The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 5 of 12

101. Half the world is laughing at the other half, and folly rules over all.
Either everything is good or everything is bad, depending on how you look at it. When one person pursues, another shuns. It is an insufferable fool who measures all things by his own opinion. Perfection does not mean pleasing one person alone : tastes are as abundant as faces and just as varied. There is no defect that someone does not value, and you need not lower your opinion because a thing doesn't please some people : there will be others to appreciate it, and their applause, in turn, will be condemned. The norm of true satisfaction is the approval of renowned people who know how to judge each class of things. One does not live by following one opinion, one custom, or one century.
102. A stomach for big helpings of fortune.
The body of Prudence should have a big gullet. A great talent is made up of great parts. If you deserve the best luck, don't eat your fill of good luck. What is surfeit to some is hunger to others. Some people waste exquisite food because they have no stomach for it : they weren't born for, and aren't accustomed to, high occupations. Their relations with others turn to vinegar, and a false sense of honor clouds their head and makes them lose it. They grow dizzy in high places, and are beside themselves because there is no room in them for luck. Let the great person show that he still has room for better things, and carefully avoid all that would show a narrow heart.
103. To each, the dignity that befits him.
Not everyone is a king, but your deeds should be worthy of one, within the limits of your class and condition. A regal way of doing things. Sublimity of action, a lofty mind. You should resemble a king in merit, if not in reality, for true sovereignty lies in integrity. You won't envy greatness if you yourself can be a norm of greatness. Especially those who are near the throne should acquire something of true superiority. They should share the moral gifts of majesty rather than the pomp, and aspire to things lofty and substantial rather than to imperfect vanity.
104. Have a good sense of what each job requires.
Jobs vary and it takes knowledge and discernment to understand that variety. Some jobs take courage, others subtlety. The easiest ones are those that depend on honesty; the most difficult, those that require artifice. The former require only natural talent; the latter, all sorts of attentiveness and vigilance. It is much work to govern men, and even more, fools or madmen. It takes double intelligence to rule those who have none. The job that is unbearable is the one that takes over the whole person, working full-time, always in the same manner. Far better are the jobs we don't grow bored with, where variety combines with importance and refreshes our taste. The jobs most respected are the ones that entail the most, or least, dependence. And the worst are those that make us sweat the hardest, both here and (even harder) in the hereafter.
105. Don't be tiresome.
Don't have only one theme, one obsession. Brevity is pleasant and flattering, and it gets more done. It gains in courtesy what it loses in curtness. Good things, if brief : twice good. Badness, if short, isn't so bad. Quintessences work better than farragoes. Everyone knows that a tall person is rarely an intelligent one, but it's better to be tall in stature than long in conversation. Some people are better at disturbing than adorning the universe : useless trinkets shunned by all. The discreet person should avoid tiring others, especially the great, who are very busy. It would be worse to irritate one of them than the rest of the world. Well said is quickly said.
106. Don't flaunt your good fortune.
It is more offensive to take excessive pride in your high office than in yourself. Don't play the "great man" -- it is odious -- and don't be proud of being envied. The more strenuously you seek esteem from others, the less of it you will have. It depends on respect. You can't simply grab it, you have to deserve it and wait for it. Important occupations call for a certain gravity and decorum. Keep only what the occupation requires, what you need to fulfill your obligations. Don't squeeze it dry; help it along. Those who want to look like hard workers give the impression that they aren't up to their jobs. If you want to succeed, do so using your gifts, not your outer trappings. Even a king ought to be venerated more because of his person than because of his pomp and circumstance.
107. Don't look self-satisfied.
Don't go through life feeling discontent with yourself, which is timidity, or satisfied, which is foolishness. Self-complacency usually arises from ignorance, and it leads to a foolish happiness that tickles the taste but ruins the reputation. Unable to discern the high perfection of others, it is content with its own vulgar mediocrity. Caution is always useful, either to help things turn out well or to console us when they turn out badly. No setback will surprise you if you fear it beforehand. Homer himself nodded at times, and Alexander tumbled from his estate and from the deceit in which he was living. Things depend on circumstance. Sometimes they prevail, and sometimes fail. For a hopeless fool, however, the emptiest satisfaction turns into a flower that goes on scattering its seed.
108. A shortcut to becoming a true person.
Put the right people beside you. The company you keep can work wonders. Customs and tastes and even intelligence are transmitted without our being aware of it. Let the quick person join the hesitant one, and so on, through every sort of temperament. That way you will achieve moderation without straining after it. It takes much skill to know how to adapt yourself. The alternation of opposites makes the universe beautiful and sustains it, and causes even greater harmony in human customs than in nature. Govern yourself by this advice when you select your friends and servants. The communication of extremes will produce a discreet and golden mean.
109. Don't berate others.
There are people with savage tempers who make everything a crime, not out of passion, but because of their very character. They condemn everyone, some for what they've done, others for what they will do. This shows a spirit worse than cruel, which is truly vile. They criticize others so exaggeratedly that they make motes into beams in order to poke out eyes. They are taskmasters who can turn a paradise into a prison. When swayed by passion, they take everything to extremes. Good-natured people are able to pardon anything. They insist that others had good intentions or went wrong inadvertently.
110. Don't wait to be a setting sun.
It is a maxim of prudent people to abandon things before being abandoned by them. You should make even your end into a triumph. At times the sun itself retires behind a cloud so that no one will see it fall, and it leaves us wondering whether it has set or not. Avoid sunsets so as not to burst with misfortune. Don't wait for people to turn their shoulders on you : they will bury you alive to your regret, dead to renown. The prudent know when to retire a racehorse, and do not wait for him to collapse in the middle of the race, to the laughter of all. Let Beauty shatter the mirror cleverly, at the right time, and not too late when she cannot bear the truth.
111. Have friends.
They are a second being. To a friend, all friends are good and wise. When you are with them, all turns out well. You are worth as much as others want you to be and say you are, and the way to their mouths lies through their hearts. Nothing bewitches like service to others, and the best way to win friends is to act like one. The most and best we have depends on others. You must live either with friends or with enemies. Win one each day, if not as a confidant, at least as a follower. Choose well and some will remain whom you can trust.
112. Win the goodwill of others.
Even the first and highest Cause [the divinity], in the most important matters, does things this way. Reputation is purchased with affection. Some trust so much in their own worth that they make light of diligence. But the prudent person knows very well that merit can take a shortcut if helped by favor. Benevolence makes everything easier and compensates for whatever is lacking : courage, integrity, wisdom, and even discretion. It never sees ugliness, for it doesn't want to. It is usually born from similarity of temperament, race, family, country, or occupation. In the spiritual realm, benevolence bestows talent, favor, reputation, and merit. Once one wins it -- and this is difficult -- it is easily kept. You can make an effort to win it, but you must also know how to use it.
113. Plan for bad fortune while your fortune is good.
In the summer it is wise to provide for winter, and it is easier to do so. Favors are less expensive, and friendships abound. It is good to save up for a rainy day : adversity is expensive and all is lacking. Keep a following of friends and grateful people; someday you will value what now seems unimportant. Villainy has no friends in prosperity because it refuses to recognize them. In adversity it is the other way around.
114. Never compete.
When you vie with your opponents, your reputation suffers. Your competitor will immediately try to find your faults and discredit you. Few wage war fairly. Rivalry discovers the defects that courtesy overlooks. Many people had a good reputation until they acquired rivals. The heat of opposition revives dead infamies and digs up the stench of the past. Competition begins by revealing faults and rivals take advantage of everything they can and all they ought not to. Often they gain nothing by offending others, only the vile satisfaction of revenge. Revenge blows the dust of oblivion from people's faults. Benevolence was always peaceable, and reputation indulgent.
115. Get used to the failings of your friends, family, and acquaintances, as you do to ugly faces.
Where there is dependence, try for convenience. There are nasty-minded people whom we cannot live with and cannot live without. It takes skill to get used to them, as we do to ugliness, so that they won't surprise us on some dire occasion. At first they frighten us, but little by little they stop looking so horrible, and caution foresees, or learns to tolerate, their unpleasantness.
116. Always deal with people of principle.
Favor them and win their favor. Their very rectitude ensures that they will treat you well even when they oppose you, for they act like who they are, and it is better to fight with good-minded people than to conquer the bad. There is no way to get along with villainy, for it feels no obligation to behave rightly. This is why there is no true friendship among villains, and their fine words cannot be trusted; for they do not spring from honor. Avoid the person who has no honor, for if he esteems not honor, he esteems not virtue. And honor is the throne of integrity.
117. Don't talk about yourself.
You must either praise yourself, which is vanity, or criticize yourself, which is meekness. You show a lack of good judgment and become a nuisance to others. If this is important among friends, it is even more so in high positions, where one often speaks in public and where any appearance of vanity passes for foolishness. Nor is it prudent to talk about people who are present. You risk running aground on flattery or vituperation.
118. Be known for your courtesy; it alone can make you worthy of praise.
Courtesy is the best part of culture; a kind of enchantment, and it wins the goodwill of all, just as rudeness wins only scorn and universal annoyance. When rudeness comes from pride, it is detestable; when from bad breeding it is contemptible. Better too much courtesy than too little, or the same sort for everyone, for that would lead to injustice. Treat your enemies with courtesy, and you'll see how valuable it really is. It costs little but pays a nice dividend : those who honor are honored. Politeness and a sense of honor have this advantage; we bestow them on others without losing a thing.
119. Don't make yourself disliked.
There is no need to provoke aversion, it comes without being called. There are many who hate for no particular reason, without knowing how or why. Malevolence travels much faster than the desire to please. A desire for vengeance will harm you more quickly and surely than a desire for material goods. Some want to be disliked by all, either because they want to cause annoyance or because they feel it. Once hatred takes command of them, it is as hard to get rid of as a bad reputation. These people fear men of judgment, despise those who speak ill, disdain the arrogant, abominate buffoons, but they spare people of singular excellence. Show your esteem if you want to be esteemed, and if you want to be rewarded with success, reward others with your attention.
120. Live practically.
Even your knowledge should seem usual and usable, and where knowledge is uncommon, feign ignorance. Ways of thinking change, and so does taste. Don't think like an ancient; taste like a modern. Count heads. That is what matters in all things. When you must, follow the common taste, and make your way toward eminence. The wise should adapt themselves to the present, even when the past seems more attractive, both in the clothes of the soul and in those of the body. This rule for living holds for everything but goodness, for one must always practice virtue. Many things have come to seem old-fashioned : speaking truth, keeping your word. Good people seem to belong to the good old days, though they are always beloved. If any exist, they are rare, and they are never imitated. What a sad age this is, when virtue is rare and malice is common. The prudent must live as best they can, though not as they would like to. May they prefer what luck granted them to what it withheld!
121. Don't make much ado about nothing.
Some take nothing into account, and others want to account for everything. They are always talking importance, always taking things too seriously, turning them into debate and mystery. Few bothersome things are important enough to bother with. It is folly to take to heart what you should turn your back on. Many things that were something are nothing if left alone, and others that were nothing turn into much because we pay attention to them. In the beginning it is easy to put an end to problems, but not later. Sometimes the cure causes the disease. Not the least of life's rules is to leave well enough alone.
122. Mastery in words and deeds.
It makes way everywhere, and quickly wins respect. It influences everything : conversation, making a speech, and even walking and looking and wanting. It is a great victory to seize the hearts of others. This sort of authority doesn't originate in foolish audacity or irritating slow-moving gravity; it is born from a superior character abetted by merit.
123. A person without affectation.
The more talent, the less affectation. This is a truly vulgar blemish, as annoying to others as it is burdensome. It makes one a martyr to worry, for it is a torment to have to keep up appearances. Even great gifts seem less valuable on account of affectation, for people attribute them to strain and artifice rather than to natural grace, and the natural is always more pleasant than the artificial. The affected are held as strangers to the talents they affect. The better you are at something, the more you should hide your efforts, so that perfection seems to occur naturally. Nor should you flee affectation by affecting not to have it. The prudent man should never acknowledge his own merits. By appearing to overlook them, he will gain the attention of others. The eminent person who takes no notice of his own perfection is twice eminent. He follows his own peculiar path to applause.
124. Make yourself wanted.
Few have won popular favor; consider yourself fortunate if you can win the favor of the wise. People are usually lukewarm towards those at the end of their careers. There are ways to win and keep the grand prize of favor. You can be outstanding in your occupation and in your talents. A pleasant manner works too. Turn eminence into dependence, so that people will say that the occupation needed you, and not vice versa. Some people honor their position, others are honored by it. It is no honor to be made good by the bad person who succeeds you. The fact that someone else is hated doesn't mean that you are truly wanted.
125. Don't be a blacklist of others' faults.
To pay attention to the infamy of others shows that your own fame is ruined. Some would like to dissimulate, or cleanse, their own blemishes with those of others, or to console themselves with them : a consolation of fools. Their breath stinks; they are cesspools of filth. In these matters, he who digs deepest gets muddiest. Few escape some fault of their own, either by inheritance or by association. Only when you are little known are your faults unknown. The prudent person doesn't register the defects of others or become a vile, living blacklist.