the world and deserved a superior position to all others (Law 34: Be Royal in your Fashion: Act like a King to be Treated like One).  By the end of my first week of reading at Harvard, I found it difficult to believe that copies of The 48 Laws of Power weren’t thrown to the Roman senate in the dozens.

I am confronted with a reassessment of my love for learning. I am faced with so many questions. Is Robert Greene’s book just another link in a chain that stretches back through time, tracing the history of the wisdom tradition? Is learning merely a tool, and if so, for what exactly? If knowledge is power, what does that say about the student — what does it say about us?

For a while, I was prepared to burn the 48 Laws. I didn’t want to think about life as a game. It made me feel isolated and afraid. I especially didn’t like the idea that it had any place in my education. Then I noticed something. Law 25: Recreate Yourself. This law demands that you “do not accept the roles that society foists on you.” I wondered if one of these roles could be that of the power-player. Is this a nod to those who chose to step out of the game of power and achieve an enlightened perspective on things? Can we not adjust and evolve based on the knowledge that the world is governed by the human conquest for power? How should we reemerge with this knowledge in mind? Robert Greene’s answer is a philosophy he calls “radical realism.” Greene explains that this philosophy is “the idea of really, deeply understanding what life is about, how people operate in this world. And not only being realistic and understanding it, but accepting it in a very deep way that this is what the world is like and actually loving it and embracing it and working with reality”.

It seems that this is all there is to do: work with reality. Once you learn to do this, Greene claims, “You understand the laws of power. You understand what people are up to, and they can’t necessarily hurt you. In accepting this reality and in dealing with it and studying human nature and this aspect of what I call Machiavellian intelligence, suddenly with that attitude, with that mentality, you have all kinds of power and freedom.” Perhaps this is what access to such a supreme education gives us: perspective. It allows us not to join the masses in this congested push for power and success, but rather to view the world from a different level based on our understanding of how things work.

Through my exploration of Robert Greene’s work and my limited experience at Harvard, I have discovered more questions than answers. I am now asking myself this: am I meant to be a participant or an observer? I have always enjoyed sitting on the periphery of things, thinking about what motivates people to be who they are and fulfill whatever role they have. Greene’s comments have encouraged my tendency towards this behavior, but his laws can also make me feel rather unambitious. If the world is a game and I have access to the rules through my education, shouldn’t I reach in and try to get what I want? When is it appropriate to silently observe and when is it appropriate to partake? At a place like Harvard, a world throbbing with energy and opportunity, these questions are vital to our education and what we chose to do with it.

Frank Tamberino ’16 (franktamberino@college) might be the next Plato, or at least the next Robert Greene.