The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647) is a timeless self-help classic. Comprising 300 short but brilliant maxims, it sheds light on how to live your life, achieve success, and win respect. It has remained consistently relevant throughout its nearly 400-year publication history, inspiring the likes of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Discover the enduring wisdom of a 400-year-old self-help classic.
Creating and nurturing lasting friendships is key to success.
It’s important to build and maintain a good reputation.
Sometimes you have to bend morality to get ahead in life.
All successful people are masters of the art of giving and receiving favors.
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, World Literature, Spanish and Portuguese Literature, Religious Philosophy, Self Help, Psychology, Politics, European Literature, Spain Cultural
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Discover the enduring wisdom of a 400-year-old self-help classic.
Human history is filled with influential people. And since the invention of writing, those gifted with the power of prose have used it to win over others. But while many ancient texts are still widely read today, not all of them are applicable to our modern way of living.
That said, some of the most important aspects behind success have changed very little over the centuries. This is what makes Balthasar Gracián’s 300 maxims so remarkable – the majority of them still ring true today, even though they were written by a Jesuit priest nearly 400 years ago. Whether he’s talking about how to exercise power or how to improve your personality, many of the principles underlying his aphorisms could come straight out of a modern self-help book.
Gracián’s world was incredibly different from ours. He was born and lived in seventeenth-century baroque Spain. During his life, he achieved fame with the publishing of El Criticón, an epic novel now regarded as a Spanish classic. But his Art of Worldly Wisdom is what he is most known for today. Published in 1647, it was an instant success throughout Europe. Influential philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer admired it so much that he translated it into German. And Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed it was unrivaled in showing how to lead a moral life.
Perhaps Gracián’s maxims feel so familiar today because society has changed less than we think over the last 400 years. His original target audience was people trying to navigate the dog-eat-dog Spanish court life. Nowadays, we’re all navigating the hyper-competitive global economy. Both situations present the same problem – how can we maintain an upright character while trying to get ahead in a chaotic world? In this summary, we’ll present a selection of Gracián’s maxims, all in search of answers to this question. You may or may not agree or want to apply all of these life lessons, but it’s undeniable that they shed a fascinating light on the ideas and social relationships that have shaped modern life.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- the difference between friends of humor and friends of talent;
- why you should shroud your work in mystery; and
- that sometimes, you need to be bad in order to be good.
Creating and nurturing lasting friendships is key to success.
Let’s start off with a maxim that’s as simple as it is important: “have friends.” Sure, this seems obvious, but there’s a reason Gracián thought it was important to include. This is because the advantages of having friends aren’t necessarily as simplistic as you think. And as you’ll see, how you go about choosing your friends has a big impact on your place in the world.
Gracián recommends trying to make a new friend every day. Even if it only results in a new acquaintance rather than a future confidant, this is an important act. If you find this difficult, then Gracián has some advice – the best way to make friends is to already act like their friend. Apply this principle to your in-person or online communications to more effectively form new friendships.
Now, although Gracián definitely recommends casting your net wide, this doesn’t mean all friendships are created equal. In fact, you should be careful when choosing which of your friends you trust the most or those you spend the most time with. One factor to consider is that there are usually two types of friends – friends of talent, and friends of humor. Although you might value a humorous friend for the entertainment they provide you, spending time with them might have negative consequences. This is because when observed in their company, others might assume that you too are only of humorous value or, as Gracián bluntly puts it, a fool.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, be sure also to surround yourself with talented people. Gracián even thought that if you simply spent time around people more intelligent than yourself, you would supernaturally receive some of their intelligence. While we now know that that isn’t true psychologically speaking, we can’t deny that we are influenced and inspired by those we spend time with.
For example, take a moment to examine the lives of some of today’s most successful people. What do they all have in common? They all associate themselves with other successful people. What’s more is that in many cases, they were doing so before they made their big breaks. This is because if you cultivate a network of outstanding, talented people, it will lead to a number of knock-on effects. One of these has to do with learning. When you run into problems or need advice, having a network of thriving people around you means you’ll never be short of advice or solutions. Your constant learning and gathering of experience means that, one day, you too will be able to share your knowledge with others.
So, now that you know who you should be seeking out to be your close friends, how do you go about cultivating these friendships? Gracián presents numerous tips on how to do so, and we’ll go through three of these.
First and foremost, don’t hold onto your views too firmly. Sometimes, conceding a point or accepting you’re wrong can be integral to maintaining rapport and social standing. If you’re too harsh in defending all your positions all the time, your social reputation will suffer. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to give in on everything. You undoubtedly have existential and deep-rooted opinions that shape the core of your identity, and no good friend should expect you to change them. But when it comes to everything else, don’t waste too much social capital arguing with friends.
The second way you can maintain and deepen friendships is by not talking about yourself. For some of us, this can be hard. But, as Gracián explains, talking about yourself often leads to being perceived as either vain or meek. This is because focusing on yourself can easily lead to excessive self-praise – or self-criticism.
Finally, the third principle behind cultivating friendships is to avoid being boring. This sounds rather obvious, but for Gracián, it’s key to social relations. He notes that when you associate with people at the top of their field, not being boring becomes even more important. This is because successful people are often very busy, meaning that they’re even more annoyed with people who they feel are wasting their limited time. So, make an effort to practice brevity and variety when conversing with friends. As Gracián says, “good things, if brief: twice good.” On the flip side, “badness, if short, isn’t so bad.”
Sadly, even the best of friendships sometimes come to an end. It’s in situations like these where you have to be very careful – the closer the friend, the worse the future detractor if things end badly. So take care when it comes to ending friendships. Take a gentle, forgiving approach if at all possible, and avoid saying anything offensive that might come back to haunt you.
It’s important to build and maintain a good reputation.
Now that you’ve heard Gracián’s take on friendship, let’s dive into a related theme. Many of his maxims have to do with the importance of obtaining – and keeping – a good reputation. Doing so isn’t easy, but once you have it, you need to treasure it. That’s because while gaining a good reputation is hard, losing it can be very easy if you’re not careful.
One of the anchors of any good reputation is maintaining a sense of mystery in everything that you do. According to Gracián, reputation is more about stealth rather than deeds. This is because people tend to admire novelty and complexity. So when you’re talking about your work, for example, try to always mix in a bit of mystery. Don’t tell people your innermost thoughts – rather, leave a little to the imagination so that others have to use their own minds to fill in the gaps. As Gracián explains, people value things that are difficult.
In a similar vein, it’s important to hide the full extent of your abilities from others. While it’s helpful for people to know and respect what you do, you should keep them guessing how good you really are. No matter how talented you may be at your craft, you’re likely to win more admiration by keeping people in the dark rather than displaying the upper limits of your skills.
And this doesn’t only apply to your strengths. It’s even more important to hide your weaknesses. Everybody has weaknesses, of course, but the most successful people are those who hide them most effectively. This isn’t by accident – the more successful you are, the more you have to lose. And when someone successful fails publicly, their detractors descend on them like a pack of hungry wolves.
But it’s not just your enemies who you need to hide your weaknesses from – Gracián recommends not even sharing your weaknesses with your closest friends. In fact, if it were possible, you shouldn’t even admit your defects to yourself.
Reputation, conversely, isn’t only about what you need to hide. It’s important that you show the world that you are, in fact, doing things. Truth be told, showing that you are doing is just as important as doing itself. After all, invisible work might as well be nonexistent work. In a modern context, you could apply this maxim to your job. Even if you’re great at what you do, if no one is aware of what you’re doing, you might as well be doing nothing. This is why you need to find subtle, tactful ways to share your achievements with colleagues and superiors.
Once you’ve built up a good reputation, it’s important not to squander it. This is why it’s crucial to learn from your mistakes, and not to make the same one twice. Gracián observes that while people are often willing to give others second chances, that’s usually the limit. So when you make a mistake, you need to rectify it immediately. Show the world that you have learned and will act differently going forward, and your reputation will hopefully be saved.
Sometimes you have to bend morality to get ahead in life.
So far, we’ve been looking at topics that could very well have come from a contemporary self-help book. How to maintain friendships and your reputation are fairly innocent and normal things, after all. But Gracián isn’t afraid to get into the slightly more morally dubious aspects behind living a successful life. In fact, many people over the years have compared his more cunning maxims to the writings of Italian Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli.
While Gracián is considered to be more diplomatic than his Italian forerunner, the following maxims would be hard to find in the best-selling self-help books of today. One could argue, however, that in many ways, the hyper-competitive world we live in now is filled with a similar mixture of cunning and duplicity that marked seventeenth-century Spanish society. And Gracián maintains that in order to achieve dignity and self-respect in such a society, you have to sometimes bend morality. So while a few of the following maxims are questionable, they contain enough truth and information to make them worth considering.
Alright, here goes: to make the most of your relationships, make people depend on you. Gracián’s logic behind this is that it’s better to be needed than to be thanked. When you’re no longer needed, people tend to treat you worse, as well as having less respect for you. So try to make yourself indispensable to everyone around you. As Gracián notes, maintaining dependency can hold even a king to your every whim.
Speaking of kings, Gracián explains that even the nonaristocrats among us need to know how to use scapegoats. For kings or their modern equivalents, throwing scapegoats under the bus when things go wrong is a necessary trait. But this shouldn’t be restricted to the ruling class. All people who chase success need to learn to let others take the hit when things go wrong. This is because things will inevitably go wrong – after all, imperfection is one of the main things that separates us from God, as Gracián notes.
We all make mistakes. But just as others are likely to push their mistakes onto you, you may need to do the same to them. So, Gracián encourages, even if it pains you to do so, next time something goes wrong, consider feigning innocence and placing the blame on someone else. But be careful not to be too outlandish with your blame – it needs to be believable, and the scapegoat needs to have been somehow involved in your mistake, whether directly or indirectly.
The flip side can be said about good things too, by the way. If you were involved in something that attracts praise, be quick to make it known that you were an integral part of it. Again, make sure it’s not a stretch – it has to be believable. The key here is speed – if you wait too long, others will lay claim to the achievement first. And when it comes to reward and praise, it’s first come first serve.
All successful people are masters of the art of giving and receiving favors.
Let’s move on to some maxims that are slightly less morally dubious. A big topic that Gracián concerns himself with is that of giving and receiving favors. In fact, he argues that mastering the art of this common social phenomenon is key to living a successful life.
First and foremost, never, ever waste a favor. For Gracián, doing so is even worse than denying someone else a favor that they’ve earned. Always make sure that you keep a tab of who owes you something, and make sure to use this when you need it. Be careful, though – Gracián notes that some people will attempt to return a favor you’ve done them in the form of politeness. In other words, they’ll attempt to return a pragmatic favor with words of gratitude.
In this case, return their polite thankfulness with a polite “it was no problem at all, I’m sure you’d have done the same for me.” Saying something along these lines will remind them of the transactional nature of what you’ve done for them, increasing the chances that they will feel the social responsibility to reciprocate in the future.
Now, it could be that you need a favor from someone who doesn’t yet owe you one. In this case, it might be worth considering doing them a favor in advance. That way, they’ll be obliged to owe you one in return. In fact, Gracián maintains that such unprompted favors can show you to be a selfless, giving person, and this can make others feel the need to reciprocate in an even bigger way. Gracián makes an interesting debt analogy to illustrate this. You begin by paying a debt you don’t owe, and in the end, the debt gets passed to your creditor.
When it comes to giving favors, be sure to exercise some restraint. This is helpful in the case that you do someone too many favors without giving them the chance to reciprocate, which might scare them away. If you exhaust the gratitude of someone else, they may start to feel that they can never repay you. In extreme cases, they might even break off contact with you altogether. Of course, this is something you should avoid at all costs.
Conversely, don’t allow yourself to get into the other side of that situation. In other words, don’t be the type of person who owes everyone favors. Just as being in monetary debt can be antithetical to financial success, the same is true of social debt and your reputation. If people begin to think of you as the person who never returns favors, you risk becoming a social pariah. So just as you keep track of who owes you favors, also keep track of the other side of the equation.
Which brings us to the final maxim we’ll share with you – and that is to live neither entirely for yourself nor entirely for others. You need to strike a balance between being selfish and selfless. This is the see-saw of social exchange – at this point in your life, you owe certain people favors. They’ll expect you to be selfless at some point in the future. But after this point, you need to reciprocate this with a bit of selfishness in order to maintain the balance.
As discussed earlier, when it comes to social exchange, there really can be too much of a good thing. So strive to live a balanced social life. By doing so, you’ll be much more likely to achieve the success you deserve.
As we wrap up the summary to The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián y Morales, there are a few important things to remember.
For starters, even 400-year-old books can contain a lot of surprisingly prescient wisdom. Some of these maxims can even be applied today. As an example, it could be a good idea to try spending more time with friends we consider successful in their fields. By doing so, there is a lot we can learn and develop in – and one day pass on to others. And although some of Gracián’s maxims are a bit Machiavellian, it’s definitely important to remember that many people put these to use to find success. And, while we can’t recommend doing so in good conscience, there are those that say that desperate means call for desperate measures. Finally, embracing a more mysterious persona might be a good idea. In an age where many of us share every moment of our lives on social media, holding some things back can’t hurt.
The remarkable best-seller — a long-lost, 300-year-old book of wisdom on how to live successfully yet responsibly in a society governed by self-interest — as acute as Machiavelli yet as humanistic and scrupulously moral as Marcus Aurelius.
Maurer retranslates a 17th-century Jesuit’s aphorisms and reflections on the morality of success. This long-admired work sounds surprisingly relevant today. It also combines brevity and grace of expression with wise advice, which should appeal to those seeking “how-to” spirituality which is universal, practical, and applicable in business. Recommended for public libraries. – From Library Journal
The remarkable best-seller — a long-lost, 300-year-old book of wisdom on how to live successfully yet responsibly in a society governed by self-interest — as acute as Machiavelli yet as humanistic and scrupulously moral as Marcus Aurelius. – From the Publisher
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle is a book of strategies for knowing, judging, and acting: for making one’s way in the world and achieving distinction and perfection. It is a collection of three hundred aphorisms too delicious not to share with friends and colleagues, too penetrating not to hide from enemies and rivals. Its ideal reader is someone whose daily occupation involves dealing with others: discovering their intentions, winning their favor and friendship, or (on the other hand) defeating their designs and “checkmating their will.” Like all aphorisms, these are meant to be read slowly, a few at a time.
The Pocket Oracle revolves around a duality dear to the seventeenth century and to our own: it sees life as warfare involving both being and seeming, both appearance and reality. It provides advice not only for modern “image makers” and “spin doctors,” but also for the candid: for those who insist that substance, not image, is what really matters. “Do, but also seem,” is Gracián’s pithy advice (aphorism 130). It assumes that good people are those most easily duped (21)—sheep in the midst of wolves—and it teaches us to temper the innocence of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent, governing ourselves according to the way people are, rather than the way they would like to be or to appear.
The Oracle has spoken in many tongues, has been heard with admiration and greeted with praise. It was imitated by La Rochefoucauld (who learned of it in the salon of his friend Mme de Sablé), valued by writers as diverse as Joseph Addison and Friedrich Nietzsche, and lovingly translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche observed that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety,”1 and Schopenhauer believed the Oracle “absolutely unique”
It teaches the art which all would fain practice, and is therefore a book for everyone; but it is especially fitted to be the manual of those who live in the great world, and peculiarly of young peop; le who wish to prosper in that world. To them it gives at once and beforehand that teaching which they could otherwise only obtain through long experience. To read it once through is obviously not enough; it is a book made for constant use as occasion serves—in short, to be a companion for life.2
What sort of person composed these strategies for perfection? The voice that emerges from the Oracle is not, as some have argued, an entirely cynical, Machiavellian one. Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), a worldly Jesuit priest, felt undying hatred for human folly. But the Oracle insists on the perfectability of man and the capacity of goodness, assisted by art, to triumph over evil.3 It is true that in the Oracle perfection depends not upon religious revelation (God appears only rarely in these pages) but upon human resources and industry: attentiveness, mastery of one’s emotions, self-knowledge, and other forms of prudence. There is, however, nothing irreligious or overly “pessimistic” about this emphasis on human reason. It was, after all, from St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of his order, that Gracián learned aphorism 251: “Use human means as though divine ones didn’t exist, and divine means as though there were no human ones.” In the Oracle, Gracián has all but ignored “divine” means, aware of Ignatius’ advice and of the Spanish proverb it elaborates on: “Pray to God, but hammer away …”4 Gracián assumes, without saying so, that God helps those who help themselves.
What is disconcertingly “modern” about this book is the apparent subordination of ethics to strategy.5 Moral generalizations, the immutable “hard rules” of ethics, yield, in these pages, to the conviction that to reach perfection one must adapt to circumstance. To achieve Gracián’s prudencia (wisdom or prudence) one avoids generalities—among them, generalizations about morals. The Oracle bids us to speak the truth but to administer it skillfully, with a touch of artifice (210); the “most practical sort of knowledge lies in dissimulation” (98). We are to be “learned with the learned, saintly with saints … observe [others’] temperaments and adapt [ourselves] accordingly” (77). The wise are as mutable as Proteus. But even mutability and dissimulation must not harden into guiding principles. Gracián’s insistence on adaptability, on metamorphosis and camouflage, reveals (an Italian philosopher reminds us) a poignant sense of man’s fragility and vulnerability.6
Nor can Gracián be accused of indifference to the spiritual or material well-being of others. Avoid fools, he tells us repeatedly, but beyond that his injunctions are clear: “Speak what is very good, do what is very honorable” (202). “Know how to do good”: little by little, with moderation (255). “Love, if you would be loved.” Friendship is a recurrent theme, both here and in Gracián’s other works, as it was in his life, and so is conversation. As for the “pessimism” of which he is often accused, the concept is anachronistic. What many of us call “optimism”—a belief that people are basically good and that things will turn out for the best—Gracián would have regarded as a hoax of the imagination: “Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgment keep her in check” (19).
Like other moralists of his age, from Francis Bacon and Jeremy Taylor to Francisco de Quevedo, Gracián labored painfully toward desengaño, the state of total “disenchantment” or disillusionment in which one gains control of one’s hopes and fears, overcomes deceitful appearances and vain expectations, and weans oneself from false worldly values. Much of the Oracle, with its insistence on curbing the imagination, concerns strategies for reaching that bittersweet beatitude. To entertain no illusions about things or people was a large part of wisdom. The modern notions of pessimism and optimism seem shallow in comparison. Optimism would have seemed out of place, anyway, in seventeenth-century Spain—the Spain of Velásquez and Zurbarán—a kingdom in social turmoil and political decline. Like Quevedo, Gracián had the sense that his country’s moral strength was waning. From time to time we hear a melancholy, unmistakably elegiac sigh: “Good conduct has departed, debts of gratitude now go unpaid, and few people give others the treatment they deserve …” (280). Only strategy—incessant plotting against one’s own weaknesses and those of others—allows us to push forward to perfection. “It takes more to make one sage today than it did to make the seven of Greece” (1).
What of Gracián’s own life, his own struggle toward worldly wisdom? It was not, as so many have written, an entirely uneventful one. He was born in 1601 in Belmonte, a village in Aragón,7 not far from the birthplace of the great Latin satirist Martial, a coincidence which must have delighted him (Gracián’s allegorical novel El criticón, or The Master Critic, is one of the most forceful satires ever written by a Spaniard). As an adolescent he studied philosophy and letters in Toledo and Zaragoza and in 1619, at the age of 18, entered the novitiate of the Jesuit order. For the remaining fifty years of his life Gracián labored as chaplain and confessor, preacher, professor, and administrator (he was rector and vice-rector of several Jesuit colleges). Though he never held an important position in public life, he kept company with those who did, and his aphorisms draw on long and careful observation of human behavior, both in peace and in warfare. As a young man, he served as confessor of the Viceroy of Aragón, the Neapolitan aristocrat Francesco Maria Carafa, accompanying him on several occasions to the court, and in 1646, in the bleakest days of the Revolt of Catalonia, Gracián served as chaplain of the royal armies that freed the Aragonese city of Lérida from the French. The only chaplain who neither fell ill nor was captured, Gracián went bravely to the front lines and, he says proudly in a letter, “exhorted the troops as they went into battle.” The soldiers hailed him, he says, as “el Padre de la Victoria.”
When he extols friendship as a pleasant way to acquire learning (11), he is thinking, no doubt, of blissful hours spent in the salon and library of his friend and protector Vicencio Juan de Lastanosa, six years younger than he, one of the wealthiest and most learned of seventeenth-century Spanish humanists. Lastanosa was patron of an important literary and cultural athenaeum, a true microcosm of all human learning, and it would be difficult to exaggerate his importance to Gracián. Gracián’s first assignment after he took his vows was to the Jesuit College at Huesca, an ancient town to the northeast of Zaragoza. From the college it was only a few tempting steps to the Lastanosa mansion, an astoundingly rich Baroque “museum” of books and manuscripts, paintings (Titian, Dürer, Tintoretto, Ribera), sculpture, and objects of classical antiquity; there were, Lastanosa once wrote, “more than eight thousand coins and medals of Greek and Roman emperors … and two thousand cameos and stones from ancient rings.”8 Lastanosa was especially proud of his library, his collection of armor, and his botanical gardens, whose rare plants, trees, and shrubs were cared for by eight French gardeners, several of whom had held that post for more than half a century. There was even a small zoological garden: “in four caves, behind strong bars, were a tiger, a leopard, a bear and a lion. In a cage, two voracious ostriches.” To Lastanosa’s literary and cultural treasures, Gracián was granted access: an incalculable boon for one who thirsted for esthetic perfection and infallible taste, and hungered to “be vulgar in nothing” (28). It was Lastanosa who paid for the publication of several of Gracián’s books, and many of the aphorisms of The Art of Worldly Wisdom may have been tried out for the first time on listeners in his salon.
The records of the Jesuits give us a glimpse of Gracián as priest and administrator, and he seems less stern, less forbidding in those pages than in these. In 1637, for example, he is rebuked for having been too lenient toward a fellow Jesuit guilty of “weakness” (flaqueza) with the opposite sex. A year later, the general of the Jesuit order suggests, from Rome, that Padre Gracián be reassigned: “… because he is a cross and a burden to his superiors, a source of problems and disturbances …, and because, displaying little prudence, he has been caring for the child of one who has left the order, asking for money to support him; and [also] because he has published a book, under the name of a brother of his.”
The book alluded to is his first, El Héroe, The Hero (1637, 1639), an imaginary portrait of the perfect leader. Other treatises followed, most of them published (as the Oracle was) under the same pseudonym, Lorenzo Gracián, without permission from the Jesuit order: El politico (1640, 1646), in which he ponders the political and moral greatness of King Ferdinand; Arte de ingenio (1642, 1648), a treatise on style and poetic conceit, with examples from a multitude of classical and Spanish authors; El discreto (1646), translated into English (1730) as The complete gentleman, or a description of the several qualifications both natural and acquired, that are necessary to form a great man), a book in the tradition of Castiglione’s Courtier.9
Over the years Gracián was warned repeatedly not to publish his works without permission. So troubling was his continual disobedience that when he published the third and final volume of his masterpiece El criticón, a vast satirical allegory of human existence, he was removed from his chair of Sacred Scripture in Zaragoza and “exiled” to the country town where he died. From Rome came instructions to watch him closely, “to observe his hands,” to “visit his room from time to time,” and look over his papers. Were he to write anything against the Jesuits, he was to be locked up and forbidden the use of paper, pen, and ink. Not that his writings were regarded as heretical. It was somewhat unseemly for a Jesuit priest to write so brilliantly on worldly wisdom and on political behavior, but the Jesuits never accused Gracián of contradicting Catholic doctrine. What rankled his superiors was his persistent disobedience, and perhaps his nonchalance. “I am prohibited from publishing,” he writes in 1653, “and have no lack of envious people. But I bear it all patiently, and am still able to eat lunch and dinner, to sleep, etc.” Gracián’s enemies cruelly exploited his problems with his superiors, and some of their allegations are delightful: in a sermon delivered in Valencia, Gracián is said to have told his listeners that he was reading from a letter he had just received from hell.
No doubt he was a difficult person, with a large dose of the stubbornness for which the Aragonese are famous. The Jesuits left a record of his prevailing humors: “biliosus, melancolicus” in 1628, “colericus, biliosus” in 1651 and, the year of his death, “complexio colerica.” The author of The Art of Worldly Wisdom, a paean to prudence, is said to possess ingenium bonum (good intelligence) but, after 1645, his powers of judgment (indicium), his prudence, and his experience of things are found less than normal, or barely satisfactory: “iudicium infra mediocritatem” (1651); iudicium mediocre; prudentia non multa; experientia rerum mediocris” (1655).10 Were his fellow Jesuits right? Gracián may have shown poor judgment in publishing almost all of his works without authorization. But Time acquitted him. His works emerged unscathed, he won immortality, and no one remembers his accusers.
Even Gracián’s style aroused animosity, and it continues to do so among those who have no time for brevity. He is one of the most laconic writers of the seventeenth century, a period when European humanists, heeding Justus Lipsius’ call for brevity, delighted in Seneca and Tacitus and lost their taste for copious Cicero. Many of Gracián’s stylistic habits are easy to recognize even in translation: antithesis and paradox; the constant use of ellipses; the concentration of meaning brought about by punning and other sorts of wordplay; the lack of connective tissue between one sentence—one point—and another (notice that there is often an abrupt transition between aphorism and commentary, and that the commentaries themselves often seem disjointed and fragmentary). These traits are more than idiosyncracies: they arise from a vision of human nature. The stylistic values reflected in these pages—wit, intensity, concision, subtlety—are also rules for wise living. For Gracián, living is a high art. Esthetic strategies correspond to moral ones. In other words, the author’s relations with the reader are analogous to the reader’s relations to those around him.11 The author fences with the reader, withholds his meaning, disguises his intentions, avoids putting all of his cards on the table, keeps matters in suspense, and uses obscurity to awaken admiration and reverence: the reverence due an oracle. “The truths that matter most to us,” Gracián writes self-reflectively, “are always half-spoken, fully understood only by the prudent” (25); “secrecy has the feel of divinity” (160).
Gracián does not mingle with the common reader, does not court his affection; he knows that affection spoils veneration and that familiarity breeds contempt (177). He does not want his writing and thinking to please the crowd (28, 245). He would have agreed with Luis de Góngora, Spain’s great Baroque poet, who defended his Solitudes with these contemptuous words:
It has been a matter of honor to me to make myself obscure to the ignorant, for that is what distinguishes the learned; to speak in a style that seems Greek to the ignorant, for precious pearls should not be cast before swine.12
Despite Gracián’s authorial aloofness, the Oracle has delighted many thousands of readers. Perhaps that aloofness is a strategy for success. “Another trick,” he writes, “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” (150).
As with Góngora, it is pleasant to divine Gracián’s meaning, lingering over a few aphorisms at a time. No doubt the ellipses and zigzags of his thought have contributed to the Oracle’s lasting appeal. “Don’t express your ideas too clearly […] To be valued, things must be difficult: if they can’t understand you, people will think more highly of you” (253). The aphorisms are not arranged as a system. The Spanish critic Gonzalo Sobejano once observed that they come upon us with the chaos of life itself, reproducing “the chaotic randomness of pure experience.”13 This is surely the best of authorial defenses: “it is easy to kill the bird that flies in a straight line, but not the one that changes its line of flight” (17). Not that the book itself is organized chaotically. Gracán’s approach is dialectical: as happens with popular proverbs, one aphorism offsets another, contradicting or complementing it, and moral phenomena are viewed from different perspectives. One fragment tells us how to perform a maneuver, another, how to defend ourselves from it.
As for brevity, it too is both an esthetic ideal and a strategy for survival. Say less, and you—as author or reader—will be less likely to be discovered, contradicted, proven wrong. “Speak as though you were writing your testament: the fewer words, the fewer lawsuits” (160). And “good things, if brief, [are] twice good.” True, certainly, of translators’ prefaces!
This translation follows upon seven previous English versions, only two of which I have been able to consult. The Oracle’s translators—one for each day of the week—are as follows: Anonymous, 1685; John J. Savage, 1702; Joseph Jacobs, 1892; Martin Fischer, 1934; Otto Eisenschiml, 1947; L. B. Walton, 1953; and Lawrence C. Lockley, 1967. To the Jacobs translation I have occasionally gone for help: not with questions about the meaning, but looking for solutions for Gracián’s puns. “You may think you’ll share pears, but you’ll share only the parings” was the clever way Jacobs rendered an untranslatable sentence (237) about peras (pears) and piedras (stones), and I have gladly picked up those peelings.
Unlike that of Jacobs, this translation draws on the splendid critical edition of Miguel Romera-Navarro,14 based on the only extant copy of the first edition (Huesca, 1647). Romera-Navarro sensed that his annotations would guide future translators, and that providence is cause for deep gratitude. I am grateful also to Harriet Rubin of Doubleday/Currency, an editor of uncommon taste, who believed that Gracián’s delightful Oracle belongs in the pockets and hearts of contemporary readers.
1. From a letter to Peter Gast, 1884. In a note of 1873, Nietzsche writes: “In his experience of life, Gracián shows a wisdom and perspicacity that cannot be compared with anything today.” See André Rouveyre, Supplément a L’Homme de Cour de Baltasar Gracián (Paris: Trianon, 1928), pp. 21-22.
2. M. E. Grant Duff, “Baltasar Gracián,” Fortnightly Review, XXI (March, 1877), p. 328. Schopenhauer’s translation was published posthumously in 1862.
3. On the context of Gracián’s moral writings, see Monroe Z. Hafter, Gracián and Perfection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966).
4. “A Diós rogando, y con el mazo dando ….”
5. See Giovanni Bottiroli, “Lo splendore delle tenebre. Etica e strategia in Baltasar Gracián,” Quademi Ibero-Americani, 61-62 (December, 1987), pp. 208-15.
6. Ibid., p. 214.
7. A region in northeast Spain, bordering on Catalonia (to the east) and France (to the north).
8. On Lastanosa, and for further biographical information on Gracián, see E. Correa Calderón, Baltasar Gracián. Su vida y su obra (Madrid: Gredos, 1961). See also Virginia Ramos Foster, Baltasar Gracián (Boston: Twayne, 1975).
9. For an excellent bibliographical essay on these works, see Gonzalo Sobejano, “Gracián y la prosa de ideas,” in Francisco Rico, ed., Historia y critica de la literatura española (Barcelona: Critica, 1983), Vol. III, Bruce Wardropper, ed., pp. 912-16.
10. For documentation on Gracián’s life as a Jesuit, see Miguel Batllori, S.J., Gracián y el Barroco (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1958).
11. See the suggestive essay by B. Pelegrin, “Antithèse, métaphore, synecdoque et métonymie. Stratégie de la figure dans L’Oráculo Manual de Baltasar Gracián,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, 3 (1982), pp. 339-50.
12. Alexander A. Parker, Polyphemus and Galatea. A Study in the Interpretation of a Baroque Poem (Edinburgh University Press, 1977), p. 17.
13. From a review of Dieter Kremers’ study of Gracián’s aphorisms. “Nuevos estudios en torno a Gracián,” Clavileño, V, no. 26 (March-April, 1954), p. 24.
14. Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia, edición critica y comentada por Miguel Romera-Navarro (Madrid: CSIC, 1954).
1 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.
*For Gracián, not everyone is a true “person” (persona). One becomes a “person” (and not merely a man or woman) by striving for moral perfection.
2 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.
3 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 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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 deeds—is admitted to, and even desired by, the singular society of the discreet.
7 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 lèse-majesté. 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.
8 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.
9 Avoid the defects of your country. Water shares the good and bad qualities of the beds through which it 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 unqiue 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.
10 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.
11 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.
12 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.
13 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.
*The huge serpent killed by Apollo at the foot of Parnassus.
14 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.
15 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.
*King of Armenia (first century B.C.) who conquered Parthia and often appeared in public attended by the princes he had defeated.
16 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.
17 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.
18 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.
19 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.
20 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.
21 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.
22 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.
23 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.*
*He hid his baldness under a crown of laurel.
24 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.
25 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.
26 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.
27 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.
28 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.
*A symbol of vanity, the chameleon was thought to live on air.
29 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.
30 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.
31 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.
32 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.
33 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.
34 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.
35 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.
36 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.
37 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.
38 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.
39 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.
40 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.
41 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.
42 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.
43 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 themslves only to a few sensible people.
44 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.
*Gracián’s meaning is not entirely clear. Romera-Navarro believes “active sympathy” is that which elicits similar feelings in others, and “passive” that which does not.
45 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 give 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.
46 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.
47 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.
48 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 façade, 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 not 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.
49 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.
50 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. Gracián is alluding to one of Seneca’s Moral Epistles.
51 Know how to choose. Most things in life depend on it. You need good taste and an upright judgment; intelligence and application are not enough. There is no perfection without discernment and selection. Two talents are involved: choosing and choosing the best. There are many people with a fertile, subtle intelligence, rigorous judgment, both diligent and well informed, who are lost when they have to choose. They always choose the worst, as though they wanted to show their skill at doing so. Knowing how to choose is one of heaven’s greatest gifts.
52 Never lose your composure. Prudence tries never to lose control. This shows a real person, with a true heart, for magnanimity is slow to give in to emotion. The passions are the humors of the mind, and the least excess sickens our judgment. If the disease spreads to the mouth, your reputation will be in danger. Master yourself thoroughly and no one will criticize you for being perturbed, either when things are at their best or at their worst. All will admire your superiority.
53 Be diligent and intelligent. Diligence is quick to carry out what intelligence has lingered over. Fools are fond of hurry: they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously. The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything. Sometimes things are judged correctly but go wrong out of inefficiency and neglect. Readiness is the mother of luck. It is a great deed to leave nothing for the morrow. A lofty motto: make haste slowly.
54 Act boldly but prudently. Even hares tweak the beard of a dead lion. Like love, courage is no joking matter. If it yields once, it will have to yield again, and again. The same difficulty will have to be conquered later on, and it would have been better to get it over with. The mind is bolder than the body. So with the sword: let it be sheathed in prudence, ready for the occasion. It is your defense. A weak spirit does more harm than a weak body. Many people with eminent qualities lacked this brio, appeared to be dead, and were buried in their lassitude. Provident nature resourcefully joined the sweetness of honey with the sting of the bee. You have both nerves and bones in your body: don’t let your spirit be all softness.
55 Know how to wait. It shows a great heart with deep reserves of patience. Never hurry and never give way to your emotions. Master yourself and you will master others. Stroll through the open spaces of time to the center of opportunity. Wise hesitation ripens success and brings secrets to maturity. The crutch of Time can do more than the steely club of Hercules. God himself punishes not with iron hands but with leaden feet. A wonderful saying: “Time and I can take on any two.” Fortune gives larger rewards to those who wait.
56 Think on your feet. Good impulses spring from a happy readiness of spirit. For such a spirit there are no tight spots, no troubling chance occurrences, only vivacity and brio. Some think much, and then do everything wrong, and others get everything right without any forethought at all. Some people have reserves of antiperistasis.* Difficulties bring out the best in them. They are monsters who succeed spontaneously and err whenever they have thought about something. What doesn’t occur to them immediately will never occur to them, and there is no use thinking about later. Quickness wins applause, for it reveals prodigious talent: subtlety in thought, prudence in deeds.
* Antiperistasis: Opposition by which the quality opposed acquires strength.
57 Thoughtful people are safer. Do something well, and that is quick enough. What is done immediately is undone just as fast, but what must last an eternity takes that long to do. Only perfection is noticed, and only success endures. Deep understanding achieves eternities. Great worth requires great work. So with metals: the most precious of them takes longest to be refined, and weighs most.
58 Adapt to those around you. Don’t show the same intelligence with everyone, and don’t put more effort into things than they require. Don’t waste your knowledge or merit. The good falconer uses only the birds he needs. Don’t show off every day, or you’ll stop surprising people. There must always be some novelty left over. The person who displays a little more of it each day keeps up expectations, and no one ever discovers the limits of his talent.
59 End well. If you enter the house of Fortune through the door of pleasure, you will leave through the door of sorrow, and vice versa. So be careful of the way you end things, and devote more attention to a successful exit than to a highly applauded entrance. Fortunate people often have very favorable beginnings and very tragic endings. What matters isn’t being applauded when you arrive—for that is common—but being missed when you leave. Rare are those who are still wanted. Fortune seldom accompanies someone to the door. She is as courteous to those who are coming as she is rude to those who are going.
60 Good judgment. Some people are born prudent. They come into the world with an advantage—the good sense that is a natural part of wisdom—and they have already walked half the road to success. With age and experience their reason reaches complete maturity, and their judgment is tuned to its surroundings. These people hate any sort of whim that can tempt prudence, especially in matters of state, where total security is important. Such people as these deserve to steer the ship of state, either as helmsmen or as counselors.
61 Eminence in what is best. Amid different sorts of perfection, this is a rarity. There is no hero without some sublime quality. Mediocrity never wins applause. Eminence at some lofty pursuit redeems us from ordinary vulgarity, raising us to the exceptional. To be eminent in a lowly occupation is to be something at very little: the more comfort, the less glory. To be exceptional at superior things gives you a sovereign character: it wins admiration and gains the goodwill of others.
62 Use the best instruments. Some people want to be thought subtle because they use poor instruments. This is a dangerous sort of satisfaction and it deserves a fatal punishment. The worth of a prime minister never detracted from the greatness of his master. To the contrary, all the credit for success falls upon its principal cause, as does criticism in the case of failure. It is superiors who win the renown. One never says “He had good, or bad, ministers,” but “He was a good, or bad, craftsman.” So choose carefully, examine your ministers. To them you are entrusting your immortal fame.
63 The excellence of being first. It is doubled when you are truly eminent. Other things being equal, the person who makes the first move has the advantage. Some people would have been as unique as the Phoenix in their occupations if others had not preceded them. Those who are first are the firstborns of fame, and the children who follow are left to file lawsuits for their daily bread. No matter how hard they try, they cannot elude the vulgar accusation that they are imitators. Prodigious, subtle people have always invented new ways to achieve eminence, provided that prudence makes their adventures safe. Using novelty, wise people have found room in the roster of heroes. Some people would rather be first in second class than second in first.
64 Avoid grief. It is both beneficial and wise to steer clear of troubles. Prudence will save you from many: it is the Lucina* of good fortune and content. Don’t give others hateful news unless there is a remedy, and be even more careful not to receive it. Some people’s hearing is spoiled by the sweetness of flattery, others’ by hearing bitter gossip, and there are people who cannot live without a daily dose of unpleasantness, like Mithridates with his poison.** Nor can you keep well by inflicting lifelong grief on yourself in order to please someone else, even if he is close to you. Never sin against your own happiness in order to please the person who counsels you and has nothing at stake in the matter. When giving pleasure to another involves giving grief to yourself, remember this lesson: better for the other person to feel grief now than for you to feel it later, and with no hope.
* Roman goddess of childbirth; used as surname of Juno and Diana.
**King of Pontus, who, fearing his enemies would poison him, accustomed himself by taking daily doses of it.
65 Elevated taste. You can cultivate it, as you can the intellect. Full understanding whets the appetite and desire, and, later, sharpens the enjoyment of possession. You can judge the height of someone’s talent by what he aspires to. Only a great thing can satisfy a great talent. Large bites are for large palates, lofty matters for lofty characters. Even the greatest excellences tremble before the person of refined taste, and the most perfect lose their confidence. Few things have perfection of the first magnitude: let your appreciation be sparing. Taste is acquired through contact with others. You make it your own through continual exercise. You are lucky if you can associate with someone with perfectly developed taste. But don’t profess to be satisfied with nothing; it is a foolish extreme, more odious if from affectation than if from character. Some wish God had created another world and other perfections just to satisfy their own extravagant imagination.
66 Take care to make things turn out well. Some people scruple more over pointing things in the right direction than over successfully reaching their goals. The disgrace of failure outweighs the diligence they showed. A winner is never asked for explanations. Most people pay more attention to success or failure than to circumstances, and your reputation will never suffer if you achieve what you wanted to. A good ending turns everything golden, however unsatisfactory the means. It is an art to set aside art when you must do so to bring things to a happy conclusion.
67 Choose an occupation in which you can win praise. Most things depend upon the satisfaction of others. Esteem is to perfection what the zephyr is to flowers: breath and life. There are occupations that enjoy universal acclaim, and others that are more important but barely visible. The former are seen by all, and win common benevolence. The latter are rarer and require more skill, but are secret and barely perceived, venerated but not applauded. Among princes, the most celebrated are the victorious ones, and that is why the kings of Aragon were so acclaimed: as magnanimous conquerors and warriors. The great person should prefer celebrated occupations that all can see and share. Common suffrage will make him immortal.
68 Make others understand. It is more excellent than making them remember, for intelligence is much greater than memory. Sometimes you should remind other people, and other times counsel them about the future. Some people failed to do things that were ripe for doing simply because it never occurred to them. Let friendly advice point out the advantages. One of the greatest of gifts is to size up quickly what matters. When this is lacking, many successes go undone. Let the person who has light give it to others, and let those who lack it ask for it, the former with prudence, and the latter with discretion, merely dropping a hint. This delicacy is especially necessary when the person giving advice has something at stake. It is best to show good taste and to be more explicit only when insinuation is not enough. A “no” has already been given, and you can now search skillfully for a “yes.” Most of the time things are not obtained because they were not attempted.
69 Don’t give in to every common impulse. The great do not yield to every sort of passing thought. Part of prudence lies in reflecting about yourself: knowing or foreseeing your disposition, and moving towards the other extreme in order to balance art and nature. Self-correction begins with self-knowledge. There are monsters of impertinence who are always ruled by a certain humor, and their emotions vary accordingly. Tossed about by this vile imbalance, they go about their business in a self-contradictory way. Not only does this excess ruin their will, it also attacks their judgment, troubling their desire and understanding.
70 Know how to say “no.” You can’t grant everything to everybody. Saying “no” is as important as granting things, especially among those in command. What matters is the way you do it. Some people’s “no” is prized more highly than the “yes” of others: a gilded “no” pleases more than a curt “yes.” Many people always have “no” on their lips, and they sour everything. “No” is what occurs to them first. They may give in later, but they aren’t well thought of because they started out by being so unpleasant. Refusal shouldn’t come in one fell blow. Let people nibble on their disappointment little by little. Never refuse something completely: others would no longer depend on you. There should always be some last remnants of hope to sweeten the bitterness of refusal. Let courtesy occupy the void where favor once stood, and good words compensate for a lack of action. “No” and “yes” are short words requiring long thought.
71 Don’t be inconsistent, either because of temperament or out of affectation. The prudent man is consistent in all things pertaining to perfection, and this speaks well for his intelligence. Only the causes and relative merits of things can change his behavior. When it comes to prudence, variety is ugly. There are some people who are different each day. Their luck changes daily, and so do their will and their powers of understanding. Yesterday they conceded; today they receded. They belie their own reputation, confusing others.
72 Be resolute. Faulty execution does less harm than a lack of resolution. Materials turn bad more often in repose than in motion. There are people who can’t make up their minds and need a push from others. At times this is caused not by perplexity, for they see clearly enough, but by inactivity. It may be ingenious to identify difficulties, but it is more so to find a way of eluding them. Other people are bogged down by nothing and have great powers of judgment and resolution. They were born for lofty pursuits and their clear understanding lets them succeed with ease. No sooner done than said, and there is still time left over. Sure of their luck, they venture forth with even greater confidence.
73 Know when to be evasive. It is the way the prudent get out of difficulty. With an elegant joke they are able to escape from the most intricate labyrinth. One smile and they have eluded difficulty. On this the greatest of captains* founded his courage. A friendly way of saying no is to change the subject, and no ploy is more clever than to pretend it isn’t you, but someone else, who is being alluded to.
*Gonzalo de Córdoba, “El Gran Capitán” (the Great Captain), military man known for his exploits in the war against the Moors and in southern Italy.
74 Don’t be unfriendly. The wildest animals inhabit cities. Being unapproachable is the vice of those who lack self-knowledge and who change humors with honors. To begin by annoying others is no way to win renown. Imagine one of these surly monsters, always about to turn savage and impertinent. His unlucky servants approach him as though he were a tiger, arming themselves cautiously with a whip. In order to reach their high position they pleased everyone, and now that they are there they want to get even by angering everyone. Because of their position, such people ought to belong to everyone, but their harshness and vanity makes them belong to no one. A courtly punishment for them: avoid them entirely. Bestow your wisdom on others.
75 Choose a heroic model, and emulate rather than imitate. There are examples of greatness, living texts of renown. Let each person choose the first in his field, not so much to follow him as to surpass them. Alexander cried at the tomb of Achilles, not for Achilles but for himself, for unlike Achilles, he had not yet been born to fame.* Nothing makes the spirit so ambitious as the trumpet of someone else’s fame. It frightens away envy and encourages noble deeds.
*According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great cried enviously before the tomb of Achilles because the latter had been lucky enough to be immortalized by Homer.
76 Don’t always be joking. Prudence is known for its seriousness, which wins more respect than wit. The person who is always joking falls laughably short of perfection. We treat him like a liar, never believing him. From one we fear deceit, from the other jest. One never knows when jokers are exercising their judgment, which is the same as not having any. No humor is worse than continual humor. Some win a reputation for wit, and lose their wits. There are moments for joviality, but the rest of the time belongs to seriousness.
77 Adapt yourself to everyone else. A Proteus of discretion. Learned with the learned, saintly with saints. This is a great way to capture the goodwill of others, for similarity generates benevolence. Observe people’s temperaments, and adapt yourself accordingly. Whether you’re with a serious person or a jovial one, follow the current, and politely transform yourself. This is especially true of those who depend on others. It is a great stratagem for living prudently, and it requires much capacity. It is less difficult for the person with a well-informed intellect and varied tastes.
78 Skill at trying things out. Folly always rushes into action, for all fools are bold. Their very simplicity, which prevents them from foreseeing danger, keeps them from worrying about their reputation. But Prudence enters with great care. Caution and Penetration precede her, beating the bushes so that she can advance safely. Discretion sentences hasty action to failure, though Fortune sometimes issues a pardon. Go slowly when you fear the depths. Let shrewdness feel its way forward and Prudence steer you toward firm ground. These days there are pitfalls in dealing with others, and it is best to fathom things as you go along.
79 A jovial character. In moderation, it is a gift, not a defect. A pinch of wit is good seasoning. The greatest people can parlay grace and humor into universal favor. But they pay due respect to prudence and never break with decorum. Others use jest as a quick way out of difficulty. Some things should be taken jokingly, even those that others take most seriously. This shows a certain agreeableness, and works like a strange charm on the hearts of others.
80 Be careful when you inform yourself about things. Much of our lives is spent gathering information. We see very few things for ourselves, and live trusting others. The ears are the back door of truth and the front door of deceit. Truth is more often seen than heard. Seldom does it reach us unalloyed, even less so when it comes from afar. It is always blended with the emotions it has passed through. Emotion taints everything it touches, making it odious or favorable. It tries always to impress us one way or another. Be more careful with someone who is praising than with someone who is criticizing. Discover what ax he is grinding, on what side he is limping, where he is heading. Beware of the false and the faulty.
81 Renew your brilliance. It is the privilege of the Phoenix. Excellence grows old and so does fame. Custom wears down our admiration, and a mediocre novelty can conquer the greatest eminence in its old age. So be reborn in courage, in intellect, in happiness, and in all else. Dare to renew your brilliance, dawning many times, like the sun, only changing your surroundings. Withhold it and make people miss it; renew it and make them applaud.
82 Neither all bad nor all good. A certain sage reduced the whole of wisdom to the golden mean. Carry right too far and it becomes wrong. The orange squeezed completely dry gives only bitterness. Even in enjoyment you shouldn’t go to extremes. The intellect itself will go dry if pressed too hard, and if you milk a cow like a tyrant you will draw only blood.
83 Allow yourself some venial fault. An act of carelessness can sometimes be the best way to help others see your talents. Envy often ostracizes people: the more civil it is, the more criminal. It accuses what is very perfect of sinning by not sinning, and it condemns complete perfection. It makes itself into an Argos, looking for the faults in excellent things, if only to console itself. Like lightning, censure strikes the highest places. So let Homer nod at times, and pretend that your intelligence or courage—though not your prudence—has committed some act of carelessness. That way malevolence will calm down, and not burst its bubble of poison. This is like waving a red cape in front of the bull of envy in order to escape with immortality.
84 Know how to use your enemies. Grasp things not by the blade, which will harm you, but by the hilt, which will defend you. The same applies to emulation. The wise person finds enemies more useful than the fool does friends. Malevolence often levels the mountains of difficulty that favor made fearful. Many owe their greatness to their enemies. Flattery is fiercer than hatred, for hatred corrects the faults flattery had disguised. The prudent man makes a mirror out of the evil eye of others, and it is more truthful than that of affection, and helps him reduce his defects or emend them. One grows very cautious when living across the border from malevolent rivals.
85 Don’t be the wild card.* Excellent things are easily abused. When everyone covets something, they are easily annoyed by it. It is a bad thing to be good for nothing, but worse to be good for everything. Some lose because they win so often, and soon they are as despised as they once were desired. Such wild cards are found in every sort of perfection. They lose their initial reputation for uniqueness, and are scorned as common. The remedy for extremes is not to exceed the golden mean in displaying your gifts. Be excessive in your perfection but moderate about showing it. The brighter the torch, the more it consumes itself and the less it lasts. To win true esteem, make yourself scarce.
* The wild card or joker: the one that can be anything its holder pleases.
86 Head off rumor. The crowd is a many-headed monster: many eyes for malice, many tongues for slander. Sometimes a rumor arises and blights the best reputation, and if it sticks to you like a nickname, your fame will perish. The crowd usually seizes on some outstanding weakness, or some ridiculous defect: fit material for its murmurings. At times it is our envious rivals who cunningly invent these defects. There are mean mouths and they ruin a great reputation sooner with a joke than with a shameless boldfaced lie. It is very easy to acquire a bad reputation, for badness is easily believed and hard to erase. Let the prudent person avoid all this, and keep an eye on vulgar insolence; for an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
87 Culture and refinement. Man is born a barbarian. Culture raises him above the beast. Culture turns us into true persons: the more culture, the greater the person. In that belief, Greece called the rest of the universe “barbarian.” Ignorance is rough and rude. There is nothing more cultivating than knowledge. But wisdom herself is coarse when polish is lacking. Not only must understanding be refined, but also our desires and especially our conversation. Some people show a natural refinement both in their inner and outer gifts, their concepts and words, in their bodily adornment (which is like the bark) and their spiritual gifts (the fruit). Others are so gross that they tarnish everything, even their fine qualities, with an unbearable barbaric sloppiness.
88 Deal with others in a grand way. Aspire to elevation. The great should never be petty. You needn’t go into all the details when conversing with others, especially when the subject is distasteful. Notice things, but do so casually; it isn’t good to turn conversation into detailed interrogation. Act with a courteous, noble generality, which is a sort of gallantry. A large part of ruling lies in feigning indifference. Learn to overlook most of the things that happen among your close friends, your acquaintances, and especially your enemies. Overscrupulousness is irritating, and if it forms part of your character you will be tiresome to others. To keep circling around something unpleasant is a sort of mania. Remember that people usually behave like what they are: according to their own heart and their own capacity.
89 Know yourself: your character, intellect, judgment, and emotions. You cannot master yourself if you do not understand yourself. There are mirrors for the face, but the only mirror for the spirit is wise self-reflection. And when you stop caring about your outer image, try to emend and improve the inner one. In order to undertake matters wisely, gauge your prudence and perspicacity. Judge how well you measure up to a challenge. Plumb your depths, weigh your resources.
90 The art of living long: live well. Two things bring life to an early end: stupidity and depravity. Some lose their life by not knowing how to save it; others, by not wanting to. Just as virtue is its own reward, vice is its own punishment. The person who races through a life of vice comes to a doubly quick end. The one who races through virtue never dies. The strength of the mind is communicated to the body. A good life is long both in intention and extension.
91 Never act unless you think it prudent to do so. If the person doing something suspects he will fail, it will be evident to the person watching, even more so when he is a rival. If your judgment wavers in the heat of emotion, you’ll be thought a fool when things cool down. It is dangerous to undertake something when you doubt its wisdom. It would be safer not to act at all. Prudence refuses to deal in probability: it always walks under the midday sun of reason. How can something turn out well when caution started to condemn it the moment it was conceived? Even resolutions that passed the inner examination nemine discrepante* often turn out badly; so what can we expect from those that reason doubted over and judgment considered rash?
*With no one dissenting.
92 Transcendent wisdom, in every situation. This is the first and highest rule in acting and speaking, the more necessary the greater and higher your occupation. An ounce of prudence is worth a pound of cleverness. It’s more a matter of walking surely than of courting vulgar applause. A reputation for prudence is the ultimate triumph of fame. It is enough if you satisfy the prudent, whose approval is the touchstone of success.
93 A universal man. Possessing every perfection, he is equal to many men. He makes life ever so pleasant, communicating that enjoyment to his friends. Variety and perfection are what makes life delightful. It is a great art to know how to enjoy all good things. And since Nature made man a compendium of the whole natural world, let art make him a universe by training his taste and intellect.
94 Unfathomable gifts. The prudent person—if he wants to be revered by others—should never allow them to judge the extent of his knowledge and courage. Allow yourself to be known, but not comprehended. No one will discern the limits of your talent, and thus no one will be disappointed. You can win more admiration by keeping other people guessing the extent of your talent, or even doubting it, than you can by displaying it, however great.
95 Keep expectations alive. Keep nourishing them. Let much promise more, and let great deeds make people expect still greater ones. Don’t show everything you have on the first roll of the dice. The trick is to moderate your strength and knowledge and advance little by little toward success.
96 Good common sense. It is the throne of reason, the foundation of prudence, and by its light it is easy to succeed. It is a gift from heaven, highly prized because it is first and best. Good sense is our armor, so necessary that the lack of this single piece will make people call us lacking. When least present, most missed. All actions in life depend on its influence, and all solicit its approval, for all depends on intelligence. It consists of a natural inclination to all that conforms most to reason, and to all that is most fit.
97 Make your reputation and keep it. We enjoy it on loan from Fame. It is expensive, for it is born from eminence, which is as rare as mediocrity is common. Once attained, it is easily kept. It confers many an obligation, performs many a deed. It is a sort of majesty when it turns into veneration, through the sublimity of its origin and sphere of action. Reputations based on substance are the ones that have always endured.
98 Write your intentions in cipher. The passions are the gates of the spirit. The most practical sort of knowledge lies in dissimulation. The person who shows his cards risks losing. Let caution and reserve combat the attentiveness of others. When your opponent sees into your reasoning like a lynx, conceal your thoughts like an inky cuttlefish. Let no one discover your inclinations, no one foresee them, either to contradict or to flatter them.
99 Reality and appearance. Things pass for what they seem, not for what they are. Only rarely do people look into them, and many are satisfied with appearances. It isn’t enough to be right if your face looks malicious and wrong.
100 A man free of deceit and illusion, one who is virtuous and wise, a courtly philosopher. But do not be so only in appearance, or flaunt your virtue. Philosophy is no longer revered, although it is the chief pursuit of the wise. The science of prudence is no longer venerated. Seneca introduced it to Rome, and for a time it appealed to the noble. But now it is considered useless and bothersome. And yet freeing oneself from deceit has always been food for prudence, and one of the delights of righteousness.
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. What 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. Goodnatured 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,* 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 recitude ensures 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.
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.
*Despejo, rendered here as “ease and grace,” might also be translated as “ineffable charm” or “charisma.” Gracián’s French translator rendered it as “le je-ne-sais-quoi.”
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