Spanish writer, scholar, and philosopher Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658) was one of the most unique and innovative authors of his time.
Baltasar entered the Jesuit order (a Roman Catholic missionary and scholarly organization) by age 18 in 1620, and soon became scholar, teacher, and priest. In 1637, he produced his first book, which was titled El Heroe, and in the 1640s he produced several works, including Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia, or in English, The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Many bold messages contained in Baltasar’s books caused him notoriety among the Jesuit order.
In the 1650s, he released a three part philosophical novel titled El Criticon, which caused even more controversy. By the late 1650s, his controversial works and defiance of others caused him to be sent to another mission, and then be exiled by the Jesuits authorities and regarded with aversion. Baltasar died in 1658.
His book El Criticon has become a highly notable work in the so-called “pessimist” branch of philosophy, while The Art of World Wisdom has been widely read throughout the years since its release.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom contains three hundred short pieces of life strategy advice, much of which relates to dealing with other people and establishing effective relationships.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom was considered bold compared to other writings on similar subjects at that time period, especially from a Jesuit priest. Certain portions of the book’s advice border on the subject of strategies for gaining power and manipulating others, which made some consider The Art of Worldly Wisdom somewhat comparable to the ideas described in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Nature and art, material and workmanship. There is no beauty unadorned and no excellence that would not become barbaric if it were not supported by artifice. This remedies the bad and improves the good. Nature scarcely ever give us the very best—for that we must have recourse to art. Without this the best of natural dispositions remains uncultured, lacking half its excellence if training is absent. Everyone has something unrefined that needs training, and every kind of excellence needs some polish. (12)
Keep matters for a time in suspense. Admiration at their novelty heightens the value of your achievements. It is both useless and insipid to play with your cards on the table. … A resolution declared is never highly thought of—it only leaves room for criticism. And if it happens to fail, you are doubly unfortunate. Besides, you imitate the divine way when you inspire people to wonder and watch. (3)
Do not explain too much. Most people do not esteem what they understand and venerate what they do not see. To be valued things should cost dear; what is not understood becomes overrated. You have to appear wiser and more prudent than is required by the people you are dealing with if you want to give a high opinion of yourself. Yet in this there should be moderation and no excess. And though with sensible people common sense holds its own, with most people a little elaboration is necessary. Give them no time for criticizing—occupy them with discerning your meaning. Many praise a thing without being able to tell why, if asked. The reason is that they venerate the unknown as a mystery, and praise it because they hear it praised. (253)
Make use of absence to make yourself more esteemed or valued. If the accustomed presence diminishes fame, absence augments it. Someone that is regarded as a lion in his absence may be laughed at when present like the ridiculous offspring of the mighty. Talents get soiled by use, for it is easier to see the exterior rind than the kernel of greatness it encloses. Imagination reached farther than sight. Disillusion, which ordinarily comes through the ears, also goes out through the ears. He keeps his fame that keeps himself in the center of public opinion. Even the phoenix uses its retirement for new adornment and turns absence into desire. (282)
Commentary: We should be tactful in our application of our good qualities.
To make our way in the world we live in, world, having good qualities is not enough—in fact, if not applied properly, they might attract much persecution and involve us in many difficulties.
Most people care for their vanity more than they care for what is right.
Intellectual superiority, in particular, tends to often attract resentment when shown.
Use your good qualities in the right way, or else you will encounter problems and antagonize people.
And in influencing, in winning support for your proposed idea, never make it so that a person has to go against his vanity in order to agree with you, and as B says, you might also want to “make any advice given to them appear like a recollection of something they have only forgotten rather than as a guide to something they cannot find.”
Leave of hungry. One ought to remove even the bowl of nectar from the lips. Demand is the measure of value. Even with regard to bodily thirst it is a mark of good taste to slake but not to quench it. Little and good is twice good. The second time around comes as a great falling off. Too much pleasure is always dangerous and brings down the ill-will of the highest powers. The only way to please is to revive the appetite by the hunger that is left. If you must excite desire, better do it by the impatience of want than by the surfeit of enjoyment. Happiness earned gives double joy. (299)
Avoid outshining your superiors. All victories breed hate, and that over your superior is foolish or fatal. Preeminence is always detested, especially over those who are in high positions. Caution can gloss over common advantages. For example, good looks may be cloaked by careless attire. There are some that will grant you superiority in good luck or in good temper, but none in good sense, least of all a prince—for good sense is a royal prerogative and any claim of superiority in that is a crime against majesty. They are princes, and wish to be so in that most princely of qualities. They will allow someone to help them but not to surpass them. So make any advice given to them appear like a recollection of something they have only forgotten rather than as a guide to something they cannot find. The stars teach us this finesse with happy tact: though they are his children and brilliant like him, they never rival the brilliance of the sun. (7)
Keep yourself free from common follies. This is a special stroke of policy. They are of special power because they are common, so that many who would not be led away by an individual folly cannot escape the universal failing. Among these are to be counted the common prejudice of anyone who is satisfied with his fortune, however great, or unsatisfied with his intellect, however poor it is. Or again, that each, being discontented with his own lot, envies that of others. Or further, that persons of today praise the things of yesterday, and those here the things there. Everything past seems best and everything distant is more valued. He is a great fool that laughs at everything as is he that weeps at everything. (209)
Avoid the faults of your nation. Water shares the good or bad qualities of the channels through which it flows and people share those of the climate in which they are born. Some owe more than others to their native land, because there is a more favorable sky in the zenith. There is not a nation among even the most civilized that has not some fault peculiar to itself that other nations blame by way of boast or as a warning. It is a triumph of cleverness to correct in oneself such failings, or even to hide them. You get great credit for being unique among your fellows because what is less expected is esteemed all the more. There are also family failings as well as faults of position, of office, or of age. If these all meet in one person and are not carefully guarded against, they make an intolerable monster. (9)
Commentary: On one hand, we should not always outwardly go against the common crowd and incur their hatred.
But on the other hand, we should be careful not to actually
Even if the entire world is doing wrong, do not do it yourself. However, be prudent about speaking against it.
Better mad with the rest of the world than wise alone. So say politicians. If all are so, one is no worse off than the rest, whereas solitary wisdom passes for folly. So important is it to sail with the stream. The greatest wisdom often consists of ignorance, or the pretense of it. One has to live with others, and others are mostly ignorant. “To live entirely alone one must be very like a god or quite like a wild beast,” But I would turn the aphorism by saying: Better be wise with the many than a fool all alone. There be some too who seek to be original by chasing chimeras. (133)
Think with the few and speak with the many. Swimming against the stream makes it impossible to remove error and easy to fall into danger—only a Socrates can undertake it. To dissent from others’ views is regarded as an insult, because it is a condemnation of their judgment. The offense is doubled on account of the judgment condemned and of the person who championed it. Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise person is not known by what he says on the public square, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may deny it. The prudent person avoids being contradicted as much as he avoids contradicting others—though they have their judgment ready they are not ready to publish it. Thought is free, force cannot and should not be used on it. The wise person therefore retires into silence and if he allows himself to come out of it, he does so in the shade and before few and fit persons. (43)
Have original and out-of-the-way views. These are signs of superior ability. We do not think much of someone who never contradicts us; that is not a sign he loves us but rather that he loves himself. Do not be deceived by flattery and thereby have to pay for it, rather condemn it. Besides, you may be given credit for being criticized by some, especially if they are those of whom the good speak ill. On the contrary, it should disturb us if our affairs please everyone, for that is a sign that they are of little worth. Perfection is for the few. (245)
Do not condemn alone that which pleases all. There must be something good in a thing that pleases so many—even if it cannot be explained it is certainly enjoyed. Peculiarity is always hated and, when in the wrong, laughed at. You simply destroy respect for your taste rather than do harm to the object of your blame, and are left alone, you and your bad taste. If you cannot find the good in a thing, hide your incapacity and do not damn it right away. As a general rule bad taste springs from want of knowledge. What all say, is so, or will be so. (270)
Distinguish people of words from people of deeds. Discrimination is important, as in the case of friends, persons, and employments, which all have many varieties. Bad words even without bad deeds are bad enough; good words with bad deeds are worse. One cannot dine off words, which are wind, nor off politeness, which is but polite deceit. To catch birds with a mirror is the ideal snare. It is the vain alone who take their wages in windy words. Words should be the pledges of work, and, like pawn tickets, have their market price. Trees that bear leaves but not fruit usually have no core—know them for what they are, of no use except for shade. (166)
Make people depend on you. … The wise person would rather see others needing him than thanking him. To keep them on the threshold of hope is diplomatic, to trust to their gratitude is boorish; hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one. More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy. He that has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well, and the orange once squeezed fall from the golden platter into the wastebasket. When dependence disappears, good behavior goes with it, as well as respect. Let it be one of the chief lessons of experience to keep hope alive without entirely satisfying it, by preserving it to make oneself always needed, even by a patron on the throne. But do not carry silence to excess or you will go wrong, nor let another’s failing grow incurable for the sake of your own advantage. (5)
Gain people’s goodwill. It is a great thing to gain universal admiration, but greater to gain universal affection. It depends on natural disposition but more so on practice; the first is the foundation, the second then builds on that. Great gifts are not enough, though they are thought to be essential—win good opinion and it is easy to win goodwill. Kindly acts are required to produce kindly feelings—do good with both hands, good words and better deeds, love so as to be loved. Courtesy is the politic magic of great people. First, lay the hand on deeds and then on the pen—words follow swords and the goodwill to be won among writers is eternal. (40)
Obtain and preserve a reputation. It is something only borrowed from fame. It is expensive to obtain a reputation, for it only attaches to distinguished abilities, which are as rare as mediocrities are common. Once obtained, it is easily preserved. It confers many an obligation, but it does more. When it is owing to elevated powers or lofty spheres of action, it rises to a kind of veneration and yields a sort of majesty. But it is only a well-founded reputation that lasts permanently. (97)
Gain goodwill. … Some trust so much to merit that they neglect grace, but wise men know that it is a long and stony road without a lift from favor. Goodwill facilitates and supplies everything. It supposes gifts or even supplies them, such as courage, zeal, knowledge, or even discretion; whereas it will not see defects because it does not search for them. It arises from some common interest, either material, as in disposition, nationality, family, race, occupation; or formal, which is of a higher kind of communion, as in capacity, obligation, reputation or merit. The whole difficulty is to gain goodwill—to keep it is easy. It has, however, to be sought for and when found to be utilized. (112)
Write your intentions in cypher. The passions are the gates of the soul. The most practical knowledge consists in disguising them. He that plays with cards exposed runs a risk of losing the stakes. The reserve of caution should combat the curiosity of inquirers with the policy of the inky cuttlefish. Do not even let your tastes be known, lest others utilize them either by running counter to them or by flattering them. (98)
Do not show your wounded finger, for everything will knock up against it. Do not complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured. It is no use to be vexed; being the butt of the talk will only vex you the more. Ill will searches for wounds to irritate, aims darts to try the temper, and tries a thousand ways to sting to the quick. The wise never confess to being hit, or disclose any evil, whether personal or hereditary. For even fate sometimes likes to wound us where we are most tender. It always mortifies wounded flesh. Never therefore disclose the source of pain or of joy, if you wish the one to cease and the other to endure. (145)
Know how to say “no.” One ought not to give way in everything nor to everybody. To know how to refuse is therefore as important as to know how to consent. This is especially the case with people of power. Everything depends on how you do it. Some people’s no is thought more of than the yes of others; for a gilded no is more satisfactory than a dry yes. There are some who always have no on their lips, whereby they make everything distasteful. No always comes first with them, and when sometimes they give way after all, it does them no good on account of the unpleasant beginning. Your refusal need not be point-blank; let the disappointment come by degrees. Nor let the refusal be final—that would destroy dependence, so let some spice of hope remain to soften the rejection. Let politeness compensate and fine words supply the place of deeds. Yes and no are soon said, but give much to think over. (70)
All people idolize something; for some it is fame, for others self-interest, for most it is pleasure. Skill consists in knowing these idols in order to bring them into play. Know a person’s mainspring of motive and you have as it were the key to his will. Have resort to primary motives, which are not always the highest but more often the lowest part of his nature…. (26)
B said: Utilize another’s wants. The greater his wants the greater the turn of the screw. Philosophers say privation is non-existent, but statesmen say it is all-embracing, and they are right. Many make ladders to attain their ends out of the wants of others. They make use of the opportunity and tantalize the appetite by pointing out the difficulty of satisfaction. The energy of desire promises more than the inertia of possession. The passion of desire increases with every increase of opposition. It is a subtle point to satisfy the desire and yet preserve the dependence. (189)
B said: Comprehend the disposition of the people you deal with. Then you will know their intentions. Cause known, effect known; beforehand in the disposition and after in the motive. The melancholy person always foresees misfortunes, the backbiter scandals—having no conception of the good, evil offers itself to them. A person moved by passion always speaks of things as different from what they are; it is his passion that speaks, not his reason. Thus each speaks as his feeling or his humor prompts him, and all far from the truth. Learn how to decipher faces and spell out the soul in the features. If someone always laughs set him down as foolish, if never as false. Beware of the gossip—he is either a babbler or a spy. Expect little good from the misshapen: they generally take revenge on nature, and do little honor to her, as she has done little to them. Beauty and folly generally go hand in hand. (273)
Nothing depreciates a person more than to show he is just like anyone else. The day he is seen to be all too human he ceases to be thought divine. Frivolity is the exact opposite of reputation. And as the reserved are held to be more than men, so the frivolous are held to be less. No failing causes failure of respect. For frivolity is the exact opposite of solid seriousness. A person of levity cannot be a person of weight even when he is old, and age should oblige him to be prudent. Although this blemish is so common it is none the less despised. (289)
Do not waste influence. The great as friends are for great occasions. One should not make use of great confidence for little things, for that wastes a favor. The emergency anchor should be reserved for the last resort. If you use up the great for little ends what remain afterward?
Nothing is more valuable than a protector and nothing costs more nowadays than a favor. It can make or unmake a whole world. It can even support your wits or take them away. As nature and fame are favorable to the wise, so luck is generally envious of them. It is therefore more important to keep the favor of the mighty than goods and chattels. (171)
The truth, but not the whole truth. Nothing demands more caution than the truth—it is the lancet of the heart. It requires as much to tell the truth as to conceal it. On one hand, a single lie can destroy a whole reputation for integrity. The deceit will be regarded as treason, and the deceiver as a traitor, which is worse. Yet not all truths can be spoken, some for our own sake, others for the sake of others. (181)
Do not be too much of a dove. Alternate the cunning of the serpent with the candor of the dove. Nothing is easier than to deceive an honest man. He believes in much who lies about nothing; he who does no deception has much confidence. To be deceived is not always due to stupidity, it may arise from sheer goodness. There are two sets of people who can guard themselves from injury: those who have learned by experiencing it at their own cost and those who have observed it at the cost of others. Prudence should use as much suspicion as subtlety uses snares, and none need be so good as to enable others to do him ill. Combine in yourself the dove and the serpent, not as a monster but as a prodigy. (243)
Do not believe, or like, lightly. Maturity of mind is best shown in slow belief. Lying is the usual thing, so then let belief be unusual. He that is lightly led away soon falls into contempt. At the same time, there is no necessity to betray your doubts against the good faith of others. For this adds insult to discourtesy, since you make out your informant to be either deceiver or deceived. Nor is this the only evil. Lack of belief is the mark of a liar, who suffers from two failings: he neither believes nor is believed. Suspension of judgment is prudent in a hearer; the speaker can appeal to his original source of information. There is a similar kind of imprudence in liking too easily, for lies may be told by deeds as well as in words, and this deceit is more dangerous for practical life. (154)
Take care when you get information. We live by information, not by sight. We exist by faith in others. The ear is the side door of truth but the front door of lies. The truth is generally seen, rarely heard. She seldom comes in elemental purity, especially from afar—there is always some admixture of the moods of those through whom she has passed. The passions tinge her, sometimes favorably, sometimes odiously. She always brings out people’s disposition, therefore receive her with caution from him that praises, with more caution from him that blames. Pay attention to the intention of the speaker; you should know beforehand on what footing he comes. Let reflection test for falsity and exaggeration. (80)
Be trustworthy. Honorable dealing is at an end, trusts are denied, few keep their word, the greater the service the poorer the reward—that is the way of the world nowadays. There are whole nations inclined to false dealing; with some treachery has always to be feared, with others breach of promise, with others deceit. Yet this bad behavior of others should be a warning to us rather than an example. The fear is that the sight of such unworthy behavior will override our integrity. But a person of honor should never forget what he is because he sees what others are. (280)
Use, but do not abuse, cunning. One ought not to delight in it, still less boast of it. Everything artificial should be concealed, most of all cunning, which is hated. Deceit is common, so our caution has to be redoubled, but not so as to show itself, for caution arouses distrust, causes annoyance, awakens revenge, and gives rise to more ills than you would imagine. To go to work with caution is of great advantage in action, and there is no greater proof of wisdom. The greatest skill in any deed consists in the sure mastery with which it is executed. (45)
Think things over, especially those that are important. All fools come to grief from lack of thought. They never see even half the things and, as they do not observe their own loss or gain, still less do they apply any diligence to them. Some make much of what matters little and little of much, always weighing on the wrong scale. Many never lose their common sense, because they have *non to lose. There are matters that should be observed with the closest attention, and thereafter always kept well in mind. The wise person thinks over everything, but with a difference, most profoundly where there is more in it than he first thought. Thus his comprehension extends as far as his apprehension. (35)
A man of the times. The rarest individuals depend on their times. It is not everyone that finds the times he deserves, and even when he finds it he does not always know how to utilize it. Some people have been worthy of a better century, for every species of good does not always triumph. Things have their period—even excellent qualities are subject to fashion. Wisdom has one advantage: she is immortal. If this is not her century many others will be. (20)
Go prepared. Go armed against discourtesy, faithlessness, presumption, and all other kinds of folly. There is much of it in the world, and prudence lies in avoiding meeting with it. Arm yourself each day before the mirror of attention with the weapons of defense. Thus you will beat down the attacks of folly. Be prepared for the occasion, and do not expose your reputation to vulgar contingencies. Armed with prudence, a person cannot be disarmed by impertinence.
The road of human interaction is difficult, for it is full of ruts that may jolt our reputation. Best to take the byway, taking Ulysses as a model of shrewdness.
Feigned misunderstanding is of great value in such matters. Aided by politeness it helps us over all, and is often the only way out of difficulties. (256)
Know that there are vulgar people everywhere. This is true even in Corinth itself, even in the highest families. Everyone may try the experiment within his own gates. (206)
Put up with fools. The wise are always impatient, for he that increases knowledge increases impatience with folly. Much knowledge is difficult to satisfy. The first great rule of life, according to Epictetus, is to put up with things—he valued this as half of all wisdom. To put up with all the varieties of folly would need much patience. We often have to put up with most from those on whom we most depend, which is a useful lesson in self-control. Out of patience comes forth peace, the priceless boon that is the happiness of the world. But let him that has no power of patience then retire within himself, though even there he will have to put up with himself. (159)
Push advantages. Some put all their strength in the commencement and never carry a thing to conclusion. They invent but never execute. These be ambiguous spirits—they obtain no fame for they sustain no game to the end. Everything ends at the first stop. In some that arises from impatience, which is the failing of the Spaniards, as patience is the virtue of the Belgians. The latter bring things to an end, the former come to an end with things. They sweat away until the obstacle is overcome, but then they are content—they do not know how to push the victory home. They prove that they can but will not. This shows that they are either incapable or unreliable. If the undertaking is good, why not finish it? It is bad, why undertake it? Strike down your quarry, if you are wise—do not be content merely to flush it out. (242)
Finish off well. In the house of fortune if you enter by the gate of pleasure you must leave by that of sorrow, and vice versa. You ought therefore to think of the finish, and attach more importance to a happy exit than to applause on entrance. It is the common lot of the unlucky to have a very fortunate beginning and a very tragic end. The important point is not the vulgar applause on entrance—that comes to nearly all—but the general feeling at exit. Few in life are felt to deserve an encore. Fortune rarely accompanies anyone to the door, and as warmly as she may welcome the coming, she is cold to the parting guest. (59)
See to it that things end well. Some regard more the rigor of the game than the winning of it, but to the world the discredit of the final failure does away with any recognition of previous diligence. The victor need not explain. The world does not notice the details of the measures employed, but only the good or bad result. You lose nothing if you gain your end. A good end gilds everything, however unsatisfactory the means. Thus at times it is part of the art of life to transgress the rules of the art, if you cannot end well otherwise. (66)
Be a person of integrity. Cling to righteousness with such tenacity of purpose that neither the passions of the mob nor the violence of the tyrant can ever cause you to transgress the bounds of right. But who can be such a phoenix of equity? What a scanty following rectitude has! Many praise it indeed, but few devote themselves. Others follow it until danger threatens; then the false deny it and the political conceal it. For righteousness cares not if it conflicts with friendship, power, or even self-interest; then comes the danger of desertion. Astute people make plausible distinctions so as not to stand in the way of their superiors or of reason of state. But straightforward and constant people regard deception as a kind of treason and set more store in tenacity than on sagacity. Such people are always to be found on the side of truth, and if they desert a group they do not change due to fickleness but because the others have first deserted truth. (29)
Have nothing to do with disreputable occupations. And have still less to do with fads that bring more notoriety than good reputation. There are many fanciful sects, and the prudent person flees from them all. There are people with bizarre tastes that always take to heart everything that wise people repudiate. They live in love with eccentricity, and this may make them well known indeed but more as an object of ridicule than of good reputation. A cautious person does not make public his pursuit of wisdom, still less those matters that make him or his followers seem ridiculous. These need not be specified—common contempt has sufficiently singled them out. (30)
Make use of your friends. This requires all the art of discretion. Some are good far off, some when near. Many are no good at conversation but excellent as correspondents, for distance removes some failings which are unbearable in close proximity to them. Friends are for use even more than for pleasure, for they have the three qualities of the good, or, as some say, of being in general: unity, goodness, and truth. For a friend is all in all. Few are worthy to be good friends, and even these become fewer because people do not know how to pick them out. Keeping friends is more important than making them. Select those that will wear well—if they are new at first it is some consolation that they will become old. Absolutely the best are those well salted, though they may require soaking in the testing. There is no desert like leaving without friends. Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil. It is the sole remedy against misfortune, like fresh air to the soul. (158)
Commentary: One of the aspects of the benefits of having good companions
The superior person frequents good company and thereby enjoys the person and learns from them.
If you do not talk with those you should talk to, you lose people. If you talk with those you should not talk to, you lose words. Wise people do not lose people, nor do they lose words.
When I am with others, they are my teachers. I can select their good points and follow them, and select their bad points and avoid them.
A petty person seeks certain companions so as to be seen with them, while a superior person does so out of appreciation for the person himself.
Sympathy with great minds. It is a heroic quality to agree with heroes. It is like a miracle of nature both because of its mystery and for its usefulness. There is a natural kinship of hearts and minds; its effects are such that vulgar ignorance attributes it to magic potions. Esteem and goodwill follow and at times reach affection. It persuades without words and obtains without earning. This sympathy is sometimes active, sometimes passive; both bring great happiness—the more so, the more sublime. It is a great art to recognize, to distinguish, and to utilize this gift. No amount of energy suffices without that favor of nature. (44)
The shortest path to greatness is along with others. Intercourse with the right people works well; manners and taste are shared, good sense and even talent grow insensibly. Let the impatient person then make a comrade of the sluggish, and so with the other temperaments, so that without forcing it the golden mean is obtained. It is a great art to agree with others. The alternation of contraries beautifies and sustains the world, and if it can cause harmony in the physical world, still more can it do in the moral. Adopt this policy in the choice of friends and defendants—by joining extremes the more effective middle way is found. (108)
Have friends. A friend is a second self. Every friend is good and wise for his friend; between them everything turn to good. Everyone is as others wish him to be—but in order that they may wish him well, he must win their hearts and so their tongues. There is no magic like a good turn, and the way to gain friendly feelings is to do friendly acts. The most and best of us depend on others—we have to live either among friends or among enemies. So seek someone everyday who will wish you well—if not a friend, by-and-by after trials some of these will become your confidants. (111)
Only act with honorable people. You can trust them and they you. Their honor is the best surety of their behavior even in misunderstandings, for they always act according to their character. Hence it is better to have a dispute with honorable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones. You cannot deal well with the ruined, for they have no hostages for rectitude. With them there is no true friendship, and their agreements are not binding, however stringent they may appear, because they have no feeling of honor. Never have anything to do with such people, for if honor does not restrain them, virtue will not, since honor is the throne of rectitude. (116)
Do not be unapproachable. The most wild beasts live in the most populous places. To be inaccessible is the fault of those who distrust themselves, whose honors change their manners. It is no way to earn people’s goodwill by being ill-tempered with them. What a sight it is to see one of those unsociable monsters who make a point of being proudly impertinent. Their servants, who have the misfortune to be obliged to speak with them, enter as if prepared for a fight with a tiger: armed with patience and with fear. To obtain their high position these unapproachable people must have ingratiated themselves with everyone, but having arrived there they seek to compensate themselves by irritating all. It is a condition of their position that they should be accessible to all, yet from pride or spite they are so to none. A civil way to punish such people is to let them alone, depriving them of the chance of improvement by granting them no opportunity for interaction. (74)
Do not be censorious. There are people of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty, not from any evil motive but because it is their nature to. They condemn all—these for what they have done, those for what they will do. This indicates a nature worse than cruel, vile indeed. They accuse with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams with which to poke out the eyes. They are always taskmasters who could turn a paradise into a prison—if passion intervenes they drive matters to the extreme. A noble nature, on the contrary, always knows how to find an excuse for failings, saying the intention was good, or it was an error of oversight. (109)
Vary your mode of action. So as to distract attention, do not always do things the same way, especially if you have a rival. Do not always act on first impulse; people will soon recognize the uniformity and, by anticipating, frustrate your designs. (17)
Act sometimes on second thoughts, sometimes on first impulse. Life is a warfare against the malice of others. Sagacity fights with strategic changes of intention—never doing what it threatens, aiming only to escape notice. It aims in the air with dexterity and strikes home in an unexpected direction, always seeking to conceal its game. It lets a purpose appear in order to attract the opponent’s attention, but then turns round and conquers by the unexpected. But a penetrating intelligence anticipates this by watchfulness and lurks in ambush. It always understands the opposite of what the opponent wishes it to understand, and recognizes every feint of guile. It lets the first impulse pass by and waits for the second, or even the third. Sagacity now rises to higher flights on seeing its artifice foreseen: It tries to deceive by truth itself, changing its game in order to change its deceit, cheats by not cheating, and bases its deception on the greatest candor. But the opposing intelligence is on guard with increased watchfulness and discovers the darkness concealed by the light and deciphers every move, the more subtle because more simple. In this way the guile of the Python combats the far darting rays of Apollo. (13)
[Martin Fischer translates the first line, “Accomplish your ends, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes directly.]
Keep you imagination under control. You must sometimes correct it, sometimes assist it. For it is all important for out *happiness and balances reason. The imagination can tyrannize, not being content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates our life. It can make us happy or burden us, depending on the folly that it leads us to. It can make us either content or discontent with ourselves. Before some people it continually holds up the penalties of action and becomes the mortifying lash of fools. To others the imagination promises happiness and adventure with blissful delusion. It can do all this unless you lord over it with the most prudent self-control. (24)
Commentary: Imagination plays a key factor in our lives.
The imagination can provide huge benefits to a person and his development, but when used wrongly and where it errs, it requires vigilant self-control in order to not harbor delusion.
Like B points out, people sometimes allow the imagination to only show them the negative, and they vex themselves due to this, and undergo privation and torment. Or sometime people let their imagination present false chimerical images of joy that have no counterpart in reality.
Prize intensity more than extent. Excellence resides in quality not in quantity. The best is always few and rare—abundance lowers value. Even among men, the giants are usually really dwarfs. Some reckon books by the thickness, as if they were written to exercise the brawn more than the brain. Extent alone never rises above mediocrity; it is the misfortune of universal geniuses that in attempting to be at home everywhere are so nowhere. Intensity gives eminence and rises to the heroic in matters sublime.
Commentary: Quantity is not a substitute for quality—and high quantity as a general rule will accompany at least some low quality and superfluous things.
Since we cannot extend to everything, we must gauge matters more by their importance and goodness than their quantity
A person could spend decades studying petty and trivial things, and not obtain the amount of benefit and enjoyment that a person who learns great things in one year.
In these cases, the former apply themselves too much to trivial things and take consolation in their quantity, whereas the latter devote themselves to the best and work their way to other things in order of their importance.
The superior person should apply himself to the best first and most earnestly, and not misapply his energy to a great deal of what is trifling.
Of course, quantity does have significance as well, and this teaching should not be taken so far that the importance of quantity becomes beclouded by quality. Nobody, not even Confucius, could make much progress without extending himself to a wide enough sphere, and by devoting enough time to attain mastery.
Adapt yourself to those around you. There is no need to show your ability before everyone. Employ no more force than is necessary. Let there be no unnecessary expenditure either of knowledge or of power. The skillful falconer only flies enough birds to serve for the chase. If there is too much display today there will be nothing to show tomorrow. Always have some novelty with which to dazzle. To show something fresh each day keeps expectations alive and conceals the limits of capacity. (58)
Know how to use evasion. That is how smart people get out of difficulties. They extricate themselves from the most intricate labyrinth by some witty application of a bright remark. They get out of a serious contention by an airy nothing or by raising a smile. Most of the great leaders are well grounded in this art. When you have to refuse something, often the most courteous way is to just change the subject. And sometimes it proves the highest understanding to act like you do not understand. (73)
Make use of your enemies. You should learn to seize things not by the blade, which cuts, but by the handle, which saves you from harm—especially with the doings of your enemies. A wise person gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends. Their ill will often levels mountains of difficulties that one would otherwise not face. Many have had their greatness made for them by their enemies. Flattery is more dangerous than hatred, because it covers the stains that the other causes to be wiped out. The wise will turn ill will into a mirror more faithful than that of kindness, and remove or improve the faults referred to. Caution thrives well when rivalry and ill will are next-door neighbors. (84)
Prevent scandal. Many heads go to make the mob, and in each of them there are eyes for malice to use and a tongue for detraction to wag. If a single ill report spreads, it casts a blemish on your fair fame, and if it clings to you with a nickname, your reputation is in danger. Generally it is some salient defect or ridiculous trait that gives rise to the rumors. At times these are malicious inflations of private envy to general distrust. For these are wicked tongues that ruin a great reputation more easily by a witty sneer than by a direct accusation. It is easy to get a bad reputation because it is easy to believe evil but hard to eradicate. The wise therefore avoid such incidents, guarding against vulgar scandal with constant vigilance. It is far easier to prevent than to rectify. (86)
Know yourself. Know your talents and capacity, in judgment and inclination. You cannot master yourself unless you know yourself. There are mirrors for the face but none for the mind. Let careful thought about yourself serve as a substitute. When the outer image is forgotten, keep the inner one to improve and perfect. Learn the force of your intellect and capacity for affairs, test the force of your courage in order to apply it, and keep your foundations secure and your head clear for everything. (89)
Know your strongest quality. Know your preeminent gift—cultivate it and it will assist the rest. Everyone would have excelled in something if he had known his strong point. Notice in what quality you surpass and take charge of that. In some people judgment excels, in others valor. Most do violence to their natural aptitude and thus attain superiority in nothing. Time enlightens us too late of what was first only a flattering of the passions. (34)
Allow yourself some forgivable sin. Some such carelessness is often the greatest recommendation of talent. For envy causes ostracism, most envenomed when most polite. Envy counts every perfection as a failing and that it has no faults itself. Being perfect in all envy condemns perfection in all. It becomes an Argus (mythological, hundred-eyed giant), all eyes for imperfection, if only for its own consolation. Blame is like the lightning—it hits the highest. Let Homer nod now and then and affect some negligence in valor or in intellect—not in prudence—so as to disarm malevolence, or at least to prevent its bursting with its own venom. You thus leave your cape on the horns of envy (like a matador) in order to save your immortality. (83)
Keep the extent of your abilities unknown. The wise person does not allow his knowledge and abilities to be sounded to the bottom, if he desires to be honored by all. He allows you to know him but not to comprehend him. No one must know the extent of a wise person's abilities, lest he be disappointed. No one should ever have an opportunity to fathom him entirely. For guesses and doubts about the extent of his talents arouse more veneration than accurate knowledge of them, be they ever so great. (94)
Reality and appearance. Things pass for what they seem, not for what they are. Few see inside, many get attached to appearances. It is not enough to be right if your actions look false and ill. (99)
Do and be seen doing. Things do not pass for what they are but for what they seem. To be of use and to know how to show it, is to be twice as useful. What is not seen is as if it was not. Even the right does not receive proper consideration if it does not seem right. The observant are far fewer in number than those who are deceived by appearances. Deceit rules—things are judged by their jackets and many things are other than they seem. But a good exterior is the best recommendation of the inner perfection. (130)
One half of the world laughs at the other, and fools are they all. Everything is good or everything is bad according to who you ask. What one pursues another persecutes. He is an insufferable ass who would regulate everything according to his ideas. Excellences do not depend on a single person’s pleasure. So many people, so many tastes, all different. There is no defect that is not affected by some. We need not lose heart if something does not please someone, for others will appreciate I; nor need their applause turn our head, for there will surely be others to condemn it. The real test of praise is the approval of renowned people and of experts in the field. You should aim to be independent of any one opinion, of any one fashion, of any one century. (101)
Post yourself in the center of things. So you feel the pulse of affairs. Many lose their way either in the ramifications of useless discussion or in the brushwood of wearisome verbosity without ever realizing the real matter at hand. They go over a single point a hundred times, wearing themselves and others, and yet never touch the all important center of affairs. This comes from a confusion of mind from which they cannot extricate themselves. They waste time and patience on matters they should leave alone, and afterward there is no time spared for what they have left alone. (136)
The sage should be self-sufficient. He that was all in all to himself carried all with him when he carried himself. If a universal friend can represent us to Rome and the rest of the world, let a man be his own universal friend, and then he is in a position to live alone. Whom could such a man want if there is no clearer intellect or finer taste than his own? He would then depend on himself alone, which is the highest happiness and like the Supreme Being. He that can live alone resembles the brute beast in nothing, the sage in much and like a god in everything. (137)
The art of letting things alone. The more so the wilder the waves of public or of private life. There are hurricanes in human affairs, tempests of passion, when it is wise to retire to a harbor and ride it out at anchor. Remedies often make diseases worse; in such cases one has to leave them to their natural course and the moral influence of time. It takes a wise doctor to know when not to prescribe, and at times the greater skill consists in not applying remedies. The proper way to still the storms of the vulgar is to hold yourself back and let them calm down by themselves. To give way now is to conquer by and by. A fountain gets muddy with but little stirring up, and does not get clear by our meddling with it but by our leaving it alone. The best remedy for disturbances is to let them run their course, for so they quiet down. (138)
Look into the interior of things. Things are generally other than they seem, and ignorance that never looks beneath the rind is disillusioned when you show the kernel. … (146)
Know how to get your price for things. Their intrinsic value is not sufficient, for not everyone bites at the essence or looks into the interior. Most go with the crowd, and go because they see others go. It is a great stroke of art to show things at true value—at times by praising them (for praise arouses desire), at times by giving them a striking name (which is very useful for putting things at a premium), provided it is done without affectation. Again, it is generally an inducement to profess to supply only to connoisseurs, for all think themselves such, and if not, the sense of want arouses the desire. Never call things easy or common—that makes them depreciated rather than made accessible. All rush after the unusual, which is more appetizing both for the taste and for the intelligence. (150)
Select your friends. Only after passing the examination of experience and the test of fortune will they be graduates, not only in affection but in discernment. Though this is the most important thing in life, it is the one least cared for. Intelligence brings friends to some, chance to most. Yet a person is judged by his friends, for there was never sympathy between wise men and fools. At the same time, to find pleasure in a person's society is no proof of close friendship: it may come from the pleasantness of his company more than from trust in his capacity. There are some friendships legitimate, others illicit; the latter for pleasure, the former for their fertility of ideas and motives. Few are the friends of a person’s innermost self, most those of his circumstances. The insight of a true friend is more useful than the goodwill of others, therefore gain them by choice, not by chance. A wise friend ward off worries, a foolish one brings them about. But do not wish them too much luck, or you may lose them. (156)
Do not make mistakes about character. That is the worst and yet easiest error. Better be cheated in the price than in the quality of goods. In dealing with people, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within. To know people is different from knowing things. It is profound philosophy to sound the depths of feeling and distinguish traits of character. People must be studied as deeply as books. (157)
Know your pet faults. The most perfect of people has them and is either wedded to them or loves them. They are often faults of intellect, and the greater this is, the greater they are, or at least the more conspicuous. It is not so much that their possessor does not know them, he loves them, which is a double evil because it’s an irrational affection for avoidable faults. They are spots on perfection, they displease the onlooker as much as they please the possessor. It is a gallant thing to get clear of them, and so give play to one’s other qualities. For all people hit upon such a failing, and on going over your qualifications they will take a long look at this blot and blacken it in as deeply as possible, casting your other talents into the shade. (161)
Never—out of sympathy with the unfortunate—involve yourself in their fate. One person’s misfortune is another’s luck, for one cannot be lucky without many being unlucky. It is a peculiarity of the unfortunate to arouse people’s goodwill, who desire to compensate them for the blows of fortune with their useless favor, and it happens that one who was abhorred by all in prosperity is adored by all in adversity. Vengeance on the wing is exchanged for compassion afoot. Yet it should be noticed how fate shuffles the cards. There are people who always consort with the unlucky, and he that yesterday flew high and happy stands today miserable at their side. That reveals nobility of soul but not worldly wisdom. (163)
Throw straws in the air to test the wind. Find how things will be perceived, especially from those whose reception or success is doubtful. One can thus be assured of its turning out well, and an opportunity is provided for going on in earnest or withdrawing entirely. By trying people’s intentions in this way, the wise person knows on what ground he stands. This is the great rule of foresight in asking, in desiring, and in ruling. (164)
Know how to rely on yourself. In great crises there is no better companion than a bold heart, and if it becomes weak it must be strengthened from the neighboring parts. Worries dies away for the person who asserts himself. One must not surrender to misfortune or else it would become intolerable. Many people do not help themselves in their troubles and double their weight by not knowing how to bear them. He that knows himself knows how to strengthen his weakness, and the wise person conquers everything, even the stars in their courses. (167)
Never contend with someone who has nothing to lose. By doing so you enter into an unequal conflict. The other enters without anxiety—having lost everything, including shame, he has no further loss to fear. He therefore resorts to all kinds of insolence. One should never expose a valuable reputation to so terrible a risk, least of all what has cost years to gain and may be lost in a moment—a single slight may wipe out much sweat. A person of honor and responsibility has a reputation, because he has much to lose. He balances his own and the other’s reputation. He only enters into the contest with the greatest caution, and then goes to work with such circumspection that he gives prudence the opportunity to retire in time and bring his reputation under cover. For even by victory he cannot gain what he has lost by exposing himself to the chances of loss. (172)
Do not be made of glass in your relations with others, still less in friendship. Some break very easily, and thereby show their want of consistency. They attribute to themselves imaginary offences and to others oppressive intentions. Their feelings are even more sensitive than the eye itself and must not be touched in jest or in earnest. Motes offend them; they need not wait for beams. Those who consort with them must treat them with the greatest delicacy, have regard to their sensitiveness, and watch their demeanor, since the slightest slight arouses their annoyance. They are mostly very egoistic, slaves of their moods, for the sake of which they cast everything aside. They are worshippers of little nothings. On the other hand, the disposition of the true lover is almost diamond-like: hard and everlasting. (173)
Do not live in a hurry. To know how to separate things is to know how to enjoy them. Many people finish their fortune sooner than their life. They run through pleasures without enjoying them, and would like to go back when they find they have overrun the mark. Postilions of life, they increase the ordinary pace of life by the hurry of their own calling. They devour more in one day than they can digest in a whole lifetime; they live in advance of pleasures, eat up the years beforehand, and by their hurry get through everything too soon. Even in the search for knowledge there should be moderation, lest we learn things better left unknown. We have more days to live through than pleasures. Be slow in enjoyment, quick at work, for people see work ended with pleasure, pleasures ended with regret. (174)
Have knowledge, or know those who do. Without intelligence, either one’s own or another’s, true life is impossible. But many do not know that they do not know, and many think they know when they know nothing. Failings of the intelligence are incorrigible, since those who do not know, do not know themselves, and cannot therefore seek what they lack. Many would be wise if they did not think themselves wise. Thus it happens that though the oracles of wisdom are precious, they are rarely used. To seek advice does not lessen greatness or argue incapacity. On the contrary, to ask advice proves you well advised. Take counsel with reason if you do not wish to court defeat. (176)
Avoid being too familiar with others. Nor should you permit other to be too familiar with you. He that is too familiar loses any superiority his influence gives him and so loses respect. The stars keep their brilliance by not making themselves common. The divine demands decorum. Every familiarity breeds contempt. In human affairs, the more a person shows the less he has, for in open communication you communicate the failings that reserve might keep under cover. Familiarity is never desirable: with superiors because it is dangerous, with inferiors because it is unbecoming, least of all with the common herd, who become insolent from sheer folly—they mistake favor shown them for need felt of them. Familiarity verges on vulgarity. (177)
Reticence is the seal of capacity. A heart without a secret is an open letter. Where there is a solid foundation secrets can be kept profound—there are specious cellars where important things may be hid. Reticence springs from self-control and to control oneself in this is a true triumph. You must pay ransom to each you tell. The security of wisdom consists of inner temperance. The risk that reticence runs lies in the cross-questioning of others, in the use of contradiction to worm out secrets, in the darts of irony. To avoid there the prudent become more reticent than ever. What must be done need not be said, and what must be said need not be done. (179)
Never guide the enemy to what he has to do. The fool never does what the wise judge wise, because he does not follow up with suitable means. He that is discreet follows still less a plan laid out, or even carried out, by another. One has to discuss matters from both points of view—turn it over on both sides. Judgments vary. Let him that has not decided attend rather to what is possible than what is probable. (180)
A grain of boldness in everything. This is an important piece of prudence. You must moderate your opinion of others so that you may not think so high of them as to fear them. The imagination should never yield to the heart. Many appear great till you know them personally, and then dealing with them does more to raise disillusion than esteem. No one oversteps the narrow bounds of humanity—all have their weaknesses either in heart or head. Dignity gives apparent authority, which is rarely accompanied by personal power, for fortune often redresses the height of office by the inferiority of the holder. The imagination always jumps too soon and paints things in brighter colors than the real. It thinks things not as they are but as it wishes them to be. Attentiveness—though disillusioned in the past—soon corrects all that. Yet if wisdom should not be timorous, neither should folly be rash. And if self-reliance helps the ignorant, how much more the brave and wise? (182)
Do not stand on ceremony. Even in kings this affectation is renowned for eccentricity. To be punctilious is to be a bore, yet whole nations have this peculiarity. The garb of folly is woven out of such things. Such folk are worshippers of their own dignity, yet show how little it is justified since they fear that the least thing can destroy it. It is right to demand respect, but not to be considered a master of ceremonies. Yet it is true that in order to do without ceremonies one must possess supreme qualities. Neither affect nor despise etiquette—he cannot be great who is great at such little things. (184)
B said: Never stake your credit on a single cast of the dice. If it miscarries the damage is irreparable. It may easily happen that you might fail once, especially at first. Circumstances are not always favorable, hence they say, “Every dog has his day.” Always connect your second attempt with your first, because whether it succeeds or fails the first will redeem the second. Always have resort to better means and appeal to more resources. Things depend on all sorts of chances. That is why the satisfaction of success is so rare. (185)
B said: A peaceful life is a long life. To live, let live. Peacemakers not only live, they rule life. Hear, see, and be silent. A day without dispute brings sleep without dreams. Long life and a pleasant one is life enough for two—that is the fruit of peace. He has all that makes nothing of what is nothing to him. There is no greater perversity than to take everything to heart. There is equal folly in troubling our heart about what does not concern us and in not taking to heart what does. (192)
Watch out for people who begin with another’s concerns to end with their own. Watchfulness is the only guard against cunning. Be intent on their intention. Many succeed in making others do their own affairs, and unless you possess the key to their motives you may at any moment be forced to take their chestnuts out of the fire to the damage of your own fingers. (193)
B said: Know how to appreciate. There is no one who cannot teach somebody something, and there is no one so excellent that he cannot be excelled. To know how to make use of everyone is useful knowledge. Wise men appreciate everyone, for they see the good in each and know how hard it is to make anything good. Fools depreciate everyone, not recognizing the good and selecting the bad. (195)
B said: Recognize faults, however highly placed. Integrity can discover vice when clothed in brocade or even crowned with gold, but will not be able to hide its own character for all that. Slavery does not lose its vileness because it is disguised by the nobility of its lord and master. Vices may stand in a high place, but are low for all that. People may see that many a great person has great faults, yet they do not see that he is not great because of them. The example of the great is so specious that it even glosses over viciousness, until it may so affect those who flatter it that they do not notice that what they gloss over in the great they abominate in the lower classed. (186)
Do not carry fools on your back. He that does not know a fool when he sees one is one himself, still more he that knows him but will not keep clear of him. They are dangerous company and ruinous confidants. Even though their own caution and others’ care keeps them in bounds for a time, still at length they are sure to do or to say some foolishness that is all the greater for being kept so long in stock. They cannot help another’s credit who have none of their own. They are most unlucky, which is the nemesis of fools, and they have to pay for one thing or the other. There is only one thing that is not so bad about them, and this is that though they can be of no use to the wise, they are good as warning signs or as signposts. (197)
In heaven all is bliss. And in hell all misery. One earth, between the two, both one thing and the other. We stand between the two extremes, and therefore share both. Fate varies—all is not good luck nor all mischance. This world is merely zero—by itself it is of no value—but with heaven in front of it, it means much. Indifference at its ups and downs is prudent, nor is there any novelty for the wise. Our life gets as complicated as a comedy as it goes on, but the complications get gradually resolved—see that the curtain comes down on a good denouement. (211)
Do not turn one blunder into two. It is quite usual to commit four blunders in order to remedy one, or to excuse one piece of impertinence by still another. Folly is either related to or identical with the family of lies, for in both cases it needs many to support one. The worst of a bad case is having to fight it, and worse than the ill itself is not being able to conceal it. The annuity of one failing serves to support many others. A wise person may make one slip but never two, and that only in running not while standing still. (214)
Neither love nor hate forever. Trust the friends of today as if they will be enemies tomorrow, and that of the worst kind. As this happens in reality, let it happen in your precaution. Do not put weapons in the hand for deserters from friendship to wage war with. On the other hand, leave the door of reconciliation open for enemies, and if it is also the gate of generosity so much the more safe. The vengeance of long ago is at times the torment of today, and the joy over the ill we have done is turned to grief. (217)
Never take things against the grain, no matter how they come. Everything has a smooth and a seamy side. The best of weapons wounds it taken the blade, while the enemy’s spear may be our best protection if taken by the staff. Many things cause pain that would cause pleasure if you regarded their advantages. There is a favorable and an unfavorable side to everything—cleverness consists in finding out the favorable. The same thing looks quite different in another light; look at it therefore on its best side and do not exchange good for evil. Thus it happens that many find joy, many grief, in everything. This remark is a great protection against the frowns of fortune, and a weighty rule of life for all times and all conditions. (224)
Do not be the slave of first impressions. Some marry the very first account they hear, all others must live with them as concubines. But as a lie has swift legs, the truth with them can find no lodging. We should neither satisfy our will with the first object nor our mind with the first proposition—for that is superficial. Many are like new casks who keep the scent of the first liquor they hold, be it good or bad. If this superficiality become known, it becomes fatal, for it then give opportunity for cunning mischief. The evil-minded hasten to color the mind of the gullible. Always therefore leave room for a second hearing. Alexander always kept one ear for the other side. Wait for the second or even third edition of news. To be the slave of your first impressions shows lack of capacity, and is not far from being the slave of your passions. (227)
Do not hold your views to firmly. Every fool is firmly convinced, and everyone fully persuaded is a fool; the more erroneous his judgment the more firmly he holds it. Even in cases of obvious certainty, it is fine to yield. Our reasons for holding the view cannot escape notice, our courtesy in yielding will be recognized. Our obstinacy loses more than our victory gains—that is not to champion truth but rather rudeness. There are some heads of iron most difficult to turn, and add caprice to obstinacy and the sum is a wearisome fool. Steadfastness should be for the will, not for the mind. Yet there are exceptions where one would fail twice, owning oneself wrong both in judgment and in the execution of it. (183)
Never from obstinacy take the wrong side because your opponent has anticipated you by taking the right one. You begin the fight already beaten and must soon take to flight in disgrace. With bad weapons one can never win. It was astute in the opponent to seize the better side first, it would be folly to come lagging after with the worst. Such obstinacy, is more dangerous in actions than in words, for action encounters more risk than talk. It is the common failing of the obstinate that they lose the true by contradicting it, and the useful by quarrelling with it. The sage never places himself on the side of passion, but espouses the cause of right, either discovering it first or improving it later. If the enemy is a fool, he will in such case turn round to follow the opposite and worse way. Thus the only way to drive him from the better course is to take it yourself, for his folly will cause him to desert it, and his obstinacy be punished for so doing. (142)
Revise your judgments. To appeal to an inner court of revision makes things safe. Especially when the course of action is not clear, you gain time either to confirm or improve your decision. It affords new grounds for strengthening or corroborating your judgment. And if it is a matter of giving, the gift is the more valued from its being evidently well considered than for being to promptly bestowed; long expected is highest prized. And if you have to deny something, that gains you time to decide how and when to mature the no so that it may be made palatable. Besides, after the first heat of desire is passed the repulse of refusal is felt less keenly. But, especially when people press for a reply, it is best to defer it, for as often as not that is only a feint to disarm attention. (132)
Do not let the morsels you offer be distasteful. Otherwise they give more discomfort than pleasure. Some annoy when attempting to please, because they take no account of varieties of taste. What is flattery to one is offense to another, and in attempting to be useful you may become insulting. It often costs more to displease someone than it would have cost to please him—you thereby lose both gift and thanks because you have lost the compass that steers for pleasure. If you do not know another’s taste, you do not know how to please him. Thus it happens that many insult where they mean to praise, and get soundly punished, and rightly so. Others desire to charm by their conversation, and only succeed in boring by their babble. (233)
Never trust your honor to another, unless you have his in pledge. Arrange that silence is a mutual advantage, disclosure a danger to both. Where honor is at stake you must act with a partner, so that each must be careful of the other’s honor for the sake of his own. Never fully entrust your honor to another, but if you have to, let caution surpass prudence. Let the danger be in common and the risk mutual, so that your partner cannot turn king’s evidence. (234)
Know how to ask. With some nothing is easier, with others nothing is so difficult. For there are men who cannot refuse—with them no skill is required. But with others their first word at all times is no—with them great art is required, and with everyone pick the right moment. Surprise them when they are in a pleasant mood, when a repast of body or soul has just left them refreshed—but only of their shrewdness has not anticipated your cunning. The days of joy are the days of favor, for joy overflows from the inner person into the outward creation. It is no use to apply when another has just been refused, since the reticence of saying no has just bee overcome. Nor is it good time after sorrow. To oblige a person beforehand is a sure way, unless he is base and mean. (235)
Know what is lacking in yourself. Many would have been great people if they had not had something wanting, without which they could not rise to the height of perfection. It is remarkable that some people could be much better if they could be just a little better in something. They do not perhaps take themselves seriously enough to do justice to their great abilities. Some are lacking geniality of disposition, a quality which their entourage soon finds want of, especially if they are in high office. Some are without organizing ability, others lack moderation. In all such cases a careful person may make of habit a second nature. (238)
Do not be overly critical. It is much more important to be sensible. To know more than is necessary blunts your weapons, for fine points generally bend or break. Commonsense truth is the surest. It is well to know but not to niggle. Lengthy comment leads to disputes. It is much better to have sound sense, which does not wander from the matter in hand. (239)
Make use of folly. The wisest person plays this card at times. Sometimes the greatest wisdom lies in seeming not to be wise. You need not be unwise, but merely affect unwisdom. To be wise with fools and foolish with the wise is of little use; speak to each in his own language. He is no fool who affects folly, but he is who suffers from it. Ingenious folly, rather than simple affect, is the true foolishness, since cleverness is at such a high pitch. To be well liked one must dress in the skin of the simplest of animals. (240)
Create a feeling of obligation. Some transform favors received into favors bestowed, and seem—or let it be thought—that they are doing a favor when receiving one. There are some so astute that they get honor by asking, and buy their own advantage with applause from others. They manage matters so cleverly that they seem to be doing others a service when receiving one from them. They transpose the order of obligation with extraordinary skill, or at least render it doubtful who has obliged whom. They buy the best by praising it, and make a flattering honor out of the pleasure they express. They oblige by their courtesy, and thus make people beholden for what they themselves should be indebted. In this way the conjugate “to oblige” in the active instead of in passive voice, thereby proving themselves better politicians than grammarians. This is a subtle piece of finesse, but even greater is to perceive it, and to retaliate on such fools’ bargains by paying in their own coin, and so come into your own again. (244)
Do not go with the latest speaker. There are people who go by the latest thing they have heard and thereby go to irrational extremes. Their feelings and desires are made of wax; the last comer stamps them with his seal and obliterates all previous impressions. These people never gain anything, for they lose everything so soon. Everyone dyes them with his own color. They are of no use as confidants; they remain children their whole life. Owing to this instability of feeling and volition, they stumble along, crippled in will and thought, tottering from one side of the road to the other. (248)
Never begin life with what should end it. Many take amusement at the beginning, putting off anxiety to the end; but the essential should come first and accessories afterwards if there is room. Others wish to triumph before they have fought. Others again begin with learning things of little consequence and leave studies that would bring them fame and gain to the end of life. Another is just about to make his fortune when he disappears from the scene. Method is essential for knowledge and for life. (249)
Anticipate injuries and turn them into favors. It is wiser to avoid than to revenge them. It is an uncommon piece of shrewdness to change a rival into a confidant, or transform into guards of honor those who were aiming to attack us. It helps much to know how to oblige, for he leaves no time for injuries who fills time up with gratitude. It is true savoir faire, to turn anxieties into pleasures. Try and make a confidential relation out of ill will itself. (259)
Do not become bad from sheer goodness—that is, by never getting angry. Such people without feeling are scarcely to be considered human. It does not always arise from laziness, but from sheer inability. To feel strongly on occasion shows personality; birds soon mock at the scarecrow. It is a sign of good taste to combine bitter and sweet. All sweets is diet for children and fools. It is a great evil to sink into such insensibility out of too great goodness. (266)
Know how to show your strength. Even hares can pull the mane of a dead lion. Courage is no joking matter. Give way to the first and you must yield to the second, and so on till the last, and to gain your point in the end costs as much trouble as it would have a first. Moral courage exceeds physical courage; it should be like a sword kept ready for use in the scabbard of caution. It is your shield. Moral cowardice degrades one more than physical weakness. Many have had eminent qualities yet, for want of a stout heart, they passed inanimate lives and found a tomb in their own sloth. Wise nature has thoughtfully combined in the bee the sweetness of its honey with the sharpness of its sting. (54)
Silken words, sugared manners. Arrows pierce the body, insult the souls. Sweet pastry perfumes the breath. It is a great art in life to know how to sell wind. Most things are paid for in words, and by them you can remove impossibilities. Thus we deal in air, and a royal breath can produce courage and power. Always have your words, so that even your enemies enjoy them. To please one must be peaceful. (267)
Find favor with people of good sense. The tepid yes from a remarkable person is worth more than all the applause of the vulgar—you cannot make a meal off the smoke of chaff. The wise speak with understanding and their praise gives permanent satisfaction. The sage Antigonus reduced the theater of his fame to Zeus alone, and Plato called Aristotle his whole school. Some strive to fill their stomach albeit only with the breath of the mob. Even monarchs have need of authors, and fear their pens more than ugly women the painter’s pencil. (281)
Never die of another’s bad luck. Notice those who stick in the mud, and observe how they call others to their aid so as to console themselves with a companion in misfortune. They seek someone to help them to bear misfortune, and often those who turned the cold shoulder on them in prosperity now give them a helping hand. There is great caution needed in helping the drowning without endangering oneself. (285)
Do not become responsible for all or for everyone. Otherwise you become a slave and the slave of all. Some are born more fortunate than others; they are born to do good as others are to receive it. Freedom is more precious than any gifts for which you may be tempted to give it up. Lay less stress on making many dependent on you than on keeping yourself independent of any. The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good. Above all do not regard a responsibility as a favor, for generally it is another’s plan to make you dependent on him. (286)
Our acts and thoughts and all must be determined by circumstances. Act when you may, for time and tide wait for no one. Do not live by certain fixed rules, except those that relate to the cardinal virtues. Nor let your will pledge to fixed conditions, for you may have to drink the water tomorrow that you cast away today. There are some so absurdly paradoxical that they expect all the circumstances of an action should bend to their eccentric whims and not vice versa. The wise man knows that the very polestar of prudence lies in steering by the prevailing wind. (288)
Know how to test people. The care of the wise must guide against the snare of the wicked. Great judgment is needed to test the judgment of another. It is more important to know the characteristics and properties of people than those of vegetables and minerals. Indeed, it is one of the shrewdest things in life. You can tell metals by their ring and men by their voice. Words are proof of integrity, deeds still more. Here one requires extraordinary care, deep observation, subtle discernment, and judicious decision. (291)
Let your personal qualities surpass the requirements of your office. Do not let it be the other way about. However high the post, the person should be higher. An extensive capacity extends and dilates more and more as his office becomes higher. On the other hand, the narrow-minded will easily lose heart and come to grief with diminished responsibilities and reputation. The great Augustus thought more of being a great man than a great prince. Here a lofty mind finds fit place, and well-grounded confidence finds its opportunity. (292)
Be moderate in your views. Everyone holds views according to his interest, and imagines he has abundant grounds for them. For with most people judgment has to give way to inclination. It may occur that two may meet with exactly opposite views and yet each thinks to have reason on his side, yet reason is always true to itself and never has two faces. In such a situation a prudent person will proceed with care, for his judgment of his opponent’s view may cast doubt on his own. Place yourself in the other person's place and then investigate the reasons for his opinion. You will not then condemn him or justify yourself in such a confusing way. (294)
Baltasar Gracian Quotes