A few months ago, a friend sent my way Absolute Power (part of the Book of Sith), a collection of writings where, in-universe, Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious explained his philosophy of power. How the emperor acquired power, how he governed the galaxy, how he kept his people loyal and how made his enemies fear him, was all explained in here.
I noticed that one of the reasons why Palpatine/Sidious was such a success in Star Wars was because he was following the proven principles of influencing people, with many historical parallels. These principles are surveyed in Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, and in my retelling of the work through the perspective of fictional characters (in an ebook which you can get for free by subscribing above), Palpatine is one of the most heavily featured characters, because he is an excellent example of the practice of many of the laws of power. He just knew intrinsically how to wield power over others, and as a result, he was a massive success in his series, achieving everything he set out to do.
This, I would argue, is probably the philosophical essence of the Dark Side. A force of will, a drive toward dominance – these are usually looked down upon by ethical systems of higher principles and ideals (the Light Side). Yet, much as George Lucas may hate to admit it, these Machiavellian power plays are the true movers and shakers of social interaction. The Light Side is what should be set down in law, but when it comes to getting what you want in your life, you’re probably going to need to be a bit edgy, a bit of a Sith Lord, and look into the nature of the “Dark Side.” This, fundamentally, is what Palpatine was talking about when he said:
Anakin, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the Force. – Palpatine, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Come with me now, as we look into Absolute Power, and how it reflects the conclusion I’ve drawn – that Palpatine’s character is well-crafted, that he’s a master of the science of persuasion, and that it was because of this that he achieved such astounding success in his series. Luke Skywalker’s annotations in Absolute Power are also noted where appropriate, for a contrast of differing interpretations on what power is (not necessarily how it should be used).
Now, to begin.
Recruiting and Maintaining Followers:
The game of power is a social one, as Robert Greene says many times in The 48 Laws of Power. You will therefore need to count on an array of supporters to solidify your power and accomplish your goals. To put it simply, you will need the cooperation of other people to accomplish your ends, and there are no exceptions. Palpatine has many words to share on this subject:
So simple in concept, yet I am bound by the incompetence of others. I trust that my commanders will stifle dissent, but frequently it grows louder. Had I not foreseen my eternal triumph, I might be troubled. – Palpatine, pg. 145
Two things are highlighted here which the reader should take into account. First, if you’re ever in a position of leadership, you are only as secure as the people who follow you. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, as the old saying goes. Incompetence on the part of your followers will at least set your designs back and could very well bring you down. Yet, in terms of leadership and power, too strong an inferior could be a focus point of rebellion against you. This is a conundrum that has haunted many a king and emperor throughout history. Cleverly, Palpatine has an answer for this later on in Absolute Power, one which parallels historical figures. If Palpatine can be faulted here, it can be for his overconfidence. For all his obeying of the principles of power, he doesn’t seem to know here that power is always fluid and ever-changing. Confidence and boldness are one of the foundations of a powerful personality, as they inherently draw people to you, but take it too far and you could either turn people against you or simply miss something important.
Unleashing their anger (Force-sensitives) is fundamental for drawing them into my fold as well as for them to gain an understanding of the dark side. For it is in anger that Force-users are strongest. Once tapped, this emotion can turn idealists into slaves. Even those with brightly burning passions – those who vow to resist with their dying breath – can be broken in three simple steps.
First, they must be tempted. The strong willed always have something they desire, or something they possess that they fear to lose. They will see their drive to protect this item as noble. By encouraging this delusion, a puppet is created.
Second, the puppets must be tested. By creating an immediate danger or placing the subjects in peril, they will be forced to make a diecision. Crazed by fear and the mere thought of losing what they hold dear, they will do anything that is asked of them, if only to preserve their most cherished desires.
Third, they must be forced to submit. A moment will arise when they will take a step too far. In panic or fear, they will hurt others or commit a crime in such a way that the outside world will never forgive. After that moment, there is no return from the dark side. Some who have been ensnared will choose to end their lives. Most, however, will accept their role as new warriors of the dark side. One life has ended, a better one has begun. – Palpatine, pg. 157
There are numerous power plays at work here. The first is the filling of a void, one of the things Robert Greene lays out in The 48 Laws of Power. Fill a void and you become an indispensable object to the person at the other end of the table. This is what Palpatine did with Anakin – by convincing him he could save Padme. To find a void, one good way is to follow the 33rd law, “discover each man’s thumbscrew” (which Palpatine exemplifies in the free ebook).
The second and third relate to getting your prospect to take an action on your behalf. It can be however small you want. Once he has made a decision to take an action on your behalf, he is more attached to you and more easily influenced. This is something Benjamin Franklin remarked on when he famously said that getting someone to do you a small favor will make it more likely that he’ll do you larger favors in the future. This is an aspect I’ve remarked upon at length in my own book, Stumped.
And now Palpatine solves the conundrum presented above. How do you get competent, strong followers without endangering yourself? He explains:
The alchemy developed by Syn is being perfected on Byss, where my Dark Side Adepts join their potent skills to warp life on a broad scale. My monstrous chrysallides, with their magnificent metal-piercing fangs, guard the ramparts of my citadel. My mute Imperial sentinals stand by my throne, their annihilated minds and enslaved wills clear evidence the dark side can manipulate clones for any imaginative purpose. Although alchemy can create perfect beings, I have designed weaknesses into all of these creations. The flaws are minute and known only to me. It would not do for any creature to be stronger than its creator. – Palpatine, pg. 158
Here is how Palpatine secured leverage, and it was a secret known to Louis XIV, who advises the reader of his memoirs (intended for his heir, the Grand Dauphin) to divide the execution of his confidence. Throughout his reign, Louis hired gifted people who could elevate his kingdom, but kept them in their specific tasks, withheld unnecessary information from them, gave them no more power than he needed to for them to do their jobs, and surprised them by “entering into small details with them when they least expected it.” In this way, no power could be concentrated against him, and he doubtlessly had knowledge of his ministers’ weaknesses that other people didn’t.
These multiple layers ensured a system and structure that kept Louis in control and free of rebellion. The interests of everyone were enmeshed together and no one was indispensable or outside of Louis’ gaze. Palpatine is speaking of the same system.
The weak live in terror that they will be judged for their failings and be put on display – that they will be punished. It is a belief that should not be discouraged. – Palpatine, pg. 146
Here Palpatine betrays one of the fundamental principles of crowd psychology. This is all covered in great detail in the 5th chapter of my book Stumped, but I’ll give you a brief rundown here. Being a social species, we human beings generally want to fit in, and we’re afraid if we don’t. Markers of status then become things and behaviors that confirm the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. In Palpatine’s case, he made that marker of status to be loyal to him and the Empire, to “dread that their neighbor’s loyalty was greater than their own.” This is often labeled “virtue signaling” in our own time, where people to attempt to display how virtuously “not racist” or “pro-equality” they are. When you witness the frenzy over the entirely imaginary “epidemic” of “sexual assaults on college campuses,” you will see just how powerful this drive is. This ties in to the standalone complex phenomenon as explored in Ghost in the Shell.
The drive to fit in will cause us as people to look at things that hadn’t received our attention before, join movements just because, buy products just because we see other people using them (social proof) and so on.
This needn’t be a bad thing. This phenomenon can be paired with many emotions, not just fear. Promoting opportunity with it is one such way, but fear is always the most powerful of emotional movers, and this is something Palpatine understood completely. Yet, as Luke reminds us…
Palpatine was wrong. Those who live under fear can’t wait to throw off that yoke. I’ve seen the footage taken after the emperor’s death at Endor hit the newsnets. The people of Courscant celebrated louder than anyone. – Luke, pg. 146
In 2016, we are seeing this phenomenon as a backlash against Social Justice Warriors and political correctness, the mobs of which have scalped so many people over the years. The backlash began with GamerGate and grew in intensity with Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. If you are to use fear as a motivator of crowds, it shouldn’t ever be of you, except maybe as a more innocent way of not fitting in with the crowd, not, as Palpatine notes, “the consequences of betrayal,” because that puts you as the focal point of that fear. Lose that fear for a moment and you lose your power. Instead, you, as a leader, should always be associated with victory and virtue, as Louis XIV remarks in his memoirs.
Palpatine knows the dangers of this, however, and he continues:
Indeed, my subjects fear me, but that fear will lead to anger. And anger will make my Empire strong. However, anger directed toward authority is dangerous. It must be channelged toward other, weaker subjects. By encouraging fear of the exotic and the unusual, a regime can be strengthened. The Empire has uniformity in its symbols and its ideology, which makes it easier to shame those who do not belong and to make them the objects of a galaxy’s rage.
The Republic’s alien species are the simplest targets. Most humans of the Core already despise looking into their multiple eyes or listening to their clicking, buzzing languages. They hate their bewildering customs and their sharp stench. Coruscant is a seething boil of species, but humans far outnumber any other species. It is an ideal place to sow the seeds of suspicion – to instill the idea that those who don’t conform are the enemy and enemies must be destroyed. By making the powerless a target, the people will not threaten the one in power. On the contrary, the ruler will be venerated for exposing the weak. – Palpatine, pg. 155
This relates to in/out-groups as explained below, and it was one way Palpatine used fear as a motivator – but not entirely of him. If you find yourself under attack at any point, which is not hard in the age of outrage in which we live, this can be used as a potent defensive tactic. It can also be used offensively if you’re trying to sow seeds of dissent in your opponent’s camp, or more innocently (and by that I mean, without the seething anger that Palpatine wished to build) as a way to build a “cool” in-group to sell a product to in contrast to an “uncool” or unsuccessful out-group.
Just what exactly do I mean by in-groups and out-groups? That can be seen below, as can other maxims of power:
The Jedi did not want war, but they had little choice. They had to join the fight lest they face public scorn. There on the front lines, my war struck down many enemies and shredded their morals until they were on the brink of the dark side. The Jedi were never the true heroes. I saw to that by manipulating the HoloNet. The people were led to fear the Jedi’s arrogance and strange power. By crafting the news, the clone troopers and their noble chancellor became the fearless heroes of the Republic. – Palpatine, pg. 149
There are so many fundamental principles of power in this quote, so we should break them down one by one.
- The Jedi had to join in the fight because they wouldn’t fit in with the crowd, and thereby lose their power. The principles of crowd psychology are at work again. Status-seeking behavior will always be present in human social mores.
- It’s often been said that when you confront a monster, you become one yourself. I’ve felt this at times over the years, and it’s entirely feasible that the Jedi began exhibiting this, as Palpatine engineered them to. This in turn made them more vulnerable to being cast as scapegoats.
- The elite’s control over the means of communication has always been the backbone of its power. This is how the prevailing narrative is forged and how brands are built. Palpatine understood this eminently, using the communications available to him to build his brand at the expense of the Jedi. The contrast alone creates a focal point for positive and negative emotions, respectively. This contrast is the phenomenon behind in-groups and out-groups, where people, being driven by nature toward some kind of team or tribal affiliation, have positive emotions toward their own in-group and are mobilized to combat the group that “isn’t like them,” the out-group, which is something I detail extensively in my book Stumped, along with how you can make use of the power of branding and communications.
- People fear the unknown and hate the arrogant. By casting the Jedi as arrogant people with strange, unfamiliar powers, they were the perfect out-group to the in-group Palpatine needed to solidify his power over the galaxy.
The weak do not understand the Force. They venerate those who appear to be ordinary people like themselves. They cheered at the news that a resolute old man had survived an assassination attempt. In Palpatine, an ordinary Senator from Naboo, they see a model of human achievement. – Palpatine, pg. 152
This is actually the 46th of Robert Greene’s 48 laws of power, and I use Palpatine as the example of its implementation in my retelling (which, once more, you can get for free by signing up in the prompt above). More than that, it’s a foundational aspect of charisma (covered in Stumped’s fourth chapter). The contradiction that Palpatine showed to the people – resolute old man, seemingly vulnerable (made especially so after Windu’s permanent scarring of his face) and yet at the same time the powerful chancellor who had led the Galaxy and the Republic through a threatening war, instantly captivated the audience and the people. Everyone could identify with Palpatine, aspire to be him, and adore him. As such, they had no idea what he was really doing. It was a masterstroke.
The Revealed Hand, the Concealed Hand:
My apprentice and other agents of my will are fearsome embodiments of the dark side. Mere rumors of their presence are enough to frighten citizens into obedience. But those citizens must not know that a Sith lord has constructed the Galactic Empire until it is too late. – Palpatine, pg. 152
Robert Greene says that all power is based on appearances. Steven Pressfield, in his The Virtues of War, a fictionalized first-person account of Alexander the Great based on historical sources, writes that Alexander believed that all warfare is theater, and that the foundation of theater is artifice. What you show the enemy, you will not do. What you do not show the enemy, you will do.
Such was Palpatine’s game:
In truth, everyone wears a mask. When speaking to others, a false persona can charm, seduce, or frighten. A Sith knows that all interactions are masked. It is no great difficulty to don multiple masks when the situation demands it. – Palpatine, pg. 153
The mask you choose to wear ultimately becomes part of your character through repeat use. This gives you the power to recreate yourself (law 25). It allows you to see that your limitations are often self-imposed. In fact, it gives you a kind of reality warping power.
Palpatine continues with perhaps his greatest masterstroke of all:
All beings want to make sense of their reality. But none of them wish to think too deeply. They gravitate toward words that confirm their existing suspicions.
In my decades as Ambassador, Senator, and Supreme Chancellor, I did not once encounter an exception to this rule. It was true whether I was reminding the Senate of the need for war powers or sitting across from Master Yoda and convincing him to send more Jedi Knights into harm’s way. None suspected the duplicity of my identity. In fact, so convinced were the Jedi of their superior insight that they were the easiest to deceive. – Palpatine, pg. 153
This is the power of confirmation bias, and when you know this, you have a wide leeway of options at your disposal. It’s the foundation of many of Robert Greene’s laws of power, most specifically the 21st, and Donald Trump often mentions it in his The Art of the Deal when he discusses the concept of creating leverage over others to get the best deal for yourself. The idea that humans are rational creatures that weigh evidence before making choices is a transparent farce. Knowing this open secret is the foundation of building your skills as a persuader, as mentioned in Stumped. Palpatine knew this eminently, and what a persuader he was! Even Luke couldn’t contain his shock:
That the Sith pulled off such a monumental deception back when the Jedi were at their most powerful…let’s just say I’m keeping my eyes open for trouble. – Luke, pg. 153
It’s often said that Palpatine’s mind control abilities were godlike, but this knowledge of confirmation bias was arguably his greatest feat of all.
The Force of Will:
The writings of Darth Malgus confirm that anger, combined with will, is the key to power. When anger intensifies to rage, it is unstoppable. Malgus submitted utterly to the dark side, and doing so made him an exemplary warrior. His battlefield feats have never been duplicated. – Palpatine, pg. 154
What Palpatine is getting at here need not necessarily be anger or rage (though those can be quite useful, if, as Aristotle said so long ago, you are angry at the right thing, for the right reason, and for the right purpose). It can truly be any kind of emotional cocktail, to quote Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich. An indomitable will, combined with the right kind of emotional cocktail allowing you to focus on the moment utterly with no distractions, is the stuff that creates an unstoppable force. I’ve experienced it personally many times when going after my goals, though it’s something I need to learn to control better. There’s always more to learn.
Conclusion – The Power is Yours for the Taking:
This is only the beginning of the surface which has barely been scratched. There are so many more avenues and subtleties of power and persuasion. This was only the first course in a vast university on the topic.
If you’re interested in what you read, the best way for you to learn more is to first subscribe at the prompt above and receive my free ebook retelling of The 48 Laws of Power, starring Palpatine and many other characters you know, and second, to read Stumped, which is far more specific (as it follows a living case study) and has dozens of takeaways telling you specific things you can immediately implement to become a more confident and powerful person.