book cover

In your affairs, create suspense. Admiration at their novelty means respect for your success. It’s neither useful nor pleasurable to show all your cards. Not immediately revealing everything fuels anticipation, especially when a person’s 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 shouldn’t 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, you’ll be unhappy twice over. Imitate divinity’s way of doing things to keep people attentive and alert.

Knowledge and courage contribute in turn to greatness. Since they are immortal, they immortalize. You are as much as you know, and a wise person can do anything. A person without knowledge is a world in darkness. Judgement and strength, eyes and hands; without courage, wisdom is sterile.

Make people depend on you. An image is made sacred not by its creator but by its worshipper. The shrewd would rather people needed them than thanked them. To put your trust in vulgar gratitude is to devalue courteous hope, for whilst hope remembers, gratitude forgets. More can be gained from dependence than from courtesy; once thirst is quenched, people turn their backs on the fountain, and an orange once squeezed is tossed in the mud. When dependence ends, so does harmony, and with it esteem. Let experience’s first lesson be to maintain and never satisfy dependence, keeping even royalty always in need of you. But you shouldn’t go to the extreme of being so silent as to cause error, or make someone else’s problems incurable for your own benefit.

The height 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.

Avoid outdoing your superior. All triumphs are despised, and triumphing over your superior is either stupid or fatal. Superiority has always been detested, especially by our superiors. Caution can usually hide ordinary advantages, just as it conceals beauty with a touch of carelessness. There will always be someone ready to admit others have better luck or temperaments, but no one, and especially not a sovereign, that someone has greater ingenuity. For this is the sovereign attribute and any crime against it is lese-majesty. Sovereigns, then, desire sovereignty over what matters most. Princes like to be helped, but not surpassed. Advice should be offered as if a reminder of what they’ve forgotten, not an insight that they’ve never had. The stars teach us such subtlety, for though they are children of the sun and shine brilliantly, they never compete with it in all its radiance.

Belie your national defects. Water acquires the good and bad qualities of the channels it passes through, people those of the country where they’re born. Some owe more than others to their birthplace, for the heavens were more propitious to them there. No country, even the most civilized, is free from some national failing which neighbouring countries will always criticize, either for advantage or solace. It’s a skilful triumph to correct, or at least to conceal, these national faults; you’ll gain credit as unique among your countrymen, for what’s least expected has always been more esteemed. There are also defects of lineage, status, occupation and age which, if they all appear in one person and are not carefully forestalled, will produce an unbearable monster.

Deal with people from whom you can learn. Let friendly interchange be a school of erudition, and conversation, civilized instruction. Make friends your teachers, joining learning’s usefulness and conversation’s pleasure. The intelligent combine two pleasures, enjoying the applause that greets what they say and the instruction received from what they hear. Usually, we are drawn to someone through our own interest, but here, that interest is ennobled. The circumspect frequent the company of eminent individuals whose houses are theatres of greatness rather than palaces of vanity. There are those renowned for their discretion whose example and behaviour are oracles in all matters of greatness and whose entourages are also courtly academies of good and gallant discretion.

Nature and art, material and craft. Beauty always needs a helping hand, and perfection is rough without the polish of artifice. It helps what is bad and perfects what is good. Nature usually lets us down when we need it most; let us then turn to art. Without it, our nature even at its best lacks refinement, and when culture is lacking, perfection remains incomplete. Everyone seems coarse without artifice, and everyone needs its polish in all areas to be perfect.

Reality and manner. Substance is insufficient, circumstance is also vital. A bad manner ruins everything, even justice and reason. A good manner makes up for everything: it gilds a ‘no’, sweetens truth, and beautifies old age itself. How something is done plays a key role in all affairs, and a good manner is a winning trick. Graceful conduct is the chief ornament of life; it gets you out of any tight situation.

Have intelligent support. The good fortune of the powerful: to be accompanied by outstanding minds that can save them from tight spots caused by their own ignorance and fight difficult battles for them. It shows exceptional greatness to make use of wise people, far better than the barbarous preference of Tigranes who wanted conquered kings as his servants. A new type of mastery over what’s best in life: skilfully make those whom nature made superior your servants. There’s much to know and life is short, and a life without knowledge is not a life. It’s a singular skill effortlessly to learn much from many, gaining knowledge from all. Then you can speak in a meeting for many or, through your words, as many wise people as advised you will speak. You’ll gain a reputation as an oracle through the sweat of others. Your learned helpers first select the subject, and then distil their knowledge and present it to you. If you can’t have wisdom as your servant, at least be on intimate terms.

Vary your procedure. Not always the same way, so as to confound those observing you, especially if they are rivals. Don’t always fulfil your declared intentions, for others will seize on your predictability, anticipating and frustrating your actions. It’s easy to kill a bird that flies straight, but not one that twists and turns. But don’t always do the opposite of what you say, for the trick will be understood the second time around. Malice is always lying in wait – great subtlety is needed to mislead it. Sharp players never move the piece their opponents are expecting, and especially not the one they want them to.

A person born in the right century. Truly outstanding people depend on their times. Not all were born at the time they deserved, and many, though they were, didn’t manage to take advantage of it. Some were worthy of a better century, for every good doesn’t triumph at all times. Everything has its time; even what’s outstanding is subject to changing taste. But wisdom has the advantage of being eternal, and if this is not its century, many others will be.

Related articles