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

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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

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.

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