The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 7 of 12

151. Think ahead : today for tomorrow -- even many days ahead.
The best providence is to have hours of it. To those forewarned, there are no strokes of bad luck; no tight spots for those who are prepared. Don't save your reason for difficult situations; use it to anticipate them. Difficult points require mature rethinking. The pillow is a tongueless sibyl, and it is better to sleep on something than to lie awake when things are on top of you. Some act, and think later : this is to look for excuses rather than consequences. Others think neither before nor after. Your whole life should be a matter of thinking out your destination. Rethinking and foresight are a good way to live in advance.
152. Don't keep company with those who will make you seem less gifted, either because they are superior or inferior.
The more perfect someone is, the more highly he is esteemed. The other person will always play the leading role, and you a secondary one, and if you win any respect at all, it will come in scraps and remnants. When the moon is alone it competes with the stars, but once the sun comes out it either doesn't appear or it disappears. Don't go near the person who can eclipse you, only the one who will make you look better. This is how clever Fabula, from Martial's poem, was able to look beautiful and radiant among her ugly, unkempt maids. Don't have a pain in your side, or honor others to the detriment of your own reputation. To grow, associate with the eminent; once grown, with those who are average.
153. Don't step into the huge gap left by someone else.
If you do, be sure you have more than enough talent. Merely to equal your predecessor, you must be worth twice as much. It is a fine trick to make people prefer you to your successor, and it takes subtlety to avoid being eclipsed by your predecessor. To fill a great vacancy is hard, because the past always seems better. It isn't enough to equal your predecessor; the person who goes first has an advantage. You need extra talent to expel him from his superior reputation.
154. Neither quick to believe, nor quick to love.
A ripe judgment is slow to believe. Lying is ordinary; let belief be extraordinary. The rush to judgment leads to embarrassment and exhaustion. But don't cast doubt openly on the truthfulness of others. When you treat someone like a liar, or insist he has been deceived, you add insult to injury. There is an even greater disadvantage : not believing others implies that you yourself are deceitful. The liar suffers twice : he neither believes nor is believed. Prudent listeners suspend their judgment. Nor, an author tells us, should we be quick to love. One lies with words, but also with things, and the latter sort of deceit results in more harm.
155. Skill at mastering your passions.
Whenever possible, let reflection foresee the sudden movements of the passions. The prudent will do so easily. The first thing to do when you are upset is to notice that you are. You begin by mastering your emotions and determining not to go any further. With this superior sort of caution you can put a quick end to your anger. Know how to stop, and do so at the right moment : the most difficult thing about running is stopping. It speaks well for your judgment to remain lucid at moments of madness. Any excess of passion detracts from reason, but with this attentiveness, anger will never run away with you or trample on good sense. To get the best of an emotion, rein it in prudently. You will be the first sane man or horseback, and perhaps the last. ["No one is wise on horseback," says the Spanish proverb.]
156. Select your friends.
They should be examined by discretion, tested by fortune, certified not only in willpower but also in understanding. Though success in life depends on this, people pay it little attention. In some cases, mere meddling leads to friendship and in most, mere chance. You are judged by the friends you have, and the wise never get along with fools. To take pleasure in someone's company doesn't make him a close friend. Sometimes we value his sense of humor without fully confiding in his talent. Some friendships are legitimate, others adulterous : the latter are for pleasure, the former are fertile and engender success. The insight of a friend is more valuable than the good wishes of many others. So let choice rule and not chance. Wise friends chase away sorrows, and foolish ones gather them. And don't wish your friends wealth if you want to keep them.
157. Don't be mistaken about people : it is the worst way to be deceived.
Better to be cheated by the price than by the merchandise. There is nothing that requires more careful inspection. There is a difference between understanding things and knowing people, and it is a great art to penetrate temperaments and distinguish the humors of others. Human nature ought to be studied as closely as any book.
158. Know how to use your friends.
It takes skill and discretion. Some are useful when near and others when far away, and the one who isn't good for conversation may be good for correspondence. Distance purifies certain defects that are unbearable at close range. You shouldn't seek only pleasure in your friends, but also utility. A friend is all things, and friendship has the three qualities of anything good : unity, goodness, and truth. Few people make good friends, and they are fewer still when we don't know how to select them. Knowing how to keep a friend is more important than gaining a new one. Look for friends who can last, and when they're new, be satisfied that one day they will be old. The best ones of all are those well salted, with whom we have shared bushels of experience. Life without friends is a wasteland. Friendship multiplies good and share evils. It is a unique remedy for bad luck and sweet relief to the soul.
159. Know how to suffer fools.
The wise are the least tolerant, for learning has diminished their patience. Wide knowledge is hard to please. Epictetus tells us that the most important rule for living lies in knowing how to bear all things : to this he reduced half of wisdom. To tolerate foolishness much patience is needed. Sometimes we suffer most from those we most depend upon, and this helps us conquer ourselves. Patience leads to an inestimable inner peace, which is bliss on earth. And the person who does not know how to put up with others should retire into himself, if indeed he can suffer even himself.
160. Speak prudently : cautiously to your rivals, and with dignity to everyone else.
There is always time to utter a word, and never time to take it back. Speak as though you were writing your testament : the fewer words, the fewer lawsuits. Practice on what matters little for what matters much. Secrecy has the feel of divinity. The person quick to speak is no sooner greeted than defeated.
161. Know your own sweet faults.
Even the most perfect person cannot escape them, but why marry them or take them as lovers? There are defects of the intellect and they are greatest -- or noticed most easily -- in people of great intelligence. Not because the person himself is not aware of them, but because he loves them. Two evils in one : irrational affection bestowed on faults. They are moles on the face of perfection. They repel others but to us they look like beauty marks. Here is a gallant way to conquer yourself, and add to your gifts. Others are quick to notice your faults. Instead of admiring your talent, they dwell on your defect, and use it to tarnish your other gifts.
162. Conquer envy and malevolence.
It does little good to show indifference. Behave with gallantry and you will achieve much more. There is nothing more praiseworthy than speaking well of someone who speaks badly of you; no vengeance more heroic than conquering and tormenting envy with merit and talent. Each of your successes will be torture for those who wish you ill, and your glory will be hell to your rivals. This is the greatest of punishments : to turn success into poison. The envious person dies not once, but as often as his rival lives in applause. Lasting fame for the envied means eternal punishment for the envious. The former lives forever in his glories, the latter in his punishment. The trumpets of fame play immortality for one and taps for the other, sentencing him to the gallows of anxiety.
163. Don't let your sympathy for the unfortunate make you one of them.
What one man considers misfortune, another considers fortune. Who could call himself lucky if many others weren't? The unhappy often win people's sympathy; we want to compensate them, with useless favor, for the insults of fortune. The person whom everyone hated in prosperity is suddenly pitied by all. His downfall turns vengeance into compassion. It takes shrewdness to notice how the cards are being dealt. There are some people who associate only with the unfortunate. They pull up beside the unlucky soul whom they fled when he was fortunate. Sometimes this reveals an inner nobility, but it is anything but shrewd.
164. Float a trial balloon...
to see how well something is accepted and received, especially when you doubt its popularity or success. This assures you something will turn out well, and allows you to decide whether to move forward with it or withdraw it. By testing the will of others, the prudent person finds out where he stands. Maximum foresight in asking, wanting, and ruling.
165. Wage a clean war.
The wise person can be driven to war, but not to a dishonorable one. Act like the person you are, not the way they make you act. To behave magnanimously towards your rivals is praiseworthy. You should fight not only to win power but also to show that you are a superior fighter. To conquer without nobility is not victory but surrender. The good man does not use forbidden weapons, like the ones he acquires when he breaks up with a friend. Even when friendship ends in hatred, don't take advantage of the trust that was once placed in you. Everything that smacks of treachery is poison to your reputation. Noble people shouldn't have even an atom of baseness. Nobility scorns villainy. You should be able to boast that if gallantry, generosity, and faith were lost in the world, they could be found again in your own breast.
166. Distinguish the man of words from the man of deeds.
It is a subtle distinction, like the distinction between the friend who values you for yourself and the one who values your position. Bad words, even without bad deeds, are bad enough. But it is even worse, when you have no bad words, to have bad deeds. One cannot eat words (mere wind) or live on courtesy (polite deceit). To catch birds with mirrors is a perfect snare. Only the vain are satisfied with wind. To retain their worth, words must be backed up with deeds. Trees which give no fruit, only leaves, usually have no heart and pith. One must know which are profitable and which serve only for shade.
167. Be self-reliant.
There is no better company, in tight situations, than a stout heart. When it is weak, use the organs closest to it. Worries are borne better by the self-reliant. Don't give in to fortune, or it will make itself even more unbearable. Some people help themselves little in their own travails, and double them by not knowing how to bear them. The person who knows himself overcomes his weakness with thoughtfulness, and the prudent manage to conquer all, even the stars.
168. Don't become a monster of foolishness.
Among these monsters are all people who are vain, presumptuous, stubborn, whimsical, self-satisfied, extravagant, paradoxical, light-headed, seekers of novelty, the undisciplined . . . all are monsters of impertinence. Spiritual monstrosity is worse than bodily, for it contradicts a superior beauty. But who will correct all this common folly? Where good sense is lacking, there is no room for advice and direction. Careful observation has been pushed aside by an ill-conceived desire for imaginary applause.
169. Better to avoid missing once than to hit the mark a hundred times.
No one looks directly at the sun, but everyone does when it is eclipsed. The vulgar will fasten upon your one failing rather than on your many successes. The bad are better known, and attract more gossip, that the good. Many people were practically unknown until they sinned, and all their successes aren't enough to conceal a single tiny fault. Realize that malevolence will notice all your faults and none of your virtues.
170. In all matters, keep something in reserve.
You'll preserve your usefulness. Don't use all your talents or deploy all your strength at all times. Even in knowledge hold something back : you will double your perfections. There must always be something you can use in a pinch. An opportune rescue is valued and honored more than a bold attack. Prudence always steers a safe course. In this sense also we can believe the piquant paradox : the half is much more than the whole.
171. Don't waste the favors people owe you.
Keep important friends for great occasions. Don't spend their good graces and use your contact for things that matter little. Keep your powder dry until you're really in danger. If you trade much for little, what will remain for later? There's nothing more precious than a favor or people to protect you. They can make or break anything : they can even give you wit, or take it away. Whatever nature and fame bestow on wise men, Fortune envies. It's even more important to hang on to people than to hang on to things.
172. Never compete with someone who has nothing to lose.
The struggle will be unequal. One of the contestants enters the fray unencumbered, for he has already lost everything, even his shame. He has cast off everything, has nothing further to lose, and throws himself headlong into all sorts of insolence. Never risk your precious reputation on such a person. It took many years to win it, and it can be lost in a moment, on something far from momentous. One breath of scandal freezes much honorable sweat. The righteous person knows how much is at stake. He knows what can damage his reputation, and, because he commits himself prudently, he proceeds slowly, so that prudence has ample time to retreat. Not even if he triumphs will he win back what he lost by exposing himself to the risk of losing.
173. Don't be made of glass in your dealings with others.
Even less so in friendship. Some people break very easily, revealing how fragile they are. They fill up with resentment and fill others with annoyance. They are more sensitive than the pupils of the eyes, which cannot be touched, either in jest or in earnest. They take offense at motes : beams aren't even necessary. Those who deal with them must use great caution, and never forget their delicacy. The slightest slight annoys them. They are full of themselves, slaves to their own taste (for the sake of which they trample on everything else), and idolaters of their own silly sense of honor.
174. Don't live in a hurry.
If you know how to organize things, you will know how to enjoy them. Many have life left over when luck runs out. They waste their happy moments and further down the road would like to turn around and return to them. Time moves too slowly for them, and, postilions of life, they spur it on with their own rash temperament. They want to devour in a day what they could hardly digest in a lifetime. They anticipate their successes, gulp down years of the future, and since they are always in a hurry, they soon finish everything. Even in the desire for knowledge you should show moderation so that things known won't be badly known. There are more days than luck. Be quick to act, slow to enjoy. Deeds are good, and content is bad, when they are over.
175. A person of substance.
If you are one, you will take no pleasure in those who aren't. Unhappy is the eminence that isn't founded on substance. There are more true men in appearance than in reality. There are fakers who conceive chimeras and give birth to deceits, and there are others, similar to them, who encourage them and prefer the uncertainty of deceit (which is much) to the certainty of truth (which is little). Their whims turn out badly, for they are not grounded on integrity. Only the truth can give you a true reputation, and only substance is profitable. One act of deceit calls for many others, and soon the whole ghastly construction, which is founded in the air, comes tumbling down. Unfounded things never reach old age. Their promises make them suspect, and their proofs make us reject them.