Appearance (The Prince)

Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result. The Prince, Machiavelli 

Appearance is everything. If you are a good person, but others don’t see any evidence for it externally, then they will never assume the best. People have a limited attention span, they cannot afford to spend too much energy into figuring people out – they have more pressing things to worry about. They will take shortcuts, and they will assume that ‘what you see is what you get.’

Thus, how you appear to others is very important. If you are a good person deep down, but you act petulantly and distastefully when in the company of others, no one will assume you are good. If you work very hard at your job, but act humbly and are afraid to speak up, your boss won’t assume that you are secretly a wise sage.

it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. – The Prince, Machiavelli 

A testament to this rule is thinking about the concept of acting in general. What is an actress? Isn’t she a stranger who is reciting a written text, isn’t she acting in such a way so as to evoke emotions out of her audience? Does she not adjust her tone of voice, know when to pause and know how to cry convincingly?

We take it for granted that this actress is able to suspend belief if only for a couple of hours, but think of the magnitude of her achievement. She was able to convince you that she was a real person, who had a past, and cares about having a future. Acting is the art form of deception.

And now, think about life, how many times you fail to see reality for what it is. You mistake shadow for substance because too often, you see what you want to see, and not what is there.

Armed with this knowledge, you should realize that everyone shares this cognitive shortcoming. It’s not that you are fooled by appearances – everyone is fooled by appearances. How then do become better at deciphering fact from fiction?

I believe the answer is to understand the nature of fiction. This is one of the reasons I started this blog – to understand the nature of deception.

To know what is, you must know what is not. If you are only accustomed to truth, and that your information diet consists of the most factual information you can find, then you are an easy target for the swindlers of the world.

Once you understand the nature of deception and are able to wield it, you will become better at separating truth from fiction. Like martial arts, the goal is not to hurt people, it is to know how to protect yourself and others from those that do hurt people

The other thing to do is to become more in control over your appearance. If you are more mindful about how you appear to others beforehand, you can adjust your behavior when you are with them, or even what you wear. That isn’t to say that while you are with them, you should be asking yourself ‘how am I being perceived right now?’, that only results in social awkwardness. But if you look on the floor, are afraid to make eye-contact, hesitant, have crab-like body language, and dress poorly – then you’re giving others no choice but to ignore you.

If you want to influence others, you have to give them what they want. What they want is an image, and as long as you can paint that image for them, then you can get what you want. And notice that they don’t necessarily know what they want consciously – their desires can be unconscious. So, it is not a question of investigating what they explicitly make clear to you, but finding out what they implicitly desire.

The master manipulators have this power over you, they can get you to behave in ways that you don’t want, because they know how to push your secret buttons. They know what makes you tick, and will use it against you. There are countless examples of this. One story that comes to mind is about Count Lustig, the infamous swindler, told by Greene in The 48 Laws of Power. 

In 1925, five successful dealers in the French scrap-metal business were invited to a highly confidential meeting in a luxurious hotel in Paris. They were meeting with Lustig. The business men didn’t know why they were invited, but were curious.

Lustig explained to them, after they had a few drinks that there was an urgent matter that required the utmost secrecy. He told them that the French government was going to destroy the Eiffel Tower. The business men were under the impression that Lustig was a  government director and took his words very seriously.

Lustig then told them that they were allowed to make a bid for the Eiffel Tower. He gave them some junk information, and accompanied them to an area surround the tower. There, he showed his badge, and humored his friends with stories as they walked around the area. Finally, he thanked them and said he was expecting their offers within four days.

A few days later, the offers were submitted. One man, Monsieur P was told that he won. To complete the deal, he was told he had to appear with a check worth 250,000 francs in the hotel in two days. Monsieur P was excited, he arrived at the suite with the money in hand.

While he talked to Lustig, doubts about this whole operation started to creep in. He wondered if this was a scam, and Lustig’s description of how the tower was going to be scrapped in detail was not convincing him otherwise. He was about to pull out of the deal, then suddently, he noticed a shift of tone from Lustig. The latter complained to him about his horrible financial situation – his low salary and his wife’s desire for a fur coat. Monsieur P realized that Lustig was asking for a bribe and he was relieved.

The situation made more sense to him now. This high government official just wanted his palm greased just like all the other government officials he had met. Soon after, Lustig was paid. The victim of the ruse left the hotel feeling happy only to realize that it was a scam days later, when the government denied any knowledge of what he was talking about. But he couldn’t do anything, since he would ruin his own reputation if people found out about what had happened.

Notice how in this story, it wasn’t only that appearance was important, but the important role Monsieur P’s feelings played. That is the power of the unconscious. While his greedy ambitions were getting the best of him, something about his encounter with Lustig didn’t feel quite right. Lustig didn’t fit the image he had of a government official. But when Lustig told him about his financial problems, he suddenly fit the image perfectly.

In poker, appearance is everything. You have to not only watch the behavior of other people, but you have to watch your own behavior. Since you know others are watching you, knowing how to adjust your actions in a way to fit the narrative that you want your opponents to believe is key.

If you raised the pot four times in a row, then people have the impression that you are loose – reading to play any two cards, even though you may have luckily picked up some great hands in those four rounds. Now on the fifth round, if you pick up an above average holding that you would usually play aggressively, you should tone it down because it is now highly likely that someone will assume you are definitely bluffing this time, and will put you in a tight spot if you make a raise.

The only way to counter Lustig would be to pay attention to your own behavior. When you know what you are giving away, then you can control what Lustig is perceiving. So in the story, notice that Lustig changed his tone just when the businessman was going to change his mind. Lustig sensed a change of demeanor and quickly adjusted.

If Monsieur P abruptly ended the conversation by saying he had to leave and that it was an emergency, and that they would continue this later, then he could have avoided losing his money. But by making his feelings apparent to Lustig, he gave the swindler everything he needed to make his next winning move.

Rules (The Prince)

it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. – The Prince, Machiavelli

Here Machiavelli’s advice is to break character if it is to your advantage.

In fiction, the ideals of good and evil are portrayed in such stark contrast to each other that even children can tell the difference. But when these children grow older, they see the ambiguous side of morality. Would you steal medicine to save your dying wife, if you had no other choice? Would you kill a man to save five others?

The values that we think of as honorable take a back seat very quickly when it comes to things that are more important. Sure, lying is bad, but would you lie to save your best friend’s life?

Never mind saving their life, you would probably lie to save your best friend their blushes. Sirus, the great Persian king was a very clever and pragmatic ruler. But his grandson, Xerxes, corrupted by wealth and opulence lived a different life to his grandfather. Just to get an idea of how much a big deal Sirus was – the ideal of handsomeness in Persian society was based on King Sirus himself. You can imagine that being Sirus’s grandson, Xerxes would attract the love and admiration of many without lifting a finger.

His grandfather had done all the hard work, he built one of the greatest empires in history, and now it was all his. But despite his conquests and his exaggerated self-esteem, Xerxes refrained from doing things that would anger the gods – that would put him at a disadvantage. This superstition interfered with his effectiveness. Xerxes was constrained by rules.

Should you have no limits then? Should everything: piety, honesty, loyalty, faith all be sacrificed in the name of power? Such is the lure of power that it is able to stack up against all the human virtues. It is worth remembering two things. If you do not believe in God, you still believe an abstraction that is equivalent to believing in God.

That is, if power is your greatest goal, then power itself is your God. You may not have daily conversations with power, but you certainly work for it every day, and are willing to sacrifice many things that are valuable to you to have more of it. It is important to see the limitations of Machiavelli’s advice. There is something to be said about listening to your conscience, even at the expense of self-interest.

Voltaire tells us the story of Candide: a young, innocent, and impressionable young man who believes that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” and has faith in the good nature of people. Candide has a tutor, Pangloss, who teaches instills in him all these Greek virtues. And based on what he says, you get the idea that Candide is really a good spirit, that he intends to harm no one.

Yet Candide – somewhat comically – develops into a serial killer, because circumstances forced him to be so. He loves a young woman, Cunégonde, and is willing to do anything for her. And here Voltaire brilliantly shows us the folly of human nature. Candide’s verbal pronouncements of virtue go out the window the second anyone threatens his relationship with the object of his desire. Candide murders highly influential men without hesitation because of his love for Cunégonde.

Cunégonde for many people represents power, greed, and lust. Many self-proclaimed pious individuals would sacrifice their piety in a heartbeat if the right opportunity presents itself. Nietzsche makes this point in his writings about man’s basic will to power, and so does Voltaire but in a more light hearted, satirical spirit.

There is an eternal war between ‘what-is’ and ‘what-ought-to-be’. There is no question that people have a natural proclivity for evil, and the sooner they come to accept this, the safer it will be for them and for the rest of us. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who thinks themselves pious, and unconsciously obliges to his sinister motivations when people least expect it. 

Machiavelli tells us that constraints, no matter what they are, can be ignored when the situation calls for it. But what’s more realistic to say is this: constraints, no matter what they are, are ignored when the situation calls for it. In other words, Machiavelli isn’t telling the prince how he should act, but rather, that everyone else acts this way, and if he didn’t act that way too, he’d be in big trouble.

In poker, you adjust your strategy depending on who you are playing against. If you are playing against a player who is very aggressive, and plays many hands, then your best strategy would be to trap him, by being passive and using his aggression against him – getting him to over invest chips into a pot that he thinks he’s going to win, but where you have him beat. And when you play a passive player, you do the opposite.

In life, if people around you are deceptive, and willing to sacrifice their moral values when the situation calls for it, you would be at a major disadvantage. Why? Because unlike the example above, this no longer becomes a game of strategy, but a game of cheating. This is the equivalent of your poker opponent hiding an extra ace in his sleeves.

Every game has rules. Everyone plays according to these rules. When someone violates the rules, they are cheating. Aggression and passivity are tactics that are within the rules in both poker and real life. But who defines the rules of life? Unlike poker, there isn’t a dealer or a referee who will make sure that everyone is abiding by the rules.

Take honesty, an unwritten rule in life that people often presume that others are following. But game-theoretically, if everyone is following that rule, and you break it, then you have a big edge! That’s why people will always lie.

And so, what Machiavelli is saying describes the nature of reality. People do behave in this way because they are motivated to do so, either to win back their beloved Cunégonde, or climb the ladder of power or wealth or success.

How do you counteract this? Should you then become a pathological liar and make sure you get ’em before they get you?

Behaving that way is not to your advantage. If you cheat and lie and steal all the time, you will either be put in prison, or you will be completely isolated, and no one will trust you. It takes great skill to violate the rules of the game without losing the meta game – taking part in other games later on.

“Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal.” – Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison stole from Tesla, as I described in the previous post: Trust.  But very few people know how to steal. That is, very few people know how to steal legally. Edison didn’t physically steal money from Tesla, he made him a promise that he didn’t keep. But in making that promise, he made himself rich.

A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him. – Baltasar Gracian

The lesson here isn’t to exploit others, but to learn how not to be exploited. Don’t take people’s words at face value, because they will violate their promises if it serves their advantage to do so. Predators will look for people who are ripe for exploitation, they will take the credit for your work, and they will make you pay for playing by the rules- the way Edison did to Tesla.

You are, of course, not innocent, and you may have exploited others too, but my rule is this: Exploit those who exploit others, but don’t exploit the innocent. And this rule gives you license to adapt as Machiavelli recommends the prince should do. People who are not vultures are not a danger to you – there is no reason to throw away your virtues when dealing with them. But when dealing with vultures, you have to be ready to shift your paradigm rather abruptly.

In poker, there is a saying. “If you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, it’s probably you.”

Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if com­pelled, then to know how to set about it. – The PrinceMachiavelli

Trust (The Prince)

And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; be­cause friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. – The Prince, Machiavelli 

Machiavelli does not impel his reader to distrust all people, but only those that were secured through mutual interest. It is a riskier to start a business with someone you don’t know well than someone you can trust – that much is obvious.

But the other idea is to use fear as your weapon rather than love. People are fickle and if they are properly motivated, they will turn against you. When you appeal to love, you are at the mercy of their memory, and how they choose to react to it. You hope that their sense of guilt or their piety overcomes their selfish desires – forgetting that the basis of your friendship was self-interest. It shouldn’t be surprising if a stranger exploits your kindness.

Often people think that treating others well will earn their loyalty. Nothing is further from the truth. People are especially prone to ignore the favors you have done for them in the past. What matters to everyone is the present and the future.

The trap of believing that your good deeds in the past will protect you in the future is prevalent in history – and there have been many stories where the victims of this misguided philosophy find themselves shocked at the misbehavior of their friends.

In The 48 Laws of Power, Greene tells us the story of Michael III and Basilius. Michael III ascends to power with help from his uncle, Bardas. One day, he was saved from wild horses that were let loose from their stables by a young man called Basilius, a stable boy. With time, the two built a great relationship, with Michael III repaying him with money and gift. In fact, Michael hired him as a political adviser, after he paid for his education. Basilius saw what life was like for an aristocrat, how it contrasted so dramatically with the tedium of tending to horses.

Time passed and his ambitions for power grew steadily, until eventually he saw an opening. Michael’s uncle was the commander of the army at the time, and Basilius saw him as an obstacle in his way. He poured poison into Michael’s ears and told him that the commander planned to kill him and become king. Michael was persuaded and had his uncle murdered. Basilius then suggested that he should become the commander of the army to prevent disorder and chaos. Michael obliged.

The wise man would rather see men needing him than thanking him. To keep them on the threshold of hope is diplomatic, to trust to their gratitude boorish; hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one. More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy. He that has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well, and the orange once sucked falls from the golden platter into the waste basket. When dependence disappears, good behavior goes with it as well as respect. – Baltasar Gracian

Years later, Michael needed help. He had lost his money because of bad spending habits. He went to Basilius for help, but his friend refused – with a sinister look on his face. Basilius had risen in power during those years, and a few days after his friend’s request, he had him killed, and displayed Michael’s head on the tip of his pike.

Michael thought that Basilius could always be trusted after what he done for him, and the relationship they had in the past. He relied on the virtue of his friend. But he was not shrewd enough to recognize the folly in exposing Basilius to the world of power, where deception was an art form. And he didn’t question his friend’s intentions when he was advised to kill Bardas. His gullibility and poor understanding of human nature led to his brutal murder.

Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure. – Tacitus 

Nicolas Tesla was a brilliant inventor, he was the man behind the Alternating Current (AC) in electricity, and his ideas led to the development of the radio. But Tesla was a bad businessman and he put too much trust in others. He traveled to America thanks to advice from a friend. There, he met Thomas Edison, who was working on dynamos at the time. Edison hired Tesla to work for him, and he offered him a reward of $50,000 if he could improve his current technology. This project could have taken years, with no reward, but Tesla managed to solve the riddle in under a year. But when he went to collect his check, he was met with a sly remark from Edison, who told him that he was only joking – and that he had to get used to the American sense of humor. He gave him a small salary bump instead.

Tesla then worked for Westinghouse, a businessman with his own electricity company. Tesla’s research led to the discovery of the Alternating Current (AC) system. But the company was taken over by JP Morgan, and Westinghouse persuaded Tesla to sell his patent for a fraction of what it was worth to save the company. He accepted and was given $216,000 while the patent was worth over $2 million.

Tesla lived in poverty later in life, and looked back at his life in sorrow. When he was young, he didn’t care about money and fame – he loved science. He wanted to explore and invent things and that was an integral factor in his genius. He didn’t bother himself with matters of business. While that freed him up to do what he loved, it also created a blind spot. Tesla’s humbleness and virtue made him an easy target for others. The business magnates at the time saw Tesla as a tool that could be bought and sold. They didn’t care about science, they cared about profit. To them, Tesla could be replaced with another scientist who would happily earn less. They believed in deception and power, Tesla believed in truth and honesty.

Tesla made a fortune for others but couldn’t benefit from his own genius, His unselfishness was a virtue that cost him dearly.

it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and pros­perity.  – The Prince, Machiavelli

Here is a summary of Law 7 and Law 2 from The 48 Laws of Power.




Reputation (The Prince)

Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spo­ken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly, one is reputed gen­erous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful; one effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one re­ligious, another unbelieving, and the like. And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is nec­essary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being pos­sible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. – The Prince, Machiavelli 

Machiavelli is saying that the qualities that society deems good or bad may be so, but no individual can be true to any of them. You can never be completely sincere or completely cunning. And if even if you somehow managed to do that, other people wouldn’t notice. Even if you were always sincere, others will think that you are probably not. What he advocates instead is the need for practicality. It’s not about thinking virtuously, it’s about getting results. Tasked with running a state, a prince must understand how to take advantage of his vices when the time calls for it.

And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered careful­ly, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and pros­perity. – The Prince, Machiavelli 

There is no reason to feel guilty for doing this. Often, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. Behaving in a way to please others, and to maintain your astute reputation among your peers, can result in your eventual ruin. Not only that, but if you are responsible for others, then your ‘virtue’ may ruin the lives of the people around you. And yet, if you acted capriciously, in a way that others consider evil, you may emerge as the hero.

Machiavelli focuses a lot on appearances, on how others perceive you. He is not saying that it is a bad thing to be virtuous, but that it is not a quality that can be advertised, and is thus ineffective. People will always doubt your intentions, no one will completely believe in your sincerity unless they are gullible.

This also reminds of the idea of the ‘greater good’ or the ‘lesser of two evils’. When you are young, it is difficult to understand these concepts. The world is black and white. People are either good or bad. But reality isn’t so. Billionaires may deceive, but they feed their families and thousands of other people. Politicians may dupe their constituents and each other, but they resolve major diplomatic tensions, and preserve security.

It is important to see both sides of every coin. It is not useful to bluntly categorize people or nations into good or evil. This oversimplification is the cause of many disputes going on today. One group yells to the other, and claims that they are pure and virtuous. The other sends back obscenities and then makes the same statement about themselves. This comical parody never ends.