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Summary: The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle

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.


Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, World Literature, Spanish and Portuguese Literature, Religious Philosophy, Self Help, Psychology, Politics, European Literature, Spain Cultural

Introduction: 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.

[Book Summary] The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle

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.

Final Summary

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.


Stay tuned for book review…

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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