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Personal Character

Combine Desirable Qualities

Social Graces





Relations with Others


Fools and Folly




Baltasar Gracián Y Morales (1601-1658) was born in Calatayud, Aragon, Spain. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1619. Gracián subsequently wrote several books on aspects of human life and behavior and ultimately became rector of the Jesuit college at Tarazona. Gracián was concerned with defining the qualities of the ideal man and developing a system of rules that would lead to the ideal life. He published only one book under his real name (Sanctuary Mediations for Priests and Frequent Communicants). For the others, he chose to issue them without the permission of his Jesuit superior, under the pseudonyms of Lorenzo Gracián or Gracián de Marlones. Many of these books were devoted to expounding the principles of conceptismo— metaphysical wit, founded on ambiguities, new words, elaborate conceits, and antitheses. As such, his style has been considered by some to have initiated the onset of decadence in Spanish literature. The worldly nature of some of his books later led to a reprimand from his superior.

He published El héroe in 1637, describing a political superman that he conceived as a Christian answer to Machiavelli’s Prince. Similar ideas had been put forward by other authors at the time, but they all fell out of favor as the concept of democracy began to gain strength. The book later caught the attention of Napoleon and influenced Schopenhauer and Neitzsche. In a later work, El discreto, Gracián argued that to secure the ideal life one should first converse with the dead (reading their works), then with the living (gain worldly experience and travel), and then with oneself (meditation and preparation for death).

Gracián’s last work, El criticón, contained a scathing satire on human society couched in all of the obscurity of his conceptismo style. It involves a noble savage who is brought to Europe to observe the jewels of civilization. The conclusions drawn are highly pessimistic, suggesting civilization corrupts the natural humanistic instincts with which a person is born. As with Augustine and Schopenhauer, Gracián’s comments on women do not bear repeating.

Some 300 aphorisms were extracted from Gracian’s works and published as El Oráculo manual, or The Art of Worldly Wisdom. This work has enjoyed continuing success. Many of the maxims of La Rouchefoucald reflect Gracián’s aphorisms. This book, like Gracian’s other books, was published by his friend Don Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa. It was possibly he who extracted these pithy statements from the vaster mass of Gracian’s work. "Worldly" is apt because in many cases they reflect Gracian’s desire to instruct princes, and consequently display a certain deviousness and preoccupation with the exercise of power. The following extracts have omitted many of these in the interest of focusing on the humanistic aspects of Gracian’s ideas. The number after each indicates its position in the original work.



Personal Character

1 Live for the moment. Our acts and thoughts and all must be determined by circumstances. Will when you may, for time and tide wait for no man. Do not live by certain fixed rules, except those that relate to the cardinal virtues. Nor let your will subscribe fixed conditions, for you may have to drink the water to-morrow which you cast away to-day. There be 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 wind. 288

2 Know yourself—in 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

3 Know your strongest pointyour pre-eminent gift; cultivate that and you will assist the rest. Every one 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 judgment excels, in others valor. Most do violence to their natural aptitude, and thus attain superiority in nothing. Time disillusions us too late of what first flattered the passions. 34

4 Know your pet faults. The most perfect of men has them, and is either wedded to them or has illicit relations with 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 evilirrational affection for avoidable faults. They are spots on perfections; they displease the onlooker as much as they please the possessor. It is a excellent thing to get clear of them, and so give play to one's other qualities. For all men seize upon such a failing, and on going over your qualifications they make a long stay at this blot, and blacken it as deeply as possible in order to cast your other talents into the shade. 161

5 Never lose self-respect, or be too familiar with oneself. Let your own right feeling be the true standard of your rectitude, and owe more to the strictness of your own self-judgment than to all external sanctions. Leave off anything unseemly, more from regard for your own self-respect than from fear of external authority. Pay regard to that and there is no need of Seneca's imaginary tutor. 50

6 Show no self-satisfaction. You must neither be discontented with yourselfwhich is poor-spiritednor self-satisfiedwhich is folly. Self-satisfaction arises mostly from ignorance: it would be a happy ignorance not without its advantages if it did not injure our credit. Because a man cannot achieve the superlative perfections of others, he contents himself with any mediocre talent of his own. Distrust is wise, and even useful, either to evade mishaps or to afford consolation when they come, for a misfortune cannot surprise a man who has already feared it. Even Homer nods at times, and Alexander fell from his lofty state and out of his illusions. Things depend on many circumstances: what constitutes triumph in one set may cause a defeat in another. In the midst of all, incorrigible folly remains the same with empty self-satisfaction, blossoming, flowering, and running all to seed. 107

7 Never talk of yourself. You must either praise yourself, which is vain, or blame yourself, which is little-minded: it ill suits him that speaks, and ill pleases him that hears. And if you should avoid this in ordinary conversation, how much more so in official matters, and above all, in public speaking, where every appearance of lack of wisdom is really unwise. The same want of tact lies in speaking of a man in his presence, owing to the danger of going to one of two extremes: flattery or censure. 117

8 Avoid affectation. The more merit, the less affectation, which gives a vulgar flavor to all. It is wearisome to others and troublesome to the one affected, for he becomes a martyr to care and tortures himself with attention. The most eminent merit loses most by it, for it appears proud and artificial instead of being the product of nature, and the natural is always more pleasing than the artificial. One always feels sure that the man who affects a virtue has it not. The more pains you take with a thing, the more should you conceal them, so that it may appear to arise spontaneously from your own natural character. Do not, however, in avoiding affectation fall into it by affecting to be unaffected. The sage never seems to know his own merits, for only by not noticing them can you call others' attention to them. He is twice great who has all the perfections in the opinion of all except of himself; he attains applause by two opposite paths. 123

9 Avoid the faults of your nation. Water shares the good or bad qualities of the strata through which it flows, and man those of the climate in which he is 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 even among the most civilized that has not some fault peculiar to itself which other nations blame by way of boast or as a warning. It is a triumph of cleverness to correct in oneself such national failings, or even to hide them: you get great credit for being unique among your fellows, and, as it is less expected of you, it is esteemed 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

10 Be resolute. Bad execution of your designs does less harm than irresolution in forming them. Streams do less harm flowing than when dammed up. There are some men so infirm of purpose that they always require direction from others, and this not on account of any perplexity, for they judge clearly, but from sheer incapacity for action. It needs some skill to find out difficulties, but more to find a way out of them. There are others who are never in straits: their clear judgment and determined character fit them for the highest callings: their intelligence tells them where to insert the thin end of the wedge, their resolution how to drive it home. They soon get through anything: as soon as they have done with one sphere of action, they are ready for another. Affianced to fortune, they make themselves sure of success. 72


Combine Desirable Qualities

11 The thing itself and the way it is done. "Substance" is not enough: "accident"  [some added quality] is also required, as the scholastics say. A bad manner spoils everything, even reason and justice; a good one supplies everything, gilds a no, sweetens truth, and adds a touch of beauty to old age itself. The how plays a large part in affairs; a good manner steals into the affections. Fine behavior is a joy in life, and a pleasant expression helps out of a difficulty in a remarkable way. 14

12 Application and ability. 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 that application is wanting, rarely the talent. To prefer moderate success in great things to eminence in a humble post has the excuse of a generous mind, but it is 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. 18

13 Diligent and intelligent. Diligence promptly executes what intelligence slowly excogitates. Hurry is the failing of fools; they know not the crucial point and set to work without preparation. On the other hand, the wise more often fail from procrastination; foresight begets deliberation, and remiss action often nullifies prompt judgment. Celerity is the mother of good fortune. He has done much who leaves nothing over till to-morrow. Festina lente is a royal motto. 53

14 Attempt easy tasks as if they were difficult, and difficult as if they were easy. In the one case so that confidence may not fall asleep, in the other that it may not be dismayed. For a thing to remain undone, nothing more is needed than to think it done. On the other hand, patient industry overcomes impossibilities. Great undertakings are not to be brooded over, lest seeing their difficulty causes despair. 204


Social Graces

15 Grace in everything. It is the life of talents, the breath of speech, the soul of action, and the ornament of ornament. Perfections are the adornment of our nature, but this is the adornment of perfection itself. It shows itself even in the thoughts. It is chiefly a gift of nature and owes least to education; it even triumphs over training. It is more than ease, approaches the free and easy, gets over embarrassment, and adds the finishing touch to perfection. Without it beauty is lifeless, graciousness ungraceful: it surpasses valor, discretion, prudence, even majesty itself. It is a short way to dispatch, and an easy escape from, embarrassment. 127

16 A genial disposition. If with moderation it is an accomplishment, not a defect. A grain of gaiety seasons all. The greatest men join in the fun at times, and it makes them liked by all. But they should always on such occasions preserve their dignity, nor go beyond the bounds of decorum. Others, again, get themselves out of difficulty quickest by a joke. For there are things you must take in fun, though others perhaps mean them in earnest. You show a sense of flexibility, which acts as a magnet on all hearts. 79

17 Have the art of conversation. That is where the real personality shows itself. No act in life requires more attention, though it be the commonest thing in life. You must either lose or gain by it. If it needs care to write a letter, which is but a deliberate and written conversation, how much more is needed for the ordinary kind in which there is occasion for a prompt display of intelligence? Experts feel the pulse of the soul in the tongue, which is why the sage said, "Speak, that I may know you." Some hold that the art of conversation is to be without artthat it should be neat, not gaudy, like the garments. This holds good for talk between friends. But when held with persons to whom one would show respect, it should be more dignified to answer to the dignity of the person addressed. To be appropriate it should adapt itself to the mind and tone of the interlocutor. And do not be a critic of words, or you will be taken for a pedant; nor a tax gatherer of ideas, or men will avoid you, or at least sell their thoughts dear. In conversation discretion is more important than eloquence. 148

18 Don't be a bore. The man of one business or of one topic is apt to be heavy. Brevity flatters and does better business; it gains by courtesy what it loses by curtness. Good things, when short, are twice as good. The quintessence of the matter is more effective than a whole farrago of details. It is a well-known truth that talkative folk rarely have much sense whether in dealing with the matter itself or its formal treatment. There are that serve more for stumbling-stones than center pieces, useless lumber in every one's way. The wise avoid being bores, especially to the great, who are fully occupied: it is worse to disturb one of them than all the rest. Well said is soon said. 105

19 Be the bearer of praise. This increases our credit for good taste, since it shows that we have learnt elsewhere to know what is excellent, and hence how to prize it in the present company. It gives material for conversation and for imitation, and encourages praiseworthy exertions. We do homage besides in a very delicate way to the excellences before us. Others do the opposite; they accompany their talk with a sneer, and fancy they flatter those present by belittling the absent. This may serve them with superficial people, who fail to notice how cunning it is to speak ill of every one to every one else. Many pursue the plan of valuing more highly the mediocrities of the day than the most distinguished exploits of the past. Let the cautious penetrate through these subtleties, and let him not be dismayed by the exaggerations of the one or made over-confident by the flatteries of the other; knowing that both act in the same way by different methods, adapting their talk to the company they are in. 188

20 Acquire the reputation of courtesy; for it is enough to make you liked. Politeness is the main ingredient of culturea kind of witchery that wins the regard of all as surely as discourtesy gains their disfavor and opposition; if this latter springs from pride, it is abominable; if from bad breeding, it is despicable. Better too much courtesy than too little, provided it be not the same for all, which degenerates into injustice. Between opponents it is especially due as a proof of valor. It costs little and helps much: every one is honored who gives honor. Politeness and honor have this advantage, that they remain with him who displays them to others. 118

21 Do not nourish the spirit of contradiction. It only proves you foolish or peevish, and prudence should guard against this strenuously. To find difficulties in everything may prove you clever, but such wrangling writes you down a fool. Such folk make a mimic war out of the most pleasant conversation, and in this way act as enemies towards their associates rather than towards those with whom they do not consort. Grit grates most in delicacies, and so does contradiction in amusement. They are both foolish and cruel who yoke together the wild beast and the tame. 135

22 Do not be a scandal-monger. Still less pass for one, for that means to be considered a slanderer. Do not be witty at the cost of others: it is easy but hateful. All men have their revenge on such an one by speaking ill of him. As they are many and he but one, he is more likely to be overcome than they convinced. Evil should never be our pleasure, and therefore never our theme. The backbiter is always hated, and if now and then one of the great consorts with him, it is less from pleasure in his sneers than from esteem for his insight. He that speaks ill will always hear worse. 228

23 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. Thanks to it, Greece could call the rest of the world barbarians. Ignorance is very raw; nothing contributes so much to culture as knowledge. But even knowledge is coarse without elegance. Not only must our intelligence be elegant, but also our desires, and above all our conversation. Some men are naturally elegant in internal and external qualities, in their thoughts, in their address, in their dress (which is the rind of the soul), and in their talents (which is its fruit). There are others, on the other hand, so gauche that everything about them, even their true excellence, is tarnished by an intolerable and barbaric want of neatness. 87

24 Put up with raillery, but do not practice it. The first is a form of courtesy, the second may lead to embarrassment. To snarl at play has something of the beast and seems to have more. Audacious raillery is delightful: to stand it proves power. To show oneself annoyed causes the other to be annoyed. Best leave it alone the surest way not to put on the cap that might fit. The most serious matters have arisen out of jests. Nothing requires more tact and attention. Before you begin to joke, know how far the subject of your joke is able to bear it. 241



25 Be moderate in your views. Every one holds views according to his interest, and imagines he has abundant grounds for them. For with most men, 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 difficulty, a prudent man will go to work with care, for his decision on his opponent's view may cast doubt on his own. Place yourself in such a case in the other man'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

26 Drain nothing to the dregs, neither good nor ill. A sage once reduced all virtue to the golden mean. Push right to the extreme and it becomes wrong: press all the juice from an orange and it becomes bitter. Even in enjoyment never go to extremes. Thought too subtle is dull. If you milk a cow too much you draw blood, not milk. 82

27 Do not vacillate. Let not your actions be abnormal either from disposition or affectation. An able man is always the same in his best qualities; he gets the credit of trustworthiness. If he changes, he does so for good reason or good consideration. In matters of conduct change is hateful. There are some who are different every day; their intelligence varies, still more their will, and with this their fortune. Yesterday’s white is to-day's black: to-day's no was yesterday's yes. They always give the lie to their own credit and destroy their credit with others. 71

28 Versatility. A man of many excellences equals many men. By imparting his own enjoyment of life to his circle he enriches their life. Variety in excellences is the delight of life. To profit by all that is good is a great art, and since Nature has made man in his highest development an abstract of herself, so let Art create in him a true microcosm by training his taste and intellect. 93

29 Do not live in a hurry. To know how to separate things is to know how to enjoy them. Many 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 overleaped the mark. Speeders 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 men see work ended with pleasure, pleasure ended with regret. 174

30 Do not hold your views too firmly. Every fool is fully convinced, and every one 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 must be the more recognized. Obstinacy loses more than victory yields: it is not to champion truth but rather rudeness. There are some heads of iron most difficult to turn: 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

31 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. There are extraneous occupations which eat away precious time. To be occupied in what does not concern you is worse than doing nothing. It is not enough for a careful man not to interfere with others, he must see that they do not interfere with him. One is not obliged to belong so much to all as not to belong at all to oneself. So with friends, their help should not be abused or more demanded from them than they themselves will grant. All excess is a failing, but above all in personal affairs. A wise moderation in these will best preserve the goodwill and esteem of all, for by this means that precious boon of courtesy is not gradually worn away. Thus you preserve your genius free to select the elect, and never sin against the unwritten laws of good taste. 33

32 Peaceful life, 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. A 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



33 Obtain and preserve a reputation. It is the right to 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

34 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 yourself of use, is to be twice as useful. What is not seen is as if it was not. Even what is 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 the roost, things are judged by their jackets, and many things are other than they seem. A good exterior is the best recommendation of the inner perfection. 130

35 Be expressive. This depends not only on the clearness but also on the vivacity of your thoughts. Some have an easy conception but a hard labor, for without clarity the children of the mind, thoughts and judgments, cannot be brought into the world. Many have a capacity like that of vessels with a large mouth and a small vent. Others again say more than they think. Resolution for the will, expression for the thought: two great gifts. Plausible minds are applauded. Yet confused ones are often venerated just because they are not understood, and at times obscurity is convenient if you wish to avoid vulgarity. But how shall an audience understand one that connects no definite idea with what he says? 216

36 Do not wait till you are a sinking sun. It is a maxim of the wise to leave things before things leave them. One should be able to snatch a triumph at the end, just as the sun even at its brightest often retires behind a cloud so as not to be seen sinking, and to leave in doubt whether he has sunk or no. Wisely withdraw from the chance of mishaps, in case you have to do so from the reality. Do not wait till they turn a cold shoulder to you and carry you to the grave, alive in feeling but dead in esteem. Wise trainers put racers to grass before they arouse derision by falling on the course. A beauty should break her mirror early, lest she do so later with open eyes. 110



37 Think with the few and speak with the many. 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. 43

38 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. There are matters which should be observed with the closest attention of the mind, and thenceforth kept in its lowest depths. The wise man thinks over everything, but with a difference, most profoundly where there is some profound difficulty, and thinks that perhaps there is more in it than he thinks. Thus his comprehension extends as far as his apprehension. 35

39 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. Truth always lags last, limping along on the arm of Time. The wise therefore reserve for it the other half of that power which the common mother has wisely given in duplicate. Deceit is very superficial, and the superficial therefore easily fall into it. Prudence lives retired within its recesses, visited only by sages and wise men. 146

40 Have reasonable views of yourself and of your affairs, especially in the beginning of life. Every one has a high opinion of himself, especially those who have least ground for it. Every one dreams of his good-luck and thinks himself a wonder. Hope gives rise to extravagant promises which experience does not fulfill. Such idle imaginations merely serve as a wellspring of annoyance when disillusion comes with the true reality. The wise man anticipates such errors: he may always hope for the best, but he always expects the worst, so as to receive what comes with equanimity. True, it is wise to aim high so as to hit your mark, but not so high that you miss your mission at the very beginning of life. This correction of the ideas is necessary, because before experience is gained expectation is sure to soar too high. The best panacea against folly is prudence. If a man knows the true sphere of his activity and position, he can reconcile his ideals with reality. 194

41 Never act in a passion. If you do, all is lost. You cannot act for yourself if you are not yourself, and passion always drives out reason. In such cases interpose a prudent go-between who can only be prudent if he keeps cool. That is why lookers-on see most of the game, because they keep cool. As soon as you notice that you are losing your temper beat a wise retreat. For no sooner is the blood up than it is spilt, and in a few moments occasion may be given for many days' repentance for oneself and complaints of the other party. 287

42 Be careful in speaking. With your rivals from prudence; with others for the sake of appearance. There is always time to add a word, never to withdraw one. Talk as if you were making your will: the fewer words the less litigation. In trivial matters exercise yourself for the more weighty matters of speech. Profound secrecy has some of the luster of the divine. He who speaks lightly soon falls or fails. 160

43 Keep the imagination under control, sometimes correcting, sometimes assisting it. For it is all-important for our happiness, and even sets the reason right. 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. For it makes us either contented or discontented with ourselves. Before some, it continually holds up the penalties of action, and becomes the mortifying lash of these fools. To others it promises happiness and adventure with blissful delusion. It can do all this unless the most prudent self-control keeps it in subjection. 24

44 Never exaggerate. Give important attention to not talking in superlatives, so as neither to offend against truth nor to give a mean idea of one's understanding. Exaggeration is a prodigality of the judgment which shows the narrowness of one's knowledge or one's taste. Praise arouses lively curiosity, begets desire, and if afterwards the value does not correspond to the price, as generally happens, expectation revolts against the deception, and revenges itself by underestimating the thing recommended and the person recommending. A prudent man goes more cautiously to work, and prefers to err by omission than by commission. Extraordinary things are rare, therefore moderate ordinary valuation. 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. 41

45 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. A single lie destroys a whole reputation for integrity. The deceit is 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

46 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 promptly bestowed: long expected is highest prized. And if you have to deny, you gain time to decide how and when to mature the "No" that it may be made palatable. Besides, after the first heat of desire is passed the repulse of refusal is felt less keenly in cold blood. But especially when men press for a reply is it best to defer it, for as often as not that is only a feint to disarm attention. 132

47 Master your antipathies. We often allow ourselves to take dislikes, and that before we know anything of a person. At times this innate yet vulgar aversion attaches itself to eminent personalities. Good sense masters this feeling, for there is nothing more discreditable than to dislike those better than ourselves. As sympathy with great men ennobles us, so dislike of them degrades us. 46

48 Be more careful not to miss once than to hit a hundred times. No one looks at the blazing sun; all gaze when it is eclipsed. The common talk does not reckon what goes right but what goes wrong. Evil report carries farther than any applause. Many men are not known to the world till they have left it. All the exploits of a man taken together are not enough to wipe out a single small blemish. Avoid therefore falling into error, seeing that ill-will notices every error and no success. 169

49 Never stake your credit on a single cast; for if it miscarries the damage is irreparable. It may easy happen that a man should 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: whether it succeed or fail, 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

50 Have no careless days. Fate loves to play tricks, and will heap up chances to catch us unawares. Our intelligence, prudence, and courage, even our beauty, must always be ready for trial. For their day of careless trust will be that of their discredit. Care always fails just when it was most wanted. It is thoughtlessness that trips us up into destruction. Accordingly it is a piece of military strategy to put perfection to its trial when unprepared. The days of parade are known and are allowed to pass by, but the day is chosen when least expected so as to put valor to the severest test. 264

51 The art of letting things alone: to be practiced 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 harbor and ride at anchor. Remedies often make diseases worse: in such cases one has to leave them to their natural course and the moral suasion 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 your hand and let them calm down of 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

52 In all things keep something in reserve. It is a sure means of keeping up your importance. A man should not employ all his capacity and power at once and on every occasion. Even in knowledge there should be a rearguard, so that your resources are doubled. One must always have something to resort to when there is fear of a defeat. The reserve is of more importance than the attacking force: for it is distinguished for valor and reputation. Prudence always sets to work with assurance of safety: in this matter the piquant paradox holds good—that the half is more than the whole. 170



53 The secret of long life. Lead a good life. Two things bring life speedily to an end: folly and immorality. Some lose their life because they have not the intelligence to keep it, others because they have not the will. Just as virtue is its own reward, so is vice its own punishment. He who lives a fast life runs through life in a double sense. A virtuous life never dies. The firmness of the soul is communicated to the body, and a good life is long not only in intention but also in extension. 90

54 A man of rectitude clings to the sect of right with such tenacity of purpose that neither the passions of the mob nor the violence of the tyrant can ever cause him to transgress the bounds of right. But who shall be such a Phoenix of equity? What a scanty following has rectitude! Many praise it indeed, but . . . for others. Some follow it till danger threatens; then the false deny it, the politic conceal it. For it cares not if it fights with friendship, power, or even self-interest: then comes the danger of desertion. Then astute men make plausible distinctions so as not to stand in the way of their superiors or of reasons of state. But the straightforward and constant regard dissimulation as a kind of treason, and set more store on tenacity than on sagacity. Such are always to be found on the side of truth, and if they desert a cause, they do not change from fickleness, but because the others have first deserted truth. 29

55 Trust your heart, especially when it has been proved. Never deny it a hearing. It is a kind of house oracle that often foretells the most important things. Many have perished because they feared their own heart, but of what use is it to fear it without finding a better remedy? Many are endowed by nature with a heart so true that it always warns them of misfortune and wards off its effects. It is unwise to seek evils, unless you seek to conquer them. 178

56 Recognize faults, however high placed. Integrity cannot mistake vice even when clothed in brocade or perchance crowned with gold—it will not be able to hide its character for all that. Slavery does not lose its vileness, however it vaunt the nobility of its lord and master. Vices may stand in high place, but are low for all that. Men can see that many a great man 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, till 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 classes. 186

57 Do not keep 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 in such a list—it is the consolation of fools. They must have bad breath who form the sewers of scandal for the whole town. The more one grubs about in such matters, the more one befouls oneself. There are few without stain somewhere or other, but it is of little known people that the failings are little known. Be careful then to avoid being a registrar of faults. That is to be an abominable thing, a man that lives without a heart. 125


Relations with Others

58 Gain good-will. For thus the first and highest cause foresees and furthers the greatest objects. By gaining their good-will you gain men's good opinion. Some trust so much to merit that they neglect grace, but wise men know that road of service without a lift from favor is a long way indeed. Good-will facilitates and supplies everything. It supposes gifts or even supplies them—as courage, zeal, knowledge, or even discretion—whereas defects it will not see because it does not search for them. It arises from some common interest, either material—as disposition, nationality, relationship, fatherland, office—or formal, which is of a higher kind of communion—in capacity, obligation, reputation, or merit. The whole difficulty is to gain good-will; to keep it is easy. It has, however, to be sought for, and when found to be utilized. 112

59 Only act with honorable men. You can trust them and they you. Their honor is the best surety of their behavior even in misunderstandings, for they always act having regard to what they are. Hence it is better to have a dispute with honorable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones. You cannot treat 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 to do with such men, for if honor does not restrain a man, virtue will not, since honor is the throne of rectitude. 116

60 Avoid becoming disliked. There is no occasion to seek dislike: it comes without seeking quickly enough. 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 than their cupidity is eager to gain advantage for themselves. 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. Wise men are feared, the malevolent are abhorred, the arrogant are regarded with disdain, buffoons with contempt, eccentrics with neglect. Therefore pay respect that you may be respected, and know that to be esteemed you must show esteem. 119

61 Do good a little at a time, but often. One should never give beyond the possibility of return. Who gives much does not give but sells. Nor drain gratitude to the dregs, for when the recipient sees all return is impossible he breaks off communication. With many persons it is not necessary to do more than overburden them with favors to lose them altogether: they cannot repay you, and so they retire, preferring rather to be enemies than perpetual debtors. The idol never wishes to see before him the sculptor who shaped him, nor does the benefited wish to see his benefactor always before his eyes. There is a great subtlety in giving what costs little yet is much desired, so that it is esteemed the more. 255

62 Know how to ask. With some nothing easier: with others nothing 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 at the most propitious moment. Surprise them when in a pleasant mood, when a feast of body or mind has just left them refreshed, but only if their shrewdness has not anticipated the cunning of the applicant. The days of joy are the days of favor, for joy overflows from the inner man into the outward creation. It is no use applying when another has been refused, since the objection to a No has just been overcome. Nor is it a good time after sorrow. To oblige a person beforehand is a sure way, unless he is mean. 235

63 Adapt yourself to your company. There is no need to show your ability before every one. Employ no more force than is necessary. Let there be no unnecessary expenditure either of knowledge or of power. The skilful falconer only flies enough birds to serve for the chase. If there is too much display to-day there will be nothing to show tomorrow. Always have some novelty wherewith to dazzle. To show something fresh each day keeps expectation alive and conceals the limits of capacity. 58

64 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 in ignorance, or the pretence 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 are some too who seek to be original by seeking chimeras. 133

65 Do not believe, or like, lightly. Maturity of mind is best shown in slow belief. Lying is the usual thing; 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 in 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: want of belief is the mark of the 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

66 Take care to get information. We live by information, not by sight. We exist by faith in others. The ear is the area-gate 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 with their colors wherever they meet her, sometimes favorably, sometimes the reverse. She always brings out a 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 assay falsity and exaggeration. 80

67 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 men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within. To know men is different from knowing things. It is profound philosophy to sound the depths of feeling and distinguish traits of character. Men must be studied as deeply as books. 157

68 Distinguish the man of words from the man of deeds. Discrimination here is as 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. The vain alone 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 have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade. 166

69 Go armed against discourtesy, and against perfidy, presumption, and all other kinds of folly. There is much of it in the world, and prudence lies in avoiding a 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 man cannot be disarmed by impertinence. The road of human intercourse is difficult, for it is full of ruts which may jolt our credit. Best to take a 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

70 Know how to show your teeth. Even hares can pull the mane of a dead lion. There is no joke about courage. Give way to the first and you must yield to the second, and so on till the last, and to gain your point at last costs as much trouble as would have gained much more at first. Moral courage exceeds physical; it should be like a sword kept ready for use in the scabbard of caution. It is the shield of great size; moral cowardice lowers one more than physical. 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



71 Have friends. It is a second existence. Every friend is good and wise for his friend: among them all everything turns to good. Every one is as others wish him; 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. Seek some one every day to be a well-wisher if not a friend; by and by after trial some of these will become intimate. 111

72 Do not be inaccessible. None is so perfect that he does not need at times the advice of others. He is an incorrigible ass who will never listen to any one. Even the most surpassing intellect should find a place for friendly counsel. Sovereignty itself must learn to lean. There are some that are incorrigible simply because they are inaccessible: they fall to ruin because none dares to extricate them. The highest should have the door open for friendship; it may prove the gate of help. A friend must be free to advise, and even to upbraid, without feeling embarrassed. Our satisfaction in him and our trust in his steadfast faith give him that power. One need not pay respect or give credit to every one, but in the innermost of his precaution man has a true mirror in a confidant to whom he owes the correction of his errors, and has to thank for it. 147

73 Select your friends. Only after passing the matriculation of experience and the examination of fortune will they be graduates not alone 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 man is judged by his friends, for there was never agreement between wise men and fools. At the same time, to find pleasure in a man's society is no proof of near 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 fecundity of ideas and motives. Few are the friends of a man's self alone, most are 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 wards off worries, a foolish one brings them about. But do not wish them too much luck, or you may lose them. 156

74 In prosperity prepare for adversity. It is both wiser and easier to collect winter stores in summer. In prosperity favors are cheap and friends are many. It is a good thing therefore to keep them for more unlucky days, for adversity costs dear and has no helpers. Retain a store of friendly and obliged persons; the day may come when their price will go up. Low minds never have friends; in luck they will not recognize them: in misfortune they will not be recognized by them. 113

75 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 is to waste a favor. The strongest anchor should be reserved for the last extremity. If you use up the great for little ends what remains afterwards? 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 give sense and take it 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

76 We belong to none and none to us, entirely. Neither relationship nor friendship nor the most intimate connection is sufficient to affect this. To give one's whole confidence is quite different from giving one's regard. The closest intimacy has its exceptions, without which the laws of friendship would be broken. The friend always keeps one secret to himself, and even the son always hides something from his father. Some things are kept from one that are revealed to another and vice versa. In this way we reveal all and conceal all, by making a distinction among the persons with whom we are connected. 260


Fools and Folly

77 One half of the world laughs at the other, and fools are they all. Everything is good or everything is bad according to the votes they gain. What one pursues another persecutes. He is an insufferable ass that would regulate everything according to his own ideas. Excellences do not depend on a single man's pleasure. So many men, so many tastes, all different. There is no defect which is not affected by some, nor need we lose heart if things we value do not please some, for others will appreciate them. Nor need their applause turn our head, for there will surely be others who condemn. The real test of praise is the approbation of famous men and of experts in the matter. You should aim to be independent of any one vote, of any one fashion, of any one century. 101

78 Put up with fools. The wise are always impatient, for he that increases knowledge increases impatience of folly. Much knowledge is difficult to satisfy. The first great rule of life, according to Epictetus, is to put up with things: he makes that the better half of 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: a useful lesson in self-control. Out of patience comes forth peace, the priceless boon which is the happiness of the world. But let him with no power of patience retire within himself (though even there he will have to put up with himself). 159

79 Do not carry fools on your back. He that does not know a fool when he sees him 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 which is not so bad about them, and this is that though they can be of no use to the wise, they can be of much value to them as signposts or as warnings. 197

80 Make use of folly. The wisest play this card at times, and there are times when 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 the pretended is the true foolishness, since cleverness has arrived at such a pitch. To be well liked one must dress in the skin of the simplest of animals. 140



Adapted from The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracian, translated by Joseph Jacobs, 1892.

Authors born between 1665 and 1700 CE

Harvey ] Grotius ] Descartes ] [ Gracian ] Locke ] Newton ] Sor Juana ] Voltaire ]


Introduction and adaptation of  extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2003