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Writing

24 Important Life Lessons From Don Vito Corleone

Alexei Muravsky


The first time I read The Godfather by Mario Puzo I was 13 years old. Reading it again, 6 years later, I realized how profoundly the story had directed me. Surpassing a wide range of literature, The Godfather continues to be the book that has influenced me the most. It was the turning point that helped me define my end goals in life, and the responsibilities I hold as a man. One character in the novel became the example I strove for, and that I continue to strive toward. All I have to do is ask: ‘what would the Don do’?

On Family:

"I didn’t tell you to get married again. Do what you want. It’s good you wish to be a father to your children. A man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man. But then, you must make their mother accept you. Who says you can’t see them every day? Who says you can’t live your life exactly as you want to live it?"

On Friends:

"Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendships you wouldn’t have to ask me to help."

On Humility:

Don Corleone himself was not angry. He had long ago learned that society imposes insults that must be borne, comforted by the knowledge that in this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge on the most powerful. It was this knowledge that prevented the Don from losing the humility all his friends admired in him.

On Duty:

He made no empty promises, nor the craven excuse that his hands were tied by more powerful forces in the world than himself.

On Business:

“Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat everyday of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell… That’s what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal. Like God. He knows every feather that falls from the tail of a sparrow or however the hell it goes.”

On Drugs:

"It’s true I have many, many friends in politics, but they would not be so friendly if my business were narcotics instead of gambling. They think gambling is something like liquor, a harmless vice, and they think narcotics is a dirty business. No, don’t protest. I’m telling you their thoughts, not mine. How a man makes his living is not my concern. And what I am telling you is that this business of yours is too risky. All the members of my family have lived well the last ten years, without danger, without harm. I can’t endanger them or their livelihoods out of greed."

On Boldness:

He had asked Hagen one final question. “Does this man have real balls?”…Finally Hagen translated the question properly in his mind. Did Jack Woltz have the balls to risk everything, to run the chance of losing all on a matter of principle, on a matter of honour; for revenge? Hagen smiled. He did it rarely but now he could not resist jesting with the Don. “You’re asking if he is a Sicilian.” The Don nodded his head pleasantly, acknowledging the flattering witticism and its truth. “No,” Hagen said.

On Psychology:

He gave the baker a Di Nobili cigar and a glass of yellow Strega and put his hand on the man’s shoulder to urge him on. That was the mark of the Don’s humanity. He knew from bitter experience what courage it took to ask a favour from a fellow man.

On Generosity:

The Don always taught that when a man was generous, he must show the generosity as personal. How flattering to Anthony Coppola that a man like the Don would borrow to loan him money.

On Respect:

“Tom wasn’t adopted. He just lived with us.” “Oh,” Kay said, then asked curiously, “Why didn’t you adopt him?” Michael laughed. “Because my father said it would be disrespectful for Tom to change his name. Disrespectful to his own parents.”

On Trust:

"I trust these two men with my life. They are my two right arms. I cannot insult them by sending them away."

On Women:

In Hagen’s world, the Corleone’s world, the physical beauty, the sexual power of women, carried not the slightest weight in worldly matters. It was a private affair, except, of course, in matters of marriage and family disgrace.

On Sex:

This was perhaps the real reason the Don was displeased about Freddie. The Don was straitlaced about sex. He would consider such cavorting by his son Freddie, two girls at a time, as degeneracy.

On Anger:

The Don considered a use of threats the most foolish kind of exposure; the unleashing of anger without forethought as the most dangerous indulgence. No one had ever heard the Don utter a naked threat, no one had ever seen him in an uncontrollable rage. It was unthinkable. And so he tried to teach Sonny his own disciplines. He claimed that there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues.

On Failure:

Nobody made the mistake of assuming that Don Corleone could be held cheaply because of his past misfortunes. He was a man who had made only a few mistakes in his career and had learned from every one of them.

On Punctuality:

Don Corleone, in a sense the host since he had initiated the peace talks, had been the first to arrive; one of his many virtues was punctuality.

On Willpower:

All of these men [US Dons] were good listeners, patient men. They had one other thing in common. They were those rarities, men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men. There was no force, no mortal man who could bend them to their will unless they wished it. They were men who guarded their free will with wiles and murder. Their wills could be subverted only by death. Or the utmost reasonableness.

On Prudence:

"I’m not preparing anything. I’m being prudent, I’ve always been a prudent man, there is nothing I find so little to my taste as carelessness in life. Women and children can afford to be careless, men cannot." [1]

On Persistence:

Michael Corleone was very careful, this was after all a man of respect. “Don Tommasino, you know my father. He’s a man who goes deaf when somebody says the word no to him. And he doesn’t get his hearing back until they answer him with a yes. Well, he has heard my no many times. I understand about the two guards, I don’t want to cause you trouble, they can come with me Sunday, but if I want to marry I’ll marry. Surely if I don’t permit my own father to interfere with my personal life it would be an insult to him to allow you to do so.”

On Negotiating:

The abuse itself bothered him not at all. Hagen had learned the art of negotiation from the Don himself. “Never get angry,” the Don had instructed. “Never make a threat. Reason with people.” The word “reason” sounded so much better in Italian, ragione, to rejoin. The art of this was to ignore all insults, all threats; to turn the other cheek.

On Revenge:

“Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold,” he said. “I would not have made that peace but that I knew you would never come home alive otherwise.”

On Power:

“It looks bad. But my father was the only one who understood that political connections and power are worth ten regimes.” [2]

On Life & Death:

And his father dying had said, “Life is so beautiful.” Michael could never remember his father ever having uttered a word about death, as if the Don respected death too much to philosophize about it… Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important. If I can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world.

On Entrepreneurship:

“The trouble is all that damn trash in the movies and the newspapers,” Michael said. “You’ve got the wrong idea, of my father and the Corleone Family. I’ll make a final explanation and this one will be really final. My father is a businessman trying to provide for his wife and children and those friends he might need someday in a day of trouble. He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to live by the rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society.”

The Godfather, although fictional and dealing with problems natural to the world of crime, still largely applies to the lives we live. I do not condone murder, but the other aspects of Don Vito Corleone’s character are respectable and are of need in a world devoid of a sense of honour and responsibility.

Prepare yourself for the real world by listening to the Don.


Notes:

1. I do agree that the thought of carelessness in men does produce the foulest of tastes by disabling a man’s ability to provide and protect. However, we live in a different time now, and women have the ability to achieve financial security for themselves without resorting to finding a man to secure a future for them. Therefore they share in the responsibility of not being careless as they stand side by side with men in the role of provision. But the consequences for carelessness in both genders still tend to be different, as past roles have been so ingrained through evolution and tradition. If one is to ignore these differences they would only accomplish the act of deluding themselves.

2. A regime is a section of a mafia family that is run by a caporegime who reports to the underboss, who reports to the Don. A regime consists of soldiers that make the decisions sent from higher up happen on the ground. The mafia is essentially structured like an army.