The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 2 of 12

026. Find each person's "handle," his weak point.
The art of moving people's wills involves more skill than determination. You must know how to get inside the other person. Each will has its own special object of delight; they vary according to taste. Everyone idolizes something. Some want to be well thought of, others idolize profit, and most people idolize pleasure. The trick is to identify the idols that can set people in motion. It is like having the key to someone else's desires. Go for the "prime mover," which isn't always something lofty and important. Usually it is something low, for the unruly outnumber the well ruled. First size up someone's character and then touch on his weak point. Tempt him with his particular pleasure, and you'll checkmate his will.
027. Better to be intensive than extensive.
Perfection isn't quantity, but quality. Very good things have always been small and rare; muchness brings discredit. Even among men, the giants are usually the dwarfs. Some praise books for their girth, as though they were written to exercise our arms, not our wits. Extension alone can never be more than mediocre, and the universal men who want to be in on everything are often in on nothing. Intensity leads to eminence and even -- in matters of great importance -- fame.
028. Be vulgar in nothing.
Certainly not in your taste. What a wise person it was who did not want his things to please the many! The discreet never gorge themselves on vulgar applause. Some people are such puffed-up chameleons of popularity that they enjoy the breath of the crowd more than the gentle breezes of Apollo. And not in understanding. Take no pleasure in the miracles of the many : they are nothing but quackery. The crowd admires common foolishness and places no stock in excellent counsel.
029. Be righteous and firm.
Side with reason and do this so steadily that neither vulgar passion nor tyrannical violence will make you stray from it. But where will we find such a Phoenix of equity? Few are devoted to righteousness. Many celebrate her, but few visit her. Some follow her until things get dangerous. In danger, the false disown her and politicians cunningly disguise her. She is not afraid to set aside friendship, power, and even her own good, and this is when people disown her. Clever people spin subtle sophistries and speak of their laudable "higher motives" or "reasons of security," but the truly faithful person considers deceit a sort of treason, is prouder to be steadfast than clever, and is always found on the side of truth. If he differs with others, it isn't because of any fickleness of his own, but because others have abandoned the truth.
030. Don't occupy yourself with disreputable things,
even less with chimerical ones that bring more scorn than renown. Caprice has founded many sects, and the sane person should flee from all of them. There are people with extravagant tastes who embrace anything wise people repudiate. They take pleasure in any sort of eccentricity, and although this makes them well known, they are more often laughed at than renowned. Even when pursuing wisdom the prudent ought to shun affectation and public notice, especially in things that can make them look ridiculous. There is no use pointing out these pursuits one by one : common ridicule has already done so.
031. Know the fortunate in order to choose them, and the unfortunate in order to flee from them.
Bad luck is usually brought on by stupidity, and among outcasts nothing is so contagious. Never open the door to the least of evils, for many other, greater ones lurk outside. The trick is to know what cards to get rid of. The least card in the winning hand in front of you is more important than the best card in the losing hand you just laid down. When in doubt, it is good to draw near the wise and the prudent. Sooner or later they will be fortunate.
032. Be known for pleasing others,especially if you govern them.
It helps sovereigns to win the good graces of all. Ruling others has one advantage : you can do more good than anyone else. Friends are those who do friendly things. Some people are intent on not pleasing, not because it is burdensome, but simply out of nastiness. In everything they oppose the divine communicability.
033. Know when to put something aside.
One of life's great lessons lies in knowing how to refuse, and it is even more important to refuse yourself, both to business and to others. There are certain inessential activities -- moths of precious time -- and it is worse to busy yourself with the trivial than to do nothing. To be prudent, it isn't enough not to meddle in other people's business : you must also keep them from meddling in yours. Don't belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself. You shouldn't abuse your friends, or ask them for more than they give on their own initiative. All excess is a vice, especially in your dealings with others. With this judicious moderation you will stay in the good graces of others and keep their esteem; and propriety, which is precious, will not be worn away. Retain your freedom to care passionately about the best, and never testify against your own good taste.
034. Know your best quality, your outstanding gift.
Cultivate it and nurture all the rest. All people could have achieved eminence in something if only they had known what they excelled at. Identify your king of attributes and apply it in double strength. Some excel at judgment and others at courage. Most people force their intelligence and achieve superiority in nothing. Their own passions blind and flatter them until -- too late! -- time gives them the lie.
035. Weigh matters carefully, and think hardest about those that matter most.
Fools are lost by not thinking. They never conceive even the half of things, and because they do not perceive either their advantages or their harm they do not apply any diligence. Some ponder things backward, paying much attention to what matters little, and little to what matters much. Many people never lose their heads because they have none to lose. There are things we should consider very carefully and keep well rooted in our minds. The wise weigh everything : they delve into things that are especially deep or doubtful, and sometimes reflect that there is more than what occurs to them. They make reflection reach further than apprehension.
036. Take the measure of your luck :
in order to act, and in order to commit yourself. This matters more than identifying your predominant humor and understanding your physical makeup. It is foolish for a forty-year- old to ask Hippocrates for health, and even more foolish to ask Seneca for wisdom. It is a great art to govern Fortune, either awaiting her (for she sometimes takes her time) or taking advantage of her (for she sometimes turns good), although you will never completely understand her inconsistent behavior. If she has favored you, proceed with boldness, for she often loves the daring and, like a dazzling woman, the young. If you are unlucky, act not. Withdraw and save yourself from failing twice. If you master her, you have taken a great step forward.
037. Know what insinuation is, and how to use it.
It is the subtlest point in your dealings with others. It can be used to test the wits and cunningly probe the heart. Some insinuation is malicious, careless, tinged with the herbs of envy, smeared with the poison of passion : an invisible lightning bolt that can knock you from grace and esteem. Some people owe their downfall to a single wounding, insinuating word. Those who expelled them from power showed not the slightest fear before an entire conspiracy of common murmuring and singular malevolence. Other insinuations -- favorable ones -- do the opposite, shoring up our reputation. But we should catch these darts as skillfully as they are hurled at us by evil intention : catch them carefully, await them prudently. A good defense requires knowledge. When we expect a blow we can ward it off.
038. Quit while you're ahead.
All the best gamblers do. A fine retreat matters as much as a stylish attack. As soon as they are enough -- even when they are many -- cash in your deeds. A long run of good fortune is always suspicious. You're safer when good luck alternates with bad, and, besides, that makes for bittersweet enjoyment. When luck comes racing in on us, it is more likely to slip and smash everything to pieces. Sometimes Lady Luck compensates us, trading intensity for duration. She grows tired when she has to carry someone on her back for a long time.
039. Know when things are at their acme, when they are ripe, and know how to take advantage of them.
All works of nature reach their point of full perfection. Before, they were gaining; from then on, waning. As for works of art, only rarely can they not be improved. People with good taste know how to enjoy each thing when it reaches perfection. Not everyone can, and not everyone who can knows how. Even the fruits of the understanding attain this ripeness. But you must know it in order to value and use it.
040. Grace in dealing with others.
It is a great thing to win universal admiration, but even greater to win benevolence. Part of it is having a lucky star, but diligence is more important. One begins with the former and carries through with the latter. It isn't enough to be eminently gifted, though people often suppose it is easy to win affection when one has a reputation. Benevolence depends on beneficence. Do all sorts of good : good words and better deeds. Love if you would be loved. Courtesy is the way great people bewitch others. Reach for deeds and then for the pen. From the sword to the pen, for there is also grace among writers, and it is eternal.
041. Never exaggerate.
It isn't wise to use superlatives. They offend the truth and cast doubt on your judgment. By exaggerating, you squander your praise and reveal a lack of knowledge and taste. Praise awakens curiosity, which begets desire, and later, when the goods seem overpriced, as often happens, expectation feels cheated and avenges itself by running down the praised and the praiser. The prudent show restraint, and would rather fall short than long. True eminences are rare, so temper your esteem. To overvalue something is a form of lying. It can ruin your reputation for good taste, and -- even worse -- for wisdom.
042. Born to rule.
It is a secret, superior force. It doesn't spring from bothersome artifice, but from a nature born to rule. Everyone succumbs to such a person without knowing why, recognizing the secret strength and vigor of innate authority. People like this have a lordly character : kings by merit, lions by natural right. They seize the respect, the heart, and even the minds of others. When blessed with other gifts, they are born to be political prime movers. They can accomplish more with a single feinting gesture than can others with a long harangue.
043. Feel with the few, speak with the many.
Rowing against the current makes it impossible to discover the truth and is extremely dangerous. Only Socrates could attempt it. Dissent is taken as insult, for it condemns the judgment of others. Many take offense, whether on account of the person criticized or the one who applauded him. The truth belongs to the few. Deceit is as common as it is vulgar. You can never tell the wise by what they say in public. They speak not in their own voices, but in that of common stupidity, though deep inside they are cursing it. The sensible person avoids both being contradicted and contradicting others. He may be quick to censure but he is slow to do so in public. Feelings are free; they cannot and should not be violated. They live in silent retirement and show themselves only to a few sensible people.
044. Sympathy with the great.
One of the gifts of the hero is the ability to dwell with heroes. This ability, called sympathy, is a wonder of nature, both because it is so mysterious and because it is so beneficial. There are similar hearts and temperaments, and the effects of sympathy resemble those which vulgar ignorance attributes to magic potions. Not only can this sympathy help us win renown, it inclines others towards us and quickly wins their goodwill. It persuades without words, achieves without merit. There is active and passive sympathy, and both kinds work wonders among people in high positions. It takes great skill to know them, distinguish between them, and take advantage of them. No amount of effort can take the place of this mysterious favor.
045. Use, but don't abuse, hidden intentions, and above all, don't reveal them.
All art must be concealed, for it rouses suspicion, especially hidden intentions, which are hateful. Deceit is common, so be on your guard. But hide your caution from others, so as not to lose their confidence. When it becomes known, caution offends others and provokes vengeance, awakening unimagined evils. A reflective way of doing things will given you a great advantage. Nothing provides more food for thought. The greatest perfection of an action depends upon the mastery with which it is carried out.
046. Temper your antipathy.
We hate some people instinctively, even before we are aware of their good qualities. And sometimes this vulgar, natural aversion is directed towards the eminent. Let prudence keep it in check : there is nothing more demeaning than to abhor the best people. It is as excellent to get along with heroes as it is disgraceful to treat them with antipathy.
047. Avoid committing yourself to risky enterprises.
This is one of the chief goals of prudence. People of great talent keep well away from extremities. There is a long way to walk from one extreme to another, and the prudent stick to the middle ground. Only after long deliberation do they decide to act, for it is easier to hide oneself from danger than to overcome it. Dangerous situations place our judgment in jeopardy, and it is safer to flee from them entirely. One danger leads to another, greater one, and brings us to the edge of disaster. Some people are rash, because of their temperament or their national origin, and they are quick to commit themselves and place others in danger. But the person who walks in the light of reason sizes up the situation and sees that there is more courage in avoiding danger than in conquering it. He sees that there is already one rash fool, and avoids adding another.
048. You are as much a real person as you are deep.
As with the depths of a diamond, the interior is twice as important as the surface. There are people who are all facade, like a house left unfinished when the funds run out. They have the entrance of a palace but the inner rooms of a cottage. These people have no place you can rest, though they are always at rest, for once they get through the first salutations, the conversation is over. They prance through the initial courtesies like Sicilian stallions, but immediately lapse into monkish silence. Words dry up when no refreshed by perennial springs of wit. Such people easily fool those who see things superficially, but not the sharp-sighted, who look inside them and find only emptiness.
049. A person of sharp observation and sound judgment rules over objects and keeps objects from ruling him.
He plumbs the greatest depths, and studies the anatomies of other people's talent. No sooner does he see someone than he has understood him and judged his essence. With rare powers of observation he deciphers even what is most hidden. He observes sternly, conceives subtly, reasons judiciously : there is nothing he cannot discover, notice, grasp, understand.
050. Never lose your self-respect or grow too familiar with yourself.
Let your own integrity keep you righteous. You should owe more to the severity of your own judgment than to all external precepts. Avoid what is indecorous, not because others will judge you harshly, but because you fear your own prudence. Grow to fear yourself and you will have no need of Seneca's imaginary witness [your own conscience].