Law 39: Stir Up Waters to Catch Fish

The 48 Laws Of Power Summary Series


“Anger and emotion are strategically counterproductive. You must always stay calm and objective. But if you can make your enemies angry while staying calm yourself you gain a decided advantage. Put your enemies’ off-balance: Find the chink in their vanity through which you can rattle them and you hold the strings.”

The crux of this law is represented by the metaphor of water symbolizing emotion. When the water is still your enemies and opponents have time to scheme and plan action. Stirring the waters draws the fish to the surface, getting them to act before they are ready. One of the best way’s to do this is to play on a human being’s biggest weak points; they’re tendency to react with emotion. Pride, vanity, love, hate, elation, resentment are just a few emotions that drive people. The angrier someone becomes the more control they give up, eventually they are caught up in a typhoon of emotion that either they have created themselves or you have orchestrated.

Transgression Of The Law

In January of 1809 an agitated and anxious Napoleon hurried back to Paris from his Spanish wars. There was a rumor his foreign minister Talleyrand had conspired against him with Fouche, the minister of police. The shocked emperor summoned his minsters to the palace. He began poacing up and down, and started rambling vaguely about plotters working against him.

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars.

As Napoleon talked, Talleyrand leaned on the mantelpiece, looking completely indifferent. Napoleon announced, “for these ministers, treason has begun when they permit themselves to doubt.” At the word “treason” Napoleon expected his minister to be afraid. But Talleyrand only smiled, calm and bored.

The sigh of a subordinate apparently serene in the face of charges that could get him hanged pushed Napoleon to the edge. There were ministers, he said, who wanted him dead, and he took a step closer to Talleyrand — who started back at him unfazed. Finally Napoleon exploded. “You are a coward”, he screamed in Talleyrand’s face, “a man of no faith. Nothing is sacred to you. You would sell your own father. I have showered you with riches and yet there is nothing you would not do to hurt me.”

The ministers looked at each other in disbelief — they had never seen this fearless general, the conqueror of most of Europe, so unhinged. After a few more insults, Napoleon walked away. Talleyrand slowly crossed the room, turned to his ministers and said, “What a pity, gentlemen, that so great a man should have such bad manners.”

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, 1st Prince of Benevento, then 1st Prince of Talleyrand, was a laicized French bishop, politician, and diplomat

Napolean relieved him of his duties and banished him from the court, believing that for this man humiliation would be punishment enough. He did not realize that word had quickly spread of his tirade — of how the emperor had completely lost control of himself, and how Talleyrand had essentially humiliated him by maintaining composure and dignity. A page had been turned: For the first time people had seen the great emperor lose his cool under fire. A feeling spread that he was on the way down.”


“This was indeed the beginning of the end. Waterloo was still six years ahead, but Napoleon was on a slow descent to defeat, crystallizing in 1812 with his disastrous invasion of Russia. Talleyrand was the first to see the signs of his decline, especially in the irrational war with Spain. Sometime in 1808, the minister decided that for the future peace of Europe, Napoleon had to go. And so he conspired with Fouché. It is possible that the conspiracy was never anything more than a ploy — a device to push Napoleon over the edge. For it is hard to believe that two of the most practical men in history would only go halfway in their plotting. They may have been only stirring the waters, trying to goad Napoleon into a misstep. And indeed, what they got was the tantrum that laid out his loss of control for all to see.

In fact, Napoleon’s soon-famous blowup that afternoon had a profoundly negative effect on his public image.

Keys To Power

“Petulance is not power, it is a sign of helplessness. People may temporarily be cowed by your tantrums, but in the end they lose respect for you. They also realize they can easily undermine a person with so little self-control. The answer, however, is not to repress our angry or emotional responses. For repression drains us of energy and pushes us into strange behavior. Instead we have to change our perspective: We have to realize that nothing in the social realm, and in the game of power, is personal.”

Yet another reason why we mostly shouldn’t take what other people say personally. Most of the time people are projecting their insecurities, past experiences and bias’ onto you. Better to deploy empathy and understanding than resentment and anger.

“Follow the Talleyrand tactic: Nothing is as infuriating as a man who keeps his cool while others are losing theirs. If it will work to your advantage to unsettle people, affect the aristocratic, bored pose, neither mocking nor triumphant but simply indifferent. This will light their fuse.”


“When playing with people’s emotions you have to be careful. Study the enemy beforehand: Some fish are best left at the bottom of the pond. You can bait the powerful and get them to commit and divide their forces, but test the waters first. Find the gap in their strength. If there is no gap — if they are impossibly strong — you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by provoking them. Choose carefully whom you bait, and never stir up the sharks.

Finally there are times when a well-timed burst of anger can do you good, but your anger must be manufactured and under your control. Then you can determine exactly how and on whom it will fall. Never stir up reactions that will work against you in the long run. And use your thunderbolts rarely, to make them the more intimidating and meaningful. Whether purposefully staged or not, if your outbursts come too often, they will lose their power.

Originally Posted

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

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