Always say less than you know - keys of power


Gnaeus Marcius, also known as Coriolanus, was a great military hero of
ancient Rome. In the first half of the fifth century B.C. he won many important battles, saving the city from calamity time and time again. Because he
spent most of his time on the battlefield, few Romans knew him personally,
making him something of a legendary figure.
In 454 B.C., Coriolanus decided it was time to exploit his reputation
and enter politics. He stood for election to the high rank of consul. Candidates for this position traditionally made a public address early in the race,
and when Coriolanus came before the people, he began by displaying the
dozens of scars he had accumulated over seventeen years of fighting for

 Few in the crowd really heard the lengthy speech that followed;
those scars, proof of his valor and patriotism, moved the people to tears.
Coriolanus's election seemed certain.
When the polling day arrived, however, Coriolanus made an entry
into the forum escorted by the entire senate and by the city's patricians, the

The common people who saw this were disturbed by such a
blustering show of confidence on election day.
And then Coriolanus spoke again, mostly addressing the wealthy citizens who had accompanied him. His words were arrogant and insolent.
Claiming certain victory in the vote, he boasted of his battlefield exploits,
made sour jokes that appealed only to the patricians, voiced angry accusations against his opponents, and speculated on the riches he would bring to
Rome. This time the people listened: They had not realized that this legendary soldier was also a common braggart.
News of Coriolanus's second speech spread quickly through Rome,
and the people turned out in great numbers to make sure he was not

 Defeated, Coriolanus returned to the battlefield, bitter and vowing
revenge on the common folk who had voted against him. Same weeks later
a large shipment of grain arrived in Rome. The senate was ready to distribute this food to the people, for free, but just as they were preparing to vote
on the question Coriolanus appeared on the scene and took the senate
floor. The distribution, he argued, would have a harmful effect on the city
as a whole. Several senators appeared won over, and the vote on the distribution fell into doubt. Coriolanus did not stop there: He went on to condemn the concept of democracy itself. He advocated getting rid of the
people's representatives-the tribunes-and turning over the governing of
the city to the patricians.
When word of Coriolanus's latest speech reached the people, their
anger knew no bounds. The tribunes were sent to the senate to demand
that Coriolanus appear before them. He refused. Riots broke out all over
the city. The senate, fearing the people's wrath, finally voted in favor of the
grain distribution. The tribunes were appeased, but the people still demanded that Coriolanus speak to them and apologize. If he repented, and
agreed to keep his opinions to himself, he would be allowed to return to
the battlefield.
Coriolanus did appear one last time before the people, who listened to
hirn in rapt silence. He started slowly and softly, but as the speech went on,
he became more and more blunt. Yet again he hurled insults! His tone was
arrogant, his expression disdainful. The more he spoke, the angrier the
people became. Finally they shouted hirn down and silenced hirn.
The tribunes conferred, condemned Coriolanus to death, and ordered
the magistrates to take hirn at once to the top of the Tarpeian rock and
throw hirn over. The delighted crowd seconded the decision. The patricians, however, managed to intervene, and the sentence was commuted to
a lifelong banishment. When the people found out that Rome's great military hero would never return to the city, they celebrated in the streets. In
fact no one had ever seen such a celebration, not even after the defeat of a
foreign enemy.
Before his entrance into politics, the name of Coriolanus evoked awe.
His battlefield accomplishments showed hirn as a man of great bravery. Since the citizens knew little about hirn, all kinds of legends became attached to his name. The moment he appeared before the Roman citizens,
however, and spoke his mind, all that grandeur and mystery vanished. He
bragged and blustered like a common soldier. He insulted and slandered
people, as if he felt threatened and insecure. Suddenly he was not at all
what the people had imagined. The discrepancy between the legend and
the reality proved immensely disappointing to those who wanted to believe in their hero. The more Coriolanus said, the less powerful he appeared-a person who cannot control his words shows that he cannot
control hirnself, and is unworthy of respect.
Had Coriolanus said less, the people would never have had cause to
be offended by hirn, would never have known his true feelings. He would
have maintained his powerful aura, would certainly have been elected consul, and would have been able to accomplish his antidemocratic goals. But
the human tongue is a beast that few can master. It strains constantly to
break out of its cage, and if it is not tamed, it will run wild and cause you
grief. Power cannot accrue to those who squander their treasure of words.

 Oysters open completely when the moon is JuZZ; and when the crab sees one
it throws a piece oJ stone or seaweed into it and the oyster cannot close
again so that it serves the crab Jor meat. Such is the Jate oJ him who opens
his mouth too much and thereby puts himself at the mercy oJ the listener.
I,eonardo da Vinci, 1 452-151 9
In the court of Louis XIV, nobles and ministers would spend days and
nights debating issues of state. They would confer, argue, make and break
alliances, and argue again, until finally the critical moment arrived: Two of
them would be chosen to represent the different sides to Louis hirnself,
who would decide what should be done. After these persons were chosen,
question from
snapped, "Damn it, yes,
it's the best I can do. "
To wh ich Kissinger
replied: "Fine, then I
guess I'll read it this
time. "

The King [Louis XIV;
maintains the most
impenetrable secrecy
about affairs of State.
The ministers attend
council meetings, but
he confides his plans to
them only when he has
reflected at length upon
them and has come to
a definite decision.
I wish you might see
the King. His expression is inscrutable; his
eyes like those of a fox.
He never discusses
State affairs except with
his ministers in Couneil. When he ,peaks to
courtiers he refers only
to their respective
prerogatives or duties.
Even the most frivolous of his utterances
has the air of being the
pronouncement of an
1 928
LAW 4 33
Unduliji,l words ofa
subjecl do oflen lake
deeper rool than Ihe
memory of ill deeds, , , ,
The late Earl of Essex
lolt! Queen Elizabeth
that her condition.l'
were as cTOoked a,l' her
carcass; but il cosl hirn
his head, which his
insurrection had nol
COsl hirn butfor thai
34 LAW 4
everyone would argue some more: How should the issues be phrased?
What would appeal to Louis, what would annoy him? At what time of day
should the representatives approach him, and in what part of the Versailles
palace? What expression should they have on their faces?
Finally, after all this was settled, the fatend moment would finally arrive. The two men would approach Louis-always a delicate matter-and
when they finally had his ear, they would talk about the issue at hand,
spelling out the options in detail. 

Louis would listen in silence, a most enigmatic look on his face. Finally, when each had finished his presentation and had asked for the king's
opinion, he would look at them both and say, "I shall see." Then he would
walk away.
The ministers and courtiers would never hear another word on this
subject from the king-they would simply see the result, weeks later, when
he would come to a decision and act. He would never bother to consult
them on the matter again.
Louis XIV was a man of very few words. His most famous remark is
"L'Uat, c'est moi" ("I am the state"); nothing could be more pithy yet more
eloquent. His infamous "I shall see" was one of several extremely short
phrases that he would apply to all manner of requests.
Louis was not always this way; as a young man he was known for talking at length, delighting in his own eloquence. His later tacitumity was selfimposed, an act, a mask he used to keep everybody below him off-balance.
No one knew exactly where he stood, or could predict bis reactions. No
one could try to deceive him by saying what they thought he wanted to
hear, because no one knew what he wanted to hear. 

As they talked on and
on to the silent Louis, they revealed more and more about themselves, information he would later use against them to great effect.
In the end, Louis's silence kept those around him terrified and under
his thumb. It was one of the foundations of his power. As Saint-Simon
wrote, "No one knew as weIl as he how to seIl his words, his smile, even his
glances. Everything in him was valuable because he created differences,
and his majesty was enhanced by the sparseness of his words."
It is even more damaging for a minister to say foolish things than to do them.
Cardinal de Retz, 1 61 3-16 79

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