Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Laws of Human Nature
By Robert Greene
Profile Books

The parable of the scorpion and the frog is no doubt one of author Robert Greene’s favourites. In the fable, the scorpion convinces the frog to carry him across the river, despite the frog’s fears of getting stung. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, leaving both to die.

The sting in the story’s tale is that we must understand the true nature of others, and it illuminates the primary law of human nature, which is “to deny that we have human nature. We think, ‘I’m not irrational, I’m not aggressive, I don’t feel envy, I am not a narcissist’.

In fact, people are riddled with anomalies and absurdities, foibles and fallibilities, which we constantly try to mask. As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage”.  We’re all actors. We just can’t help ourselves.  

Except, with Greene directing, maybe we can. His five previous books, covering the gamut of human affairs from love to hatred, wisdom to warfare, purpose to power, drew criticism as being immoral — guide-ropes to guile and interpersonal manipulation.

His new book, The Laws of Human Nature, is a meta-analysis of our flaws and faults, how to compensate for them in ourselves, and take advantage of them in others. He makes no apology: “This is who we are. Human beings want power.”

Perhaps to soften his reputation, the book is dedicated to his mother. And it contains much to admire: across nearly 600 pages Greene codifies myriad aspects of human behaviour and morality into 18 “laws”, and immerses readers into explanations involving philosophy, psychology and case study references of famous or infamous figures from history.

He gives avatars of the specific human traits or psychologies illustrated in each respective chapter. These are more interesting than his descriptions of the laws. For instance, Greene blames Stalin’s “complete control narcissism” for the dictator’s ruthless quest for untrammelled power. The long section about John D Rockefeller portrays the wealthiest person in modern history as a “sophisticated aggressor”, ruthless when he needed to be, and capable of intricate scheming to undercut rivals. Which, after all the analysis, seems a complex way of saying that Rockefeller was a brilliant businessman, significantly better than others of his generation. Nevertheless, Greene’s Law of Aggression advises us to beware the hostility behind the friendly facade.

We meet other historical figures whose characters are more genuinely worthy of admiration, such as Martin Luther King, early-Renaissance 14th century Arab historian-scholar and forerunner of sociology and economics, Ibn Khaldun, and Pericles, the pre-eminent statesman during the golden age of ancient Greece.

Envy and empathy

The respective chapters on envy and empathy fascinated me most, no doubt indicating dichotomies and paradoxes within my own personality. The Law of Envy exposes the hard-to-swallow truth that “We humans are naturally compelled to compare ourselves with one another.” There is enormous contextual relevance in current affairs: globalisation, in its pervasive and instantaneous connectedness, has exacerbated ressentiment, a concept first captured by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to explain suppressed feelings of envy, fear and hatred which often manifests as scapegoating of others.

Greene offers some sound strategies to curtail these sentiments, such as immersion into nature and practising a sense of heartfelt admiration for the achievements of others. We must also attempt to gain knowledge of others through active empathy. We feel this naturally with our friends, but cultivating it with strangers requires analytical effort. Intriguingly, this is especially important in situations in which we do not feel comfortable with someone. Greene references Lincoln, one of 15 times through the book: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Not a single mention is made of Donald Trump, but the book’s longest sections discuss irrationality and narcissism. There is an interesting aside on humanity’s supposed progress, a counterpoint to the Pollyannism of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: “Do not imagine that the more extreme types of irrationality have been overcome through progress and enlightenment ... The irrational simply changes its look and fashions.” Amusingly, this brings to mind the hairstyles of Trump and Kim Jong-un, having just met at a summit again in Vietnam.

My deeper discord surrounds Greene’s premise that all human relations are inherently conflictual, or start that way

But the book’s light-hearted moments are sparse. Like being on the couch, it requires commitment, and as the laws unravel, if you assess yourself honestly as Greene directs, you will recognise yourself repeatedly — a discomfiting, sometimes wounding glance in an unforgiving mirror.

Perhaps I don’t enjoy having to work too hard when reading. The words “your task is to …” set goals in each chapter, disciplines designed to observe others and refine self-awareness — constantly. Life involves enough hard work; must every human interaction achieve an objective?

My deeper discord surrounds Greene’s premise that all human relations are inherently conflictual, or start that way. In his world everyone has an agenda and people are constantly engaging in one-upmanship — at work, in friendships, in relationships. Do we really live in a state of constant competition, facing another duel or challenge whenever we meet a fellow human being?

Nevertheless, The Laws of Human Nature is an absorbing study, triggering serious reflection. For some, it may kickstart an overhaul of their lives. In this spirit, I’m choosing to ignore Greene’s Machiavellian reputation and commend his book as a contribution to improving humanity’s bonds. As Abraham Lincoln said, we can all, surely, “again [be] touched… by the better angels of our nature”.