Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean

The 48 Laws Of Power Summary Series


“You must seem a paragon of civility and efficiency: Your hands are never soiled by mistakes and nasty deeds. Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s-paws to disguise your involvement.”

Part 1: Conceal Your Mistakes — Have A Scapegoat Around You To Take The Blame

“Our good name and reputation depend more on what we conceal than on what we reveal. Everyone makes mistakes, but those who are truly clever manage to hide them, and make sure someone else is blamed. A convenient scapegoat should always be kept around for such moments.”

Observance Of The Law I

“Near the end of the second century A.D., the great general and imperial minister Ts’ao Ts’ao emerged as the most powerful man in the country. During a siege of a key city he miscalculated the timing for supplies of grain to arrive from the capital. As he waited for the shipment to come in, the army ran low on food, and Ts’ao was forced to order the chief of commissariat to reduce its rations. Ts’aos spies soon reported that the men were complaining that he was living well while they themselves had barley enough to eat. Ts’ao could have a mutiny on his hands, so he summoned the chief of commissariat to his tent to ask a favor”

“I want to ask you to lend me something, and you most not refuse,” Ts’ao told the chief. “What is it” the chief replied. “I want the loan of your head to show the troops,” said Ts’ao. “But I’ve done nothing wrong!” cried the chief. “I know” said Ts’ao with a sigh, “but if I do not put you to death, there will be mutiny. Do not grieve — after you’re gone I’ll look after your family.” The chief was beheaded that same day. Seeing his head on public display, the soldiers stopped grumbling.


“Ts’ao had two options: apology and excuses, or a scapegoat. Understanding the workings of power and the importance of appearances as he did, Ts’ao did not hesitate for a moment: he shopped around for the most convenient head and had it served up immediately.”

Occasional mistakes are inevitable — the world is just too unpredictable but…

“By apologizing you open up all sorts of doubts about your competence, your intentions, any other mistakes you may not have confessed. Excuses satisfy no one and apologies make everyone uncomfortable.”

No one cares about your excuses. Lead by actions instead.

Keys To Power

“The use of scapegoats is as old as civilization itself, and examples of it can be found in cultures around the world. The main idea behind sacrifices is the shifting of guilt and sin to an outside figure — object, animal, or man — which is then banished or destroyed.”

“The Hebrews used to take a live goat (hence the term scapegoat) upon whose head the priest would lay both hands while confessing the sins of the Children of Israel. Having thus had those sins transferred to it, the beast would be led away and abandoned in the wilderness. They freed themselves from the guilt by transferring it to an innocent person, whose death was intended to satisfy the divine powers and banish the evil from their midst.”

It has become a natural response to not look inward after a mistake or crime, we look outward to try and affix blame and guilt on a convenient object instead of taking responsibility for our actions.

“The bloody sacrifice of the scapegoat seems a barbaric relic of the past, but the practice lives on to this day, if indirectly and symbolically; since power depends on appearances, and those in power must seem never to make mistakes”

This point is especially relevant in the modern political sphere. Mistakes in this arena can equal a ‘symbolic type-death’ by your country or city.

“Franklin D Roosevelt had a reputation for honesty and fairness. Throughout his career, however, he faced many situations in which being the nice guy would have spelled disaster — yet he could not be seen as the agent of any foul play. For twenty years his secretary Louis Howe handled the backroom deals, manipulation of the press, the underhanded campaign maneuvers. And whenever a mistake was committed, or a dirty trick contradicting Roosevelt’s carefully crafted image became public, Howe served as the scapegoat, and never complained”

Howe [Right] Roosevelt [Middle]

Part 2: Make Use Of The Cats Paw

“In the fable, the Monkey grabs the paw of his friend, the Cat, and uses it to fish chestnuts out of the fire, thus getting the nuts he craves without hurting himself. If there is something unpleasant or unpopular that needs to be done, it is far too risky for you to do the work yourself. You need a cats-paw — someone who does the dirty dangerous work for you. The cats-paw grabs What you need hurts whom you need, hurts whom you need, and keeps people from noticing that you are the one responsible. Let someone else be the executioner, or the bearer of bad news, while you bring only joy and glad tidings.”

Fable: A Fool And A Wise Man

A wise man, walking alone, was being bothered by a fool throwing stones at his head. Turning to face him, he said:

“My dear chap, well thrown! Please accept these few francs. You have worked hard enough to get more than mere thanks. Every effort deserves its reward.

“But see that man over there? He can afford more than I can. Present him with some of your stones: they’ll earn a good wage.”

Lured by the bait, the stupid man ran off to repeat the outrage on the other worthy citizen. This time he wasn’t paid in money for his stones.

Up rushed the serving men, and seized him and thrashed him and broke all his bones!

— Jean De La Fontaine (1621–1695)

“In the courts of kings there are pests like this, devoid of sense: they’ll make their master laugh at your expense. To silence their cackle, should you hand out rough punishment? Maybe you’re not strong enough. Better persuade them to attack somebody else, who can more than pay them back.”

A perfect example of how you can persuade the fool and get someone else to do the dirty work for you without tarnishing your own reputation.


Originally Posted

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour.

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