Many years ago , when I was visiting the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I was intrigued by a little book called The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I picked up a copy for my aunt but liked it so much that I went back and got another for myself.
The author, Baltasar Gracian, was a Jesuit priest , scholar and administrator who lived in 17th century Spain but this is not a religious book. Rather, it describes how human resources such as self-knowledge, attentiveness, mastery of one’s emotions and other forms of prudence can be used to perfect oneself. It explains how to gain control of one’s hopes and fears, wean oneself from false worldly values and entertain no illusions about people or things. It consists of 300 aphorisms each with a short explanatory paragraph. Here is one example:
“94. Unfathomable gifts. The prudent person – if he wants to be revered by others – should never allow them to judge the extent of his knowledge and courage. Allow 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.”
Some have criticized Gracians writings as ” Machiavellian” and ” pessimistic” and “irreligious” and “cynical” but ,when read as a whole, it is evident that the aphorisms are none of these things. Gracian is concerned with the attainment of human perfection and his philosophy may be summed up by the following ” Use human means as though divine ones didn’t exist , and divine means as though there were no human ones .” It is a tribute to him that his thoughts are still relevant even today, 350 years later.
One word of caution. There are several transalations of this book and one of them is vastly superior to the others. Be sure to get the transalation by Christopher Maurer.