“The Art of Worldy Wisdom” (1647) is a collection of 300 life and social strategies tips (“maxims”) to help people live an effective, happy, and successful life.
Robert Greene later borrowed much of “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” wisdom and turned it into “The 48 Laws of Power“.
About The Author
Baltasar Gracián (1601 – 1658) was a Spanish Jesuit preacher, baroque prose writer and philosopher.
This summary of “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” focuses on the best of the best.
For the readers’ sake and to deliver more value, I took the liberty to:
- I grouped similar maxims under bigger umbrellas
- I mixed the best available translations for each maxim
- When available translations were poor, I’ve made my own
- I streamlined some maxim’s explanations, and cut out cryptic references to old myths/texts
- I amended some titles to improve the title/content match
I believe that with these “power moves” touches, you can now learn even more from an already wonderful book.
Develop Into A High-Quality Man
The following maxims can be seen as general self-development and character development.
I put it first because these can be seen as the foundations of life and personal success.
Also see the popular articles:
11. Cultivate Those Who Can Teach You
Let friendly relations be a school of erudition, and conversation, refined teaching. Make your friends your teachers and blend the usefulness of learning with the pleasure of conversation. Enjoy the company of people of understanding. What you say will be rewarded with applause; what you hear, with learning. What draws us to others, ordinarily, is our own interest, and here that interest is ennobled.
32. 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—months of precious time—and it is worse to busy yourself with the trivial than to do nothing.
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.
50. Never Lose Self-Respect
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.
Avoid what is indecorous, not because others will judge you harshly, but because you fear your own prudence.
This talks about having higher standards for yourself than the standards that others place on you.
Also see “enlightened individualism” for placing your own standards above those of others -or society-.
106. Earn respect for who you’re becoming
Original title: “Don’t flaunt your good fortune”
It is more offensive to take excessive pride in your high office than in yourself. Don’t play the “great man”—it is odious—and don’t be proud of being envied. The more strenuously you seek esteem from others, the less of it you will have. It depends on respect. You can’t simply grab it, you have to deserve it and wait for it. Important occupations call for a certain gravity and decorum. Keep only what the occupation requires, what you need to fulfill your obligations. Don’t squeeze it dry; help it along. Those who want to look like hard workers give the impression that they aren’t up to their jobs. If you want to succeed, do so using your gifts, not your outer trappings. Even a king ought to be venerated more because of his person than because of his pomp and circumstance.
107. Don’t believe your own hype
Original title: “Show no self-satisfaction”
You must neither be discontented with yourself—and that were poorspirited—nor self-satisfied—and that 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.
This maxim reminds us not to believe our own hype, and puts things in perspective, including personal success.
In “Ultimate Power” we make the case that indeed your focus and pride should not be on the final result, but on your process.
For a good real-life example on believing one’s own hype, see:
121. Don’t make mountains out of molehills
Original title: “Do not make a Business of what is no Business”
Don’t make much ado about nothing. 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.
165. Wage a clean war
The wise person can be driven to war, but not to a dishonorable one. Act like the person you are, not the way they make you act. To behave magnanimously towards your rivals is praiseworthy. You should fight not only to win power but also to show that you are a superior fighter. To conquer without nobility is not victory but surrender. The good man does not use forbidden weapons, like the ones he acquires when he breaks up with a friend. Even when friendship ends in hatred, don’t take advantage of the trust that was once placed in you. Everything that smacks of treachery is poison to your reputation. Noble people shouldn’t have even an atom of baseness. Nobility scorns villainy. You should be able to boast that if gallantry, generosity, and faith were lost in the world, they could be found again in your own breast.
Read this thread:
228. Avoid value-taking, covert-aggressive humor
Original title: “Don’t be a scandal-monger”
Don’t be known for impugning the fame of others. Don’t be witty at someone else’s expense: it is more odious than difficult. All will take revenge and speak ill of you, and since you are one and others are many, you’ll be easily defeated. Take no content in the ills of others, and don’t comment on them. A gossip is always detested. He may mingle with great people, but they will value him as a source of amusement, not of prudence. And he who speaks ill hears worse.
274. Be charming / attractive
It is a wise sort of bewitchment. Let charm and courtesy capture the goodwill of others, and also their services. It isn’t enough to have merit if you don’t please others—this is what makes people praise you, and acclaim is the most useful instrument we have for ruling others. You are fortunate if others find you charming, but this must be helped by artifice, which works best when natural gifts are present. Charm leads to benevolence and, eventually, universal favor.
This is a mix of appearances and social strategies. But since one can be charming and a high-quality, value-adding folk, then we can consider it an honest, value-adding self-development strategy.
280. Be trustworthy, fly with the eagles
Original title: “be trustworthy”
Take notice of the bad behavior of others, it should be a warning and not an example. Bad behavior is not an example to imitate it but to defend yourself from. Your own integrity can be ruined by the ruinous behavior of others. But the honorable man does not forget who he is because of what others are.
One of the truly most powerful maxims of them all.
It takes a great man to maintain integrity in the midst of competition and Machiavellianism.
The following maxims can be considered “Machiavellians” in the sense that they are potentially effective, while being amoral and potentially manipulative and value-taking.
5. Make people depend on you
He who is truly shrewd would rather have people need him than thank him. Vulgar gratitude is worth less than polite hope, for hope remembers and gratitude forgets. You will get more from dependence than from courtesy. He who has already drunk turns his back on the well, and the orange already squeezed turns from gold into mud. When there is no longer dependence, good manners disappear, and so does esteem. The most important lesson experience teaches is to maintain dependence, and entertain it without satisfying it. This can hold even a king. But don’t carry it too far, leading others astray by your silence or making their ills incurable for your own good.
84. Use your enemies
Grasp things not by the blade, which will harm you, but by the handle, which will defend you. The same applies to enemies. A wise man gets more use from his enemies than
a fool from his friends. Many owe their greatness to their enemies. Flattery is fiercer than hatred, for hatred corrects the faults flattery had disguised. The prudent man makes a mirror out of the evil eye of others, and it is more truthful than that of affection, and helps him reduce his defects or emend them.
This maxim seems to suggest using your enemy in the sense of the feedback they can provide. When they attack you, you know what to correct. And if you can’t correct it and it hurts you, you know that you must work on an antifragile ego.
149. Know how to use scapegoats
Original title: “let someone take the hit”
To have a shield against ill-will is a great piece of skill in a ruler. It is not the resort of incapacity, as ill-wishers imagine, but is due to the higher policy of having someone to receive the censure of the disaffected and the punishment of universal detestation. Everything cannot turn out well, nor can everyone be satisfied: it is well therefore, even at the cost of our pride, to have such a scapegoat, such a target for unlucky undertakings.
187. When something pleases others, do it yourself. When it is odious, have someone else do it.
You will win favor, and shift ill will onto others. Great and noble people find it more pleasant to do good than to receive it. You can rarely trouble another without feeling troubled, either by pity or by remorse. In matters of reward or retribution let good be administered immediately, and bad, mediately, through another. You should give others something they can pummel with the hatred and gossip of their discontent. The anger of the rabble is like rabies. Without realizing what has harmed it, it snaps at the muzzle. And though the muzzle isn’t to blame, it takes the immediate punishment.
189. Utilize other people’s privations
When privation leads to desire, it gives us the surest way to manipulate others.
Some people climb the steps of others’ desires to reach their own ends. They take advantage of the tight spots others are in, and use difficulty to whet their appetite. They find the sting of want more useful than the complacency of possession, and as things grow more difficult, desire grows more vehement. A subtle way of getting what you want: maintain dependency.
This is the “WIIFT” of social exchanges.
213. Contradict & feign doubt to pry out secrets
Original title: “know how to contradict”
It is a great way to provoke others: they commit themselves and you commit nothing. The true thumbscrew, it brings the passions into play. You can use contradiction to pry loose the passions of others. Showing disbelief makes people spill their secrets; it is the key to tightly closed breasts. A sly depreciation of another’s mysterious word scents out the profoundest secrets; some sweet bait brings them into the mouth till they fall from the tongue and are caught in the net of astute deceit. By reserving your attention the other becomes less attentive, and lets his thoughts appear while otherwise his heart was inscrutable. A feigned doubt is the best skeleton key your curiosity can have: it will find out all it wants. Also in learning it is a subtle plan of the pupil to contradict the master, who thereupon takes pains to explain the truth more thoroughly and with more force, so that a moderate contradiction produces complete instruction
Smoke & Mirror Strategies
These maxims can be considred about “embellishing” things, and focusing on what things look, rather than focusing -or solely focusing- on what things are.
3. Keep matters in suspense
Admiration at their novelty heightens the value of your achievements, It is both useless and insipid to play with the cards on the table. Mix a little mystery with everything, and the very mystery arouses veneration. And when you explain, be not too explicit, just as you do not expose your inmost thoughts in ordinary intercourse.
Cautious silence is the holy of holies of worldly wisdom. A resolution declared is never highly thought of; it only leaves room for criticism. And if it happens to fail, you are doubly unfortunate.
94. Keep the extent of your Abilities unknown
The prudent person—if he wants to be revered by others—should never allow them to judge the extent of his knowledge and courage.
llow yourself to be known, but not comprehended. No one will discern the limits of your talent, and thus no one will be disappointed. You can win more admiration by keeping other people guessing the extent of your talent, or even doubting it, than you can by displaying it, however great.
99. Take care of appearances
Things pass for what they seem, not for what they are. Few see inside; many take to the outside. It is not enough to be right, if right seems false and malicious.
126. It’s foolish not to do foolish things, but not concealing them
Original title: “The fool isn’t someone who does something foolish, but the one who doesn’t know how to conceal it”
Hide your affects, but even more, your defects. All people err, but with this difference: the wise dissimulate their errors, and fools speak of those they are about to commit. Reputation is more a matter of stealth than of deeds. If you can’t be chaste, be chary. The slips of the great are closely observed, like eclipses of the sun and moon. You shouldn’t confide your defects to friends, or even to yourself, were that possible. Another rule for living is applicable here: know how to forget.
130. Do, but also be seen doing
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.
146. Don’t be fooled by appearances
Original title: Look deep inside.
Things are seldom what they seem, and ignorance, which sees no deeper than the bark, often turns to disillusion when it penetrates into things. In all things, deceit arrives first, dragging fools behind it in endless vulgarity. Truth is always late, always last to arrive, limping along with Time. Prudent people save one of their ears for truth, thanking their common mother, Nature, for giving them two. Deceit is superficial, and superficial people are quick to run into her. Discernment lives hidden away in retirement, so as to be more esteemed by the wise and the discreet.
253. Keep things strategically complex
Original title: Don’t express your ideas too clearly
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 people praise it because they hear it praised.
282. Use absence to win respect or esteem
Presence diminishes fame, absence enlarges it. The absent person who was thought a lion turns into a mouse—ridiculous offspring of the mountain—when present. Gifts lose their sheen when they are handled: one sees the outer bark and not the spiritual pith. Imagination travels faster than sight. Deceit comes in through the ears, but usually leaves through the eyes. The person who retires into himself, into the center of his reputation, preserves his good name. Even the Phoenix used absence to preserve its dignity and to turn desire into esteem.
Be Bad to Be Good
The following maxims are reminiscent of Machiavelli’s “a good man is ruined among the great number who are not good”.
And they can be grouped into this website’s core value that: “to be good, you need to be bad“.
54. Know how to show your Teeth
Like love, courage is no joking matter. If it yields once, it will have to yield again, and again. The same difficulty will have to be conquered later on, and it would have been better to get it over with. The mind is bolder than the body. So with the sword: let it be sheathed in prudence, ready for the occasion. It is your defense. A weak spirit does more harm than a weak body. Many people with eminent qualities lacked this brio, appeared to be dead, and were buried in their lassitude. Provident nature resourcefully joined the sweetness of honey with the sting of the bee. You have both nerves and bones in your body: don’t let your spirit be all softness.
243. Don’t be all dove
Let the guile of the serpent alternate with the innocence of the dove. No one is easier to fool than a good man; the person who never lies believes others easily, and the one who never deceives trusts others. Being fooled isn’t always a sign of foolishness; sometimes it shows goodness. 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. Don’t be so good that you give others the chance to be bad. Be part serpent and part dove; not a monster, but a prodigy.
266. Don’t be bad by being too good
You will be, if you never get angry. Those who feel nothing are not really people. They don’t always act that way out of insensitivity but often out of stupidity. To feel strongly, when circumstances call for it, makes you a person. Even birds poke fun at scarecrows. To alternate the bitter with the sweet shows good taste: sweetness alone is for children and fools. It is a great evil to be so insensible that you lose yourself by being good.
These maxims are about “timing”, including negotiating short-term interests with long-term ones to maximize lifetime success.
59. Finish Off Well
The important point is not the vulgar applause on entrance—that comes to nearly all—but the general feeling at exit.
81. Renew Your Brilliance
Excellence grows old and so does fame. So be reborn (…) dare to renew your brilliance, dawning many times, like the sun, only changing your surroundings.
110. Don’t wait to be a setting sun.
It is a maxim of prudent people to abandon things before being abandoned by them. You should make even your end into a triumph. At times the sun itself retires behind a cloud so that no one will see it fall, and it leaves us wondering whether it has set or not. Avoid sunsets so as not to burst with misfortune. Don’t wait for people to turn their shoulders on you: they will bury you alive to your regret, dead to renown. The prudent know when to retire a racehorse, and do not wait for him to collapse in the middle of the race, to the laughter of all. Let Beauty shatter the mirror cleverly, at the right time, and not too late when she cannot bear the truth.
113. In Prosperity prepare for Adversity
In the summer it is wise to provide for winter, and it is easier to do so. Favors are less expensive, and friendships abound. It is good to save up for a rainy day: adversity is expensive and all is lacking. 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, and in misfortune, they will not be recognized by them.
Some people grow conceited in success. Instead, that’s when you should be making more friends and allies.
120. Adapt to what works today
Original title: Live practically
Even knowledge has to be in the fashion, and where knowledge is uncommon, feign ignorance. Ways of thinking change, and so does taste. Don’t think like an ancient; taste like a modern. Count heads. That is what matters in all things. When you must, follow the common taste, and make your way toward eminence. The wise adapt himself to the present, even when the past seems more attractive, both in the clothes of the soul and in those of the body. This rule for living holds for everything but goodness, for one must always practice virtue. Many things have come to seem old-fashioned: speaking truth, keeping your word.
153. Don’t step into the huge gap left by someone else
If you do, be sure you have more than enough talent. Merely to equal your predecessor, you must be worth twice as much. To fill a great vacancy is hard, because the past always seems better. It isn’t enough to equal your predecessor; the person who goes first has an advantage. You need extra talent to expel him from his superior reputation.
This is the “don’t step into a great man’s shoes” in “The 48 Laws of Power”.
154. Be slow to either believe, or love
But don’t cast doubt openly on the truthfulness of others. When you treat someone like a liar, or insist he has been deceived, you add insult to injury. And not believing others implies that you yourself are deceitful.
This is a mix of timing and social strategies.
Take note of the social strategy aspect, which is equally important.
217. Prepare for love & hate to switch
Original title: “Neither love nor hate forever”
Treat your friends as though they could become your worst enemies. Since this happens in reality, let it happen in foresight. We shouldn’t give arms to the turncoats of friendship; they will wage the worst sort of war with them. On the contrary, when it comes to enemies, leave the door open to reconciliation. The door of gallantry is the surest one. The pleasure of revenge often turns into torment, and the satisfaction of having harmed someone often turns to pain.
231. Never show half-finished things to others
Let them be enjoyed in their perfection. All beginnings are formless, and what lingers is the image of that deformity. The memory of having seen something imperfect spoils our enjoyment when it is finished.
The maxim in these groups are all about “reputation” and its importance.
32. Have the Reputation of being Gracious
Especially if you govern them. It helps sovereigns to win the good graces of all. Ruling others has one advantage: you can do more good than anyone else. Friends are those who do friendly things. Some people are intent on not pleasing, not because it is burdensome, but simply out of nastiness. In everything they oppose the divine communicability.
97. Obtain and preserve a Reputation
It is expensive to obtain a reputation, for it only attaches to distinguished abilities, which are as rare. 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. Reputations based on substance are the ones that have always endured.
185. Don’t risk your reputation on one roll of the dice
If it comes out badly, the harm will be irreparable. You can easily err once, especially the first time. You aren’t always at your best, and not every day is yours. So let there be a second attempt to make up for the first … and if the first one goes right, it will redeem the second one. There must always be room for improvement and for appeal. Things depend on all sorts of circumstance, and luck grants us success only rarely.
This set of maxims reminds us that “friends and allies are power”, a central tenet of this website.
Also see “strategies of power“.
58. Adapt to those around you
There is no need to show your ability before everyone. 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 today there will be nothing to show tomorrow. Always have some novelty wherewith to dazzle. To show something fresh each day keeps expectations alive and conceals the limits of his talent.
Don’t show the same intelligence with everyone, and don’t put more effort into things than they require.
It’s a mix of different strategies. It starts with social strategies, including “adapting your power” to those around and to the situation and the “law of social effort“. And it ends with a “smoke and mirror” strategy on keeping some novelty.
The social-chameleon aspect is the most important here.
70. Know how to say no
You can’t grant everything to everybody. Saying “no” is as important as granting things, especially among those in command. What matters is the way you do it. Some people’s “no” is prized more highly than the “yes” of others: a gilded “no” pleases more than a curt “yes.” Many people always have “no” on their lips, and they sour everything. “No” is what occurs to them first. They may give in later, but they aren’t well thought of because they started out by being so unpleasant. Refusal shouldn’t come in one fell swoop. Let people nibble on their disappointment little by little. Never refuse something completely: others would no longer depend on you. There should always be some last remnants of hope to sweeten the bitterness of refusal. Let politeness compensate and fine words make up for the lack of deeds. Yes and No are soon said, but give much to think over.
105. Don’t be a bore
The man of one business or of one topic is apt to be heavy. Brevity is pleasant and flattering, and it gets more done. It gains in courtesy what it loses in curtness. Good things, if brief: twice good. Badness, if short, isn’t so bad. Everyone knows that a tall person is rarely an intelligent one, but it’s better to be tall in stature than long in conversation. The discreet person should avoid tiring others, especially the great, who are very busy. It would be worse to irritate one of them than the rest of the world. Well said is quickly said.
The author very acutely notes that great people, because busy, are even more annoyed by boring and time-wasting folks.
That much is true, and it’s something we also turned into a political/career strategy in “how to deal with your boss“.
Many people could improve so much in their relationships and social effectiveness by limiting the “me, me, me” approach to conversations.
To fix social mistakes, also read:
108. To achieve greatness, associate with great people
The company you keep can work wonders. Customs and tastes and even intelligence are transmitted without our being aware of it. Let the quick person join the hesitant one, and so on, through every sort of temperament. That way you will achieve moderation without straining after it. It takes much skill to know how to adapt yourself. The alternation of opposites makes the universe beautiful and sustains it, and causes even greater harmony in human customs than in nature. Govern yourself by this advice when you select your friends and servants. The communication of extremes will produce a discreet and golden mean.
109. Don’t tear people down, pull people up
Original title: “Don’t berate others”
There are people with savage tempers who make everything a crime, not out of passion but because of their very character. They condemn everyone, some for what they’ve done, others for what they will do. This shows a spirit worse than cruel, which is truly vile. They criticize others so exaggeratedly that they make motes into beams in order to poke out eyes. They are taskmasters who can turn a paradise into a prison. When swayed by passion, they take everything to extremes. A noble nature, on the contrary, always knows how to find an excuse for failings, if not in the intention, at least from oversight.
one of the most foundational maxims of high-quality people.
111. Have friends
They are a second being. To a friend, all friends are good and wise. When you are with them, all turns out well. You are worth as much as others want you to be and say you are, and the way to their mouths lies through their hearts. Nothing bewitches like service to others, and the best way to win friends is to act like one. The most and best we have depends on others. You must live either with friends or with enemies. Win one each day, if not as a confidant, at least as a follower. Choose well and some will remain whom you can trust.
112. Be kind to win the goodwill of others
Original title: “win the goodwill of others”
Reputation is purchased with affection. Some trust so much in their own worth that they make light of diligence. But the prudent person knows very well that merit can take a shortcut if helped by favor. Benevolence makes everything easier and compensates for whatever is lacking: courage, integrity, wisdom, and even discretion. It never sees ugliness, for it doesn’t want to. It is usually born from similarity of temperament, race, family, country, or occupation. In the spiritual realm, benevolence bestows talent, favor, reputation, and merit. Once one wins it—and this is difficult—it is easily kept. You can make an effort to win it, but you must also know how to use it.
114. Diminish the scope for competition, use collaborative frames
Original title: “Never compete”
When you vie with your opponents, your reputation suffers. Your competitor will immediately try to find your faults and discredit you. Few wage war fairly. Rivalry discovers the defects that courtesy overlooks. Many people had a good reputation until they acquired rivals. The heat of opposition revives dead infamies and digs up the stench of the past. Competition begins by belittling and finding faults, and rivals take advantage of everything they can and all they ought not to. Often they gain nothing by offending others, only the vile satisfaction of revenge. Revenge blows the dust of oblivion from people’s faults. Men of good-will are always at peace; men of good repute and dignity are men of good-will.
This reminds us of using collaborative frames in competition, or the “gentleman’s warrior approach” we talk about here (see later).
116. Always deal with honorable people
Favor them and win their favor. Their very recitude ensures they will treat you well even when they oppose you, for they act like who they are, and it is better to fight with good-minded people than to conquer the bad. There is no way to get along with villainy, for it feels no obligation to behave rightly. This is why there is no true friendship among villains, and their fine words cannot be trusted; for they do not spring from honor. Avoid the person who has no honor, for if he esteems not honor, he esteems not virtue. And honor is the throne of integrity.
This maxim reminds us that not all friends, allies, and partners are the same. High value and high quality people are worth more.
117. Don’t talk about yourself
You must either praise yourself, which is vanity, or criticize yourself, which is meekness. You show a lack of good judgment and become a nuisance to others. If this is important among friends, it is even more so in high positions, where one often speaks in public and where any appearance of vanity passes for foolishness. Nor is it prudent to talk about people who are present. You risk running aground on flattery or vituperation.
119. Avoid the bitter & hateful
Original title: Avoid being disliked
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
152. Screen for those who pull you up
Original title: “Don’t keep company with those who will make you seem less gifted”
Either because they are superior or inferior. The more perfect someone is, the more highly he is esteemed. The other person will always play the leading role, and you a secondary one, and if you win any respect at all, it will come in scraps and remnants. When the moon is alone it competes with the stars, but once the sun comes out it either doesn’t appear or it disappears. Don’t go near the person who can eclipse you, only the one who will make you look better. Don’t have a pain in your side, or honor others to the detriment of your own reputation. To grow, associate with the eminent; once grown, with those who are average.
156. Select your friends carefully
They should be examined by discretion, tested by fortune, certified not only in willpower but also in understanding. Though success in life depends on selecting your friends, people pay it little attention. In some cases, mere meddling leads to friendship and in most, mere chance. You are judged by the friends you have, and the wise never get along with fools. To take pleasure in someone’s company doesn’t make him a close friend. Sometimes we value his sense of humor without fully confiding in his talent. Some friendships are legitimate, others adulterous: the latter are for pleasure, the former are fertile and engender success. The insight of a friend is more valuable than the good wishes of many others. So let choice rule and not chance. Wise friends chase away sorrows, and foolish ones gather them. And don’t wish your friends wealth if you want to keep them.
In the next maxim, he says: “it is a great art to penetrate temperaments and distinguish the character of others. Human nature ought to be studied as closely as any book”.
183. Concede something to maintain rapport, friends, & good social standing
Original title: “Don’t hold on your views too firmly”
Every fool is fully convinced, and every one fully persuaded is a fool, and the more erroneous their judgment is, the more they hold on to it. Even when you are right, it is good to make concessions: people will recognize you were right but admire your courtesy. More is lost through holding on than can be won by defeating others. One defends not truth but rudeness. There are heads of iron, difficult to convince, hopelessly obstinate. When whim meets stubbornness, they bond forever into foolishness. Be firm in will, not in judgment. There are exceptional cases, of course, when one shouldn’t give in twice: once in judgment and once in execution.
We have seen some examples of these dynamics in the forums.
Those who were seen as overly harsh in defending their views or positions developed a poor social reputation that eventually cost them social goodwill and support.
Of course, exceptions always apply, and on some crucial topics and issues you can’t make concessions. But in many other cases, this is a fundamental maxim to heed.
257. Stop short of breaking off
or your reputation will be shattered. Anyone makes a good enemy, but not everyone can be a good friend. Few can do good, and almost everyone bad. Say things too abruptly and you will stir up the wrath of hypocrites, who were waiting for their chance. Friends whom you have offended make the bitterest enemies: to their own pet fault they add all of yours. When others observe us splitting up with someone, they speak as they feel and feel as they desire. They criticize our behavior either at the beginning of the friendship (for lack of providence) or at the end (for having waited so long). If you can’t help but part company, do it gently and excusably, with a slackening of favor rather than a violent outburst. This is where the maxim about a fine withdrawal* comes in handy.
258. Team up, find brother(s) in arms
Original title: “Look for someone to help bear your misfortunes”
You will never be alone, not even in risky situations, and you won’t have to bear all the hatred of others. Some people want to take charge of everything and all they do is take all the criticism. So have someone that can pardon you or help you bear hardship. Neither fortune nor the mobs are as quick to attack two people. Physicians, having mistaken the cure, are not mistaken to consult someone else who can help them carry the coffin. They share the weight and the sorrow, for misfortune borne alone is doubly intolerable.
259. Foresee the attack, turn the attacker into a friend
Original title: Foresee affronts and turn them into favors
It is wiser to avoid them than to avenge them. It is a great skill to turn a potential rival into a confidant. Those who would have attacked your reputation become its protectors. It is valuable to know how to place others in your debt and transform insult into gratitude. To turn sorrows into pleasures is to know how to live. Make malevolence itself your confidant.
This is a mix of social strategy, and social exchange strategy.
If you can make a favor to someone who was about to attack, chances are you can turn the attack into a favor indeed, and turn an enemy/frenemy, into a friend/ally.
291. Know how to test others
Let attentiveness and good judgment penetrate gravity and reserve. It takes great powers of judgment to measure someone else’s. It is more important to know the qualities and temperaments of people than those of stones and herbs. This is one of the subtlest things in life. Metals are identified by their sounds, and people by their speech. Words demonstrate integrity, and deeds even more so. Here is where one needs extraordinary care, profound observation, and critical power.
For testing in dating and seduction, also see:
These can be labeled as “defense strategies”, or as maxims ot become a “hardened target” agasint manipulation and value-taking strategies.
145. Hide your wounded finger
Or you will bump it on everything. Never complain about it. Malice always zeroes in on what hurts or weakens us. Look discouraged and you will only encourage others to make fun of you. Evil intent is always looking for ways to get a rise out of you. It uses insinuation to discover where you hurt, and knows a thousand stratagems to probe your wounds. If you are wise, you will ignore malicious hints, and conceal your troubles, either personal or inherited, for even Fortune sometimes likes to hit you where it hurts. It always goes straight for raw flesh. Be careful not to reveal what mortifies and what vivifies you, lest the former last and the latter end.
172. Never compete with someone who has 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.
193. Beware of someone who pretends to put your interest before his own.
The best defense against guile is attentiveness. When people are subtle, be even more so. Some are good at making their business into yours, and if you don’t decipher their intentions, you’ll find yourself pulling their chestnuts out of the fire.
245. Be wary of flattery without real feedback
Original title: “Sometimes you should reason with uncommon sense” / “Original and out-of-the-way Views”
It betokens a superior talent. 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.
Social Exchange Strategies
I group here a set of maxims that all fall under what we have identified on this website as a larger cluster of “social exchange dynamics”.
I also highly recommend you take a look at “social exchange theory“.
Even better, see the lesson in “Power University” which is much deeper.
171. Do not waste favor & connection for small things
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 favour. The sheet 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 favour. It can make or unmake a whole world. It can even give sense and take it away. As Nature and Fame are favourable to the wise, so Luck is generally envious of them. It is therefore more important to keep the favour of the mighty than goods and chattels.
191. Don’t take payment in politeness
It is a cheat. Some people, in order to cast a spell, have no need of magic potions. By doffing their hats the right way, they bewitch fools—the vain, that is. They sell honor, and pay their debts with a gust of fine words. He who promises everything promises nothing; promises are a trap for fools. True courtesy is a duty, false courtesy a deceit, and excessive courtesy isn’t dignity but dependence. Those who practice it bow not to the person but to his wealth and to his flattery; not to good qualities, but to hoped-for favors.
The author is talking about social exchange manipulation, where one repays a pragmatic favor with good feelings.
234. Only entrust your honor to someone if you have his as leverage
Original title: Never trust your Honour to another, unless you have his in Pledge.
The penalty for speaking too much and the advantages of silence should be the same for both of you. Where honor is involved, all must share the same interests, and one’s own reputation should make one look out for that of others. It’s better not to confide in others, but if you do, arrange matters skillfully so that your confidant will show not only prudence but caution. Share the risk, so that both of you are obeying a common interest and your confidant will not turn into a witness against you.
Very good maxim to generalize as well. When you give someone you don’t know too well a lot of leverage over you, it’s good if you also have some leverage over him.
It’s a mix of social strategy and social exchange. The power dynamics of leverage probably deserves its own category.
236. Make an Obligation beforehand of what would have to be a Reward afterward
This is a stroke of subtle policy; to grant favors before they are deserved is proof of being obliging. Favours thus granted beforehand have two great advantages: the promptness of the gift obliges the recipient more strongly; and the same gift which would afterward be merely a reward is beforehand an obligation. This is a subtle transformation: you begin by paying a debt and end up passing it on to your creditor. But this is only suitable for men who have the feeling of obligation, since with men of lower stamp the honorarium paid beforehand acts rather as a bit than as a spur
The trick is here to give a favor before we receive what we were going to receive. This maxim shows how well the author understood the dynamics of social exchanges, including the emotional-based accountancy of exchanges (ie.: “guilt”, “obligations to honor debts”, etc.).
244. Disguise a feeling of obligation
Original title: “create a feeling of obligation”
Some people disguise their own profit as the profit of others: they make it appear they are granting a favor when they are really receiving one. Some are so shrewd that they bestow honor by asking a favor; and they honor others with their own gain. They arrange things so that others seem to be paying them their due when they give them something. Extraordinarily clever, they scramble the order of doing favors and cast doubt upon who is favoring whom. They buy the best things with simple praise. By showing they like something, they bestow honor and flattery. They stake a claim on the courtesy of others, making a debt out of something they themselves should have felt grateful for. They use the verb oblige in the active voice rather than in the passive, and are better at politics than at grammar. This is a great subtlety, but it is even more subtle to catch someone doing it, undo the exchange, return someone’s honor, and recover the advantage.
252. Strike a healthy balance between selfishness & service
Original title: “Live neither entirely for yourself nor entirely for others”
It is a vulgar sort of tyranny. If you want to belong entirely to yourself, you’ll want everything for yourself. Such people don’t know how to yield, even in the smallest things, or give up even a tiny bit of their own comfort. They never win other people’s favor; they trust in their fortune, and acquire a false sense of security. It is good to belong to others at times so that others can belong to you. If you hold public office, you must be a public slave. On the other hand, some people belong entirely to others, for foolishness always deals in excess, and this is a very unhappy sort of excess. They have not a day, not an hour to call their own, so completely do they give themselves to others. This is true even in matters of knowledge. Some people know everything for others and nothing for themselves. If you are prudent, you will understand that people seek you not for your own sake but for their own. What interests them is what you can do for them.
I like how this maxim applied to leadership. One of the hallmarks of good leadership is about putting oneself in the service of the followers.
255. Break up your good deeds in small repeated doses
Original title: “Do Good a little at a time, but often”
A little bit at a time, but often. Don’t bestow more favor on someone than he can return. He who gives much doesn’t give; he sells. Don’t exhaust the gratitude of others. When grateful people are unable to respond, they break off the correspondence. To lose them, you have only to place them too greatly in your debt. When they don’t want to pay, they draw away, and turn into enemies. The idol doesn’t want to see the sculptor who carved him, and the benefited does not wish to see his benefactor always before his eyes. So learn this subtle lesson about giving: if the gift is to be appreciated, it should be much desired but cost little.
The last part is about “Machiavellian giving” to maximize exchanges: give what costs little to you, but that means a lot to the receiver
265. Get those who depend on you into tough situations
A risky situation, at the right moment, has made many people into true persons: it is when you are drowning that you learn to swim. In this way many discovered what they were worth and how much they knew, and all this would otherwise have remained buried in timidity. Difficult situations give us the chance to win renown, and when a noble person finds his honor at risk, he can do more than a thousand others.
I group it into the social exchange dynamics because this maxim can also be used in a more manipulative, darker fashion.
If someone can get someone in a tough spot, and then rescue them, then your social credits with them go through the roof.
A possible way of doing it is to help them imagine the worst of a situation before you propose your solutions. Then you become a precious “problem solver” for them.
285. Avoid “drag you down” embraces
Original title: “Never die on anotehr’s ill-luck”
Know who is in trouble and expect him to call on you for help and mutual consolation. Misery loves company, and the miserable reach out their arms to those on whom they once turned their backs. Be careful when you try to save someone who is drowning. You can’t help him without putting yourself in danger.
286. Don’t go completely into debt with anyone and everyone
You will become a common slave. Some were born luckier than others; they can do good while others receive it. Freedom is more precious than the gift that makes us lose it. Lay less stress on making many dependent on you than on keeping yourself independent of any. The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good. Above all do not regard responsibility as a favour, for generally it is another’s plan to make one dependent on him, and it is someone’s cleverness that puts you in a position of debt/responsibility.
A good maxim to understand that, sometimes, a favor becomes an obligation, and that some favors can rob us of our freedom.
The scene from “The Godfather” is a good example of this dynamic:
Godfather: Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call on you to do a service for us
Some more lessons learned:
7. Don’t outshine your boss
Original title: Avoid victories over your superiors
All victories breed hate, and that over your superior is 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.
26. Find out each Man’s Thumbscrew
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. Skill consists in knowing these idols in order to bring them into play. 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.
31. Select the Lucky and avoid the Unlucky
This is not always true.
Sometimes helping up a high-quality individual who was just being unlucky can provide you with the highest possible “social ROI”.
- Updated 48 Laws of Power – Part I
And since you’re here, see:
129. Avoid complaints, share what you want more of
Original title: Never complain
Complaints will always discredit you. Better be a model of self-reliance, as opposed to an object of compassion.
And to disclose one insult forms an excuse for another. Rather than compassion and consolation, they provoke passion and insolence, and complaints encourage those who hear our complaints to behave like those we complain about. Once divulged to others, the offenses done to us seem to make others pardonable. Some complain of past offenses and give rise to future ones. They want to be helped or consoled, but their listeners feel only satisfaction and even contempt. It is better policy to praise the favors others have done you, so as to win still more of them. When you tell how those absent have favored you, you are asking those present to do the same, and pay in the same coin. The prudent person should never publicize dishonor or slights, only the esteem others have shown him. Thus will he have friends and halve his enemies.
Also notice that complaints give away your thumbscrews.
203. Know the great men of your age
They are not many. There is one Phœnix in the whole world, one great general, one perfect orator, one true philosopher in a century, a really illustrious king in several. Mediocrities are as numerous as they are worth-less: eminent greatness is rare in every respect.
205. Learn to use scorn
One way to get things is to scorn them. When you look for them, they aren’t there, and later, without your trying, they come running. Scorn is also the shrewdest way to take revenge. A wise maxim: Never defend yourself with the pen, for this leaves a trail and glorifies your rivals rather than punishing them for their insolence. Unworthy people cunningly oppose the great: they try to win fame indirectly, without really deserving it. Many people would be unknown if their excellent opponents had paid them no heed. There is no revenge like oblivion: burying others in the dust of their inanity. Impudent fools, they try to become immortal by setting fire to the wonders of the world and of the centuries. One way to quiet vulgar murmuring is to ignore it. To impugn it will harm you. To give it credit brings discredit on you. Be happy that people want to emulate you, though their breath can tarnish, if not blacken, the greatest perfection.
This is the “Disdain Things You Cannot Have” in “the 48 Laws of Power”, but Baltasar goes deeper.
232. Have a touch of the practical / trader
Not everything should be speculation; you must also act. The wisest are easiest to deceive: they may know extraordinary things, but they know nothing of life’s ordinary necessities. So let the wise have a touch of the practical, enough not to be deceived and mocked. Know how to get things done: it may not be the highest thing in life, but it is the most necessary. What good knowledge if it isn’t practical? These days true knowledge lies in knowing how to live.
I’d say that you should have “more than a touch”. Practical is what achieves goals and brings results.
241. Allow yourself to be joked about, but don’t joke about others
The first is a sort of courtesy, but the second will get you into difficulties. The person who is ill-humored at a party is even more of a beast than he appears to be. Excellent jokes are pleasant, and to know how to take them is a sign of talent. If you show you are piqued, you’ll make others pick at you again. There is a moment to stop joking and not provide occasion for more. The most serious problems have arisen from joking. There is nothing that requires more attention and skill. Before you begin, know how much someone else can take.
- Potentially confusing mix of morality and amorality
“The Art of Worldly Wisdom” is a somewhat strange mix of ethical virtuosity, and true amoral Machiavellianism.
I see no issue with mixing the two because they’re not opposite: everything has its time.
But it does sounds strange when you turn contradictory approaches into “maxims” and “laws”.
Maxims and “laws” are supposed to be general, with few exceptions.
And that’s the main reason why I’m not the biggest fan of “laws” formats: it oversimplifies things to the point where it becomes misleading for those who are first learning.
- Better editing needed: some laws have one title, then talk about something totally different
Sometimes there is a disconnect between title of a “law”, and its content.
At times, it was also a missed opportunity: the off-topic content, even when not (perfectly) aligned to the title, was great, and deserved its own title/maxim.
- Sometimes cryptic
An already great book, the “Art of Worldly Wisdom” would have been even better with simpler wording.
- The author talks about “national characters”
To assign characters to individuals from certain nationalities is a mistake that many non-enlightened individualists commit.
Countries have cultures, and those cultures most certainly do affect people. But cultures don’t necessarily become characters in their citizens. And especially not for each of their citizens.
- The author says that tall people are stupid
Science wasn’t as advanced then, but it still doesn’t say very flattering things about someone to believe -or to be certain- that height has a strong correlation to intelligence.
- Some “rose-tinted glasses” and “back when it was better” attitude
The author sometimes falls for the typical narrative of “today things are bad, before they used to be better”.
These narratives show all their limitations when you read old texts, because you realize how many people today say the exact same things, without realizing that human nature has changed little.
- Negative form of maxims
It’s strange that an author of such acuity wrote so many maxims in the negative form -ie.: “don’t do this”-, rather than in the positive one -ie.: “do more of this”-.
The positive form is simpler to understand, internalize, and memorize.
- One of the best books on…
Social strategies, life strategies, and power dynamics.
- Deep insights on social exchange
While Robert Greene dialed up the cynicism, Baltasar has a keener eye and understanding of the dynamics of social exchanges.
Social exchanges entail not just manipulation, but also cooperation, and displays of altruism and virtue.
- A mix of Machiavellianism and high quality
Baltasar mixes effective Machiavellianism with what we could define as a high-quality, value-adding approach.
I think that’s a great mix to strive towards.
What Baltasar Gracian Say of Robert Greene?
The similarity between “The Art of Worldy Wisdom” and “The 48 Laws of Power” is striking.
- Many laws are the same
- The “maxim” format is the same
- The “horacle style” of writing is the same
I think Greene, in many ways, improved on Baltasar’s work.
To begin with, he added examples, which are very helpful.
And he added some different and insightful “laws”, while avoiding Baltasar’s repetitions.
He also turned his 48 laws into more amorally-sounding, direct guidelines that sound like a “dark psychology guide for success”. And that was a key ingredient for his book’s success.
Robert Greene was also more successful because he was a better writer. And a better marketer.
But there are plenty of benefits for his readers too: he also made a simpler, more streamlined and “harder hitting” product, easier for mot people to read.
And that is a merit.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that Green has credited Baltasar Gracian’s work nearly enough.
If you look at the list of the 48 laws of power, the resemblance with “the Art of Wordly Wisdom” is so striking that… I’m not so sure where we stand between “inspiration” and “no-credit plagiarism”.
It’s possible though that it’s me who doesn’t remember Robert Greene quoting and crediting Baltasar. That’s possible because I didn’t know Baltasar before reading “The 48 Laws of Power”.
And I certainly haven’t seen or read all Greene’s public statements.
If I realize that I am mistaken, I will happily amend this section.
And I appreciate any reader’s heads up on the matter.
“The Art of Wordly Wisdom” is a masterpiece.
Before you jump into it, keep in mind that this review gave you a good chunk of the value already.
The original work requires some skills to get the most out of it. You need to dig out the gold nuggets sparsed here and there within 300 maxims, some of which are plainer and some of which have a cryptic sentence structure.
Still, this was a true gem.
I learned a lot, and I teased out much inspiration, material, and food for thoughts for this website’s work and mission to expand and codify power dynamics and life strategies.