Cunning as a Serpent, Innocent as a Dove: The Art of Worldly Wisdom
by Brett & Kate McKay
Art of Manliness
Back when I
was in high school, a mentor
of mine gave me a copy of a small book that Ive 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 Machiavellis better in strategy and insight,
Gracians 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 Christs 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.
maxims were directed to men trying to gain favor in the dog-eat-dog
world of 17th century Spanish court life, theyre 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, Gracians 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. Its a great little
book to flip through and read in spare moments. Youll be a
better man for it.
affairs, create suspense. Admiration at their novelty means
respect for your success. Its neither useful nor pleasurable
to show all your cards. Not immediately revealing everything fuels
anticipation, especially when a persons 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 shouldnt
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, youll be unhappy twice over. Imitate divinitys
way of doing things to keep people attentive and alert.
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.
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 its 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, its never enough to satisfy our idea of it and, misled
by excessive expectation, were 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 doesnt 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.
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.
lose your self-respect. Even when alone, dont 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 Senecas
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.
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.
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 anothers fame: it demolishes envy and inspires
yourself: your temperament, intellect, opinions, emotions.
You cant be master of yourself if you dont 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.
the rest of the article
© 2012 The Art of Manliness