Baltasar Gracián on tools, focus, and outcomes

I read maxims 62 to 66 of Baltasar Gracián’s The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence this morning. There’s some real wisdom in there, which I wanted to capture here. I’m going to quote from each maxim; each one is longer than the part I’m sharing below.

Some want the mediocrity of the tools they work with to be evidence of their own extreme subtlety.

Maxim 62

Some would rather be first at something second-rate, than second at something first-rate.

Maxim 63

Some focus more on going about things the right way than on achieving their goal.

Maxim 66

I think the above is all easy to agree with, but then Gracián, a 17th-century Jesuit priest, throws in a bit of a Machiavellian curveball:

Most people don’t see the precise circumstances, only a good or bad outcome. Reputation is therefore never lost when goals are achieved. A successful conclusion makes everything golden, however mistaken the means.

Maxim 66

The notes in my Penguin Classics edition point to a controversy in Gracián’s time about the following passage from Machiavelli:

When they’re weighing up what someone has achieved — and this is particularly true with rulers, who can’t be held to account — people look at the end result. So if a leader does what it takes to win power and keep it, his methods will always be reckoned honourable and widely praised. The crowd is won over by appearances and final results.

Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’

It’s not quite a syllogism, but if you agree with the propositions in Maxims 62, 63, and 66 quoted above, it’s difficult to resist the inference that the ends justify the means. Yet I do want to resist just that. 🤔