The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 1 of 12

001. All has reached perfection, and becoming a true person is the greatest perfection of all.
It takes more to make one sage today than it did to make the seven of Greece. And you need more resources to deal with a single person these days than with an entire nation in times past.
002. Character and intelligence.
The poles your talent spins on, displaying your gifts. One without the other brings only half of success. It isn't enough to be intelligent; you must also have the right character. The fool fails by behaving without regard to his condition, position, origin, or friendships.
003. Keep matters in suspense.
Successes that are novel win admiration. Being too obvious is neither useful nor tasteful. By not declaring yourself immediately you will keep people guessing, especially if your position is important enough to awaken expectations. Mystery by its very arcaneness causes veneration. Even when revealing yourself, avoid total frankness, and don't let everyone look inside you. Cautious silence is where prudence takes refuge. Once declared, resolutions are never esteemed, and they lie open to criticism. If they turn out badly, you will be twice unfortunate. If you want people to watch and wait on you, imitate the divinity.
004. Knowledge and courage take turns at greatness.
Because they are immortal, they can make you so. You are as much as you know, and if you are wise you can do anything. The uninformed person is a dark world unto himself. Judgment and strength: eyes and hands. Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit.
005. Make people depend on you.
A god is made not by adorning the statue but by adoring it. He who is truly shrewd would rather have people need him than thank him. Vulgar gratitude is worth less than polite hope, for hope remembers and gratitude forgets. You will get more from dependence than from courtesy. He who has already drunk turns his back on the well, and the orange already squeezed turns from gold into mud. When there is no longer dependence, good manners disappear, and so does esteem. The most important lesson experience teaches is to maintain dependence, and entertain it without satisfying it. This can hold even a king. But don't carry it too far, leading others astray by your silence or making their ills incurable for your own good.
006. Reach perfection.
No one is born that way. Perfect yourself daily, both personally and professionally, until you become a consummate being, rounding off your gifts and reaching eminence. Signs of the perfect person : elevated taste, a pure intelligence, a clear will, ripeness of judgment. Some people are never complete and are always lacking something. Others take a long time to form themselves. The consummate person -- wise in speech, prudent in deed -- is admitted to, and even desired by, the singular society of the discreet.
007. Don't outshine your boss.
Being defeated is hateful, and besting one's boss is either foolish or fatal. Superiority is always odious, especially to superiors and sovereigns. The common sort of advantages can be cautiously hidden, as beauty is hidden with a touch of artful neglect. Most people do not mind being surpassed in good fortune, character, or temperament, but no one, especially not a sovereign, likes to be surpassed in intelligence. For this is the king of attributes, and any crime against it is lese-majeste. Sovereigns want to be so in what is most important. Princes like to be helped, but not surpassed. When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see. It is the stars who teach us this subtlety. They are brilliant sons, but they never dare to outshine the sun.
008. Not to be swayed by passions: the highest spiritual quality of all.
Let your superiority keep you from succumbing to vulgar, passing impressions. No mastery is greater than mastering yourself and your own passions: it is a triumph of the will. Even when passion affects your person, don't let it affect your position, least of all when the position is an important one. This is a wise way to avoid trouble and a shortcut to the esteem of others.
009. Avoid the defects of your country.
Water shares the good and bad qualities of the beds through which is runs; people share those of the region where they are born. Some owe more than others to their mother country or city, for they were born under favorable skies. No country, not even the most refined, has ever escaped some innate defect or other, and these weaknesses are seized on by neighboring countries as defense or consolation. It is a triumph to correct, or at least dissimulate, such national faults. By doing so, you will be revered as unique among your people; for what is least expected is most valued. Other defects are caused by one's lineage, condition, occupation, and by the times. If all these defects come together in one person, and no care is taken to foresee and correct them, they produce an intolerable monster.
010. Fame and fortune.
One is inconstant, the other firm. The latter helps us live, the former helps us later. Fortune against envy, fame against oblivion. You can wish for fortune, and sometimes nurture it with your efforts, but all fame requires constant work. A desire for renown is born from strength and vigor. Fame is -- has always been -- the sister of giants. It always goes to extremes : monsters or prodigies, abomination or applause.
011. Associate with those you can learn from.
Let friendly relations be a school of erudition, and conversation, refined teaching. Make your friends your teachers and blend the usefulness of learning with the pleasure of conversation. Enjoy the company of people of understanding. What you say will be rewarded with applause; what you hear, with learning. What draws us to others, ordinarily, is our own interest, and here that interest is ennobled. The prudent frequent the homes of courtly heroes : theaters of heroism, not palaces of vanity. Some are renowned for their learning and good judgment : oracles of all greatness through example and friendship. Those who accompany them form a courtly academy of gallant discretion and wisdom.
012. Nature and art, material and labor.
All beauty requires help. Perfection turns into barbarism unless ennobled by artifice. Artifice rescues the bad and perfects the good. Nature often lets us down when we most need her; let us turn to art. The best disposition is unrefined without her, and perfection is only half itself without culture. People seem rough and rude without artifice. Perfection requires polish.
013. Act on the intentions of others: their ulterior and superior motives.
Man's life on earth is a militia against malicia, or malice. Cunning arms itself with strategies of intention. It never does what it indicates. It takes aim deceptively, feints nonchalantly in the air, and delivers its blow, acting upon unforeseen reality with attentive dissimulation. To win the attention and confidence of others, it hints at its intention. But immediately it turns against that intention and conquers through surprise. The penetrating intelligence heads off cunning with close observation, ambushes it with caution, understands the opposite of what cunning wanted it to understand, and immediately identifies false intentions. Intelligence allows the first intention to pass by, and awaits the second one, and even the third. Simulation grows even greater seeing that its guile has been penetrated, and tries to deceive by telling the truth. Changing strategies, it beguiles us with its apparent lack of guile. It bases its cunning on the greatest candor. But observation comes forward, sees through all this, and discovers the shadows that are cloaked in light. It deciphers intention, which is most hidden when most simple. Thus does the cunning of Python struggle against the candor of the penetrating rays of Apollo.
014. Both reality and manner.
Substance is not "stance" enough : you must also heed circumstance. The wrong manner turns everything sour, even justice and reason. The right one makes up for everything : it turns a "no" golden, sweetens truth, and makes even old age look pretty. The "how" of things is very important, and a pleasant manner captures the affection of others. A bel portarse is precious in life. Speak and act well and you will get out of any difficult situation.
015. Surround yourself with auxiliary wits.
Things turn out well for the powerful when they are surrounded by people of great understanding who can get them out of the tight situations where their ignorance has placed them, and take their place in battling difficulty. It is singular greatness to use wise people : better than the barbaric taste of Tigranes, who wanted to enslave the kings he conquered. This is a new way of mastering others, in what matters most in life : skillfully make servants of those whom nature made superior. We have little to live and much to know, and you cannot live if you do not know. It takes uncommon skill to study and learn without effort : to study much through many, and know more than all of them together. Do this and you will go to a gathering and speak for many. You will speak for as many sages as counseled you, and will win fame as an oracle thanks to the sweat of others. Choose a subject, and let those around you serve up quintessential knowledge. If you can't make knowledge your servant, make it your friend.
016. Knowledge and honorable intentions.
Knowledge and honorable intentions ensure that your success will bear fruit. When understanding marries bad intention, it isn't wedlock but monstrous rape. Malevolence poisons perfection. when abetted by knowledge, it corrupts even more subtly. Superior talents given to baseness come to a bad end. Knowledge without judgment is double madness.
017. Keep changing your style of doing things.
Vary your methods. This will confuse people, especially your rivals, and awaken their curiosity and attention. If you always act on your first intention, others will foresee it and thwart it. It is easy to kill the bird that flies in a straight line, but not one that changes its line of flight. Don't always act on your second intention either; do something twice, and others will discover the ruse. Malice is ready to pounce on you; you need a good deal of subtlety to outwit it. The consummate player never moves the piece his opponent expects him to, and, less still, the piece he wants him to move.
018. Application and capacity.
Eminence requires both. When both are present, eminence outdoes itself. The mediocre people who apply themselves go further than the superior people who don't. Work makes worth. You purchase reputation with it. Some people are unable to apply themselves to even the simplest tasks. Application depends almost always on temperament. It is all right to be mediocre at an unimportant job : you can excuse yourself by saying you were cut out for nobler things. But to be mediocre at the lowest of jobs, rather than excellent at the highest, has no excuse at all. Both art and nature are needed, and application makes them complete.
019. When you start something, don't raise other people's expectations.
What is highly praised seldom measures up to expectation. Reality never catches up to imagination. It is easy to imagine something is perfect, and difficult to achieve it. Imagination marries desire, and conceives much more than things really are. No matter how excellent something is, it never satisfies our preconceptions. The imagination feels cheated, and excellence leads more often to disappointment than to admiration. Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgment bridle her, so that enjoyment will surpass desire. Honorable beginnings should serve to awaken curiosity, not to heighten people's expectations. We are much better off when reality surpasses our expectations, and something turns out better than we thought it would. This rule does not hold true for bad things : when an evil has been exaggerated, its reality makes people applaud. What was feared as ruinous comes to seem tolerable.
020. A person born in the right age.
People of truly rare eminence depend on the times. Not all of them had the times they deserved, and many who did were unable to take advantage of them. Some were worthy of better times, for not all goodness triumphs always. Things have their seasons, and even certain kinds of eminence go in and out of style. But wisdom has an advantage : she is eternal. If this is not her century, many others will be.
021. The art of success.
Good fortune has its rules, and to the wise not everything depends upon chance. Fortune is helped along by effort. Some people confidently approach the door of Fortune, and wait for her to go to work. Others are more sensible : they stride through that door with a prudent sort of boldness. On the wings of their courage and virtue, audacity spies luck and flatters it into effectiveness. But the real philosopher has only one plan of action : virtue and prudence; for the only good and bad fortune lie in prudence or rashness.
022. Be well informed.
The discreet arm themselves with a store of courtly, tasteful learning : not vulgar gossip, but a practical knowledge of current affairs. They salt their speech with witticisms, and their actions with gallantry, and know how to do so at the right moment. Advice is sometimes transmitted more successfully through a joke than through grave teaching. The wisdom passed along in conversation has meant more to some than the seven arts, no matter how liberal.
023. Don't have a single imperfection.
Few people live without some moral flaw or character defect, and they give in to it when it would be easy to cure. The prudence of others is grieved to see a universal, sublime talent threatened by a small defect : a single cloud eclipses the sun. Defects are moles on the face of reputation, and malevolence is good at noticing them. It takes supreme skill to turn them into beauty marks. Caesar covered his defect with laurels.
024. Temper your imagination.
You must sometimes rein it in and sometimes encourage it. On imagination all happiness depends : it should be governed by good sense. Sometimes it behaves like a tyrant. It isn't content to speculate, but swings into action and takes over your life, making it pleasant or unpleasant, and making us unhappy or too satisfied with ourselves. To some it shows only grief : for imagination is a homespun henchman of fools. To others it promises happiness and adventure, gaiety and giddiness. It can do all this as long as it remains unchecked by prudence and common sense.
025. Know how to take a hint.
Knowing how to reason was once the art of arts. It is no longer enough. One must also be a diviner, especially in matters where you can easily be deceived. You will never be intelligent unless you know how to take a hint. Some people are diviners of the heart and sharp-eyed lynxes of others' intentions. The truths that matter most to us are always half spoken, fully understood only by the prudent. In matters that seem favorable, rein in your credulity. In those that seem hateful, give it the spur.