The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 3 of 12

051. Know how to choose.
Most things in life depend on it. You need good taste and an upright judgment; intelligence and application are not enough. There is no perfection without discernment and selection. Two talents are involved : choosing and choosing the best. There are many people with a fertile, subtle intelligence, rigorous judgment, both diligent and well informed, who are lost when they have to choose. They always choose the worst, as though they wanted to show their skill at doing so. Knowing how to choose is one of heaven's greatest gifts.
052. Never lose your composure.
Prudence tries never to lose control. This shows a real person, with a true heart, for magnanimity is slow to give in to emotion. The passions are the humors of the mind, and the least excess sickens our judgment. If the disease spreads to your mouth, your reputation will be in danger. Master yourself thoroughly and no one will criticize you for being perturbed, either when things are at their best or at their worst. All will admire your superiority.
053. Be diligent and intelligent.
Diligence is quick to carry out what intelligence has lingered over. Fools are fond of hurry : they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously. The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything. Sometimes things are judged correctly but go wrong out of inefficiency and neglect. Readiness is the mother of luck. It is a great deed to leave nothing for the morrow. A lofty motto : make haste slowly.
054. Act boldly but prudently.
Even hares tweak the beard of a dead lion. Like love, courage is no joking matter. If it yields once, it will have to yield again, and again. The same difficulty will have to be conquered later on, and it would have been better to get it over with. The mind is bolder than the body. So, with the sword : let it be sheathed in prudence, ready for the occasion. It is your defense. A weak spirit does more harm than a weak body. Many people with eminent qualities lacked this brio, appeared to be dead, and were buried in their lassitude. Provident nature resourcefully joined the sweetness of honey with the sting of the bee. You have both nerves and bones in your body : don't let your spirit be all softness.
055. Know how to wait.
It shows a great heart with deep reserves of patience. Never hurry and never give way to your emotions. Master yourself and you will master others. Stroll through the open spaces of time to the center of opportunity. Wise hesitation ripens success and brings secrets to maturity. The crutch of Time can do more than the steely club of Hercules. God himself punishes not with iron hands but with leaden feet. A wonderful saying : "Time and I can take on any two." Fortune gives larger rewards to those who wait.
056. Think on your feet.
Good impulses spring from a happy readiness of spirit. For such a spirit there are no tight spots, no troubling chance occurrences, only vivacity and brio. Some think much, and then do everything wrong, and others get everything right without any forethought at all. Some people have reserves of antiperistatis [opposition by which the quality opposed acquires strength]. Difficulties bring out the best in them. They are monsters who succeed spontaneously and err whenever they have thought about something. What doesn't occur to them immediately will never occur to them, and there is no use thinking about later. Quickness wins applause, for it reveals prodigious talent : subtlety in thought, prudence in deeds.
057. Thoughtful people are safer.
Do something well, and that is quick enough. What is done immediately is undone just as fast, but what must last an eternity takes that long to do. Only perfection is noticed, and only success endures. Deep understanding achieves eternities. Great worth requires great work. So with metals : the most precious of them takes longest to be refined, and weighs most.
058. Adapt to those around you.
Don't show the same intelligence with everyone, and don't put more effort into things than they require. Don't waste your knowledge or merit. The good falconer uses only the birds he needs. Don't show off every day, or you'll stop surprising people. There must always be some novelty left over. The person who displays a little more of it each day keeps up expectations, and no one ever discovers the limits of his talent.
059. End well.
If you enter the house of Fortune through the door of pleasure, you will leave through the door of sorrow, and vice versa. So be careful of the way you end things, and devote more attention to a successful exit than to a highly applauded entrance. Fortunate people often have very favorable beginnings and very tragic endings. What matters isn't being applauded when you arrive -- for that is common -- but being missed when you leave. Rare are those who are still wanted. Fortune seldom accompanies someone to the door. She is a courteous to those who are coming as she is rude to those who are going.
060. Good judgment.
Some people are born prudent. They come into the world with an advantage -- the good sense that is a natural part of wisdom -- and they have already walked half the road to success. With age and experience their reason reaches complete maturity, and their judgment is tuned to its surroundings. These people hate any sort of whim that can tempt prudence, especially in matters of state, where total security is important. Such people as these deserve to steer the ship of state, either as helmsmen or as counselors.
061. Eminence in what is best.
Amid different sorts of perfection, this is a rarity. There is no hero without some sublime quality. Mediocrity never wins applause. Eminence at some lofty pursuit redeems us from ordinary vulgarity, raising us to the exceptional. To be eminent in a lowly occupation is to be something at very little : the more comfort, the less glory. To be exceptional at superior things gives you a sovereign character : it wins admiration and gains the goodwill of others.
062. Use the best instruments.
Some people want to be thought subtle because they use poor instruments. This is a dangerous sort of satisfaction and it deserves a fatal punishment. The worth of a prime minister never detracted from the greatness of his master. To the contrary, all the credit for success falls upon its principal cause, as does criticism in the case of failure. It is superiors who win the renown. One never says "He had good, or bad, ministers," but "He was a good, or bad, craftsman." So choose carefully, examine your ministers. To them you are entrusting your immortal fame.
063. The excellence of being first.
It is doubled when you are truly eminent. Other things being equal, the person who makes the first move has the advantage. Some people would have been as unique as the Phoenix in their occupations if others had not preceded them. Those who are first are the firstborns of fame, and the children who follow are left to file lawsuits for their daily bread. No matter how hard they try, they cannot elude the vulgar accusation that they are imitators. Prodigious, subtle people have always invented new ways to achieve eminence, provided that prudence makes their adventures safe. Using novelty, wise people have found room in the roster of heroes. Some people would rather be first in second class than second in first.
064. Avoid grief.
It is both beneficial and wise to steer clear of troubles. Prudence will save you from many : it is the Lucina of good fortune and content. Don't give others hateful news unless there is a remedy, and be even more careful not to receive it. Some people's hearing is spoiled by the sweetness of flattery, others' by hearing bitter gossip, and there are people who cannot live without a daily dose of unpleasantness, like Mithridates with his poison. Nor can you keep well by inflicting lifelong grief on yourself in order to please someone else, even if he is close to you. Never sin against your own happiness in order to please the person who counsels you and has nothing at stake in the matter. When giving pleasure to another involves giving grief to yourself, remember this lesson : better for the other person to feel grief now than for you to feel it later, and with no hope.
065. Elevated taste.
You can cultivate it, as you can the intellect. Full understanding whets the appetite and desire, and, later, sharpens the enjoyment of possession. You can judge the height of someone's talent by what he aspires to. Only a great thing can satisfy a great talent. Large bites are for large palates, lofty matters for lofty characters. Even the greatest excellences tremble before the person of refined taste, and the most perfect lose their confidence. Few things have perfection of the first magnitude : let your appreciation be sparing. Taste is acquired through contact with others. You make it your own through continual exercise. You are lucky if you can associate with someone with perfectly developed taste. But don't profess to be satisfied with nothing; it is a foolish extreme, more odious if from affectation than if from character. Some wish God had created another world and other perfections just to satisfy their own extravagant imagination.
066. Take care to make things turn out well.
Some people scruple more over pointing things in the right direction than over successfully reaching their goals. The disgrace of failure outweighs the diligence they showed. A winner is never asked for explanations. Most people pay more attention to success or failure than to circumstances, and your reputation will never suffer if you achieve what you wanted to. A good ending turns everything golden, however unsatisfactory the means. It is an art to set aside art when you must do so to bring things to a happy conclusion.
067. Choose an occupation in which you can win praise.
Most things depend upon the satisfaction of others. Esteem is to perfection what the zephyr is to flowers : breath and life. There are occupations that enjoy universal acclaim, and others that are more important but barely visible. The former are seen by all, and win common benevolence. The latter are rarer and require more skill, but are secret and barely perceived, venerated but not applauded. Among princes, the most celebrated are the victorious ones, and that is why the kings of Aragon were so acclaimed : as magnanimous conquerors and warriors. The great person should prefer celebrated occupations that all can see and share. Common suffrage will make him immortal.
068. Make others understand.
It is more excellent than making them remember, for intelligence is much greater than memory. Sometimes you should remind other people, and other times counsel them about the future. Some people failed to do things that were ripe for doing simply because it never occurred to them. Let friendly advice point out the advantages. One of the greatest gifts is to size up quickly what matters. When this is lacking, many successes go undone. Let the person who has light give it to others, and let those who lack it ask for it, the former with prudence, and the latter with discretion, merely dropping a hint. This delicacy is especially necessary when the person giving advice has something at stake. It is best to show good taste and to be more explicit only when insinuation is not enough. A "no" has already been given, and you can now search skillfully for a "yes." Most of the time things are not obtained because they were not attempted.
069. Don't give in to every common impulse.
The great do not yield to every sort of passing thought. Part of prudence lies in reflecting about yourself : knowing or foreseeing your disposition, and moving towards the other extreme in order to balance art and nature. Self-correction begins with self-knowledge. There are monsters of impertinence who are always ruled by a certain humor, and their emotions vary accordingly. Tossed about by this vile imbalance, they go about their business in a self-contradictory way. Not only does this excess ruin their will, it also attacks their judgment, trouble their desire and understanding.
070. Know how to say no.
You can't grant everything to everybody. Saying "no" is as important as granting things, especially among those in command. What matters is the way you do it. Some people's "no" is prized more highly than the "yes" of others : a gilded "no" pleases more than a curt "yes." Many people always have "no" on their lips, and they sour everything. "No" is what occurs to them first. They may give in later, but they aren't well thought of because they started out by being so unpleasant. Refusal shouldn't come in one fell blow. Let people nibble on their disappointment little by little. Never refuse something completely : others would no longer depend on you. There should always be some last remnants of hope to sweeten the bitterness of refusal. Let courtesy occupy the void where favor once stood, and good words compensate for a lack of action. "No" and "yes" are short words requiring long thought.
071. Don't be inconsistent, either because of temperament or out of affectation.
The prudent man is consistent in all things pertaining to perfection, and this speaks well for his intelligence. Only the causes and relative merits of things can change his behavior. When it comes to prudence, variety is ugly. There are some people who are different each day. Their luck changes daily, and so do their will and their powers of understanding. Yesterday they conceded; today they receded. They belie their own reputation, confusing others.
072. Be resolute.
Faulty execution does less harm than a lack of resolution. Materials turn bad more often in repose than in motion. There are people who can't make up their minds and need a push from others. At times this is caused not by perplexity, for they see clearly enough, but by inactivity. It may be ingenious to identify difficulties, but it is more so to find a way of eluding them. Other people are bogged down by nothing and have great powers of judgment and resolution. They were born for lofty pursuits and their clear understanding lets them succeed with ease. No sooner done than said, and there is still time left over. Sure of their luck, they venture forth with even greater confidence.
073. Know when to be evasive.
It is the way the prudent get out of difficulty. With an elegant joke they are able to escape from the most intricate labyrinth. One smile and they have eluded difficulty. On this the greatest of captains founded his courage. A friendly way of saying no is to change the subject, and no ploy is more clever than to pretend it isn't you, but someone else, who is being alluded to.
074. Don't be unfriendly.
The wildest animals inhabit cities. Being unapproachable is the vice of those who lack self-knowledge and who change humors with honors. To begin by annoying others is no way to win renown. Imagine one of these surly monsters, always about to turn savage and impertinent. His unlucky servants approach him as though he were a tiger, arming themselves cautiously with a whip. In order to reach their high position they pleased everyone, and now that they are there they want to get even by angering everyone. Because of their position, such people ought to belong to everyone, but their harshness and vanity makes them belong to no one. A courtly punishment for them : avoid them entirely. Bestow your wisdom on others.
075. Choose a heroic model, and emulate rather than imitate.
There are examples of greatness, living texts of renown. Let each person choose the first in his field, not so much to follow him as to surpass them. Alexander cried at the tomb of Achilles, not for Achilles but for himself, for unlike Achilles, he had not yet been born to fame. Nothing makes the spirit so ambitious as the trumpet of someone else's fame. It frightens away envy and encourages noble deeds.