The Book of The Courtier: Summary & Review

the book of the courtier book cover

The Book of The Courtier (1528) is a social skills book sharing advanced strategies to succeed in courts and social groups, gaining status, reputation, and the king’s (or boss) favors.

Exec Summary

  • Pursue honest personal development to become a high-value man, develop skills, knowledge, as well as a strong ethical foundation.
    But also…
  • Be strategic and Machiavellian in socialization, showcase your qualities without making it seem like you’re showing off, attract and court attention without making it seem like you are, grow and maintain a great reputation, and get close to those who matter the most
  • In dating, attract attention to you and your qualities while making it seem like you are just being yourself

In many ways, the “courtier” is an eagle who focuses both on personal qualities, and getting maximum returns on those qualities:

To me, this focus on both personal development and “real value”, plus making the most out of it (including with Machiavellian thinking and strategies) was a genius insight.

FULL SUMMARY

About the Author:
Baldassare Castiglione was an Italian renaissance courtier, diplomat, soldier, and author.

Note that a good chunk of the book focuses on listing the “traits” that a great courtier should cultivate.
We will skip most of them because ranking traits by importance is subjective as well as contextual to the culture and what a specific social group value (see “status relativity” for more).
Instead, we will focus more on the social strategies and techniques which are most relevant, and more frequently relevant to us all.

Move With “Sprezzatura”

Sprezzatura might be the most famous concept in the whole book.

Castiglione defines it as:

A certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it

Such as, the courtier hides his conscious effort to make action and potentially difficult tasks seem easy and effortless.

Sprezzatura is a form of reputational manipulation because you try to seem more skilled than you truly are. Plus, you seek to look “superior” to others who need to expend effort to do what you do effortlessly and nonchalantly.
Says Castiglione:

This is because it makes the onlookers believe that a man who performs well with so much facility must possess even greater skill than he does, and that if he took great pains and effort he would perform even better

Castiglione refers to “affectation” as the opposite of sprezzatura.
Such as, when you expand lots of effort on something and thus fail to come across as “naturally talented” or “smooth”.

Sprezzatura is higher power

Sprezzatura is also an important concept of power dynamics.

We called the overarching dynamics of effort and returns “social ROI” here on TPM, and “sprezzatura” the “law of least effort”.
Sprezzatura makes you look more powerful and “superior” by achieving and getting more, with less (high returns on your effort).
The most powerful person always seems like he can get more, with less. And the least powerful always looks like he expends much effort, for scant or no returns.

Look at the matrix of power and social effort, for example:

We might as well say that the king is a master of sprezzatura.
And the loser is completely unaware of this concept.

Guard Your Reputation With Constant, Impeccable Behavior

The first true profession of a courtier must be that of arms.
And he must be enterprising, bold, and loyal to whomever he serves.

He must maintain that reputation by constantly upholding those values.
Because one single stain is enough to undo all of the previous good:

Just as once a woman’s reputation for purity has been sullied it can never be restored, so once the reputation of a gentleman-at-arms has been stained through cowardice or some other reproachful behaviour, even if only once, it always remains defiled in the eyes of the world and covered with ignominy.

The Courtier Is High-Dominance, & Self-Effacing (In Apperance)

Writes Castiglione:

The man we are seeking should be fierce, rough and always to the fore, in the presence of the enemy; but anywhere else he should be kind, modest, reticent and anxious above all to avoid ostentation or the kind of outrageous self-glorification by which a man always arouses loathing and disgust among those who have to listen to him.’

Self-Praise Is A Skill: It Must Be Covert to Avoid Other People’s Envy

A man who praises himself in the right way, and does not cause envy or annoyance in doing so, is well within the bounds of discretion; and he deserves the praise of others as well as what he allows himself, because he is achieving something very difficult.’

And the way of doing it, says the author, is to say it as if you couldn’t avoid saying it, and while seemingly avoiding self-praise.

Also read:

The Art of Self-Promotion: 9 Effective Techniques

When Someone Praises You, Deflect It While Thread-Expanding It

A golden nugget on how to handle praise.

When someone praises the courtier for his knowledge, the courtier should:

(…) When he knows the praises he receives are deserved, not assent to them too openly nor let them pass without some protest.
Rather he should tend to disclaim them modestly, always giving the impression that arms are, as indeed they should be, his chief profession, and that all his other fine accomplishments serve merely as adornments;

Basically, the smart courtier feigns that the only thing he can do is handle arms, and all the rest is just “something more he dabbled in”.
Notice what that achieves:

  • He thread-expands on the compliment. Such as, he “enlarges” the praise by staying on the topic, and thus giving it more space and more time to sink into people’s minds
  • Leverages sprezzatura by saying that he focused on something else. So people will think that he must be so smart to know so much when he dedicated so little time to it
  • Appears self-effacing and modest by deflecting the compliment, but:
  • Maintains rapport because he does deny the compliment -which would break rapport-

Take Credit, But Without Looking Like You Seek Credit

and if he should want to suggest something to his own credit, he will do it with dissimulation, as if purely by chance, and in passing, and with the discretion and caution

Good Judgment Is The Meta-Skill (Emotional Intelligence)

the courtier should possess good judgement (…) If he does have it, then he needs no other instructions about how to practise what he knows at the right time and in the proper manner. To attempt to provide him with more precise rules would be too difficult and surely superfluous.

That much is true.
Today and in social skills we might also refer to that meta-skill as “emotional intelligence”, or “social intelligence”.
The few people that failed to leverage this website or Power University to make strides in life share two traits: a lack of any basic emotional intelligence, and an inability to take, accept, and act on feedback.

And it’s also the reason why we’re not huge fans of “lists of (power) rules” on this website. Since everything is so contextual, focusing on acquiring the meta-skill is far better than learning a list of “rules”.

Modesty Requires Success, And Kindness Requires Power

… Otherwise, you may just be submissive and low power, instead of kind.
And low self-esteem and low confidence, rather than modest.

Says Castiglione:

Gentleness is most impressive in a man who is a capable and courageous warrior; and just as his boldness is magnified by his modesty, so his modesty is enhanced and more apparent on account of his boldness.

It’s Fair To Take Maximum Advantage of Your Positive Contributions

An interesting mindset around “being strategic”:

the courtier (…) should arrange to (…) accomplish the bold and notable exploits (…) in view of all the noblest and most eminent men (…) and, above all, in the presence, or if possible under the very eyes, of the prince he is serving. For it is certainly right to exploit the things one does well.

It’s a mix of both adding value, plus a Machiavellian bent of making the maximum out of it.
However, it’s important to note that while an amoral Machiavellian would seek to take credit without adding any value, Castiglione says that the perfect courtier would combine the two: add as much value as possible, and take as much credit as possible from it.

And, from a mindset point of view, adds Castiglione:

And I believe that just as it is wrong to seek false glory or what is not deserved, so also it is wrong to cheat oneself of due honour and not to seek that praise which is the only true reward of prowess.

Bingo!
We call this approach “fair value marketing” here on TPM (and Power University), and we fully agree.

Peacock To Attract Attention

On this website, we say that appearances matter.

And the perfect courtier knows that, and he takes care of his appearances to make a great (first) impression:

He will ensure that the horse he has is beautifully caparisoned, that he himself is suitably attired, with appropriate mottoes and ingenious devices to attract the eyes of the onlookers in his direction as surely as the loadstone attracts iron.

The same approach, says Castiglione, is important to attract women’s attention and desire -and he preceded by several centuries the “peacocking approach” of the pickup artists-.

Be A Social Chamelon: Adapt to Those You Speak To

The successful courtier adapts to the company he is with:

he will speak one way with men and another way with women

Don’t Compete With Those Below You

… Or, if you must, use sprezzatura or make sure to win.

Another important principle of power dynamics is encapsulated here:

If you compete and lose with someone who’s higher power than you are, you lose little (or nothing).
But if you compete with someone lower down and lose, you lose a lot of status and reputation.

So, says Castiglione:

if anyone is anxious to wrestle, to run or to jump with peasants, then he ought, in my opinion, to do it casually, out of noblesse oblige, so to say, and certainly not in competition with them; and he should be almost certain of winning, or else not take part at all, for it is too sad and shocking, and quite undignified, when a gentleman is seen to be beaten by a peasant, especially in a wrestling-match.

Castiglione clearly understands the power principle, as he clearly states little later:

Hence I think it would be as well to abstain, at least when there are many onlookers, because the advantage in winning is very negligible and the disadvantages in being beaten very serious.

Accept Favors And Gifts As If It’s Common For You To Receive Them

Yet another power golden nugget:

I wish him, on the contrary, to enjoy favours, but not to value them so highly as to appear unable to exist without them. And when they are granted to him, he should not let himself appear unaccustomed or alien to the experience, or amazed that such things should happen; nor should he decline them in the way some do, who out of pure ignorance refuse to accept and thereby show the bystanders that they are convinced of their own unworthiness.

Yep, genius.
That’s how strategically high power people behave: they may be surprised by a gift, favor, or compliment, but they always act instead as if it was expected, thus sub-communicating that they are used to gifts and compliments (which, in turn, sub-communicate they must be very high-value people).

Develop A Great Relationship With Your Boss

There is much gold in The Book of The Courtier when it comes to dealing with the boss -in his case, an actual king-.

Some of it:

  • Only bring good news, avoid being the bearer of bad news, a “law” that Robert Greene also introduced in his 48 Laws of Power
  • Treat him as a superior (power protect): “he will not behave in the way that so many do, who when they cross the path of a great prince, even if they have spoken to him only once before, go up to him with a certain smiling and friendly countenance, just as if they were going to embrace an equal or do a favour to someone of lower rank
  • Leave the king free to enjoy his private places, never go to his private quarters: “The courtier will never attempt to make his way into the chamber or private quarters of his master uninvited, even though he possesses considerable authority himself; for often, when princes are by themselves, they enjoy the liberty of saying and doing just what they please, and so they do not want to be seen or overheard by anyone in a position to criticize, and this is quite proper
  • When you’re on 1:1 with the king in a friendly and informal setting, make the most out of it to grow closer as friends, and never get into “serious talk”: “if a courtier who is accustomed to dealing with important matters should find himself privately with his lord, he should then become another person, defer serious things for another time and place, and engage in conversation which will be pleasing and agreeable to his master, in order not to disturb his peace and quiet”
  • Never become the guy who always asks for favors: “Very rarely, or hardly ever, will he ask his master anything for himself, lest his prince, being reluctant to refuse, concedes it grudgingly, which is far worse
  • Decline favors while showing you value them highly: decline modestly while showing you value the favors highly, and yet in such a way to inspire the king to insist even more. For the more resistance that is shown in accepting favours, the more the prince will think highly of you; and the more you show thanks and appreciations, the bigger the favor seems, which is great for your reputation (since it sub-communicates you’re tight with the king, if he makes big favors to you)
  • Become his trusted confidante by telling the truth: “For princes lack most of all what they must have in the fullest measure, namely, someone to tell them the truth and remind them of what is right.”

Many of these tips are also likely valid for you, and they help you to avoid many common social blunders.

Also read:

Managing Your Boss For Ruthless Career Advancement

Only Serve Good Masters: BOTH For Reputation & Moral Obligations

On the reputational front, says Castiglione:

he (the courtier) has the right and the duty to quit a service which is sure to bring him disgrace among honourable men. For everyone assumes that those who serve good masters are good and those who serve bad masters are bad.’

And when it comes to ethical obligation, he says:

if he were to order you to commit some treacherous deed not only are you not obliged to do it but you are obliged not to do it, both for your own sake and to avoid ministering to your master’s shame.

This is something we also agree on, and even made it one of the principles of TPM’s philosophy.

Female Courtiers Obey Different Rules (Modesty, Chastity)

Castiglione was a smart guy.
Long before evolutionary psychology and the endless genders talk of our time, he knew that men and women maximize their (social) returns with very different strategies:

the lady should always be extremely cautious and always bear in mind that men can display their affection with far less risk than women.’

If Male Courtiers Should Be More Masculine, Female Ones More Feminine

just as it is very fitting that a man should display a certain robust and sturdy manliness, so it is well for a woman to have a certain soft and delicate tenderness, with an air of feminine sweetness in her every movement

And the rest of the advice would make a feminist shudder in anger and (feigned) disgust:

to shun affectation: to be naturally graceful; to be well mannered, clever and prudent; to be neither proud, envious or evil-tongued, nor vain, contentious or clumsy; to know how to gain and keep the favour of her mistress and of everyone else (…)
the ability to take good care, if she is married, of her husband’s belongings and house and children, and the virtues belonging to a good mother

Women must possess social grace and a reputation for chastity

However, she doesn’t want to make a “show” out of being too chaste, else she appears like trying too hard to be a princess on the pea:

Nor in her desire to be thought chaste and virtuous, should she appear withdrawn or run off if she dislikes the company she finds herself in or thinks the conversation improper. For it might easily be thought that she was pretending to be straitlaced simply to hide something she feared others could find out about her; and in any case, unsociable manners are always deplorable.

Instead, says Castiglione the right social strategy is to “listen to it with a slight blush of shame”.
LOL, what a guy this Castiglione, teaching women (and men) how to properly play games :). But we must agree once again: he’s damn right, this is truly an advanced social strategy.

Never revel and eagerly partake in the criticism of other women

Somen women jump at the opportunity of speaking ill of their rivals.
Castiglione says it’s a major social blunder:

she should avoid an error into which I have seen many women fall, namely, eagerly talking and listening to someone speaking evil of others. For those women who when they hear of the immodest behaviour of other women grow hot and bothered and pretend it is unbelievable and that to them an unchaste woman is simply a monster, in showing that they think this is such an enormous crime, suggest that they might be committing it themselves.

Yep, that is true, fantastic advice for eagle women.

If you want to dance, let others coax you into it

Probably because Castiglione knew that many men intuitively see a link between “abandonment in the music” and enjoyment/lust for sexual action, he recommends female courtiers to avoid rushing to the dances.

Instead, let others coax you into it:

So when she is about to dance or make music of any kind, she should first have to be coaxed a little, and should begin with a certain shyness, suggesting the dignified modesty that brazen women cannot understand.

Female Courtiers Looking For Partners Better Treat All Suitors Well

A common mistake women make is to treat suitors poorly in an effort to sub-communicate chastity and higher value.
Instead, says Castiglione, that only sub-communicates poor character:

they wish to be thought modest and chaste, not only by their lovers but also by everyone else, and so they make sure that their harsh and discourteous ways are well known to all, so that everyone may think that as they treat worthy men so badly they must treat those who are unworthy of love still worse. And then, convinced that this strategy has made their good name secure, they very often lie every night with the commonest of men, whom they hardly know;

We agree, it’s generally a poor strategy because it attracts undiscerning men, and it repels higher quality men.
Also read:

17 Early Signs She’s a Low Value Woman

Don’t chase men and don’t sleep around as that sub-communicates lower value

And it is certain that the beautiful are always more wooed and pursued in love than the ugly; therefore the beautiful always refuse, and so they are more chaste than those ugly women who, as they have no suitors, do the wooing themselves.’

I’m not sure beautiful women have fewer sexual partners, but from personal experience, I can say that it seems indeed to me that trashier women do the most obvious chasing and sexual bragging.

the book of the courtier book cover

MORE WISDOM

  • Get closer to higher-quality people, keep the lower-quality ones at arm’s length

another thing which seems to me greatly to damage or enhance a man’s reputation, and this is his choice of really intimate friends
(…)
endeavour to associate more with those who are highly esteemed and noble and recognized as virtuous than with the ignoble and those of little worth, so that he in turn may be loved and honoured by them.

  • Be twice as careful not to offend the powerful ones

The courtier should also guard against mocking those who are universally favoured and loved by all and who are powerful, because by doing so he can sometimes stir up dangerous enmities.

  • Bonus: self-esteem boost for shorter: the courtier should be average or smaller than average

Castiglione says that when it comes to physical size the ideal size is neither too small nor too big.
However, if one is forced to choose, better on the smaller side:

It is better to be on the small side than unduly large; for men who are so huge are often found to be rather thickheaded, and moreover, they are also unsuited for sport and recreation, which I think most important for the courtier.

QUOTES

On ruthless social strategies:

  • The proverb says that when your enemy is in the water up to his waist, you should extend him your hand and pull him out of danger; but when he is up to his chin, then put your foot on his head and drown him quickly.

CONS

  • The great wisdom is scattered and there’s plenty of space-filling chapters and long detours
  • Some characters are heavily misogynist

Take this not as a real con given the time of the book, but more like a warning if you decide to read it.

PROS

Castiglione was a very shrewd social operator, and very power intelligent.

You can see he understood social power dynamics as well as the foundational principles of dating power dynamics.
For example, he says:

when a lover shows he is afraid that his lady may leave him for someone else, his fear also betrays the fact that he knows he is inferior in merit and worth; and this attitude causes her to love the other man

Without knowing the terminology, he was correctly assessing how mate guarding impacts the perception of sexual market value, and how that in turn decreases attraction.
He also correctly points out nastier games women play, such as triangulation and fake disapproval of male suitors.

REVIEW

My version of The Book of The Courtier had a fascinating preface.

The translator said that while Machiavelli with The Prince “shocked the world for several hundred years” unabashedly talking about power, self-interest, and manipulation, Castiglione instead “cloaks shameless opportunism with a veil of seeking refinement”.

I can see where he’s coming from.

Castiglione’s description of The Courtier is a strange mix of virtue and manipulation.
That made it somewhat “off” at times. Because while he talks about high virtues and morality, about the need for loyalty, much of the advice also reeks of manipulation.
Manipulating people’s perceptions, kings’ preferences, and targets of love.

However, that’s not necessarily a con.
As a matter of fact, in large part, it’s what this website also does: mixing social effectiveness and a strategic approach to life and socialization, with actual value creation and value giving.

So, yeah, thumbs up for The Book of The Courtier.
There is really much gold here.

However, in spite of a bountiful haul of precious wisdom, we don’t necessarily recommend going through the full book.
The reason is that there are too many digressions and parentheses, plus much flowery language that ends up taking a lot of space -and a lot of your time-.
So albeit we loved The Book of The Courtier and we will reference it more than once on this website, I recommend sticking to this summary and review.

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon.

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