Book Review: The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene



One of the most perverse facts of human nature is that those who believe the world to be a terrible place very often take it upon themselves to make it worse. Those who judge the good deeds of others to be a cover for self-interest invariably see unalloyed egoism on their own part as the only rational response. Robert Greene has done very well out of it, setting himself up as a modern-day Machiavelli. He is the highly successful author of cynical tracts on how to get ahead and how to get laid. His latest work looks like a guide to winning in combat, but the subject matter is really the same as that of his earlier books, for he sees every aspect of life in terms of a war of all against all.

Greene writes that “the problem for us is that we are trained and prepared for peace, and we are not at all prepared for what confronts us in the real world – war.” The thought that being nice to one another is the best way to behave is merely a piece of misinformation put out by the masters of the game. Those who have made it in society like to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the public, but according to the author they know very well that it is every man for himself – even in families and relationships. Peace and cooperation are, he feels, “impossible and inhuman” ideals. What we really need is practical advice on how to deal with conflict.

Some of Greene’s advice to this end is very good. To smoke out hidden enemies he suggests making ambiguous gestures that could be read as offensive. A true friend will find your behaviour confusing, but a foe will reveal himself by taking affront. The author also makes a decent case for the cultivation of deadly enemies as a means of defining and galvanising oneself, and the marshalling of sources can be deft and creative as in his excellent section on Margaret Thatcher. Greene provides an enormous number of directed anecdotes from warfare, politics and the arts in the 400-plus pages here.

However, behind every story is the old saw that morality is reducible to a power game. Social mores are only instruments of someone’s will to power, and appeals to your conscience are in fact wily tricks to weaken your selfish resolve. Although the author never misses a chance to repeat these “basic truths”, it is never clear whether he really believes what he writes or whether it is just his shtick, an instrument of his will to shift £20 hardbacks. The instrument could certainly be sharper, because there are far too many duff sentences such as “Your goal is to blend philosophy and war, wisdom and battle, into an unbeatable blend.” There is something less than adult about it all. The grinding references to the “warrior’s spirit” conjure nothing so much as an office worker wearing his necktie around his head.

There is also a problem with the book’s notion of peace. The false “niceness” the author despises is far from the universal pretence he claims. Few would describe the entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar as a “nice” man, but everyone agrees that he is honourable and a good person to do business with. He can be trusted and taken at his word, and he plays fairly but firmly. When leaders among men tell us to be virtuous in our dealings with others, this is the kind of virtue they have in mind. Mature individuals prefer such straight dealing to being treated “nicely”. Rampant egoism is not the only alternative to”niceness”. Sir Alan does not treat his employees and customers as enemies to be defeated.

Greene’s cynical message derails itself every time he remembers that he is writing a mass-market self-help book. Like all exponents of the form, he promises that there is no limit to what we can achieve if we remain determined and focused. So although life is a battlefield, our fight is fundamentally a fair one in which each of us has the potential for victory. Xenophon is quoted with approval: “Your obstacles are not rivers or mountains or other people; your obstacle is yourself.” There is no excuse for failure, since if you keep your nerve and make the right decisions, you cannot but succeed.

It is curious how life’s winners never believe in luck. Their conceit is immodest at best, and at worst it grinds the losers’ faces into the dust. It adds shame to the latter’s list of woes, for on this understanding you cannot lose without deserving to. It is one thing to say that the world is dark; it is another to relish the darkness.


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