tri_blog (tri_blog) wrote in learnphilosophy,

Baltasar Gracián: "The Art of Worldly Wisdom" (Intro). His 300 Aphorisms.

Read all my Baltasar Gracián posts.

Today, I start a long project on my blog. Over the next months, I plan to gradually post the entire book, The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia), by Baltasar Gracián. Even though he wrote it in 1647, his wisdom, wit, and practical advice on living sound unbelievably modern.

He should provoke some lively discussions here (and on my blog), if you guys are willing to have them.

Many have translated this book from Spanish. The versions I own and like best are by Christopher Maurer (1992) and Joseph Jacobs (1892, but modernized in 1993 by Shambhala Publications).

You may read both the full Christopher Maurer version and the full Shambhala version here. I will post BOTH versions daily on my blog. Enjoy!

From the excellent Christopher Maurer translation. He is the chair of the Spanish and Portuguese Dept. at Vanderbilt University:

Book flap

"Throughout the centuries, mankind has produced three great, timeless wisdom books: Machiavelli's The Prince, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and Baltasar Gracián's The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle....

[It] was written 300 years ago by one of Spain's greatest writers---a worldly Jesuit scholar and keen observer of many in positions of power. Gracián's work draws on careful study of statesmen and potentates who managed to combine ethical behavior with worldly effectiveness. Each of the elegantly crafted maxims in this volume offers valuable insight on the art of living and the practice of achieving.

According to novelist Gail Godwin, "The oracle scintillates with Machiavellian know-how, only with scruples....The reader today who faithfully follows its precepts will never make a fool of himself or herself and may even go on to become useful and wise."...

Gracián's advice is as astonishingly appropriate today as it was in 17th century Spain, a society resembling our own in its contiguous splendor and abject misery. These secular moral reflections on reality and appearances, self-love and friendship, wit and ignorance are sharply pragmatic, but still leave room for spirituality, tempered by prudence and discretion.


The Art of Worldly Wisdom [AOWW] is a book of strategies for knowing, judging, and acting: for making one's way in the world and achieving distinction and perfection. It is a collection of 300 aphorisms too delicious not to share with friends and colleagues, too penetrating not to hide from enemies and rivals. Its ideal reader is someone whose daily occupation involves dealing with others: discovering their intentions, winning their favor and friendship, or defeating their designs and "checkmating their will." Like all aphorisms, these are meant to be read slowly, a few at a time....

[The AOWW] sees life as warfare involving both being and seeming, both appearance and reality. 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 (#130). It assumes that good people are those most easily duped---sheep in the midst of wolves---and it teaches us to temper the innocence of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent, governing ourselves according to the way people are, rather than the way they would like to be or to appear....

Schopenhauer wrote: is especially [for] young people who wish to prosper in the world. To them it gives at once and beforehand that teaching which they could otherwise only obtain through long experience. To read it once through is obviously not enough; it is a book made for constant use as occasion serves---in short, to be a companion for life.
[This is not] an entirely cynical, Machiavellian [voice]...[The AOWW] insists on the perfectability of man and the capacity of goodness, assisted by art, to triumph over evil. It is true that in [the AOWW] perfection depends not upon religious revelation (God appears only rarely in these pages) but upon human resources and industry: attentiveness, mastery of one's emotions, self-knowledge, and other forms of prudence. There is, however, nothing irreligious or overly "pessimistic" about this emphasis on human reason....Gracián assumes, without saying so, that God helps those who help themselves.

What is disconcertingly "modern" about this book is the apparent subordination of 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. To achieve Gracián's prudencia (wisdom or prudence) one avoids generalities---among them, generalizations about morals. The AOWW bids us to speak the truth but to administer it skillfully, with a touch of artifice (#210)...We are to be "learned with the learned, saintly with the saints...observe [others'] temperaments and adapt [ourselves] accordingly" (#77)....But even mutability and dissimulation [concealing one's ability in order to gain the element of surprise over an opponent] must not harden into guiding principles. Gracián's insistence on adaptability, on metamorphosis and camouflage, reveals...a poignant sense of man's fragility and vulnerability.

Nor can Gracián be accused of indifference to the spiritual or material well-being of others. Avoid fools, he tells us repeatedly, but beyond that his injunctions are clear: "Speak what is very good, do what is very honorable" (#202). "Know how to do good" (#255): little by little, with moderation....As for the "pessimism" of which he is often accused,...what many of us call "optimism"---a belief that people are basically good and that things will turn out for the best---Gracián would have regarded as a hoax of the imagination: "Hope is a great falsifier." (#19) Let good judgment keep her in check....

Gracián labored painfully toward desengaño, the state of total "disenchantment" which one gains control of one's hopes and fears, overcomes deceitful appearances and vain expectations, and weans oneself from false worldly values. Much of the AOWW, with its insistence on curbing the imagination, concerns strategies for reaching that bittersweet beatitude. Optimism would have seemed out of place, anyway, in 17th century Spain...a kingdom in social turmoil and political decline....Only strategy---incessant plotting against one's own weaknesses and those of others---allows us to push forward to perfection....

Though he never held an important position in public life, his aphorisms draw on long and careful observation of human behavior, both in peace and in warfare....

He is one of the most laconic writers of the 17th century...antithesis and paradox; the constant use of ellipses; the concentration of meaning brought about by punning and other sorts of wordplay; the lack of connective tissue between one sentence---one point---and another....These traits are more than idiosyncracies: they arise from a vision of human nature. The stylistic values reflected in these pages---wit, intensity, concision, subtlety---are also rules for wise living. For Gracián, living is a high art. Aesthetic strategies correspond to moral ones. In other words, the author's relations with the reader are analogous to the reader's relations to those around him. The author fences with the reader, withholds his meaning, disguises his intentions, avoids putting all of his cards on the table, keeps matters in suspense, and uses obscurity to awaken admiration and reverence: the reverence due to an oracle. "The truths that matter most to us," Gracián writes self-reflectively, "are always half-spoken, fully understood only by the prudent" (#25); "secrecy has the feel of the divinity" (#160).

Gracián does not mingle with the common reader, does not court his affection; he knows that affection spoils veneration and that familiarity breeds contempt (#177). He does not want his writing and thinking to please the crowd (#28, #245). He would have agreed with Luis de Góngora, Spain's great Baroque poet:
It has been a matter of honor to me to make myself obscure to the ignorant, for that is what distinguishes the learned; to speak in a style that seems Greek to the ignorant, for precious pearls should not be cast before swine.
Despite Gracián's authorial aloofness, the AOWW has delighted many thousands of readers. Perhaps that aloofness is a strategy for success. "Another trick," he writes, "is to offer something only to those in the know, for everyone believes himself an expert, and the person who isn't will want to be one. Never praise things for being easy or common : you'll make them seem vulgar and facile. Everybody goes for something unique." (#150)...

No doubt the ellipses and zigzags of his thought has contributed to the AOWW's lasting appeal. "Don't express your ideas too clearly...To be valued, things must be difficult: if they can't understand you, people will think more highly of you." (#253) The aphorisms are not arranged as a system...."it is easy to kill the bird that flies in a straight line, but not the one that changes its line of flight." (#17) Not that the book is organized chaotically. Gracián's approach is dialectical: as happens with popular proverbs, one aphorism offsets another, contradicting or complementing it, and moral phenomena are viewed from different perspectives. One fragment tells us how to perform a maneuver, another, how to defend ourselves from it.

As for brevity, it too is both an aesthetic ideal and a strategy for survival. Say less, and you---as author or reader---will be less likely to be discovered, contradicted, proven wrong. "Speak as though you were writing your testament: the fewer words, the fewer lawsuits." (#160) And "good things, if brief, [are] twice good."

All of Baltasar Gracián's 300 aphorisms:

001 All has reached perfection, and becoming a true person is the greatest perfection of all.
002 Character and intelligence.
003 Keep matters in suspense.
004 Knowledge and courage take turns at greatness.
005 Make people depend on you.
006 Reach perfection.
007 Don't outshine your boss.
008 Not to be swayed by passions: the highest spiritual quality of all.
009 Avoid the defects of your country.
010 Fame and fortune.

011 Associate with those you can learn from.
012 Nature and art, material and labor.
013 Act on the intentions of others: their ulterior and superior motives.
014 Both reality and manner.
015 Surround yourself with auxiliary wits.
016 Knowledge and honorable intentions.
017 Keep changing your style of doing things.
018 Application and capacity.
019 When you start something, don't raise other people's expectations.
020 A person born in the right age.

021 The art of success.
022 Be well informed.
023 Don't have a single imperfection.
024 Temper your imagination.
025 Know how to take a hint.
026 Find each person's "handle," his weak point.
027 Better to be intensive than extensive.
028 Be vulgar in nothing.
029 Be righteous and firm.
030 Don't occupy yourself with disreputable things.

031 Know the fortunate in order to choose them, and the unfortunate in order to flee from them.
032 Be known for pleasing others.
033 Know when to put something aside.
034 Know your best quality.
035 Weigh matters carefully.
036 Take the measure of your luck.
037 Know what insinuation is, and how to use it.
038 Quit while you're ahead.
039 Know when things are at their acme, when they are ripe, and know how to take advantage of them.
040 Grace in dealing with others.

041 Never exaggerate.
042 Born to rule.
043 Feel with the few, speak with the many.
044 Sympathy with the great.
045 Use, but don't abuse, hidden intentions.
046 Temper your antipathy.
047 Avoid committing yourself to risky enterprises.
048 You are as much a real person as you are deep.
049 A person of sharp observation and sound judgment.
050 Never lose your self-respect.

051 Know how to choose.
052 Never lose your composure.
053 Be diligent and intelligent.
054 Act boldly but prudently.
055 Know how to wait.
056 Think on your feet.
057 Thoughtful people are safer.
058 Adapt to those around you.
059 End well.
060 Good judgment.

061 Eminence in what is best.
062 Use the best instruments.
063 The excellence of being first.
064 Avoid grief.
065 Elevated taste.
066 Take care to make things turn out well.
067 Choose an occupation in which you can win praise.
068 Make others understand.
069 Don't give in to every common impulse.
070 Know how to say no.

071 Don't be inconsistent, either because of temperament or out of affectation.
072 Be resolute.
073 Know when to be evasive.
074 Don't be unfriendly.
075 Choose a heroic model.
076 Don't always be joking.
077 Adapt yourself to everyone else.
078 Skill at trying things out.
079 A jovial character.
080 Be careful when you inform yourself about things.

081 Renew your brilliance.
082 Neither all bad nor all good.
083 Allow yourself some venial fault.
084 Know how to use your enemies.
085 Don't be the wild card.
086 Head off rumor.
087 Culture and refinement.
088 Deal with others in a grand way.
089 Know yourself.
090 The art of living long: live well.

091 Never act unless you think it prudent to do so.
092 Transcendent wisdom.
093 A universal man.
094 Unfathomable gifts.
095 Keep expectations alive.
096 Good common sense.
097 Make your reputation and keep it.
098 Write your intentions in cipher.
099 Reality and appearance.
100 A man free of deceit and illusion.

101 Half the world is laughing at the other half, and folly rules over all.
102 A stomach for big helpings of fortune.
103 To each, the dignity that befits him.
104 Have a good sense of what each job requires.
105 Don't be tiresome.
106 Don't flaunt your good fortune.
107 Don't look self-satisfied.
108 A shortcut to becoming a true person.
109 Don't berate others.
110 Don't wait to be a setting sun.

111 Have friends.
112 Win the goodwill of others.
113 Plan for bad fortune while your fortune is good.
114 Never compete.
115 Get used to the failings of your friends, family, and acquaintances.
116 Always deal with people of principle.
117 Don't talk about yourself.
118 Be known for your courtesy.
119 Don't make yourself disliked.
120 Live practically.

121 Don't make much ado about nothing.
122 Mastery in words and deeds.
123 A person without affectation.
124 Make yourself wanted.
125 Don't be a blacklist of others' faults.
126 The fool isn't someone who does something foolish, but the one who doesn't know how to conceal it.
127 Ease and grace in everything.
128 Highmindedness.
129 Never complain.
130 Do, but also seem.

131 A gallant spirit.
132 Reconsider.
133 Better to be mad with everyone than sane all alone.
134 Double your store of life's necessities.
135 Don't have the spirit of contradiction.
136 Size up the matter.
137 The wise are sufficient unto themselves.
138 Leave things alone.
139 Know your unlucky days.
140 Go straight to the good in everything.

141 Don't listen to yourself.
142 Don't defend the wrong side out of stubbornness.
143 Don't be paradoxical to avoid being vulgar.
144 Enter conceding and come out winning.
145 Hide your wounded finger.
146 Look deep inside.
147 Don't be inaccessible.
148 Be skilled in conversation.
149 Let someone else take the hit.
150 Know how to sell your wares.

151 Think ahead.
152 Don't keep company with those who will make you seem less gifted.
153 Don't step into the huge gap left by someone else.
154 Neither quick to believe, nor quick to love.
155 Skill at mastering your passions.
156 Select your friends.
157 Don't be mistaken about people.
158 Know how to use your friends.

159 Know how to suffer fools.
160 Speak prudently.

161 Know your own sweet faults.
162 Conquer envy and malevolence.
163 Don't let your sympathy for the unfortunate make you one of them.
164 Float a trial balloon.
165 Wage a clean war.
166 Distinguish the man of words from the man of deeds.
167 Be self-reliant.
168 Don't become a monster of foolishness.
169 Better to avoid missing once than to hit the mark a hundred times.
170 In all matters, keep something in reserve.

171 Don't waste the favors people owe you.
172 Never compete with someone who has nothing to lose.
173 Don't be made of glass in your dealings with others.
174 Don't live in a hurry.
175 A person of substance.
176 Either know, or listen to someone who does.
177 Don't grow too familiar with others.
178 Trust your heart.
179 Reserve is the seal of talent.
180 Never govern yourself by what your enemy ought to do.

181 Don't lie, but don't tell the whole truth.
182 Show everyone a bit of daring; a important sort of prudence.
183 Don't hold on to anything too firmly.
184 Don't stand on ceremony.
185 Don't risk your reputation on one roll of the dice.
186 Know when something is a defect.
187 When something pleases others, do it yourself. When it is odious, have someone else do it.
188 Find something to praise.
189 Utilize other people's privations.
190 Find consolation in everything.

191 Don't take payment in politeness.
192 A peaceable person is a long-lived one.
193 Beware of someone who pretends to put your interest before his own.
194 Be realistic about yourself and your own affairs.
195 Know how to appreciate.
196 Know your lucky star.
197 Never stumble over fools.
198 Know how to transplant yourself.
199 Be prudent when you try to win esteem.
200 Have something to hope for.

201 Fools are all those who look like fools, and half of those who do not.
202 Words and deeds make a perfect man.
203 Know the great men of your age.
204 Undertake the easy as though it were difficult, and the difficult as though it were easy.
205 Learn to use scorn.
206 Know that there are vulgar people everywhere.
207 Use self-control.
208 Don't die from an attack of foolishness.
209 Free yourself from common foolishness.
210 Know how to handle truth.

211 In heaven all is contentment, in hell all is sorrow, and on earth, which is in between, we find both.
212 Never reveal the final stratagems of your art.
213 Know how to contradict.
214 Don't turn one act of foolishness into two.
215 Pay attention to the person with hidden intentions.
216 Express yourself clearly.
217 Neither love nor hate forever.
218 Never do something out of stubbornness, only out of attentive reflection.
219 Don't be known for your artifice.
220 If you can't wear the skin of a lion, wear the skin of a fox.

221 Don't be hotheaded.
222 Cautious hesitation is a sign of prudence.
223 Don't be eccentric.
224 Know how to take things.
225 Know your major defect.
226 Be sure to win people's favor.
227 Don't surrender to first impressions.
228 Don't be a scandal sheet.
229 Parcel out your life wisely.
230 Open your eyes before it is too late.

231 Never show half-finished things to others.
232 Have a touch of the practical.
233 Don't mistake other people's tastes.
234 If you trust your honor to someone else, keep his in pledge.
235 Know how to ask.
236 Turn someone's reward into a favor.
237 Never share your secrets with those greater than you.
238 Know what piece you are missing.
239 Don't be overly clever.
240 Make use of folly.

241 Allow yourself to be joked about, but don't joke about others.
242 Follow through on your victories.
243 Don't be all dove.
244 Place others in your debt.
245 Sometimes you should reason with uncommon sense.
246 Don't give explanations to those who haven't asked for them.
247 Know a little more, live a little less.
248 Don't be obsessed with the latest.
249 Don't start living when you should be ending.
250 When should we reason backward?

251 Use human means as though divine ones didn't exist, and divine means as though there were no human ones.
252 Live neither entirely for yourself nor entirely for others.
253 Don't express your ideas too clearly.
254 Don't scorn an evil because it is a small one.
255 Know how to do good.
256 Be prepared.
257 Stop short of breaking off.
258 Look for someone to help bear your misfortunes.
259 Foresee affronts and turn them into favors.
260 You can't belong entirely to others, and no one can be entirely yours.

261 Don't persist in folly.
262 Know how to forget.
263 Many pleasant things are better when they belong to someone else.
264 Don't have days when you are careless.
265 Get those who depend on you into tough situations.
266 Don't be bad by being too good.
267 Silken words, delivered gently.
268 The wise do sooner what fools do later.
269 Take advantage of your novelty.
270 Don't be the only one to condemn what is popular.

271 If you know little, stick to what is surest in each profession.
272 Add courtesy to the price of what you're selling.
273 Understand the characters of the people you are dealing with.
274 Be charming.
275 Row with the current, but preserve your dignity.
276 Renew your character with nature and with art.
277 Display your gifts.
278 Don't call attention to yourself.
279 Don't answer those who contradict you.
280 An honorable person.

281 Win favor from the intelligent.
282 Use absence.
283 Be inventive, but sensibly.
284 Mind your own business.
285 Don't perish on account of someone else's bad luck.
286 Don't go completely into debt with anyone and everyone.
287 Don't act when moved by passion.
288 Adapt yourself to circumstance.
289 A man's worst disgrace: showing he is one.
290 It is never a good idea to mix appreciation and affection.

291 Know how to test others.
292 Let your character be superior to the requirements of the job.
293 Maturity.
294 Moderate your opinions.
295 Not a braggart, but a doer.
296 A man of majestic gifts.
297 Always behave as though others were watching.
298 Three things make a marvel . . .
299 Leave people hungry.
300 In a word, be a saint; that says everything.
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