The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian, 1647
(translated by Christopher Maurer)

PART 8 of 12

176. Either know, or listen to someone who does.
To live, you need understanding : either your own, or borrowed. But many people are unaware that they do not know, and others think they know when they do not. Attacks of foolishness have no remedy. Because the ignorant do not know themselves, they never look for what they're lacking. Some would be sages if they did not believe they were so already. Oracles of prudence are rare, but all of them are idle, for no one consults them. Asking advice won't diminish your greatness or cast doubt on your talent. To the contrary; it will strengthen your reputation. To combat misfortune, take counsel with reason.
177. Don't grow too familiar with others, or permit them to be so with you.
You will lose the superiority your rectitude had given you, and with it your reputation. The stars do not brush against us, and thus they conserve their splendor. Divinity requires dignity, and familiarity breeds contempt. Human things, when most used, are least respected, for communication reveals the defects that reserve had hidden. Don't grow too familiar with anyone. Not with your superiors, for it is dangerous, nor with your inferiors, for it is undignified, and least of all with the rabble, which is foolish and insolent. Unable to realize you are doing them a favor, the rabble think it your obligation. Familiarity rhymes with vulgarity.
178. Trust your heart, especially when it is a strong one.
Never contradict it, for usually it can predict the things that matter most : it is a homegrown oracle. Many perished from what they feared, but what good was fearing it when they took no steps to prevent it? Some people have a very loyal heart, given to them by nature, which always forewarns them and sounds the alarm, saving them from failure. It is not prudent to rush into troubles, but it is to meet them halfway, in order to conquer them.
179. Reserve is the seal of talent.
A breast without reserve is an open letter. Have depths where you can hide your secrets : great spaces and little coves where important things can sink to the bottom and hide. Reserve comes from having mastered yourself, and being reserved is a genuine triumph. You pay tribute to as many people as you discover yourself to. The health of prudence lies in inner moderation. Reserve is threatened by others who feel you out, who contradict you to get a handle on you, or insinuate things that can make even the shrewdest give himself away. Neither say what you will do nor do what you have said.
180. Never govern yourself by what your enemy ought to do.
The fool never does what the prudent person thinks he will, for he cannot understand that it is to his advantage. Nor will he do it if he is wise, for he will want to dissimulate his intent, which you may have discovered and planned for. Examine both sides of things; go back and forth between them. Try to remain impartial. Don't think about what will happen; think about what could.
181. Don't lie, but don't tell the whole truth.
Nothing requires more skill than the truth, which is like a letting of blood from the heart. It takes skill both to speak it and to withhold it. A single lie can destroy your reputation for honesty. The man deceived seems faulty, and the deceiver seems false, which is worse. Not all truths can be spoken : some should be silenced for your own sake, others for the sake of someone else.
182. Show everyone a bit of daring : a important sort of prudence.
Change your views of others : don't think so highly of them that you fear them. Never let your imagination surrender to your heart. Many people seem great until you mingle with them, and communication leads more often to disappointment than to esteem. No one can exceed the narrow limits of humanity. Everyone's intellect and character has an "if only...". Rank bestows a certain apparent authority, but rarely is this accompanied by that of personal merit, for luck often punishes the person in a high position by giving him less talent. The imagination always rushes ahead and makes things out to be more than they are. It imagines not only what exists, but what might exist. Reason, drawing on experience, should see things clearly and correct her. Fools shouldn't be bold, nor the virtuous fearful. And if self-confidence helps the foolish and simple, how much more will it help the wise and courageous!
183. Don't hold on to anything too firmly.
Fools are stubborn, and the stubborn are fools, and the more erroneous their judgment is, the more they hold on to it. Even when you are right, it is good to make concessions : people will recognize you were right but admire your courtesy. More is lost through holding on than can be won by defeating others. One defends not truth but rudeness. There are heads of iron, difficult to convince, hopelessly obstinate. When whim meets stubbornness, they bond forever into foolishness. Be firm in will, not in judgment. There are exceptional cases, of course, when one shouldn't give in twice : once in judgment and once in execution.
184. Don't stand on ceremony.
Even in kings, this affectation looks like eccentricity. The punctilious person is a nuisance, and there are entire countries stricken with this squeamishness. The clothes of fools -- idolaters of their own honor -- are held together with these silly stitches, and they show that their honor is based on little, for anything seems to offend it. It is good to demand respect but not to be taken for a paragon of affectation. It is true that a totally unceremonious person needs great talent to succeed. Courtesy should neither be exaggerated nor scorned. You don't show your greatness by paying attention to the fine points of honor.
185. Don't risk your reputation on one roll of the dice.
If it comes out badly, the harm will be irreparable. You can easily err once, especially the first time. You aren't always at your best, and not every day is yours. So let there be a second attempt to make up for the first ... and if the first one goes right, it will redeem the second one. There must always be room for improvement and for appeal. Things depend on all sorts of circumstance, and luck grants us success only rarely.
186. Know when something is a defect, even if it looks like the opposite.
Honesty should be able to recognize vice even when it dresses in brocade. Sometimes it wears a crown of gold, but even then it cannot hide its iron. Slavery is just as vile when disguised by high position. Vices can be elevated, but are always base. Some people see a certain hero with a certain fault, but they don't realize that it wasn't the fault that made him a hero. The example of people in high places is so persuasive that it makes others imitate even their ugliness. Adulation mimics even an ugly face, without realizing that what is hidden by greatness is abominated when greatness is lacking.
187. When something pleases others, do it yourself. When it is odious, have someone else do it.
You will win favor, and shift ill will onto others. Great and noble people find it more pleasant to do good than to receive it. You can rarely trouble another without feeling troubled, either by pity or by remorse. In matters of reward or retribution let good be administered immediately, and bad, mediately, through another. You should give others something they can pummel with the hatred and gossip of their discontent. The anger of the rabble is like rabies. Without realizing what has harmed it, it snaps at the muzzle. And though the muzzle isn't to blame, it takes the immediate punishment.
188. Find something to praise.
This will accredit your taste and tell others that you formed it on excellent things, making them hope for your esteem. If someone has found out what perfection is, he will value it wherever it appears. Praise offers subjects for conversation and for imitation. It is an urbane way to recommend courtesy to those who accompany you. Some people do the opposite : they always find something to criticize, flattering those present by scorning those absent. This works with superficial people who are unaware of the trick : speaking ill of one to speak ill of the other. Other people make it a habit to admire the mediocrities of today more than the eminences of yesterday. Let the prudent person see through both of these ruses, giving in neither to exaggeration nor to flattery. And let him realize that these critics take the same approach no matter whose company they are in.
189. Utilize other people's privations.
When privation leads to desire, it gives us the surest way to manipulate others. Philosophers said that privation was nothing, and men of state say it is everything : the latter were right. Some people climb the steps of others' desires to reach their own ends. They take advantage of the tight spots others are in, and use difficulty to whet their appetite. They find the sting of want more useful than the complacency of possession, and as things grow more difficult, desire grows more vehement. A subtle way of getting what you want : maintain dependency.
190. Find consolation in everything.
Even the useless have their consolation : they are eternal. There is no cloud without a silver lining. For fools it is being lucky. As the proverb says, "The beautiful wish they were as lucky as the ugly." To live much, it is good to be worth little. The glass that is cracked is the one that annoys us by never breaking completely. Fortune seems to envy the most important people. It rewards uselessness with endurance and importance with brevity. Those who matter will always be in short supply, and the person who is good for nothing will be eternal, either because he seems so, or really is. As for the unfortunate person, luck and death seem to conspire to forget him.
191. Don't take payment in politeness.
It is a cheat. Some people, in order to cast a spell, have no need of magic potions. By doffing their hats the right way, they bewitch fools -- the vain, that is. They sell honor, and pay their debts with a gust of fine words. He who promises everything promises nothing; promises are a trap for fools. True courtesy is a duty, false courtesy a deceit, and excessive courtesy isn't dignity but dependence. Those who practice it bow not to the person but to his wealth and to his flattery; not to good qualities, but to hoped-for favors.
192. A peaceable person is a long-lived one.
To live, let live. Peaceable people not only live, they reign. Listen and see, but keep quiet. A day without contention means a night of rest. To live much and to take pleasure in life is to live twice : the fruit of peace. You can have everything if you care little for what matters nothing. Nothing is sillier than to take everything seriously. It is just as foolish to let something wound you when it doesn't concern you as not to be wounded when it does.
193. Beware of someone who pretends to put your interest before his own.
The best defense against guile is attentiveness. When people are subtle, be even more so. Some are good at making their business into yours, and if you don't decipher their intentions, you'll find yourself pulling their chestnuts out of the fire.
194. Be realistic about yourself and your own affairs.
Even more so when you have just begun to live. Everyone thinks highly of himself, and those who are least think themselves the most. Everyone dreams of his fortune and imagines himself a prodigy. Hope seizes on something, and experience fails to deliver. A clear vision of reality is torture to a vain imagination. Be sensible. Want the best but expect the worst, so as to accept any outcome with equanimity. It is a good idea to aim a little high, but not so high as to miss the mark. When you begin a job, adjust your expectations. Where experience is lacking, presumptions often go wrong. Intelligence is a panacea for all sorts of foolishness. Know your radius of action and your condition and adjust your imagination to reality.
195. Know how to appreciate.
There is no one who cannot better someone else at something, and there will always be someone who can conquer even him. It is useful to know exactly how to enjoy each person. The wise person esteems everyone, for he recognizes the good in each, and he realizes how hard it is to do things well. The fool despises others, partly out of ignorance and partly because he always prefers what is worst.
196. Know your lucky star.
No one is so helpless as not to have one, and if you're unfortunate, it is because you haven't recognized it. Some people have access to princes and the powerful without really knowing how or why, and it is only that luck has favored them. It remains for them only to nurture their luck with effort. Others are favored by the wise. Certain people are better accepted in one country than in another, or better known in a certain city, and even among people of identical merit, some are luckier in certain pursuits. Luck shuffles the cards the way she wants to. Let each person know his own luck, and his own talents; losing and winning depend on it. Know how to follow your lucky star. Don't change it or turn your back on it.
197. Never stumble over fools.
A fool is someone who doesn't recognize a fool, and, even more, someone who does, but doesn't get rid of him. Fools are dangerous to deal with, even superficially, and do much harm if you confide in them. For a while they are held back by their own caution or that of others, but the delay serves only to deepen their foolishness. Someone who had no reputation can do only harm to yours. Fools are always unfortunate -- this is their burden -- and their double misfortune sticks to them and rubs off on those they deal with. They have only one thing that isn't completely bad : although the wise are of no use to them, they can be of use to the wise as negative examples.
198. Know how to transplant yourself.
There are entire peoples who are esteemed only after transplanting themselves, and this is especially true in high places. Mother countries behave like stepmothers toward the eminent. Envy finds fertile soil and reigns over everything, remembering one's initial imperfections rather than the greatness one reached later. A mere pin won esteem by traveling from the old world to the new, and a bead of glass made people scorn the diamond. [An allusion to the European exploration of the New World.] Everything foreign is held in esteem, whether it came from afar, or because people see it only after it is well formed and has reached perfection. Some people were scorned in their own little corner but achieved worldly eminence. They are honored by their own people because they look at them from a distance and by foreigners because they came from afar. The statue on the altar will never be venerated by someone who saw it back when it was a tree trunk in the forest.
199. Be prudent when you try to win esteem, and don't do it by intruding.
The true road to a good reputation is merit, and if effort builds upon worth, it can take a shortcut. Integrity alone is not enough, and neither is diligence, for your efforts can get you dirty enough to ruin your reputation. Steer a middle course : you should have merit but also know how to present yourself.
200. Have something to hope for, so as not to be happily unhappy.
The body breathes and the spirit yearns for things. If all were possession, all would be disappointment and discontent. Even the understanding needs something else to learn, something curiosity can feed on. Hope gives us life, but gorging on happiness can be fatal. When rewarding others, never leave them satisfied. When they want nothing, you should fear everything : unhappy happiness. Fear begins where desire ends.