The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a 17th century book of maxims written by a Spanish rector of the Catholic Church. It was innovative at the time for being one of the first that attempted to collect human wisdom is a handy pocket guide, a template for more modern wisdom books like The 48 Laws Of Power.
Here are the morsels of wisdom from the book that made the strongest impression on me:
1. Seek knowledge
Knowledge and Courage are the elements of Greatness. They give immortality, because they are immortal. Each is as much as he knows, and the wise can do anything. A man without knowledge, a world without light. Wisdom and strength, eyes and hands. Knowledge without courage is sterile.
2. Make others depedent on you
…hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one. More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy.
3. Don’t succumb to the collective flaws of your peers
Avoid the Faults of your Nation. Water shares the good or bad qualities of the strata through which it flows, and man those of the climate in which he is born.
Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it.
Bad execution of your designs does less harm than irresolution in forming them.
5. True wisdom will find its audience
The sage has one advantage: he is immortal. If this is not his century many others will be.
6. Be vigilant
Never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it.
7. Be patient
You must pass through the circumference of time before arriving at the centre of opportunity. A wise reserve seasons the aims and matures the means. Time’s crutch effects more than the iron club of Hercules. God Himself chasteneth not with a rod but with time. He spake a great word who said, “Time and I against any two.” Fortune herself rewards waiting with the first prize.
8. Easy come, easy go
Quickly done can be quickly undone. To last an eternity requires an eternity of preparation.
9. Carve your own path
Those who come first are the heirs of Fame; the others get only a younger brother’s allowance: whatever they do, they cannot persuade the world they are anything more than parrots.
10. Don’t joke all the time
A continual jest soon loses all zest. Many get the repute of being witty, but thereby lose the credit of being sensible. Jest has its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
11. Beware of the extremes
A sage once reduced all virtue to the golden mean. Push right to the extreme and it becomes wrong: press all the juice from an orange and it becomes bitter. Even in enjoyment never go to extremes. Thought too subtle is dull. If you milk a cow too much you draw blood, not milk.
12. Be humble
Be extraordinary in your excellence, if you like, but be ordinary in your display of it. The more light a torch gives, the more it burns away and the nearer ’tis to going out. Show yourself less and you will be rewarded by being esteemed more.
13. Know thyself
You cannot master yourself unless you know yourself. There are mirrors for the face but none for the mind. Let careful thought about yourself serve as a substitute. When the outer image is forgotten, keep the inner one to improve and perfect. Learn the force of your intellect and capacity for affairs, test the force of your courage in order to apply it, and keep your foundations secure and your head clear for everything.
14. Earn respect before demanding it
Do not enforce respect, but try and create it. Those who insist on the dignity of their office, show they have not deserved it, and that it is too much for them. If you wish to be valued, be valued for your talents, not for anything adventitious. Even kings prefer to be honoured for their personal qualifications rather than for their station.
15. Waiting may be the best course of action
A fountain gets muddy with but little stirring up, and does not get clear by our meddling with it but by our leaving it alone.
16. Success can hurt friendships
A wise friend wards off worries, a foolish one brings them about. But do not wish them too much luck, or you may lose them.
17. Think before you speak
There is always time to add a word, never to withdraw one. Talk as if you were making your will: the fewer words the less litigation. In trivial matters exercise yourself for the more weighty matters of speech. Profound secrecy has some of the lustre of the divine.
18. Maintain reserves
A man should not employ all his capacity and power at once and on every occasion. Even in knowledge there should be a rearguard, so that your resources are doubled. One must always have something to resort to when there is fear of a defeat.
19. Don’t fight a starving animal
Never contend with a Man who has nothing to Lose; for thereby 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 re-sorts to all kinds of insolence.
20. Sip slowly on life’s pleasures
We have more days to live through than pleasures. Be slow in enjoyment, quick at work, for men see work ended with pleasure, pleasure ended with regret.
21. Great men aren’t perfect
No one o’ersteps the narrow bounds of humanity: all have their weaknesses either in heart or head.
22. Don’t befriend fools
He that does not know a fool when he sees him is one himself: still more he that knows him but will not keep clear of him. They are dangerous company and ruinous confidants.
23. Always have dreams
Leave Something to wish for, so as not to be miserable from very happiness. The body must respire and the soul aspire. If one possessed all, all would be disillusion and discontent. Even in knowledge there should be always something left to know in order to arouse curiosity and excite hope. Surfeits of happiness are fatal.
24. Use different strategies for different tasks
Attempt easy Tasks as if they were difficult, and difficult as if they were easy. In the one case that confidence may not fall asleep, in the other that it may not be dismayed.
25. Don’t shock
…the most expert doctors of the soul pay great attention to the means of sweetening the pill of truth. For when it deals with the destroying of illusion it is the quintessence of bitterness.
26. Friendships change
Trust the friends of to-day as if they will be enemies to-morrow, and that of the worst kind. As this happens in reality, let it happen in your precaution.
27. Don’t make a man feel too indebted to you
With many persons it is not necessary to do more than overburden them with favours to lose them altogether: they cannot repay you, and so they retire, preferring rather to be enemies than perpetual debtors. The idol never wishes to see before him the sculptor who shaped him, nor does the benefited wish to see his benefactor always before his eyes.
28. Always remain diligent
Have no careless Days. Fate loves to play tricks, and will heap up chances to catch us unawares. Our intelligence, prudence, and courage, even our beauty, must always be ready for trial. For their day of careless trust will be that of their discredit. Care always fails just when it was most wanted.
29. Don’t be quick to vouch for others
Do not become responsible for all or for every one, otherwise you become a slave and the slave of all. Some are born more fortunate than others: they are born to do good as others to receive it. Freedom is more precious than any gifts for which you may be tempted to give it up.
30. Stop just short of being sated
Leave off Hungry. One ought to remove even the bowl of nectar from the lips. Demand is the measure of value. Even with regard to bodily thirst it is a mark of good taste to slake but not to quench it. Little and good is twice good. The second time comes a great falling off.
31. Virtue is greater than wealth
A man’s capacity and greatness are to be measured by his virtue and not by his fortune. She alone is all-sufficient.
While I agreed with much of the wisdom written in this book, there were a few instances where I didn’t. For example, he advises you to withdraw from hot streaks so as not to push your luck: “Leave your Luck while Winning. All the best players do it. A fine retreat is as good as a gallant attack.” But then how will you know when your streak is over? He is also extra sensitive to rejection and urges you to do your best to not fail in anything, a position that makes his other maxims on success just about impossible to achieve. I understand it’s difficult for one men to present a perfect system of human wisdom, so his attempt was overall quite impressive.
As you may have noticed, the writing is dense. You need to devote your full concentration to understand what the author is trying to say. I found it quite trying, but nonetheless enjoyed the refreshing of my memory on things I have learned through experience and study. Think of this as a review manual for life.
Because all the maxims are so short, this would make an excellent bathroom book, and I don’t mean that as an insult to the author. It’s very easy to pick up, read for a few minutes, and then put back down. If you don’t mind an older style of writing, it’s worth your while.
Read More: “The Art Of Worldly Wisdom” on Amazon