Being as “cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves” without losing dignity, honor, and self-respect.

At the blog The Art of Manliness I was pleasantly surprised to see the image of a priest in a biretta.

Here is some of the entry, but I have bulletpoint-ized the headings.  You’ll have to go there to find out about them.

Emphases added:

Back when I was in high school, a mentor of mine gave me a copy of a small book that I’ve read and re-read several times over the years. The Art of Worldly Wisdom or The Pocket Oracle and the Art of Prudence, [KINDLE HERE for $0.99.  UK HERE.] is a book of 300 maxims and commentary written by a 17th century Jesuit priest named Baltasar Gracián. Considered by many to be Machiavelli’s better in strategy and insight, Gracian’s 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 Christ’s 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.

While Gracian’s maxims were directed to men trying to gain favor in the dog-eat-dog world of 17th century Spanish court life, they’re 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, Gracian’s 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. It’s a great little book to flip through and read in spare moments. You’ll be a better man for it.


Maxims of Baltasar Gracián

  • In your affairs, create suspense.
  • The height of perfection.
  • Don’t arouse excessive expectations from the start.
  • Never exaggerate.
  • Never lose your self-respect.
  • Never lose your composure.
  • Don’t be uneven, or inconsistent in your actions:
  • Choose a heroic model, more to emulate than to imitate.
  • Understand yourself:
  • Don’t hang around to be a setting sun.
  • Get used to the bad temperaments of those you deal with, like getting used to ugly faces.
  • Never complain.
  • Avoid familiarity when dealing with people.
  • Know how to appreciate.
  • Undertake what’s easy as if it were hard, and what’s hard as if it were easy.
  • Take a joke, but don’t make someone the butt of one.
  • Carry things through.
  • Don’t be carried away by the last person you meet.
  • Go with the flow, but not beyond decency.
  • Act as though always on view.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Central Valley says:

    The Art of Manliness blog should read daily. Set uf the RSS feed right after the WDTPRS blog. I have turned numerous friends onto both blog. The both assist in making us better men and better catholics.

  2. Supertradmum says:

    Excellent, he knew what objectivity and psychological boundaries are, which most of the present young generation does not know. Cool and thanks…

  3. Salvatore_Giuseppe says:

    I’ll have to check this out, although I am always skeptical about books like these, especially those by Robert Greene and his “48 Laws of Power” and “The Art of Seduction.” There just seems to be something sinister about the idea of forming your life around deceiving and using people.

    Whatever happened to simply being honest and forthcoming, whatever the effect? When did we start caring so much about worldly position as to abandon the ideal of love your neighbor?

    Hopefully this book is not the same, but I fear it might be.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    Salvatore, I commend your caution in reading materials. For me, and I’m sure for many here, if Fr. Z. recommends it, it’s “safe”, because he is an excellent priest of the highest caliber, with a keen and discerning mind bent on serving God. However, it is good to be cautious.

    Regarding your comment, I would like to say, with no mocking intention whatsoever, you are young. When you have lived longer, you will see why this is not about worldly position, but definitely about how to maneuver through the world when we are to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves”. It is really hard to do. When you have experienced as many different people and situations as some of the people on this site, you will gain insight into how and why simply dealing with other people is so very, very difficult, sometimes impossible. Openness and honesty often soon results in our heads chopped off. A certain amount of careful scrutiny of ourselves and others is needed. Along with the lambs, wolves are out there, and we, their entertainment, or next meal. We need help to just get through it at times. People and circumstances are what makes life such a challenge, and mostly people! There are things that try men’s (and women’s) souls, and even long-time adults need good counsel or advice on which to rely. There is no such thing as too much guidance in this. Life is tough. You get kicked around.

    May you never have circumstances that cause you aggravation, upset, pain, and anxiety. May everyone you meet have only a golden heart and good intentions.

  5. Dismas says:

    I read the excerpts over at Art of Manliness. Although I haven’t read it many years and my memory of it isn’t very sharp, it reminded me of Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence more than a little bit. Now another book, I have to go back and revisit.

  6. Tina in Ashburn says:

    If comments here had a ‘Like’ flag, I would have flagged Kathleen10’s comment :-)

  7. Christine says:

    I just bought it for my son. Thanks for the recommendation Fr.!

  8. APX says:

    I think Kathleen’s post deserves a gold star. Being young and naive, I didn’t listen to my dad warning me about the real world and the people I would have to deal with and work with. A lot of what was on that list are the same things my dad told me and warned me about. I thought I knew better with my honest virtuous ways and ideologies. Another lesson I learned- avoid “nice people” and don’t befriend them. “Nice people” walk around with a knife behind their backs. Stick to virtuous people.

  9. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Fr. Baltasar Gracian’s book was read by George Washington in some iteration. He copied many of the maxims into his diary, as a young man, and he tried to practice them all his life. I think it’s also one of the reasons that Washington was surprisingly un- anti-Catholic.

    So yeah, I’d say that’s a book recommendation.

  10. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Oh, I forgot I’d posted about him on my blog!

    Here’s a post about a public domain, English translation on Google Books of his book of Mass meditations. So if the worldly wisdom isn’t your thing, you can have some heavenly, instead.

    I can’t find a link for the Gracian thing about Washington, though. I think I read that in a Washington bio or article, but I guess it’s not online.

  11. Johnno says:

    One can definitely become very disillusioned with the world. It is simply not a good place where you can survive by being wholly honest. A certain range of duplicity and cunning is required to get ahead while maintaining your moral integrity. When it comes down to it, depending on circumstances, violence and treachery against evil men to prevent them from carrying out evil may also be necessary. This is why while war will always be evil, there are just wars that must be fought. One must pray for the gift of DISCERNMENT so as to wisely know when and how to perform such actions. It is also of necessity to know how to think like evil men, so as to predict their actions and thwart them. This especially is something the good people of the world solely lack, which is why they are outgunned, and outdone and politically outmaneuvered. If there were more good people who would have been motivated enough to accumulate a lot of wealth, more even than they ever thought would be necessary for one man, we could’ve had better allies in a fight against rich men who fund evil and the George Soroses of the world.

    Good people must also learn to hate, as the now venerable Bishop Fulton J Sheen admonished us, because without hating that which is evil, we therefore do not love. Our Love must by virtue possess a keen sense of hatred to such a degree that we are to be just as passion-filled in combating evil as the current lobbies of homosexuality and abortion are. Playing nice an playing politics and using nice politically correct words and nice dialogue and thinking we should only stick to playing by a rulebook our opponents do not follow and have themselves written specifically to bind us is a losing battle. As such we are accurately in wartime, spiritually and physically. We must then resort to the cunning and treachery and sabotage that war requires all while maintaining our integrity. The manner in which we maintain both is left to the gift of discernment that we must pray to the Holy Spirit for.

  12. oakdiocesegirl says:

    Thanks, Fr.Z! Exactly what I need this AM as I prepare for battle with the Dept of Consumer Affairs. “In your affairs, create suspense”-love it! Salvatore, you have obviously never been audited by the IRS or otherwise intimately dealt with our Federal or State governments. You will need guidelines like this to keep from sinning yet not losing your shirt.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Cleverness, cunning, and shrewdness — they don’t have to be duplicity. That’s the point of the book.

    It’s entirely honest to present yourself in certain ways and to remain reserved in other ways. You’re allowed to present your ideas in a way that interests other people and appeals to their interests, even if that’s not why you’re proposing those things.

  14. Lucas says:

    So is the Jospeh Jacobs translation the best one?

  15. Gail F says:

    This is my favorite of the ones you posted: “Get used to the bad temperaments of those you deal with, like getting used to ugly faces.” But the last on your list, “Act as though always on view” is especially good for our technological age. One IS always on view!

  16. Geoffrey says:

    Another book added to my Amazon wish-list!

    I have Greene’s “48 Laws of Power”. Some of his advice is good, while things like “how to create a cult-like following” need to be ignored! I enjoy the book mostly for its historical tales.

  17. mzanghetti says:

    I just went and bought the book for my kindle, I love mine too!

  18. AnnAsher says:

    I have a hard bound used old copy – the words are sage and beautiful.

  19. UncleBlobb says:

    @fatherz Once again Father, I have to sincerely thank you for your introduction to the Aubrey-Maturin series of books. I just finished the Simon Vance audio version of “The Thirteen Gun Salute” yesterday for the first time, as I am taking them in order from the beginning. (And now I know what happened to Wray and Ledword). The reason this is relevant to this post is that I could not help but thinking of our “mutual friends” Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin while reading about gentlemanly conduct above. This too has had a profound effect on my education on conduct and manliness, and at age 41 (although granted I’ve quite a bit to learn). I can’t help but assume that Patrick O’Brian had some intimacy with Gracian’s maxims. Certainly Dr. Maturin would have!

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  21. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Johnno, as much as what you say may be right, I find it helpful to remember one thing:

    It is one’s duty to remain honest. It is, however, not one’s duty to survive.

    Forgive me that it is that slack and lazy person which is myself that says this but: Even if the world may do all bad things about us, it has no worse weapons that death by starvation (and some more painful things especially in actual executions).

    I’m not saying it may not be very meritorious to also try to survive. In addition, it is most of the time more convenient to survive (actually and metaphorically). But it may be good to remember, for fighting despair and other things, that we actually don’t have to. If the world throws us out, so much the worse for the world.

    That said, some observation of mine (being a young and foolish person):
    1. While it is certain that other people are not all heroic saints and display the utmost altruism, that is posing the wrong question. Thing is that other people most of the time have a good intention in the ultimate back (and if it is only of the sort of “I also want to get my rightful share” or “why should I refrain from doing what anyone else does”, “and after all I do still have wife and children”, in itself valid concerns).
    2. Life is a pseudogiant (see Michael Ende, Jim Button and Luke the Engine driver); it seems monstrous and dangerous from afar, but becomes of normal, handlable size once you approach it. (Just as normal mean are pseudodwarves; they seem small from afar, but normal if next to you – for those who have not had the pleasure to read this fascinating book of children’s literature).
    3. However, practically and not spiritually speaking sins of weakness (if taken in the strictest sense of the term) are harmless. No real evil is done on an important scale without a moral justification (except perhaps by a few villains who go beyond normal human badness, and even so are less evil in effect that the others); simplifyingly speaking heresy, not sin is the problem. Even supposing people have a good intention (see No. 1) does not enable us never to expect inconveniences from their part.
    4. However, however good it is to go beyond mere obligation in morality, if done in a sense of voluntariness, it has nearly always bad outcomings if done for mistaking what your obligations are.

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