01/10/13

The Art of Worldly Wisdom


Balthasar GracianPublished in 1647, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a collection of 300 aphorisms about life, behaviour, politics, morality, faith, philosophy and society. One comment, on Amazon.ca called it, somewhat unfairly to Machiavelli, “Machiavelli with a soul.” I have been reading it of late as part of my ongoing study of Machiavelli.

It was written by Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658), a Spanish-born Jesuit priest, and titled in its original Spanish, “Oraculo manual y arte de prudencia” which translates to “The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion.” Today it is known as The Art of Worldly Wisdom. A popular English translation was made in 1892 by Joseph Jacobs, and is available in several formats online as a public domain book. This is available on several sites as a PDF.* A newer translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

Gracian also wrote A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (El héroe) around the same time. This was a guide for the behaviour of Christian princes, written as a counterpoint to Machiavelli’s advice. A translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom combines general observations on the human condition with practical tips and prudent advice. Many of the aphorisms still have relevance today: they are common sense, and often witty. It is not, like Heroes, a counter-argument against Machiavelli written for rulers, but rather a general guide, written for people of society; professionals, politicians, socialites. It reads a bit like Chuang Tzu or Mencius, at times. Other times it is sternly moralizing in a very European-Christian manner. Others it seems like Emily Post on manners and civility.

Typical of Gracian’s advice is aphorism 43: Think with the Few and speak with the Many. This can stand alone, but is embellished by his commentary:

“By swimming against the stream it is impossible to remove error, easy to fall into danger; only a Socrates can undertake it. To dissent from others’ views is regarded as an insult, because it is their condemnation. Disgust is doubled on account of the thing blamed and of the person who praised it. Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise man is not known by what he says on the house-tops, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may gainsay it. The prudent avoid being contradicted as much as contradicting: though they have their censure ready they are not ready to publish it. Thought is free, force cannot and should not be used to it. The wise man 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.”

With 300 such aphorisms in the book, there’s always one you can find that relates to your own situation or a local issue. Some, like the one above, can be quoted by its title, but many require Gracian’s explanation to be made clear. For example, xviii: Application and Ability. This is meaningless without the subsequent paragraph of explanation:

“There is no attaining eminence without both, and where they unite there is the greatest eminence. Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it. Work is the price which is paid for reputation. What costs little is little worth. Even for the highest posts it is only in some cases application that is wanting, rarely the talent. To prefer moderate success in great things than eminence in a humble post has the excuse of a generous mind, but not so to be content with humble mediocrity when you could shine among the highest. Thus nature and art are both needed, and application sets on them the seal.”

Here are a few of his aphorisms that struck me as relevant, while I read the book. I have edited some of the commentary, to reduce the size of this post. I recommend, however, you get a copy of the original and read everything in it:

  • xxiv Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize, and is not content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

    lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. … To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.

  • xxv Know how to take a Hint. He cannot make himself understood who does not himself easily understand.
  • xxviii Common in Nothing. …to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible. Take no pleasure in the wonder of the mob, for ignorance never gets beyond wonder. While vulgar folly wonders, wisdom watches for the trick.
  • xxx Have naught to do with Occupations of Ill-repute, still less with fads that bring more notoriety than repute.
  • xxxiii Know how to Withdraw. If it is a great lesson in life to know how to deny, it is a still greater to know how to deny oneself as regards both affairs and persons… To be occupied in what does not concern you is worse than doing nothing.
  • xxv Think over Things, most over the most Important. All fools come to grief from want of thought. They never see even the half of 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 imports little and little of much, always weighing in the wrong scale. Many never lose their common sense, because they have none to lose.
  • xli Never Exaggerate. … Exaggeration is a branch of lying, and you lose by it the credit of good taste, which is much, and of good sense, which is more.
  • lxix Do not give way to every common Impulse. He is a great man who never allows himself to be influenced by the impressions of others. Self-reflection is the school of wisdom.
  • lxxvi Do not always be Jesting. Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere wit. He that is always ready for jests is never ready for serious things… Jest has its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
  • lxxviii The Art of undertaking Things. Fools rush in through the door; for folly is always bold… prudence enters with more deliberation… Step cautiously where you suspect depth. Sagacity goes cautiously forward while precaution covers the ground. 

    xxiv: Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize,… influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

  • lxxx Take care to get Information. We live by information, not by sight…Let reflection assay falsity and exaggeration.
  • lxxxvii Culture and Elegance. Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher… even knowledge is coarse If without elegance.
  • lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. He ought never to pry too minutely into things, least of all in unpleasant matters… To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.
  • xci Never set to work at anything if you have any doubts of its Prudence. A suspicion of failure in the mind of the doer is proof positive of it in that of the onlooker… Action is dangerous where prudence is in doubt… Wisdom does not trust to probabilities; it always marches in the mid-day light of reason.
  • xcii Transcendent Wisdom. …an ounce of wisdom is worth more than tons of cleverness.
  • cvi Do not parade your Position. …The more you seek esteem the less you obtain it, for it depends on the opinion of others. You cannot take it, but must earn and receive it from others…Do not enforce respect, but try and create it.
  • cvii Show no Self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction arises mostly from ignorance… Because a man cannot achieve the superlative perfections of others, he contents himself with any mediocre talent of his own.
  • cviii The Path to Greatness is along with Others. Intercourse works well: manners and taste are shared: good sense and even talent grow insensibly… It is a great art to agree with others… by joining extremes the more effective middle way is found.
  • cix Be not Censorious. There are men 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… They accuse with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes. They are always taskmasters who could turn a paradise into a prison…
  • cxii Gain Good-will. …By gaining their good-will you gain men’s good opinion.
  • cxiv Never Compete. …The heat of conflict gives life, or even new life, to dead scandals, and digs up long-buried skeletons. Competition begins with belittling… when the weapons of abuse do not effect their purpose, as often or mostly happens, our opponents use them for revenge, and use them at least for beating away the dust of oblivion from anything to our discredit.
  • cxvi Only act with Honourable Men. Their honour is the best surety of their behaviour even in misunderstandings… ’tis better to have a dispute with honourable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones.
  • cxvii Never talk of Yourself. You must either praise yourself, which is vain, or blame yourself, which is little-minded… above all, in public speaking, where every appearance of unwisdom really is unwise.
  • cxviii Acquire the Reputation of Courtesy; …Politeness is the main ingredient of culture,–a kind of witchery that wins the regard of all as surely as discourtesy gains their disfavor and opposition…
  • cxix Avoid becoming Disliked. …There are many who hate of their own accord without knowing the why or the how. Their ill-will outruns our readiness to please. Their ill-nature is more prone to do others harm…Some manage to be on bad terms with all, because they always either produce or experience vexation of spirit. Once hate has taken root it is, like bad repute, difficult to eradicate.
  • cxxi Do not make a Business of what is no Business. …Troublesome things must not be taken too seriously if they can be avoided. It is preposterous to take to heart that which you should throw over your shoulders. Much that would be something has become nothing by being left alone, and what was nothing has become of consequence by being made much of.
  • cxxv Do not be a Black List. It is a sign of having a tarnished name to concern oneself with the ill-fame of others. Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.
  • cxxvi Folly consists not in committing Folly, but in not hiding it when committed. …Reputation depends more on what is hidden than on what is done…
  • cxxix Never complain. To complain always brings discredit… By complaining of past offences we give occasion for future ones…
  • cxxxv Do not nourish the Spirit of Contradiction. It only proves you foolish or peevish… To find difficulties in everything may prove you clever, but such wrangling writes you down a fool.
  • cxxxviii The Art of letting Things alone. …There are hurricanes in human affairs, tempests of passion, when it is wise to retire to a harbour and ride at anchor…
  • cxl Find the Good in a Thing at once. …some seek the good, others the ill. There is nothing that has no good in it… But many have such a scent that amid a thousand excellences they fix upon a single defect, and single it out for blame as if they were scavengers of men’s minds and hearts.

    cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty…They condemn all… with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes.

  • cxli Do not listen to Yourself. It is no use pleasing yourself if you do not please others, and as a rule general contempt is the punishment for self-satisfaction.
  • cxlii Never from Obstinacy take the Wrong Side because your Opponent has anticipated you in 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.
  • cxlv Do not show your wounded Finger, for everything will knock up against it; nor complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured… 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 own to being hit…
  • cxlvi Look into the Interior of Things. Things are generally other than they seem, and ignorance that never looks beneath the rind becomes disabused when you show the kernel. Lies always come first, dragging fools along by their irreparable vulgarity.
  • cli Think beforehand. …The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble… The pillow is a silent Sibyl, and it is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards… Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life.
  • civil Do not make Mistakes about Character. In dealing with men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within…Men must be studied as deeply as books.
  • clxv Wage War Honorably. You may be obliged to wage war, but not to use poisoned arrows. Everyone must needs act as he is, not as others would make him to be… In men of honour the smallest trace of meanness repels…
  • clxvi Distinguish the Man of Words from the Man of Deeds. …Trees that bear leaves but not fruit have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade.
  • clxviii Do not indulge in the Eccentricities of Folly. …Where self-control is wanting, there is no room for others’ guidance.
  • clxix Be more careful not to Miss once than to Hit a hundred times. The common talk does not reckon what goes right but what goes wrong. Evil report carries farther than any applause… ill-will notices every error and no success.
  • clxxxviii Be the Bearer of Praise. …since it shows that we have learnt elsewhere to know what is excellent, and hence how to prize it in the present company.
  • cxcix To find a proper Place by Merit, not by Presumption. The true road to respect is through merit… push and insistence is degrading…
  • cci They are all Fools who seem so besides half the rest. …the greatest fool is he who thinks he is not one and all others are….
  • ccix Keep Yourself free from common Follies. …being discontented with his own lot, envies that of others…
  • ccxiv Do not turn one Blunder into two. It is quite usual to commit four others in order to remedy one, or to excuse one piece of impertinence by still another.
  • ccxviii Never act from Obstinacy but from Knowledge. All obstinacy is an excrescence of the mind, a grandchild of passion which never did anything right…
  • ccxxi Do not seize Occasions to embarrass Yourself or Others. There are some men …always on the point of some stupidity…Their humour always strokes the wrong way since they contradict all and every.
  • ccxxviii Do not be a Scandal-monger. …Do not be witty at the cost of others: it is easy but hateful… The backbiter is always hated…
  • cclii Neither belong entirely to Yourself nor entirely to Others. Both are mean forms of tyranny… A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him.

    cxxv Do not be a Black List.  Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.

  • cclvii Never let Matters come to a Rupture, …Few can do us good, almost any can do us harm… Hidden foes use the paw of the declared enemy to stir up the fire, and meanwhile they lie in ambush for such an occasion. …They cover their own failings with the faults of others.
  • cclxi Do not follow up a Folly. …some continue in their folly and prefer to be constant fools.
  • cclxx 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…You simply destroy respect for your taste rather than do harm to the object of your blame…
  • cclxxii Sell Things by the Tariff of Courtesy. Courtesy does not really make presents, but really lays men under obligation, and generosity is the great obligation.
  • cclxxxiv Do not be Importunate, …Be sooner sparing than lavish with your presence…The importunate is always the butt of blame; and because he thrusts himself in without shame he is thrust out with it.
  • ccxcv Do not affect what you have not effected. Many claim exploits without the slightest claim…content yourself with doing, leave the talking to others.

Some of these just begged to be copied and pasted into Facebook or other sites as comments in ongoing discussions, but I restrained myself and will be content to weave a few of them into my book on Machiavelli. I recommend you read the book to appreciate fully what Gracian wrote in these sayings, and determine yourself their applicability.

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* Most of these seem derived from a rough OCR of a scanned book on archive.org. The OCR was poorly edited and contains several typos and contextual mistakes. For example,  aphorism in these version read, “clxxiv Be Attractive.magnet of your pleasant qualities more to obtain goodwill than good deeds…” That is nonsensical. The proper word is not magnet, but “manage” which can be determined by reading the original scan. Other reconstructions suffer from bad grammar and editing. In one, for example, aphorism cclvii reads, “Never let matters come to a braking point.” The correct word is “breaking” (other versions say, “Never let matters come to a rupture.”)
Also, aphorism xci mentions “…if resolutions passed nem. con. by inner court.” Nem. con. is an abbreviation of “nemine contradicente,” a Latin phrase for “without dissent,” “unanimously,”or “of one mind.” It helps to be able to read Roman numerals when identifying aphorisms.