in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Cunning as a Serpent, Innocent as a Dove: The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracián wood engraving portrait 17th century Jesuit.

Back when I was in high school, a mentor of mine gave me a copy of a small book that I’ve read and re-read several times over the years. The Art of Worldly Wisdom or The Pocket Oracle and the Art of Prudence, is a book of 300 maxims and commentary written by a 17th century Jesuit priest named Baltasar Gracián. Considered by many to be Machiavelli’s better in strategy and insight, Gracian’s maxims give advice on how to flourish and thrive in a cutthroat world filled with cunning, duplicity, and power struggles, all while still maintaining your dignity, honor, and self-respect. In many ways, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a how-to book on fulfilling Christ’s admonition to his apostles to be “cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.”  Philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche both admired Gracian for his insight, subtlety, and the depth with which he understood the human condition.

While Gracian’s maxims were directed to men trying to gain favor in the dog-eat-dog world of 17th century Spanish court life, they’re just as applicable to a 21st century man trying to both succeed in a hyper-competitive globalized economy and develop an upright, heroic character. Taken together, Gracian’s frank, incisive maxims are reminders of the power of living with sprezzatura and that practical wisdom–the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason—is essential to success in life. Below I highlight a few of my favorite Gracian maxims. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of his book with all 300 nuggets of wisdom and keep it on your nightstand. It’s a great little book to flip through and read in spare moments. You’ll be a better man for it.

Maxims of Baltasar Gracián

Vintage ORACVLO MAANVALY book illustration.

In your affairs, create suspense. Admiration at their novelty means respect for your success. It’s neither useful nor pleasurable to show all your cards. Not immediately revealing everything fuels anticipation, especially when a person’s elevated position means expectations are greater. It bespeaks mystery in everything and, with this very secrecy, arouses awe. Even when explaining yourself, you should avoid complete frankness, just as you shouldn’t open yourself up to everyone in all your dealings. Cautious silence is the refuge of good sense. A decision openly declared is never respected; instead, it opens the way to criticism, and if things turn out badly, you’ll be unhappy twice over. Imitate divinity’s way of doing things to keep people attentive and alert.

The height of perfection. No one is born complete; perfect yourself and your activities day by day until you become a truly consummate being, your talents and your qualities all perfected. This will be evident in the excellence of your taste, the refinement of your intellect, the maturity of your judgement, the purity of your will. Some never manage to be complete; something is always missing. Others take a long time. The consummate man, wise in word and sensible in deed, is admitted into, and even sought out for, the singular company of the discreet.

Don’t arouse excessive expectations from the start. Everything initially highly praised is commonly discredited when it subsequently fails to live up to expectation. Reality can never match our expectations, because it’s easy to imagine perfection, and very difficult to achieve it. Imagination weds desire and then conceives things far greater than they actually are. However great anything excellent is, it’s never enough to satisfy our idea of it and, misled by excessive expectation, we’re more likely to feel disillusionment than admiration. Hope is a great falsifier of truth. Good should rectify this, making sure enjoyment surpasses desire. Good beginnings serve to arouse curiosity, not to guarantee the outcome. Things turn out better when the reality exceeds our initial idea and is greater than we anticipated. This rule doesn’t apply where bad things are concerned. Here exaggerated expectation is helpful, for reality thankfully contradicts it, and what was greatly feared can in fact even seem tolerable.

Never exaggerate. Take great care not to speak in superlatives, whether to avoid offending truth or tarnishing your good sense. Exaggeration is an excess of esteem and indicates a lack of knowledge and taste. Praise arouses curiosity, goads desire, and if, as normally happens, true worth falls short of the initial evaluation, our expectation turns against the deception and gets even by scorning both the praiser and the praised. The wise take their time, then, and would rather understate than overstate. True greatness in things is rare; temper your esteem. Exaggeration is a form of lying; using it, you lose your reputation for having good taste, which is bad, and for being knowledgeable, which is worse.

Never lose your self-respect. Even when alone, don’t be too lax with yourself. Let your own integrity be the measure of your rectitude; owe more to the severity of your own opinion than to external rules. Stop yourself doing something improper more through fear of your own good sense than of some stern external authority. Stand in fear of yourself and you will have no need of Seneca’s imaginary tutor.

Never lose your composure. A prime aim of good sense: never lose your cool. This is proof of true character, of a perfect heart, because magnanimity is difficult to perturb. Passions are the humours of the mind and any imbalance in them unsettles good sense, and if this illness leads us to open our mouths, it will endanger our reputation. Be so in control of yourself that, whether things are going well or badly, nobody can accuse you of being perturbed and all can admire your superiority.

Don’t be uneven, or inconsistent in your actions: either through inclination or choice. The sensible man is always the same in all areas of perfection, this being a mark of intelligence. He should change only because the causes and merits of the situation do. Where good sense is concerned, variety is ugly. There are some who are different every day; uneven in their understanding, more so in their will, and even in their luck. What they approved of yesterday, they disapprove of today, forever negating their own reputation and confounding others’ opinion of them.

Choose a heroic model, more to emulate than to imitate. There are examples of greatness, living texts of renown. Select the best in your own area, not so much to follow as to surpass. Alexander wept, not for Achilles in his tomb, but for himself, not yet risen to universal fame. Nothing so incites ambition within the spirit as the trumpeting of another’s fame: it demolishes envy and inspires noble actions.

Understand yourself: your temperament, intellect, opinions, emotions. You can’t be master of yourself if you don’t first understand yourself. There are mirrors for the face, but none for the spirit: let discreet self-reflection be yours. And when you cease to care about your external image, focus on the inner one to correct and improve it. Know how strong your good sense and perspicacity are for any undertaking and evaluate your capacity for overcoming obstacles. Fathom your depths and weigh up your capacity for all things.

Don’t hang around to be a setting sun. The sensible person’s maxim: abandon things before they abandon you. Know how to turn an ending into a triumph. Sometimes the sun itself, whilst still shining brilliantly, goes behind a cloud so nobody can see it setting, leaving people in suspense over whether it has or not. To avoid being slighted, avoid being seen to decline. Don’t wait until everyone turns their back on you, burying you alive to regret but dead to esteem. Someone sharp retires a racehorse at the right time, not waiting until everyone laughs when it falls in mid-race. Let beauty astutely shatter her mirror when the time is right, not impatiently and too late when she sees her own illusions shattered in it.

Get used to the bad temperaments of those you deal with, like getting used to ugly faces. This is advisable in situations of dependency. There are horrible people you can neither live with nor live without. It’s a necessary skill, therefore, to get used to them, as to ugliness, so you’re not surprised each time their harshness manifests itself. At first they’ll frighten you, but gradually your initial horror will disappear and caution will anticipate or tolerate the unpleasantness.

Never complain. Complaining always brings discredit. It incites the passionate to disrespect you more than the compassionate to console you. It paves the way for anyone who hears it to follow suit and, learning of the first person’s insult, makes the second feel theirs is excusable. By complaining of past offences, some people create the basis for future ones, and seeking help or comfort, they encounter only satisfaction and even disdain. A better policy is to celebrate the benefits received from some so others will imitate them. To enumerate favours received from those who are absent is to solicit them from those present; it’s to sell the credit due to the former to the latter. A circumspect man never makes public either slights or flaws, only the marks of esteem received, for these serve to maintain friends and restrain enemies.

Avoid familiarity when dealing with people. It should be neither used nor permitted. Anyone who does will lose the superiority which stems from dignity, and so lose esteem. The stars, precisely because they remain so distant, maintain their splendour. Divinity demands respect; familiarity breeds contempt. With human affairs, the greater the familiarity, the lower the esteem, because communication reveals the imperfections which reserve concealed. Familiarity is not advisable with anyone: with your superiors, because it’s dangerous; with your inferiors, because unseemly; and especially not with the rabble who, being stupid and so insolent, will not recognize the favour shown them and will take it as their due. Familiarity is a form of vulgarity.

Know how to appreciate. There’s no one who can’t be better than someone at something, and none who excel who can’t be excelled. Knowing how to enjoy the best in everyone is a useful form of knowledge. The wise appreciate everyone, recognizing the good in all and knowing how much it costs to do things well. Fools despise everyone because they are ignorant of the good and choose the worst.

Undertake what’s easy as if it were hard, and what’s hard as if it were easy. In the first case, so that confidence doesn’t make you careless; in the second, so that lack of confidence doesn’t make you discouraged. It takes nothing more for something not to be done than thinking that it is. Conversely, diligence removes impossibilities. Don’t think over great undertakings, just seize them when they arise, so that consideration of their difficulty doesn’t hold you back.

Take a joke, but don’t make someone the butt of one. The first is a form of politeness; the second, of audacity. Whoever gets annoyed at some fun appears even more like a beast than they actually are. An excellent joke is enjoyable; to know how to take one is a mark of real character. Getting annoyed simply prompts others to poke fun again and again. Know how far to take a joke, and the safest thing is not to start one. The greatest truths have always arisen from jokes. Nothing demands greater care and skill: before making a joke, know just how far someone can take one.

Carry things through. Some people put everything into the beginning, and finish nothing. They come up with something, but never press on with it, revealing their fickle character. They never receive any praise because they don’t press on with anything; everything ends with nothing being ended. In others, this arises out of impatience, a characteristic vice of the Spanish, just as patience is a virtue of the Belgians. The latter finish things, the former finish with them. They sweat until a difficulty is overcome, and are happy simply to conquer it, but they don’t know how to carry their victory through; they show they have the ability, but not the desire. This is always a defect, arising from taking on the impossible or from fickleness. If an undertaking is good, why not finish it? And if it’s bad, why was it started? The shrewd should kill their prey, not give up after flushing it out.

Don’t be carried away by the last person you meet. There are people who believe the last thing they hear, stupidity always going to one extreme or the other. Their feelings and desires are wax: the most recent thing stamps itself upon them and effaces everything else. They are never fully won over because they are just as easily lost: anyone can dye them to match their own colour. They make bad confidants and remain forever like children: with their opinions and emotions ever changing, and their will and judgement crippled, they veer along, tilting this way and that.

Go with the flow, but not beyond decency. Don’t always be affectedly solemn and annoyed. This is part of good manners. To gain everyone’s affection, you must dispense with a little dignity. You can sometimes follow the crowd, but not into indecency, for whoever is taken for a fool in public will never be thought wise in private. More is lost in one day of relaxation than was ever gained with seriousness. But don’t always stand out from the rest: to be an exception is to condemn everyone else. Far less affect fastidiousness – leave that to women. Even in spiritual matters, this is ridiculous. The best thing about a man is acting like a man. Whilst a woman can gracefully affect a manly air, the reverse is never the case.

Act as though always on view. The insightful man is the one who sees that others see or will see him. He knows that walls have ears, and that what’s badly done is always bursting to come out. Even when alone, he acts as though seen by everyone, knowing that everything will eventually be known. He looks on those who will subsequently hear of his actions as witnesses to them already. The person who wanted everyone to see him wasn’t daunted that others could see into his house from outside.

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