The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 4 of 12

076. Don't always be joking.
Prudence is known for its seriousness, which wins more respect than wit. The person who is always joking falls laughably short of perfection. We treat him like a liar, never believing him. From one we fear deceit, from the other jest. One never knows when jokers are exercising their judgment, which is the same as not having any. No humor is worse than continual humor. Some win a reputation for wit, and lose their wits. There are moments for joviality, but the rest of the time belongs to seriousness.
077. Adapt yourself to everyone else.
A Proteus of discretion. Learned with the learned, saintly with saints. This is a great way to capture the goodwill of others, for similarity generates benevolence. Observe people's temperaments, and adapt yourself accordingly. Whether you're with a serious person or a jovial one, follow the current, and politely transform yourself. This is especially true of those who depend on others. It is a great stratagem for living prudently, and it requires much capacity. It is less difficult for the person with a well-informed intellect and varied tastes.
078. Skill at trying things out.
Folly always rushes into action, for all fools are bold. Their very simplicity, which prevents them from foreseeing danger, keeps them from worrying about their reputation. But Prudence enters with great care. Caution and Penetration precede her, beating the bushes so that she can advance safely. Discretion sentences hasty action to failure, though Fortune sometimes issues a pardon. Go slowly when you fear the depths. Let shrewdness feel its way forward and Prudence steer you toward firm ground. These days there are pitfalls in dealing with others, and it is best to fathom things as you go along.
079. A jovial character.
In moderation, it is a gift, not a defect. A pinch of wit is good seasoning. The greatest people can parlay grace and humor into universal favor. But they pay due respect to prudence and never break with decorum. Others use jest as a quick way out of difficulty. Some things should be taken jokingly, even those that others take most seriously. This shows a certain agreeableness, and works like a strange charm on the hearts of others.
080. Be careful when you inform yourself about things.
Much of our lives is spent gathering information. We see very few things for ourselves, and live trusting others. The ears are the back door of truth and the front door of deceit. Truth is more often seen than heard. Seldom does it reach us unalloyed, even less so when it comes from afar. It is always blended with the emotions it has passed through. Emotion taints everything it touches, making it odious or favorable. It tries always to impress us one way or another. Be more careful with someone who is praising than with someone who is criticizing. Discover what ax he is grinding, on what side he is limping, where he is heading. Beware of the false and the faulty.
081. Renew your brilliance.
It is the privilege of the Phoenix. Excellence grows old and so does fame. Custom wears down our admiration, and a mediocre novelty can conquer the greatest eminence in its old age. So be reborn in courage, in intellect, in happiness, and in all else. Dare to renew your brilliance, dawning many times, like the sun, only changing your surroundings. Withhold it and make people miss it; renew it and make them applaud.
082. Neither all bad nor all good.
A certain sage reduced the whole of wisdom to the golden mean. Carry right too far and it becomes wrong. The orange squeezed completely dry gives only bitterness. Even in enjoyment you shouldn't go to extremes. The intellect itself will go dry if pressed too hard, and if you milk a cow like a tyrant you will draw only blood.
083. Allow yourself some venial fault.
An act of carelessness can sometimes be the best way to help others see your talents. Envy often ostracizes people : the more civil it is, the more criminal. It accuses what is very perfect of sinning by not sinning, and it condemns complete perfection. It makes itself into an Argos, looking for the faults in excellent things, if only to console itself. Like lightning, censure strikes the highest places. So let Homer nod at times, and pretend that your intelligence or courage -- though not your prudence -- has committed some act of carelessness. That way malevolence will calm down, and not burst its bubble of poison. This is like waving a red cape in front of the bull of envy in order to escape with immortality.
084. Know how to use your enemies.
Grasp things not by the blade, which will harm you, but by the hilt, which will defend you. the same applies to emulation. The wise person finds enemies more useful than the fool does friends. Malevolence often levels the mountains of difficulty that favor made fearful. Many owe their greatness to their enemies. Flattery is fiercer than hatred, for hatred corrects the faults flattery had disguised. The prudent man makes a mirror out of the evil eye of others and it is more truthful than that of affection, and helps him reduce his defects or emend them. One grows very cautious when living across the border from malevolent rivals.
085. Don't be the wild card.
[The wild card or joker : the one that can be anything its holder pleases.] Excellent things are easily abused. When everyone covets something, they are easily annoyed by it. It is a bad thing to be good for nothing, but worse to be good for everything. Some lose because they win so often, and soon they are as despised as they once were desired. Such wild cards are found in every sort of perfection. They lose their initial reputation for uniqueness, and are scorned as common. The remedy for extremes is not to exceed the golden mean in displaying your gifts. Be excessive in your perfection but moderate about showing it. The brighter the torch, the more it consumes itself and the less it lasts. To win true esteem, make yourself scarce.
086. Head off rumor.
The crowd is a many-headed monster : many eyes for malice, many tongues for slander. Sometimes a rumor arises and blights the best reputation, and if it sticks to you like a nickname, your fame will perish. The crowd usually seizes on some outstanding weakness, or some ridiculous defect : fit material for its murmurings. At times it is our envious rivals who cunningly invent these defects. There are mean mouths and they ruin a great reputation sooner with a joke than with a shameless bold-faced lie. It is very easy to acquire a bad reputation, for badness is easily believed and hard to erase. Let the prudent person avoid all this, and keep an eye on vulgar insolence; for an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
087. Culture and refinement.
Man is born a barbarian. Culture raises him above the beast. Culture turns us into true persons : the more culture, the greater the person. In that belief, Greece called the rest of the universe "barbarian." Ignorance is rough and rude. There is nothing more cultivating than knowledge. But wisdom herself is coarse when polish is lacking. Not only must understanding be refined, but also our desires and especially our conversation. Some people show a natural refinement both in their inner and outer gifts, their concepts and words, in their bodily adornment (which is like the bark) and their spiritual gifts (the fruit). Others are so gross that they tarnish everything, even their fine qualities, with an unbearable barbaric sloppiness.
088. Deal with others in a grand way.
Aspire to elevation. The great should never be petty. You needn't go into all the details when conversing with others, especially when the subject is distasteful. Notice things, but do so casually; it isn't good to turn conversation into detailed interrogation. Act with a courteous, noble generality, which is a sort of gallantry. A large part of ruling lies in feigning indifference. Learn to overlook most of the things that happen among your close friends, your acquaintances, and especially your enemies. Overscrupulousness is irritating, and if it forms part of your character you will be tiresome to others. To keep circling around something unpleasant is a sort of mania. Remember that people usually behave ike what they are : according to their own heart and their own capacity.
089. Know yourself : your character, intellect, judgment, and emotions.
You cannot master yourself if you do not understand yourself. There are mirrors for the face, but the only mirror for the spirit is wise self-reflection. And when you stop caring about your outer image, try to emend and improve the inner one. In order to undertake matters wisely, gauge your prudence and perspicacity. Judge how well you measure up to a challenge. Plumb your depths, weigh your resources.
090. The art of living long : live well.
Two things bring life to an early end : stupidity and depravity. Some lose their life by not knowing how to save it; others, by not wanting to. Just as virtue is its own reward, vice is its own punishment. The person who races though a life of vice comes to a doubly quick end. The one who races through virtue never dies. The strength of the mind is communicated to the body. A good life is long both in intention and extension.
091. Never act unless you think it prudent to do so.
If the person doing something suspects he will fail, it will be evident to the person watching, even more so when he is a rival. If your judgment wavers in the heat of emotion, you'll be thought a fool when things cool down. It is dangerous to undertake something when you doubt its wisdom. It would be safer not to act at all. Prudence refuses to deal in probability : it always walks under the midday sun of reason. How can something turn out well when caution started to condemn it the moment it was conceived? Even resolutions that passed the inner examination with no one dissenting often turn out badly; so what can we expect from those that reason doubted over and judgment considered rash?
092. Transcendent wisdom, in every situation.
This is the first and highest rule in acting and speaking, the more necessary the greater and higher your occupation. An ounce of prudence is worth a pound of cleverness. It's more a matter of walking surely than of courting vulgar applause. A reputation for prudence is the ultimate triumph of fame. It is enough if you satisfy the prudent, whose approval is the touchstone of success.
093. A universal man.
Possessing every perfection, he is equal to many men. He makes life ever so pleasant, communicating that enjoyment to his friends. Variety and perfection are what makes life delightful. It is a great art to know how to enjoy all good things. And since Nature made man a compendium of the whole natural world, let art make him a universe by training his taste and intellect.
094. Unfathomable gifts.
The prudent person -- if he wants to be revered by others -- should never allow them to judge the extent of his knowledge and courage. Allow yourself to be known, but not comprehended. No one will discern the limits of your talent, and thus no one will be disappointed. You can win more admiration by keeping other people guessing the extent of your talent, or even doubting it, than you can by displaying it, however great.
095. Keep expectations alive.
Keep nourishing them. Let much promise more, and let great deeds make people expect still greater ones. Don't show everything you have on the first roll of the dice. The trick is to moderate your strength and knowledge and advance little by little toward success.
096. Good common sense.
It is the throne of reason, the foundation of prudence, and by its light it is easy to succeed. It is a gift from heaven, highly prized because it is first and best. Good sense is our armor, so necessary that the lack of this single piece will make people call us lacking. When least present, most missed. All actions in life depend on its influence, and all solicit its approval, for all depends on intelligence. It consists of a natural inclination to all that conforms most to reason, and to all that is most fit.
097. Make your reputation and keep it.
We enjoy it on loan from Fame. It is expensive, for it is born from eminence, which is as rare as mediocrity is common. Once attained, it is easily kept. It confers many an obligation, performs many a deed. It is a sort of majesty when it turns into veneration, through the sublimity of its origin and sphere of action. Reputations based on substance are the ones that have always endured.
098. Write your intentions in cipher.
The passions are the gates of the spirit. The most practical sort of knowledge lies in dissimulation. The person who shows his cards risks losing. Let caution and reserve combat the attentiveness of others. When your opponent sees into your reasoning like a lynx, conceal your thoughts like an inky cuttlefish. Let no one discover your inclinations, no one foresee them, either to contradict or to flatter them.
099. Reality and appearance.
Things pass for what they seem, not for what they are. Only rarely do people look into them, and many are satisfied with appearances. It isn't enough to be right if your face looks malicious and wrong.
100. A man free of deceit and illusion.
One who is virtuous and wise, a courtly philosopher. But do not be so only in appearance, or flaunt your virtue. Philosophy is no longer revered, although it is the chief pursuit of the wise. The science of prudence is no longer venerated. Seneca introduced it to Rome, and for a time it appealed to the noble. But now it is considered useless and bothersome. And yet freeing oneself from deceit has always been food for prudence, and one of the delights of righteousness.