Man’s Life is Warfare Against the Malice of Men

I found this very interesting aphorism by Baltasar Gracian in The Book of Wisdom. 

Act sometimes on second thoughts, sometimes on first impulse.

Man’s life is 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 its 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 its opponent wishes it to understand and recognizes every feint of guile. It lets the first impulse pass by and waits for the second, or even the third.

Gracian is describing a war between the wise hero (Apollo) and the intelligent villain (the python). Sagacity is the intelligence that represents the wise, the good, justice, and truth. Notice how Apollo, like the serpent, is agile. He changes his tactics when required. He is flexible and cunning – the way he chooses to deceive is through truth. But the clever python anticipates and observes these patterns of behavior, not falling for Apollo’s tricks – the python is a master at deception.

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.

This can be seen as a battle between good and bad. It may be seen as a representation of the internal battle that takes place within every individual. Everyone has competing sub-personalities, each trying to assert its dominance over the other. The deceptive, serpent side of you wants to guard its victories, it doesn’t allow the reformer in you to reign freely.

“Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.” – Man and his Symbols, Carl Jung 

This battle can also be the one taking place between your conscious self and your ‘shadow’ – as described by Jung.

“In the realm of consciousness we are our own masters; we seem to be the “factors” themselves. But if we step through the door of the shadow we discover with terror that we are the objects of unseen factors.” – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung

Or it can be viewed as resistance: the ruthless, formless, cunning enemy of creativity.

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet… To yield to resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be… As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of resistance arrayed against it. – The War of Art, Steven Pressfield 

In the end, Gracian tells us how the python survives – by anticipating the moves of Apollo, it is always one step ahead. In the eternal battle between good and evil – the good is always the underdog.


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