Very few people would claim Baltasar Gracian was simple. Maxim 13 is a very complex tightly woven strategic sentiment. This isn’t about philosophy per se, it is one of those sentiments that seems kind of Machiavellian or Sun-Tzu-ian. In a different translation than the free one that I use for the purpose of this blog translates the first line in a completely different way, which I’m going to quote here for further elucidation. “Act on the intentions of others:their ulterior and superior motives.” Compare that to the following:
xiii Act sometimes on Second Thoughts, sometimes on First Impulse.
Man’s life is a warfare against the malice of men. Sagacity fights with strategic changes of intention: it never does what it threatens, it aims only at escaping notice. It aims in the air with dexterity and strikes home in an unexpected direction, always seeking to conceal its game. It lets a purpose appear in order to attract the opponent’s attention, but then turns round and conquers by the unexpected. But a penetrating intelligence anticipates this by watchfulness and lurks in ambush. It always understands the opposite of what the opponent wishes it to understand, and recognises every feint of guile. It lets the first impulse pass by and waits for the second, or even the third. Sagacity now rises to higher flights on seeing its artifice foreseen, and tries to deceive by truth itself, changes its game in order to change its deceit, and cheats by not cheating, and founds deception on the greatest candour. But the opposing intelligence is on guard with increased watchfulness, and discovers the darkness concealed by the light and deciphers every move, the more subtle because more simple. In this way the guile of the Python combats the far darting rays of Apollo.
Life is a war against the malice of men. Consider that carefully. Life is… Not a part of life, but Life is a war – not a struggle, not a fight, or even a battle, but a full on war. And that malice, the cunning malice, doesn’t come at us straight in an obvious attack. It works angles, it comes at us laterally. That malice works against our intentions. This theme gets revisited many times by Gracian. It is important to him to hammer home the point that forces, the malice of others, are constantly working against us. To protect ourselves, we cannot act on first impulses, as those are the obvious impulses and where the malice of others will lay their traps. We must wait, reflect, and take action on the second impulse. And thus the name of this blog is revealed.
Through artful language, Gracian even tells us that once the malice of others sees we are wise to its trickery, it will come at us in a different way, using truth to hide its intentions. Yes, in this Maxim, I believe Gracian was channeling some pretty paranoid delusions, but not in an absolute crazy way. Instead I think he was really trying to make his point as absolute as possible. Whether we realize it or not, whether others realize it or not, our actions are opposed. They are opposed by others who may not even realize they are opposing them. The opposition can take the form of a naysayer who is quick to tell us why our chosen action won’t work, or by someone who is uncomfortable with any change that our action might bring. These people may work against us in subtle ways. They won’t debate the issues, they won’t express their opinions directly, instead they will salt the earth in which we planned to seed our ideas. They might remove necessary resources. If we want to have any semblance of success, we need to be aware and maintain a constant vigil for the malice of others.
Let’s make no mistake in thinking Gracian believes we are above this very same behavior, because he doesn’t. Are we not men? Do we not bleed if you prick us? No, we ourselves are capable of malice against others. Gracian has Maxims to deal with that as well, but that will be for another day.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom