The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, a book by Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), offers three hundred aphorisms for understanding the world and creating advantageous divergence. Most of them are still as relevant today as when they were written.
While relatively unheard of today, the book was imitated by La Rochefoucauld, cherished by Friedrich Nietzsche, and translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche went so far as to observe that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”
Gracián was a Jesuit priest who developed little tolerance for human folly and went about collecting and organizing his observations. Similar to Machiavelli’s The Prince, Gracián subordinated ethics to strategy.
Here’s a look at some of his insightful aphorisms.
Saying yes to something small can easily lead to unintended consequences.
Never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it.
Your enemies will show you your weaknesses, but your friends won’t.
A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.
Addition through subtraction.
The best skill at cards is knowing when to discard.
Master the best of what other people have already figured out.
Two kinds of people are good at foreseeing danger: those who have learned at their own expense, and the clever people who learn a great deal at the expense of others.
Never outshine the master, something Robert Greene echoes.
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.
You might not be pre-disposed with the best genes, but you can make the most of them by applying yourself.
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.
The key to happiness is low expectations, so it pays to underpromise and overdeliver.
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.
While luck plays an inevitable role, you can increase your odds by working hard.
Good fortune has its rules, and to the wise not everything depends upon chance. Fortune is helped along by effort.
You can checkmate someone’s will if you put yourself in their shoes.
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.
You need to 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.
Think slow. Act Fast.
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.
After you decide, sleep on it.
It is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterward
Act only when prudent to do so.
If the person doing something suspects he will fail, it will be evident to the person watching, even more so when he is a rival. If your judgment wavers in the heat of emotion, you’ll be thought a fool when things cool down. It is dangerous to undertake something when you doubt its wisdom. It would be safer not to act at all. Prudence refuses to deal in probability: it always walks under the midday sun of reason. How can something turn out well when caution started to condemn it the moment it was conceived? Even resolutions that passed the inner examination nemine discrepante* often turn out badly; so what can we expect from those that reason
Let time be your filter.
Some take nothing into account, and others want to account for everything. They are always talking importance, always taking things too seriously, turning them into debate and mystery. Few bothersome things are important enough to bother with. It is folly to take to heart what you should turn your back on. Many things that were something are nothing if left alone, and others that were nothing turn into much because we pay attention to them. In the beginning it is easy to put an end to problems, but not later. Sometimes the cure causes the disease. Not the least of life’s rules is to leave well enough alone.
While I wish the world worked in another way, one of the great lessons of politics is that optics matter.
Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice. What is invisible might as well not exist. Reason itself is not venerated when it does not wear a reasonable face. Those easily duped outnumber the prudent. Deceit reigns, and things are judged from without, and are seldom what they seem. A fine exterior is the best recommendation of inner perfection.
A confused mind is often one that rambles.
Take the pulse of the business at hand. Many see the trees but not the forest, or bark up the wrong tree, speaking endlessly, reasoning uselessly, without going to the pith of the matter. They go round and round, tiring themselves and us, and never get to what is important. This happens to people with confused minds who do not know how to clear away the brambles. They waste time and patience on what it would be better to leave alone, and later there is no time for what they left.
Echoing the concept of do something syndrome, Gracián writes:
… Remedies often worsen evils. Let nature take its course, and morality. The wise physician knows when to prescribe and when not to, and sometimes it takes skill not to apply remedies. Throwing up your hands is sometimes a good way to put down vulgar storms. If you bow to time for the present, you will conquer in the future. It takes little to muddy a stream. You can’t make it grow clear by trying to, only by leaving it alone. There is no better remedy for disorder than to leave it alone to correct itself.
This explains why most of your smart friends are impatient with incompetence.
The wise are the least tolerant, for learning has diminished their patience. Wide knowledge is hard to please. Epictetus tells us that the most important rule for living lies in knowing how to bear all things: to this he reduced half of wisdom. To tolerate foolishness much patience is needed. Sometimes we suffer most from those we most depend upon, and this helps us conquer ourselves. Patience leads to an inestimable inner peace, which is bliss on earth. And the person who does not know how to put up with others should retire into himself, if indeed he can suffer even himself.
Don’t compete with someone with nothing to lose.
The struggle will be unequal. One of the contestants enters the fray unencumbered, for he has already lost everything, even his shame. He has cast off everything, has nothing further to lose, and throws himself headlong into all sorts of insolence. Never risk your precious reputation on such a person. It took many years to win it, and it can be lost in a moment, on something far from momentous. One breath of scandal freezes much honorable sweat. The righteous person knows how much is at stake. He knows what can damage his reputation, and, because he commits himself prudently, he proceeds slowly, so that prudence has ample time to retreat. Not even if he triumphs will he win back what he lost by exposing himself to the risk of losing.
It is a mistake to anticipate the move someone will take is what is in their best interests. Think about possibilities and probabilities, not what you would do.
The fool never does what the prudent person thinks he will, for he cannot understand that it is to his advantage. Nor will he do it if he is wise, for he will want to dissimulate his intent, which you may have discovered and planned for. Examine both sides of things; go back and forth between them. Try to remain impartial. Don’t think about what will happen; think about what could.
Telling the truth is hard.
Don’t lie, but don’t tell the whole truth. Nothing requires more skill than the truth, which is like a letting of blood from the heart. It takes skill both to speak it and to withhold it. A single lie can destroy your reputation for honesty. The man deceived seems faulty, and the deceiver seems false, which is worse. Not all truths can be spoken: some should be silenced for your own sake, others for the sake of someone else.
When you don’t believe others, they set about to convince you and often tell you more than they should. In practice, tell someone something wrong, and watch as they can’t help but correct you.
It is a great way to provoke others: they commit themselves and you commit nothing. You can use contradiction to pry loose the passions of others. Showing disbelief makes people vomit up their secrets; it is the key to tightly closed breasts. With great subtlety you can test the will and judgment of others. Shrewdly scorn the word that someone else has cloaked in mystery, and you will hunt down his deepest secrets and make them come little by little to his tongue, where they can be trapped in the nets of subtle deceit. The prudent person’s reserve makes others lose theirs. It discovers their feelings when their hearts should have been inscrutable. A feigned doubt is the best skeleton key your curiosity can have: it will find out all it wants. Even when it comes to learning, the good student contradicts his teacher and makes him more eager to explain and defend the truth. Challenge someone discreetly and his teaching will be more perfect.
Flattery is as deadly a weapon as a sword.
Don’t think highly of the person who never opposes you. It doesn’t show that he loves you, it shows he loves himself. Don’t be fooled by flattery: don’t reward it, condemn it. Consider it an honor to be criticized, especially by those who speak ill of good people. You should be pained when your things please everyone; it is a sign that they are not good, for perfection belongs to only a few.
When speaking, it’s important to get your point across but not too clearly. People will value it more if they have to do a little work to understand it (see also: Ikea Effect).
Most people think little of what they understand, and venerate what they do not. To be valued, things must be difficult: if they can’t understand you, people will think more highly of you. To win respect, make yourself seem wiser and more prudent than is required by the person you are dealing with. But do so with moderation. Intelligent people value brains, but most people demand a certain elevation. Keep them guessing at your meaning, and don’t give them a chance to criticize you. Many praise without being able to say why. They venerate anything hidden or mysterious, and they praise it because they hear it praised.
The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence is well worth the read.