The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 6 of 12

126. The fool isn't someone who does something foolish, but the one who doesn't know how to conceal it.
Hide your affects, but even more, your defects. All people err, but with this difference : the wise dissimulate their errors, and fools speak of those they are about to commit. Reputation is more a matter of stealth than of deeds. If you can't be chaste, be chary. The slips of the great are closely observed, like eclipses of the sun and moon. You shouldn't confide your defects to friends, or even to yourself, were that possible. Another rule for living is applicable here : know how to forget.
127. Ease and grace in everything.
It gives life to talent, breath to speech, soul to deeds, and it sets off the highest gifts. The other perfections are an adornment of nature, but grace adorns the perfections themselves : it makes even thought more admirable. It owes most to natural privilege and least to effort, and it is superior even to the precepts of art. It runs faster than mere skill and overtakes even what is dashing. It increases self-confidence and heaps up perfection. Without it, all beauty is dead, all grace is disgrace. It transcends merit, discretion, prudence, and majesty itself. It is a seemly shortcut to getting things done, and a refined way to escape from any difficulty.
[Translator's note : Despejo, rendered here as "ease and grace," might also be translated as "ineffable charm" or "charisma."].
128. Highmindedness.
It is one of the chief requisites of heroism, for it inspires all sorts of greatness. It heightens our taste, swells the heart, lifts up our thought, ennobles our condition, and allows majesty to do anything it wants. It stands out wherever it is found. Luck sometimes envies it and tries to deny it, but it yearns to excel. It rules the will, even when circumstances restrict it. Magnanimity, generosity, and all other eminent qualities acknowledge it as their source.
129. Never complain.
Complaints will always discredit you. Rather than compassion and consolation, they provoke passion and insolence, and encourage those who hear our complaints to behave like those we complain about. Once divulged to others, the offenses done to us seem to make others pardonable. Some complain of past offenses and give rise to future ones. They want to be helped or consoled, but their listeners feel only satisfaction and even contempt. It is better policy to praise the favors others have done you, so as to win still more of them. When you tell how those absent have favored you, you are asking those present to do the same, and pay in the same coin. The prudent person should never publicize dishonor or slights, only the esteem others have shown him. Thus will he have friends and halve his enemies.
130. Do, but also seem.
Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice. What is invisible might as well not exist. Reason itself is not venerated when it does not wear a reasonable face. Those easily duped outnumber the prudent. Deceit reigns, and things are judged from without, and are seldom what they seem. A fine exterior is the best recommendation of inner perfection.
131. A gallant spirit.
The soul has its fine dress clothes, the spiritual dash and boldness that make the heart look splendid. Not everyone has room for gallantry, for it calls for magnanimity. Its first concern is always to speak well of the enemy, and act even better. It shines most brightly when it has the chance to avenge itself. It does not avoid these situations, but takes advantage of them, turning a potential act of vengeance into an unexpected act of generosity. It is also the best part of governing others, the adornment of politics. It never shows off its triumphs -- it affects nothing -- and when they are due to merit, it knows how to dissimulate.
132. Reconsider.
Safety lies in looking things over twice, especially when you are not completely confident. Take time, either to concede something or to better your situation, and you will find new ways to confirm and corroborate your judgment. If it is a matter of giving, a gift is valued more highly when bestowed wisely than when given quickly. What was long desired is always more appreciated. If it is a matter of refusing, you can devote more attention to your manner, and let your "no" ripen a bit, so that it will not be quite so bitter. Most of the time, the first heat of desire will have died down, and it will be easier to accept refusal. If someone asks soon, grant late. This is a way of holding his interest.
133. Better to be mad with everyone than sane all alone: so say the politicians.
If all are mad, you'll be equal to them. And if you alone are sane, you will be taken for mad. What matters is to follow the current. The best knowledge, sometimes, is not to know, or pretend not to. We must live with others, and the majority are ignorant. To live by yourself, you must be very godly or a complete savage. But I would modify this aphorism and say : better sane with the many than mad all by yourself. Some people want to be singular in the pursuit of chimeras.
134. Double your store of life's necessities.
You will double life. Don't depend on any single thing, or limit any one resource, no matter how rare and excellent. Double everything, especially the sources of benefit, favor, and taste. The moon is transcendently mutable, setting the limits of permanence, and more mutable still are the things that depend on our frail human will. Store up supplies for frailty. It is a great rule for living to double your sources of happiness and profit. Just as nature doubled the most important and most exposed of our bodily limbs, so should are double the things we depend on.
135. Don't have the spirit of contradiction.
You will only burden yourself with foolishness and annoyance. Let prudence plot against it. Finding objections to everything can be ingenious, but the stubborn person is almost always a fool. Some turn sweet conversation into a skirmish, and are more of an enemy to their friends and acquaintances than to those with whom they have no dealings. The bone of contention is hardest when the morsel is sweetest, and contradiction often ruins happy moments. They are pernicious fools who add nastiness to beastliness.
136. Size up the matter.
Take the pulse of the business at hand. Many see the trees but not the forest, or bark up the wrong tree, speaking endlessly, reasoning uselessly, without going to the pith of the matter. They go round and round, tiring themselves and us, and never get to what is important. This happens to people with confused minds who do not know how to clear away the brambles. They waste time and patience on what it would be better to leave alone, and later there is no time for what they left.
137. The wise are sufficient unto themselves.
One of them carried all of his belongings with him.* One friend -- a universal man -- can represent Rome and the rest of the universe.** Be that friend to yourself, and you will be able to live by yourself. Why should you need anyone else if no taste and no understanding is superior to yours? You will depend only on yourself; the greatest happiness is to resemble the Supreme Entity. The person who can live by himself is in no way a brute; in many ways he is a wise man, in every way a god.
[*The Greek philosopher Stilpon of Megara, having lost his wife, his children, and all of his possessions in a fire, emerged from the ruins and remarked: "I have all my possessions with me."]
[**An allusion to Cato the Elder, statesman and soldier, praised by Cicero for his capacity for friendship.]
138. Leave things alone.
Especially when the sea -- people, your friends, your acquaintances -- is stirred up. Life with others has its tempests, its storms of will, when it is wise to retire to a safe harbor and let the waves subside. Remedies often worsen evils. Let nature take its course, and morality. The wise physician knows when to prescribe and when not to, and sometimes it takes skill not to apply remedies. Throwing up your hands is sometimes a good way to put down vulgar storms. If you bow to time for the present, you will conquer in the future. It takes little to muddy a stream. You can't make it grow clear by trying to, only by leaving it alone. There is no better remedy for disorder than to leave it alone to correct itself.
139. Know your unlucky days, for they exist.
Nothing will turn out right. You can change your game, but bad luck will remain. Test your luck a few times, and retire if it is bad. Even understanding has its moments : no one can know everything at all hours. It takes good luck to think well, as it does to write a good letter. All perfection depends upon the right moment. Even beauty isn't always in season. Discretion goes into hiding, either doing too much or too little. To turn out well, everything has its moment. On some days, everything goes badly; on others, well, and with less effort. You find that everything is done easily, your intelligence is in working order, your temperament in tune, and you are your own lucky star. Take advantage of such days, and don't waste a moment of them. But it isn't smart to pronounce the day definitively bad because of one bad stroke of luck, or do the contrary.
140. Go straight to the good in everything.
It is the happy lot of those with good taste. The bee goes straight for the sweetness, and the viper for the bitterness it needs for its poison. So with tastes : some go for the best, others for the worst. There is nothing that doesn't have something good, especially books, where good is imagined. Some people's temperaments are so unfortunate that among a thousand perfections they will find a single defect and censure it and blow it out of proportion. They are the garbage collectors of the will and of the intellect, burdened down with blemishes and defects : punishment for their poor discernment rather than proof of their subtlety. They are unhappy, for they batten on bitterness and graze on imperfections. Others have a happier sort of taste : among a thousand defects they discover some perfection that good luck happened to let drop.
141. Don't listen to yourself.
What good is it to please yourself if you don't please others? Self-satisfaction reaps only scorn. By giving yourself credit, you will run up a debt with others. Speaking and listening to yourself is impossible to do well. To speak to yourself is madness; to listen to yourself in front of others, doubly mad. Some people batter our ears with refrains like "Am I right?" or "You know?", badgering others for approbation or flattery, and casting doubt on their own judgment. Vain people, too, like to speak with an echo. They put their conversation on high heels, and fools rush to their rescue with an odious "Well said!"
142. Don't defend the wrong side out of stubbornness, just because your opponent happened to get there first and choose the best.
You will go into battle already defeated, and go down in disgrace. Bad is no match for good. It was cunning of your opponent to anticipate the best, and it would be stupid of you to defend the worst. Those obstinate in deeds are in greater danger than those obstinate in words, for there is greater risk in doing than in saying. The vulgar ignorance of stubborn people makes them prefer contradiction to truth and contention to utility. Prudent people are on the side of reason, not passion, whether because they foresaw it from the first, or because they improved their position later. If your opponent is a fool, his foolishness will make him change course, switch sides, and worsen his position. To expel him from the best, embrace it yourself. His foolishness will make him abandon it and his own obstinacy will cast him down.
143. Don't be paradoxical to avoid being vulgar.
Both extremes bring discredit. Anything that threatens our dignity is a kind of foolishness. The paradox is a sort of deceit that seems plausible at first and startles us with its piquant novelty. But later, when its falseness is revealed, it brings disgrace. It possesses a certain false charm, and in politics it can be the ruin of states. Those who cannot distinguish themselves through virtue take the path of paradox, surprising fools and turning wise men into prophets. Paradox reveals an unsound judgment and a lack of prudence. It is based on falsity or uncertainty, and puts dignity at risk.
144. Enter conceding and come out winning.
This is a strategy for getting what you want. Even in heavenly matters, our Christian teachers recommend this holy craftiness. It is an important sort of dissimulation and you use it to capture someone else's will. You appear to have his interests in mind, but it is only to open the way for yours. You should never take up matters confusedly, especially risky ones. Be careful with people whose first word is usually "no." It is best to disguise your intent, so that they won't realize the difficulties of saying "yes," especially when you have already sensed their resistance. This maxim relations to the ones about hidden intentions, and requires the same quintessential subtlety.
145. Hide your wounded finger, or you will bump it on everything.
Never complain about it. Malice always zeroes in on what hurts or weakens us. Look discouraged and you will only encourage others to make fun of you. Evil intent is always looking for ways to get a rise out of you. It uses insinuation to discover where you hurt, and knows a thousand stratagems to probe your wounds. If you are wise, you will ignore malicious hints, and conceal your troubles, either personal or inherited, for even Fortune sometimes like to hit you where it hurts. It always goes straight for raw flesh. Be careful not to reveal what mortifies and what vivifies you, lest the former last and the latter end.
146. Look deep inside.
Things are seldom what they seem, and ignorance, which sees no deeper than the bark, often turns to disillusion when it penetrates into things. In all things, deceit arrives first, dragging fools behind it in endless vulgarity. Truth is always late, always last to arrive, limping along with Time. Prudent people save one of their ears for truth, thanking their common mother, Nature, for giving them two. Deceit is superficial, and superficial people are quick to run into her. Discernment lives hidden away in retirement, so as to be more esteemed by the wise and the discreet.
147. Don't be inaccessible.
No one is so perfect as not to need occasional counsel. The person who doesn't listen is a hopeless fool. Even the most independent of people ought to heed friendly advice, and even sovereigns are happy to learn from others. Some people are incorrigible because inaccessible, and they fall because no one dares to catch them. Even the most inflexible person should leave the door open to friendship; help will come through it. We all need a friend who feels free to scold us and give us advice. Trust will grant him this authority, and our high opinion of his loyalty and prudence. We shouldn't bestow our respect and authority on just anyone, and yet, in the inner rooms of our caution, we need the faithful mirror of a confidant. If we value that mirror, it will set us free from deceit.
148. Be skilled in conversation.
The art of conversation is the measure of a true person. No human activity calls for so much discretion, for none is more common. It is here that we win or lose. It takes prudence to write a letter, which is conversation thought out and written down, and even more to converse, for discretion is soon put to the test. Experts feel the tongue and quickly take the pulse of the mind. "Speak," said the sage, "and you will be known." To some the art of conversation lies in having no art at all, let it fit loosely, like clothes. This may be true of conversation among friends. In more elevated circles, conversation should be weightier, revealing the great substance of the person. To converse successfully, you must adapt yourself to the temperament and intelligence of others. Don't set yourself up as a censor of words -- for you will be taken as a grammarian -- and even less as a prosecutor of sentences -- which will make others avoid you and keep you from communicating. In speech, discretion matters more than eloquence.
149. Let someone else take the hit.
You will shield yourself from malevolence : sound policy in those who govern. Having someone else take the blame for failure and be the butt of gossip does not spring from a lack of ability, as malice thinks, but from superior skill. Not everything can turn out well, and you can't please everyone. So look for a scapegoat, someone whose own ambition will make him a good target.
150. Know how to sell your wares.
Intrinsic quality isn't enough. Not everyone bites at substance or looks for inner value. People like to follow the crowd; they go someplace because they see other people do so. It takes much skill to explain something's value. You can use praise, for praise arouses desire. At other times you can give things a good name (but be sure to flee from affectation). Another trick is to offer something only to those in the know, for everyone believes himself an expert, and the person who isn't will want to be one. Never praise things for being easy or common : you'll make them seem vulgar and facile. Everybody goes for something unique. Uniqueness appeals both to the taste and to the intellect.