Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier


The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity. He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the most oblique and graceful manner. Learn and apply the laws of courtier-ship and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.

In the past the court garnered around the ruler, and had many functions: Besides keeping the ruler amused, it was a way to solidify the hierarchy of royalty, nobility, and the upper classes, and to keep the nobility both subordinate and close to the ruler, so that he could keep an eye on them. The court serves power in many ways, but most of all it glorifies the ruler, providing him with a microcosmic world that must struggle to please him.

16 Successful Courtier Plays

1. They please but are not pleasing too much.
2. Obeying but somehow distinguishing himself from the other courtiers.
3. Never distinguishing himself so far as to make the ruler insecure.
4. Have mastered the science of manipulating people.
5. They make the king feel more kingly;
6. They make every-one else fear their power.
7. They are magicians of appearance, knowing that most things at court are judged by how they seem.
8. They are gracious and polite.
9. Their aggression is veiled and indirect.
10. Masters of the word, they never say more than necessary.
11. They get the most out of a compliment or hidden insult.
12. They are magnets of pleasure— People want to be around them because they know how to please.
13. They neither fawn nor humiliate themselves.
14. They are wizards in the accumulation of influence
15. They become the king's favorites, enjoying the benefits of that position.
16. They often end up more powerful than the ruler.

The royal court may have more or less disappeared, or at least lost its power, but courts and courtiers still exist because power still exists. The laws that govern court politics are as timeless as the laws of power. There is much to be learned, then, from great courtiers past and present.

The 15 Laws of Court Politics

1. Avoid Ostentation. It is never prudent to prattle on about yourself or call too much attention to your actions. The more you talk about your deeds the more suspicion you cause. You also stir up enough envy among your peers to induce treachery and backstabbing.

2. Practice Nonchalance. Never seem to be working too hard. Your talent must appear to flow naturally, with an ease that makes people take you for a genius rather than a workaholic. It is better for them to marvel at how gracefully you have achieved your accomplishment than to wonder why it took so much work.

3. Be Frugal with Flattery. It may seem that your superiors cannot get enough flattery, but too much of even a good thing loses its value. It also stirs up suspicion among your peers. Learn to flatter indirectly—by down-playing your own contribution, for example, to make your master look better.

4. Arrange to Be Noticed. There is a paradox: You cannot display yourself too brazenly, yet you must also get yourself noticed. This task requires much art. It is often initially a matter of being seen, in the literal sense. Pay attention to your physical appearance, then, and find a way to create a distinctive—a subtly distinctive—style and image.

5. Alter Your Style and Language According to the Person You Are Dealing With. The pseudo-belief in equality—the idea that talking and acting the same way with everyone, no matter what their rank, makes you somehow a paragon of civilization—is a terrible mistake. Those below you will take it as a form of condescension, which it is, and those above you will be offended, although they may not admit it. You must change your style and your way of speaking to suit each person. This is not lying, it is acting, and acting is an art, not a gift from God. Learn the art.

6. Never Be the Bearer of Bad News. The king kills the messenger who brings bad news: This is a cliché but there is truth to it. You must struggle and if necessary lie and cheat to be sure that the lot of the bearer of bad news falls on a colleague, never on you. Bring only good news and your approach will gladden your master.

7. Never Affect Friendliness and Intimacy with Your Master. He does not want a friend for a subordinate, he wants a subordinate. Never approach him in an easy, friendly way, or act as if you are on the best of terms—that is his prerogative. If he chooses to deal with you on this level, assume a wary chumminess. Otherwise err in the opposite direction, and make the distance between you clear.

8. Never Criticize Those Above You Directly. This may seem obvious, but there are often times when some sort of criticism is necessary—to say nothing, or to give no advice, would open you to risks of another sort. You must learn, however, to couch your advice and criticism as indirectly and as politely as possible. Think twice, or three times, before deciding you have made them sufficiently circuitous. Err on the side of subtlety and gentleness.

9. Be Frugal in Asking Those Above You for Favors. Nothing irritates a master more than having to reject someone's request. It stirs up guilt and resentment. Ask for favors as rarely as possible, and know when to stop. Rather than making yourself the supplicant, it is always better to earn your favors, so that the ruler bestows them willingly. Most important: Do not ask for favors on another person's behalf, least of all a friend's.

10. Never Joke About Appearances or Taste. A lively wit and a humorous disposition are essential qualities for a good courtier, and there are times when vulgarity is appropriate and engaging. But avoid any kind of joke about appearance or taste, two highly sensitive areas, especially with those above you. Do not even try it when you are away from them. You will dig your own grave.

11. Do Not Be the Court Cynic. Express admiration for the good work of others. If you constantly criticize your equals or subordinates some of that criticism will rub off on you, hovering over you like a gray cloud wherever you go. People will groan at each new cynical comment, and you will irritate them. By expressing modest admiration for other people's achievements, you paradoxically call attention to your own.

12. Be Self-observant. The mirror is a miraculous invention; without it you would commit great sins against beauty and decorum. You must be the mirror, training your mind to try to see yourself as others see you. Are you acting too obsequious? Are you trying too hard to please? Do you seem desperate for attention, giving the impression that you are on the decline? Be observant about yourself and you will avoid a mountain of blunders.

13. Master Your Emotions. As an actor in a great play, you must learn to cry and laugh on command and when it is appropriate. You must be the master of your own face. Call it lying if you like; but if you prefer to not play the game and to always be honest and upfront. Do not complain when others call you obnoxious and arrogant.

14. Fit the Spirit of the Times. A slight affectation of a past era can be charming, as long as you choose a period at least twenty years back; wearing the fashions of ten years ago is ludicrous, unless you enjoy the role of court jester. Your spirit and way of thinking must keep up with the times, even if the times offend your sensibilities. You are best off at least being able to mimic the spirit of the times.

15. Be a Source of Pleasure. This is critical. It is an obvious law of human nature that we will flee what is unpleasant and distasteful, while charm and the promise of delight will draw us like moths to a flame. Make yourself the flame and you will rise to the top. Not everyone can play the role of favorite, for not everyone is blessed with charm and wit. But we can all control our unpleasant qualities and obscure them when necessary.

Courtiers are like magicians: They deceptively play with appearances, only letting those around them see what they want them to see. With so much deception and manipulation afoot, it is essential to keep people from seeing your tricks and glimpsing your sleight of hand.