"Stop Assuming that Everything You Feel or Think Is Right"—An Interview with Robert Greene

"Stop Assuming that Everything You Feel or Think Is Right"—An Interview with Robert Greene

Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday
17 min read

Robert Greene is the author of The 48 Laws of Power and most recently, The Laws of Human Nature. His books, which are popular with many world leaders, celebrities, professional athletes and hip hop stars like Drake, have sold more than 5 million copies and have been translated into over 30 languages. Robert’s raw, “amoral” look at history and the dynamics of power, seduction, and warfare have always been controversial—indeed, his books are banned in many prisons across the United States. This interview about political correctness, the bloody cost of the denial of human nature, and the inner-work required for rational thought was conducted for Quillette by Ryan Holiday, his former apprentice, over the phone from Austin, Texas while Robert recovers in Los Angeles from a near-fatal stroke he suffered in August, 2018. The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Ryan Holiday: I thought we’d start with this idea of human nature itself. There are certain people who have almost come to believe that there’s no such thing as human nature. Maybe it makes them uncomfortable or they don’t like the idea. Why do you think it’s something that we need to look at with open eyes?

Robert Greene: Well, because looking at reality is always better. The people who don’t believe that human nature is something real, who believe that humans are malleable and that we make our own nature, generally want to believe that we are perfectible by some kind of government or system. It has traditionally been a kind of a communist socialist revolutionary idea. And the idea is that by creating the right kind of system or government, you can alter what corrupted us (which they maintain was done by social injustice, the rise of large civilizations, and the oppression and the accumulation of capital, et cetera.) They believe that if we go back and alter this system, we can return to that kind of pure human being. This is what I wrote about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong—Mao wanted to recreate human nature. That’s always been the belief and it’s kind of a mix of wishes that humans were really this kind of angelic creature in the beginning and that we can return to that.

And what I’m trying to say is humans can change, we can alter, we could become something superior, but only by really coming to terms with who we are and getting over this myth of the Garden of Eden—of the fallen human being who was once so angelic just 5,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago. But I think the evidence is clear looking at our chimpanzee ancestors and the record of early homo sapiens that we do have aggressive, violent impulses, that we are pretty much irrational by nature, and that the kinds of qualities that we value can only come about through personal work, through conquest, through overcoming our tendencies that are kind of animal-like. And that rather than some government that’s going to perfect us, it’s the work of individuals being conscious and aware of who they are as opposed to being in denial. There’s a quote from Angela Carter that I’ve used in several books: “We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates.”

RH: You mentioned Mao. The track record of people who have tried to either deny that human nature exists or who have tried to change it by brute force—they’ve left a lot of bodies in their wake. haven’t they?

RG: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah.

RH: So, that being said, why do people keep trying? Why is it so hard for us to accept it?

RG: Well, it’s really coming to terms with some harsh realities. We want to believe [certain things and] we have a certain opinion of ourselves that persists to this day. You see it in newspaper articles about us and about how people respond to my book, and to writers like Steven Pinker. Pinker, who’s very well respected, will accumulate a lot of research material and statistics to try to show that we are perfecting ourselves. There is some truth to this idea. He’s not linking it to a return to the Garden of Eden, he’s linking it to this sort of progression that we’re going through and we’re becoming enlightened in technology and science and rationality and getting over religion. So we can debate his research and his statistics and his studies forever, and there will always be people who support it. But the reason people keep returning to it is that it’s extremely seductive. It holds up this sort of idealized mirror of who we are as if it’s not a matter of effort, of coming to terms with our shadow, or coming to terms with our ugly aspects of our nature, but rather through a new government or technological progress and beauties of science that we’ve all just naturally become progressive.

This is a huge part of human nature. Always wanting to take the path of least resistance. We want shortcuts to believe that there’s an easy route to something that we want. Almost like you take a pill or you just sign up to take this course, or you have a communist revolution where it federates. That’s a childlike belief, and I think it’s very dangerous and it leaves the body count, as you say, very high.

RH: Where do you think this sort of denial of reality intersects with the sort of rise of political correctness? Is that the same sort of impulse?

RG: One of the best books that I think might answer your question is also one of my favorites—The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett. Sennett makes the argument that sometime in the nineteenth century we went astray and the belief that your identity—who you are—is intimately tied to how you are in society. In other words, prior to the nineteenth century, in French culture, you would go out in society and you assumed that you were wearing a mask and that you were playing a role and that this gave you the freedom to say things that maybe weren’t going to be taken so seriously. There was some distance between the self and your identity when you went out in public. Then, in the nineteenth century, he sees this idea arising where people identified their sense of self very narrowly with who they were in the public realm. So he sees it as the rise of narcissism.

So, if somebody says something negatively about you or makes a criticism, there’s no distance to sort of play with that and just assume that this is the rough and tumble of social life. Everything is sort of taken personally and that kind of distance that you had between who you were in society and when you returned home—that they were two different people—is kind of lost. I’m not doing his arguments justice, but I think in that kind of phenomenon you can see the rise of notions of political correctness, which is, basically, “My opinions and my ideas reflect something very intimately about who I am. And to challenge that is to challenge who I am and who I am at the core.” And that makes it very hard to accept any kind of criticism or any kind of other opinion, as opposed to the ideal of the city in the eighteenth century or even later as a melting pot of divergent opinions and ideas as a healthy thing—it became this thing that people with other ideas were sort of a danger, and they threatened my very narcissistic sense of identity.

RH: There is now also the rise of identity politics, and I’m curious what your reaction to that idea is as someone who sort of takes the bigger view of things, who studies things historically. What’s been your reaction to that?

RG: Well, I think it’s very self-defeating. Traditionally, the favorite tactic of people in power, who want to maintain power, is Divide and Conquer—to find some way to keep the public divided so that there’s never a large enough group of people to challenge them. And so, when you go into identity politics and you identify what’s right or wrong to the narrow group that you belong to—assuming that it is narrow—you’re kind of playing into the hands of those who are in power because the only way to overcome an entrenched power system is through numbers, through unity, through finding some cause or way of uniting people.

It’s been the story throughout history of any kind of successful insurgency movement. Trying to overcome an entrenched power structure—you need numbers. You need something that will rally the vast majority of people. We sort of see that a little bit now with the kind of riots that are going on in France now—what they call the yellow vest movement—where it’s got a really broad base of support. It’s kind of a very weird mix of the Right and the Left. I’m not saying that it’s a justified cause or that it’s great, just that, if you really are after power, that’s what you need to do.

But a lot of identity politics isn’t really about power, it isn’t about wanting to change the system. It’s about airing grievances, feeling wronged and wanting sympathy and to sort of play the role of the victim. Because if you really were thinking about power—if you’re really thinking about, let’s say you want to win this election, you want to get rid of Trump, identifying Trump as probably the most negative factor that any of us have seen in our lifetime in politics—the only way forward is unity—finding some way to grab the working class people, to unite the disaffected white workers in the Midwest with African-Americans in the south, or whatever, and finding what brings them together and creating a broad-based movement.

So, simply on the level of strategy and practicality, identity politics is extremely impractical. It’s narrowing your base of support to something too small to ever topple the power structure. So then to me it’s not really about practical matters. It’s about airing your grievances.

RH: Yeah, I was going to say that it sort of ties into the second law in your new book, which is that we all are obsessed with and love ourselves. That’s very natural, but you’re talking about how to transform that impulse into a more powerful impulse or an impulse that can be used more to our advantage—in other words, how do we turn narcissism into empathy?

RG: I can understand the level of oppression and the need that arose early on in the sixties for black pride, and the whole black pride movement is very understandable. But then you see people like Martin Luther King, and later even Malcolm X, deciding and coming to terms with the idea that this is sort of a dead end—that the only way we’re going to change the American system and the evil parts of it at its core is by somehow finding a way to work with white people, and working with those who are in power. So we have to find some unifying factor.

And it was the brilliance of King to branch out and use the Anti-War Movement in the sixties as a way to bridge the gap between blacks and whites. That was the proper strategy. It’s the strategy Gandhi used in his struggle against the English in the 1930s and ’40s.

So yeah, identity politics kind of sows the seeds of its own destruction. And the narcissistic element is—I try and maintain that we are all kind of self-absorbed. And we’re hungry to feel validated, and we definitely feel validated by people who are like us, who kind of mirror our values and our ideas—they kind of give us that sort of narcissistic thrill that we are okay, that there are other people like this out in the world. It is what drives people to identify with some narrow group. The narrower the better. It’s a little hard to identify with a group of 500,000—it’s kind of abstract. But if it’s a narrow group of really rabid white supremacists who believe this very narrow idea, then you really get a much bigger narcissistic thrill because the people you’re identifying with are even more similar to you.

So there’s this ugly aspect of human nature that forces us to become more and more tribal. And it’s so insanely irrational. When I was working on the book, this is what I was trying to come to terms with—we are all stemmed from the same small group of homo sapiens from Africa, some hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years ago. We are all essentially the same. We all evolved. There’s no real sense of what it means to be white. The whole notion of white as a race is completely debunked scientifically. We are a mix of so many different races, and there’s no one who’s ever a pure race. We all come from the same roots.

RH: One thing I wanted to ask you about—since we both use lots of historical examples in our books—is a response I occasionally get from readers. People will get upset that there are not enough, say, women in the books even though I actually do work very hard to find examples. It’s just that history was dominated by men for so long. But the other criticism I get is people who are upset that I will choose someone like Winston Churchill and then someone will be mad that you could have dared to talk about an imperialist or a colonizer. There’s this thing I’m noticing where people can’t even learn from history anymore because they don’t like a given person. Since you draw from so many sources, I’m curious to know what your reaction to that is.

RG: Well yeah, I had a recent example on social media that was so irritating. One of the people in the book is Coco Chanel. And I’m a great believer in trying to find as many women examples as possible. You’re writing a book on human nature—it is kind of absurd to have 90 percent of the stories about men as if that’s assuming that men and women are exactly the same. Clearly there are differences. So I believe in that aspect of finding. And so I looked into her, and I found her story extremely interesting.

Now, of course, in the thirties and forties, she flirted with Nazism, and she definitely was tainted by that. And rightly so—she had kind of weird fascistic ideas that can be traced early in her life and for various reasons. And I brought that up in the story and then I say how she kind of rehabilitated herself in the fifties with her great comeback and bringing her line of clothing back, et cetera. And I get this kind of a-hole on Facebook—who’s somebody I know and I’ve met before—and he’s clearly really bitchy and kind of upset with my book for whatever reason. And he brings out: “Well yes, but she was this Nazi, this fascist and you know, isn’t it interesting how fashion and fascism were kind of linked, et cetera.”

And this whole thing explodes, and I try to make the comment that there are plenty of other people in history we can pick apart. Pablo Picasso supported Joseph Stalin well after everybody knew what an evil dictator he was. So does that mean we can’t appreciate anything that Picasso ever did or wrote before that? The French writer, Céline, whom I really like a lot, wrote some amazing novels like Journey To The End Of The Night. And, in the forties, he also had a flirtation with Nazism. As did Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound’s poetry is fantastic. Céline’s novels are amazing.

Can you separate the flaws some people have with perhaps some political thing that came up in their life from their work or find some value or some lessons to be learned from them? Chanel is this amazing story of a woman who overcame all odds—an orphan from sheer poverty who created one of the most powerful fashion houses ever in history. Well, can’t we learn from that? Oh no, because of this taint on her, we can’t even go near her, she’s radioactive.

And when I made that point, all these incredibly snarky comments came up and these people said, “Oh, well, I guess it’s okay to support Nazism as long as you make beautiful clothes,” or whatever. All this kind of really ugly arguing, and I had to leave the discussion because when it gets to that point, it’s so irrational, there is nothing you can say or do anymore.

One of the main points of my book is to understand that we’re all flawed. We need to get over our fucking sense of moral superiority, which is probably the most aggravating quality in twenty-first century life—people’s insane sense of moral superiority as if, because of their posts on Facebook or their pathetic little blog where they support some righteous cause, they are superior to other people. It’s so much a part of modern life and it’s this need people have in times where things are a bit dark. It’s this sense of, “Oh, I’m not tainted by these times that we live in, I’m superior to it, I’m superior to other people, I’m good, I’m angelic,” et cetera.

RH: What do you think of this argument that people should really only write about things that pertain their own direct experience?

RG: You bring up the idea that in culture it’s become the fashion today that only a black person or a Hispanic person or a woman can express what it means to be that particular woman or race or whatever and that to try and say it if you’re not of that is like appropriation, and it’s not legitimate or justified.

This takes all of the steam out of literature and culture from the past because obviously so many books in the past were written by men who have some extremely strong female characters. And a lot of writers and filmmakers have looked at the predicament of others, particularly oppressed cultures or oppressed races. And so, it says, the idea is that you can’t possibly understand what it’s like.

Well, it’s true that I, Robert Greene, could never understand what it’s like to be a woman raised in this country. I will never know what it’s like to be looked at continually, or judged for my appearances, to be thought of as something somewhat inferior that can’t do the same work, on and on and on. But what is absurd about the idea is that I, Robert Greene, can’t make the effort, the empathetic effort, to actually go and really try and understand the experience of the people very different from me.

And in understanding that, I’ve enriched myself, and I can actually create something, I can even write something that’s very interesting. That from my outside perspective, I could have some interesting insights and that by taking the effort to understand the experience of other people, I’ve not only enriched myself, but my work will be that much deeper.

So, whenever I try and write a story about someone in my book—obviously they come from different cultures, different periods, different genders, different races—my whole goal is to try and feel what it’s like to have been them. I know I can’t get close enough. I know that there’s going to be some things that are somewhat inaccurate about it. But why shouldn’t that be the ideal that we have in culture? Why shouldn’t that be a good thing to actually try and understand as deeply as possible the experience of other people? And why does it have to be labeled as some sort of cultural appropriation or some form hidden oppression when in fact it has always been the ideal in culture, for instance, to sort of get inside the experience of other people? I think that’s a question worth examining.

RH: I totally agree. And it’s not as if we don’t have a term—trying on of someone else’s glasses or cultures or shoes or whatever sort of metaphor you want to use can be insensitive or poorly done. But I don’t think we need to call that “cultural appropriation,” we just need to call that “bad art.” This idea of shutting other people down or undermining their ability to speak on certain issues ties into some of the passive-aggressive arguing styles you’ve criticized.

RG: Yeah, it’s what is turning a lot of intelligent people off social media, and from ever venturing into its waters because you can’t really have a sustained rational discussion. I didn’t have time in that article, but I wanted to lay out what would be a rational form of argument—perhaps the Socratic method where you begin the discussion with the belief that you don’t know the truth; you have some ideas, some opinions, but probably you’re wrong, and you could be ignorant. And by questioning people, you can find out their ideas and maybe poke holes in what they believe in and, through a dialectic method of arguing back and forth, going through the contradiction, you can reach reality or truth.

Now, it’s very simplified and obviously it has some limitations, but it’s a form of argument that begins with the idea that you’re ignorant, that you’re trying to arrive at truth or reality, and that you have to go through a process of listening to other ideas, arguing, finding the holes in it, and eventually getting closer to this as an ideal. But tell me how many times you’ve ever encountered that form of discussion, let alone on social media, but in real life.

People begin with their sense that they know the answers, they know the truth, they know what the situation is. And so they’re looking for other people who merely echo what they already believe and anybody who challenges it is evil, or wrong, or has some sort of great moral flaw. The passive aggressive arguing idea is that you don’t want to appear in life to be too aggressive and too violent and direct with people, so that’s where passive aggression starts from because I maintain that humans are aggressive and if they can’t get what they want through their aggressive impulses, they often turn passive aggressive.

Even on social media, you find all these kind of irritating forms of argument that are not direct. They don’t challenge, they don’t deal with the actual issue at hand, but always with peripheral issues. They are always distracting. They’re using straw man arguments. They take what you say and they extend it to certain levels. They take it out of context where they associate you with somebody perhaps evil like the Coco Chanel thing. As if you’re arguing this, and you drop a name and that name is associated with something bad, meaning your idea is bad, which is obviously a logical absurdity. The idea could be good even though it comes from somebody who may have some flaws in their character. So technology, contrary to what Steven Pinker advocates, has not made us more enlightened. In fact, it’s bringing out some of our most unenlightened traits.

RH: We’re up against these forces: denial of human nature, the realities of human nature, political correctness, the tools of the internet. What’s your advice to someone who’s trying to make their way in this world and is trying to resist being pulled down by those forces?

RG: Well, you have to kind of look inward instead of look outward, and it’s a culture that doesn’t promote that. You know, it’s a culture that promotes always looking for answers outside yourself, through some self-help guru, through something on YouTube, through joining a cause. These are all ways of avoiding the issue.

The issue is to turn inward and look at yourself and come to terms with who you are. You come to terms with your past and your own flaws and to sort of see yourself, finally, start to begin to see who you are. You’re never going to see completely who you are, you’re always going to remain a mystery.

We’re very complicated. We don’t know where ideas come from. We don’t know where our emotions come from. But you can get closer to that. You can have some degree of clarity. You can start to see that kind of shadow side that I talk about in the book, or that stranger within that I mention. And that’s really the only hope because when you’re in denial, you don’t realize that you’re being a narcissist, you don’t realize that you’re being governed by your emotions. You could think you’re superior to other people just because of the opinion you hold. You can let your shadow side come out without even being aware of it.

You need to come to terms with the fact that 95 percent of your ideas and opinions are not your own—they come what other people have taught you, from what you’re reading on the internet, from what other people are saying and doing. You’re a conformist—that’s who you are. I’m like that and everybody is like that and you realize that only by throwing some light on yourself and realizing that these qualities, these flaws that are built into us, they are inside you too. Only then can you begin to overcome them and use them for productive purposes.

Question, question, question. Don’t assume that the reason that you feel something, and that it’s right just because you feel it. And in that kind of process, you will become rational, you’ll become somebody who can use empathy, you will have the ability to judge people properly and accept them for who they are as opposed to continually moralizing, wishing people were something that they’re not.

You’ll have a much smoother path through life, and you’ll be much calmer and more peaceful without all that emotional baggage that drags you down. But it starts with looking inward and questioning yourself and not assuming that everything you feel or think is right.

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