The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle is a book of three hundred aphorisms for making one’s way in the world and achieving distinction.
It provides advice not only for modern “image makers” and “spin doctors,” but also for the candid: for those who insist that substance, not image, is what really matters. “Do, but also seem,” is Gracián’s pithy advice
The book was imitated by La Rochefoucauld, cherished by Friedrich Nietzsche, and translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche observed that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”
What sort of person composed these strategies for life?
The voice that emerges from the Oracle is not, as some have argued, an entirely cynical, Machiavellian one. Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), a worldly Jesuit priest, felt undying hatred for human folly.
He was born in 1601 in Belmonte, a village in Aragón, not far from the birthplace of the great Latin satirist Martial, a coincidence which must have delighted him. As an adolescent he studied philosophy and letters in Toledo and Zaragoza and in 1619, at the age of 18, entered the novitiate of the Jesuit order. For the remaining fifty years of his life Gracián labored as chaplain and confessor, preacher, professor, and administrator (he was rector and vice-rector of several Jesuit colleges). Though he never held an important position in public life, he kept company with those who did, and his aphorisms draw on long and careful observation of human behavior, both in peace and in warfare.
Gracián subordinated ethics to strategy.
Moral generalizations, the immutable “hard rules” of ethics, yield, in these pages, to the conviction that to reach perfection one must adapt to circumstance.
So let’s take a look at some of his aphorisms.
Don’t outshine your boss.
Being defeated is hateful, and besting one’s boss is either foolish or fatal. Superiority is always odious, especially to superiors and sovereigns. The common sort of advantages can be cautiously hidden, as beauty is hidden with a touch of artful neglect. Most people do not mind being surpassed in good fortune, character, or temperament, but no one, especially not a sovereign, likes to be surpassed in intelligence. For this is the king of attributes, and any crime against it is lèse-majesté. Sovereigns want to be so in what is most important. Princes like to be helped, but not surpassed. When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see. It is the stars who teach us this subtlety. They are brilliant sons, but they never dare to outshine the sun.
Application and capacity. Eminence requires both. When both are present, eminence outdoes itself. The mediocre people who apply themselves go further than the superior people who don’t. Work makes worth.
When you start something, don’t raise other people’s expectations. What is highly praised seldom measures up to expectation. Reality never catches up to imagination. It is easy to imagine something is perfect, and difficult to achieve it. Imagination marries desire, and conceives much more than things really are. No matter how excellent something is, it never satisfies our preconceptions. The imagination feels cheated, and excellence leads more often to disappointment than to admiration. Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgment bridle her, so that enjoyment will surpass desire. Honorable beginnings should serve to awaken curiosity, not to heighten people’s expectations. We are much better off when reality surpasses our expectations, and something turns out better than we thought it would.
The Art of Success
Good fortune has its rules, and to the wise not everything depends upon chance. Fortune is helped along by effort.
Find each person’s “handle,” his weak point. The art of moving people’s wills involves more skill than determination. You must know how to get inside the other person. Each will has its own special object of delight; they vary according to taste. Everyone idolizes something. Some want to be well thought of, others idolize profit, and most people idolize pleasure. The trick is to identify the idols that can set people in motion. It is like having the key to someone else’s desires. Go for the “prime mover,” which isn’t always something lofty and important. Usually it is something low, for the unruly outnumber the well ruled. First size up someone’s character and then touch on his weak point. Tempt him with his particular pleasure, and you’ll checkmate his will.
Know When To Put Something Aside
Know when to put something aside. One of life’s great lessons lies in knowing how to refuse, and it is even more important to refuse yourself, both to business and to others. There are certain inessential activities—moths of precious time—and it is worse to busy yourself with the trivial than to do nothing. To be prudent, it isn’t enough not to meddle in other people’s business: you must also keep them from meddling in yours. Don’t belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself. You shouldn’t abuse your friends, or ask them for more than they give on their own initiative. All excess is a vice, especially in your dealings with others. With this judicious moderation you will stay in the good graces of others and keep their esteem; and propriety, which is precious, will not be worn away. Retain your freedom to care passionately about the best, and never testify against your own good taste.
Be Diligent and Intelligent
Diligence is quick to carry out what intelligence has lingered over. Fools are fond of hurry: they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously. The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything. Sometimes things are judged correctly but go wrong out of inefficiency and neglect. Readiness is the mother of luck. It is a great deed to leave nothing for the morrow. A lofty motto: make haste slowly.