Laws of Power: How to Adapt Yourself like Proteus

We live in a society where identity and image play a crucial and significant role where attention, status and desirability is concerned. To be part of such a society, in fact, is to have a superficial identity imposed on you that is hollow and grounded in distorted judgement, false preconceptions and appearance. I think we all know at least one person who is somewhat uncertain or unaware of his identity and role within society, and there is a sure reason for this. 

Society deliberately muddles people in its indecency and filth because conformity and ignorance preserve mediocrity and to be average is to be ignorantly inferior to the potentially damaging influences you are subconsciously driven by. Furthermore, the unaware willingly submit to this identity and obediently comply with it as if their ‘identity’ is somehow beyond their control. 

Identity is intangible, it is not something you can grasp in reality, it is rather something that is changeable in nature and indefinite since it has no defined boundaries in reality which it identifies with. If you understand that and not take your identity too seriously, perhaps you may be able to mould and shape it to your liking and reject the sheer dirt that contaminates the air of modern-day culture. 

It is entirely possible to forge a new identity since there is no concrete identity, to begin with, and the way you do it is by taking good care in shaping an image that is beneficial to you and appeals to progress, one that is not boring and dull but sensible and enlightened and aligns with your value structure, which too must be refined to accommodate a newly formed character. Your character and image should not be in conflict, they must move in unison to avoid drastic mimicry that could be openly portrayed as dishonest or otherwise suspicious. 

We are all actors on a stage playing these different roles in life and pretending to ourselves that these different parts define our inherent character and self. There is an element of theatricality to the game of life, it is as if a drama is unfolding in front of us and we are playing a role in it which is not exactly serious but imparts an all too convincing impression that it is wholly serious and if we fail to adjust accordingly, there is a hefty price to be paid. The recognition that maybe, just maybe, the game is not as serious as you think it is and you have been taking it more serious than you need to, could be liberating and a kind of breakthrough that ignites a flame. 

“The man who intends to make his fortune in this ancient capital of the world [Rome] must be a chameleon susceptible of reflecting the colours of the atmosphere that surrounds him—a Proteus apt to assume every form, every shape. He must be supple, flexible, insinuating, close, inscrutable, often base, sometimes sincere, sometimes perfidious, always concealing a part of his knowledge, indulging in but one tone of voice, patient, a perfect master of his own countenance, as cold as ice when any other man would be all fire; and if unfortunately he is not religious at heart—a very common occurrence for a soul possessing the above requisites—he must have religion in his mind, that is to say, on his face, on his lips, in his manners; he must suffer quietly, if he be an honest man, the necessity of knowing himself an arrant hypocrite. The man whose soul would loathe such a life should leave Rome and seek his fortune elsewhere. I do not know whether I am praising or excusing myself, but of all those qualities I possessed but one—namely, flexibility.”

Giacomo Casanova

In this excerpt, Casanova articulates how a man who has a substantial degree of control over his temperament and how it is perceived, behaves. The man who is inscrutable, formless and adequately detached to shape himself in accordance with the circumstance he finds himself in, he is neither identified with this shape nor the previous one, he continually and gracefully shifts from one form to another and blends in with the spirit of the time, as it were, to reject the notion of static and unchanging identity that is both plain and unexciting. 

This passage contains many parallels with the nature of the flatterer which I happen to have written about in the previous essay, and how they maintain a sense of octopus-like changeability, circumstantially attuned to the situation and temperament of the other person, appearing as sources of pleasure which hypnotize and emotionally manipulate the other person into delusion and confusion. What Casanova is getting at is quite comparable in nature, the idea of having a flexible character is extremely beneficial in the social game, which also includes the game of appearances.

To further elaborate on flexibility, this sense of adaptability gives you the opportunity to stand back a little, putting your negative emotions aside, and play a spirited game with your apparent nature. Since flexibility allows you to assume any shape, your apparent identity becomes inscrutable, giving you the freedom to forge multiple identities should you desire. However, the key takeaway here is that your inherent character should only be uncovered to those who have earned it and are worthy of your friendship and loyalty. 

The social game demands a sense of formlessness that is desirable and appealing, providing you the ability to understand other people’s character and needs without necessarily revealing your own. Formlessness is not necessarily duplicity, an element of care is indispensable here and unavoidable. For, if you seem contradictory and hypocritical to the point of rousing immoderate doubt and suspicion, you will seem duplicitous and openly cunning. A more subtle approach is called for here, adequate restraint from excess words, vague or indirect approaches, subdued behaviour that is ambiguous and so on. 

Subtlety is likened to indirection, people are generally direct with words and that is why you must restrain with words and remain concise. Indirection through behaviour is effective to demonstrate this element of formlessness, gesture and style also play a significant role in the way people perceive you, not to mention the people you associate with, which too contribute to the image and so-called identity. 

The connection between power and acting was initially understood by Julius Caesar and he likely was one of the earliest public figures to grasp the link between the two. Caesar possessed a dramatic effect that was simultaneously enticing and revering, he knew how to control an audience because he had the ability to manipulate the image he conveys to them to his liking – he incorporated suspense, surprise and striking feats that made him appear as if his presence transcends ordinariness and seems larger than life. Caesar accumulated renown through his roleplaying ability and overall talent. 

“Know how to be all things to all men. A discreet Proteus—a scholar among scholars, a saint among saints. That is the art of winning over everyone, for like attracts like. Take note of temperaments and adapt yourself to that of each person you meet—follow the lead of the serious and jovial in turn, changing your mood discreetly. ”

Baltasar Gracian

The discreet Proteus is the shapeshifter, the man who assumes all forms and employs discretion to grasp different temperaments, shaping himself accordingly. If there is only one quality you should develop to improve your social affairs and image, it would be to cultivate this capacity for changeability. No definite identity could be foisted on someone whose form is in constant flux and whose character is inscrutable to the public eye – you cannot lay a finger on a fluid and formless shape that gracefully flows from one domain to another, just like water. Learn to dance with circumstance and nonchalantly adapt to it as Proteus does.

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