The Courtier

There is a character in society that has for thousands of years evoked outrage and envy –  the courtier. This character is very much alive today. Who is the courtier? He is the king’s companion, the teacher’s pet, the adviser, aide, henchman.

The courtier’s strategy is extreme pragmatism. The courtier understands that the king has the power and he has learned that defying the king would only lead to negative consequences. So he implements his subtle mastery of interpersonal skills in his interactions with the king, flattering him while at the same time disclosing valuable information.

The courtier believes that it is necessary to get the king’s blessings, but knows that he is expendable. He knows that the king is powerful and has many other potential courtiers at his disposal. Thus the courtier constantly feeds the king a steady diet of information and flattery. This information needn’t convey the real interests of the courtier for he is not interested in his own entertainment, but predominantly seeks the satisfaction of the king. Likewise, he needn’t be sincere in his use for flattery, for it is used as a device of manipulation.

The courtier’s main battle is to prove that he is irreplaceable since this is counter to reality. Here is where his genius is most required, but also where his frailties are most deeply exposed. When the courtier tries to impress the king, he takes a risk by doing so. There is the possibility of failure. If the courtier does not succeed in carrying out the mission he promised, his reputation will be tarnished in the eyes of the king, and there can be nothing more debilitating and embarrassing to him than this.

But the courtier is shrewd and will not take unnecessary risks. He will constrain himself to the realm of the achievable. It is not so much the extent of what can be achieved, but rather, the fact of achievement itself that the courtier is after. Remember, he wants to build credibility with the king and this requires a consistent streak of victories. The courtier’s eternal rival is the indentured servant.

The indentured servant also exists in the king’s royal court, but he is treated badly. He is given the mundane tasks and unnecessary work. The servant despises the skilled courtier because he sees in him an unfulfilled ideal. The servant has convinced himself that by being obedient, he will gain favor with the king – that all his good works will be repaid in kind. But the servant inevitably discovers that this is not the case. As he neglects his himself further for the service of the king, he sees that the courtier is being showered with gifts, attention, and trust. Here the servant’s blood boils and he begins to seek revenge, not on the king, but on the courtier.

On the other hand, the courtier sees the servant as an unrighteous version of himself, an undeserving, lazy, and stupid imitation of his art. The courtier cajoles and plans and entertains while the scornful servant merely does what he is told and expects the same benefits.

In your own court, whether at work or in your relationships with people, take note of who the king, servant, and courtier are. They are the archetypal characters of the power hierarchy. Whenever there have been kings, there have always been courtiers and servants.

Reciprocity (Influence)

Everything turns gray when I don’t have at least one mark on the horizon. Life then seems empty and depressing. I cannot understand honest men. They lead desperate lives, full of boredom. – Count Victor Lustig

The manipulator will prey on countless victims, and does not restrict themselves to only one type of victim. As with an addiction of any kind, after a certain threshold has been crossed, there will be a yearning for a higher threshold. Lustig not only tricked honest men and easy targets, he went for the biggest shark of all, Al Capone, and managed to squeeze money out of him. Frank Abagnale started with small deceptions, and then gradually his ploys increased in complexity and risk.

In one story, described in the 48 Laws of Power, Lustig tells Capone that he can double his money, $50,000, in a couple of months. Capone agrees, sensing there was something different about this man, he was curious to see where this was going. A couple of months later, Lustig appears before Capone with $50,000. Lustig did nothing in those two months. He returned the original sum to the gangster.

Capone expected to either double his money or get nothing at all – in the latter case, he was prepared to kill him. But he was shocked to see the tall man return his money to him. Capone paid him $5,000 out of mere charity. Lustig used selective honesty to disarm Capone, who was surrounded by thieves and liars. Capone couldn’t believe that for once, someone didn’t try to scam him. Lustig was subsequently rewarded for his troubles of doing nothing.

It is easy to kill a bird on the wing that flies straight: not so one that twists. Nor always act on second thoughts: they can discern the plan the second time. The enemy is on the watch, great skill is required to circumvent him. The gamester never plays the card the opponent expects, still less that which he wants. – Baltasar Gracian

The deceiver never does what you expect him to do, that is his strength.

People become cynical about the world because they witness the same disappointing patterns of behavior being repeated. The deceiver uses this information to his advantage, by approaching people of power with something new. You can call it ‘refreshing honesty’, but really, it’s merely change people are after. Repetition is boring. People who behave in ways that are predictable never win favor with anyone. Those that stand out do.

In marketing, the surest way to success is by standing out, hence the premise of Godin’s Purple Cow. You will never deceive anyone if you act and behave like the herd. It is when you take some initiative, when you dare to be different, that others will take note of you.

When you do something that is different, you distract the victim.

The essence of deception is distraction. Distracting the people you want to deceive gives you the time and space to do something they won’t notice. An act of kindness, generosity, or honesty is often the most powerful form of distraction because it disarms other people’s suspicions. It turns them into children, eagerly lapping up any kind of affectionate gesture.

One of the laws in Influence: The Science of Persuasion, is reciprocity. It doesn’t pay to be greedy. The clever salesman knows how to concede before asking for something in return. You don’t have to use this tactic to understand the power that it holds over you. You have definitely been approached by many people who simply give you something for free, without expecting anything in return.

This is how Facebook deceives people. It offers them something new, and valuable for ‘free’. The users become addicted to the platform, and more than pay for the free utility with their time and energy. Lustig paid Capone first, he gave him an honest gesture, he returned to him the full sum of money. In return, Capone gave him $5,000 which is what Lustig wanted all along.

The Need to Deceive

It is not possible to understand good without knowing evil.  It is the presumption of contrasts: without the antithesis of a thing, that thing could not exist. Light cannot exist without darkness. Positive can’t exist without negative. Strong can’t exist without weak. Masculine can’t exist without feminine.

This is because things have to be measured relative to something else, if you are to classify them. Something is only dark if there is something lighter that you can contrast it to. It is not possible to recognize honesty without recognizing deception.

But there is something fundamentally nebulous and nefarious about deception. People avoid talking about it and understanding it.

“That which you most need will be found where you least want to look” – C.G Jung

But ff you ignore the existence of deception and presume that all people are basically good, then you are an easy target for deception. If you aren’t familiar with the ways in which they can deceive you, then there are more ways to deceive you. If you are incapable of recognizing malicious intent, they will be highly capable of recognizing you as a perfect victim.

If you start with the opposite premise, that people are not basically good, the world looks very different. But the paradox is that by seeing the world in this way, you are doing more good than bad. It is the presumption of innocence that destroys people and society.

Psychologist Carl Jung thought of archetypes as sub-personalities that have their own motivations, if you suppress them or refuse to acknowledge their existence, they will find a way to manifest themselves in your life against your conscious will – and could result in neurosis and psychosis. If you project weakness, cowardice, and evil onto the world and deny these sub-personalities in yourself, then you become more likely to become a victim of your unconscious.

the joker archetype lives within you. A part of you enjoys deception. After-all, deception is a lot more fun than honesty. A case in point is games. Every single game that is worth playing contains elements of deception. Whether it is sports or chess or poker or board games – without deception, the game becomes fundamentally boring.

This is what interests me most about deception. People’s lives are routinely ruined by it, and yet the absence of it creates a boring existence. Deception is the root of most of the world’s evils, and yet one has no choice but to embrace it.