Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658) was a Spanish Jesuit who wrote a book of 300 maxims in 1637 called
‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom’. The book was quickly translated from Spanish into eight other languages
and eventually became an international hit.
Know your strongest quality: Cultivate it and it will assist the rest. Everyone 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 people judgement excels, in others valor. Most do violence to their natural aptitude and
thus attain superiority in nothing. Time enlightens us too late of what was first only a flattering of
Do not always joke: Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere wit. He that is always ready for
jests is never ready for serious things. Jokers resemble liars in that people never believe either,
always expecting a lie in one, a joke in the other. One never knows when you speak with judgement,
which is the same as if you had none. A continual jest soon loses all zest. Many get the reputation for
being witty but thereby lose the credit of being sensible. Jest has its little hour, seriousness should
have all the rest.
Renew your brilliance: This is the privilege of the phoenix. Ability grows old, and with it fame. The staleness of custom
weakens admiration, and a mediocrity that is new often eclipses the highest excellence grown old. Try
therefore to be born again in valor, in genius, in fortune in everything. Display startling novelty –
rise afresh like the sun every day. Change too the scene on which you shine, so that your loss may be
felt in the old scenes of your triumph, while the novelty of your powers wins you applause in the new.
Double your resources: You thereby double your life. One must not depend on one thing or trust to only one resource, however
pre-eminent. Everything should be kept double, especially the causes of success, of favour, or of esteem.
The moon’s mutability transcends everything and gives a limit to all existence, especially of things
dependent on human will – the most brittle of all things. To guard against this inconstancy should be
the sage’s care, and for this the chief rule of life is to keep a double store of good and useful
qualities. Thus as nature gives us in duplicate the most important of our limbs and those most exposed
to risk, so art should deal with the qualities on which we depend for success.
Plan out your life wisely: Not as chance will have it, but with prudence and foresight. Without amusements it is wearisome, like a
long journey where there are no inns – manifold knowledge gives manifold pleasure. The first day’s
journey of a noble life should be passed in conversing with the dead: we live to know and to know
ourselves, hence true books make us truly human. The second day should be spent with the living,
seeing and noticing all the good in the world. Everything is not to be found in a single country.
The Universal Father has divided his gifts and at times has given the richest dowry to the ugliest.
The third day is entirely for oneself. The greatest happiness is to be a philosopher.
Never let things be seen half finished: They can only be enjoyed when complete. All beginnings are misshapen, and this deformity sticks in the
imagination. The recollection of having seen a thing imperfect disturbs our enjoyment of it when
completed. To swallow something great at one gulp may disturb the judgement of the separate parts,
but satisfies the taste. Before a thing is manifest, it is nothing, and while it is in process of
being it is still nothing. To see the tastiest dishes prepared arouses disgust rather than appetite.
Let each great master take care not to let his work be seen in its embryonic stages – they might take
this lesson from Mother Nature, who never brings the child to the light until it is fit to be seen.
Never begin life with what should end it: Many take their amusement at the beginning, putting off anxiety to the end; but the essential should
come first and accessories afterwards if there is room. Others wish to triumph before they have fought.
Others again begin with learning things of little consequence and leave studies that would bring them
dame and gain to the end of life. Another is just about to make his fortune when he disappears from the
scene. Method is essential for knowledge and life.
Set difficult tasks for those under you: Many have proved themselves able at once when they had to deal with a difficulty, just as fear of
drowning makes a person into a swimmer. In this way, many have discovered their own courage, knowledge,
or tact, which but for the opportunity would have been forever buried beneath their lack of initiative.
Dangerous situations are the occasions to create a name for oneself, and if a noble mind sees honor at
stake, he will do the work of thousands.
Never contend with someone who has nothing to lose: By doing so you enter into an unequal conflict. The other enters without anxiety – having lost
everything, including shame, he has no further loss to fear. He therefore resorts to all kinds of
insolence. One should never expose a valuable reputation to so terrible a risk, least of all what has
cost years to gain and may be lost in a moment – a single slight may wipe out much sweat. A person of
honor and responsibility has a reputation, because he has much to lose. He balances his own and the
other’s reputation. He only enters into the contest with the greatest caution, and then goes to work
with such circumspection that he gives prudence the opportunity to retire in time and bring his
reputation under cover. For even by victory he cannot gain what he has lost by exposing himself to the
chances of loss.
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