From Schopenhauer to Gracian - Who Do They Admire?


I am always interested in knowing who greatly influenced individuals I admire. For Larry Page of Google fame, it was Nikola Tesla. Charlie Munger’s hero was Ben Franklin.  Ben Graham was Warren Buffett’s mentor and hero. Two intellectual giants that have influenced me in addition to Charlie Munger have been Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Drucker. I recently read an article about Peter Drucker and, to my great surprise, Schopenhauer was referenced in the piece. I was even more excited when he was discussed in the context of an influential book. I love to read the writings that have influenced successful people, particularly those written long ago that have stood the test of the time. This is how the author of the Harvard Business Review article linked the two intellectual giants together:

Gracian – Schopenhauer – Jung – Drucker – Kierkegaard – Borges

Many years ago, I asked him how familiar he was with The Oracle Manual and the Art of Worldly Wisdom by the Spanish Jesuit Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658). I was impressed that the famous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer learned Spanish just to enable himself to read that work in its original language. Drucker was not only well acquainted with Gracian and his works, but went Schopenhauer one further. Professor Drucker wrote to me:

My father gave [the book] to me as a present 72 years ago when I left Vienna to become a business apprentice in Hamburg…. A few months later I discovered [Danish philosopher Soren] Kierkegaard. And these two have become the poles of my life. Because of Gracian, I taught myself enough Spanish to read his work in its original language – and along with that I learned enough Danish to also read Kierkegaard’s work in its original language.

I decided to take a pause in the book I had just started about Carl Jung to dive right into Gracian’s treatise. If two intellectual giants felt they needed to learn Spanish in order to read the original text, then this is something I must read as well, albeit in its translated English. It looks like I will also have to read Kierkegaard more in-depth now as well. Kierkegaard is the genesis of one of my favorite quotations which are “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.” Apparently, I must go backward and read more of his works. I will also have to read Jorge Luis Borges as well as the author has this to say about him:

In addition to his global outlook and deep knowledge of history, Drucker’s mind possessed yet another trait which I have observed to such a great extent only by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: the skill of bisociation. Borges seemed not only to have read everything, but he also had the skill of making the most improbable connections and associations. The same was true for Peter Drucker. He drew parallels and recognized commonalities between historical, current, and future developments, stretching broad intellectual arcs between them. Personalities such as Drucker and Borges seemed to have encyclopedic memories. Yet this alone was not enough; the real skill is the ability to make bisociative connections. Hungarian author (and Drucker contemporary) Arthur Koestler considered this competence the true source of creativity.

Like Borges and Drucker, I have found that some of the best investors are able to make associations between two seemingly disconnected things and draw insights that differ than the consensus to make a lot of money. George Soros has said that “Markets discount the obvious and bet on the unexpected.” To bet on the unexpected requires independent and creative thinking and in the words of my favorite Schopenhauer quotation:

“Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.”    

One must have a curious and analytical mind, a diverse knowledge base, and a fiercely independent personality to see something differently from how the crowd is perceiving it and then have the courage to bet that you are right.

I thought I would share some of the most impactful insights from Balthasar Gracian. Perhaps some of these may help in assessing our illustrious presidential candidates or see how these may or not be present in our lives and inspire us to make them so in the event they are not.

Intellect without character can be very dangerous and unused potential is very sad.

“Character and Intellect: the two poles of our capacity; one without the other is but halfway to happiness. Intellect sufficeth not, character is also needed. On the other hand, it is the fool’s misfortune, to fail in obtaining the position, the employment, the neighbourhood, and the circle of friends that suit him.”

I always admire the quiet, thoughtful types because when they do speak, they tend to have something important to share and I know that it must be important since he or she does not speak gratuitously.

“Cautious silence is the holy of holies of worldly wisdom. A resolution declared is never highly thought of; it only leaves room for criticism.”

“The wise man therefore retires into silence, and if he allows himself to come out of it, he does so in the shade and before few and fit persons.”

Conversely, I detest exaggeration and find it a complete turn-off.

“Exaggeration is a prodigality of the judgment which shows the narrowness of one’s knowledge or one’s taste. Praise arouses lively curiosity, begets desire, and if afterwards the value does not correspond to the price, as generally happens, expectation revolts against the deception, and revenges itself by under-estimating the thing recommended and the person recommending. A prudent man goes more cautiously to work, and prefers to err by omission than by commission. Extraordinary things are rare, therefore moderate ordinary valuation. Exaggeration is a branch of lying, and you lose by it the credit of good taste, which is much, and of good sense, which is more.”

Life is a continuous journey of evolution and learning if we actively choose to make it so.

“We are not born perfect: every day we develop in our personality and in our calling till we reach the highest point of our completed being, to the full round of our accomplishments, of our excellences. This is known by the purity of our taste, the clearness of our thought, the maturity of our judgment, and the firmness of our will. Some never arrive at being complete; somewhat is always awanting: others ripen late. The complete man, wise in speech, prudent in act, is admitted to the familiar intimacy of discreet persons, is even sought for by them.”

Charlie Munger has said to avoid conferences but cultivates great partners to converse with and to learn from. Gracian agrees.

“Let friendly intercourse be a school of knowledge, and culture be taught through conversation: thus you make your friends your teachers and mingle the pleasures of conversation with the advantages of instruction. Sensible persons thus enjoy alternating pleasures: they reap applause for what they say, and gain instruction from what they hear. We are always attracted to others by our own interest, but in this case it is of a higher kind. Wise men frequent the houses of great noblemen not because they are temples of vanity, but as theatres of good breeding. There be gentlemen who have the credit of worldly wisdom, because they are not only themselves oracles of all nobleness by their example and their behaviour, but those who surround them form a well-bred academy of worldly wisdom of the best and noblest kind.”

Like Munger and Buffett preach, there is no substitute for the highly focused fanatic in terms of beating the competition.

“Wise men arm themselves with tasteful and elegant erudition; a practical knowledge of what is going on not of a common kind but more like an expert. They possess a copious store of wise and witty sayings, and of noble deeds, and know how to employ them on fitting occasions. More is often taught by a jest than by the most serious teaching. Pat knowledge helps some more than the seven arts, be they ever so liberal.”

Learn what your strengths are and focus on them. Gracian went so far as to recommend focusing on your greatest strength.

“Know your strongest Point– your pre-eminent gift; cultivate that and you will assist the rest. Everyone would have excelled in something if he had known his strong point. Notice in what quality you surpass, and take charge of that. In some judgment excels, in others valour. Most do violence to their natural aptitude, and thus attain superiority in nothing. Time disillusionises us too late of what first flattered the passions.”

True mastery can only come from a tremendous focus, paying close attention, and having an open, but skeptical mind.

“The greatest skill in any deed consists in the sure mastery with which it is executed.”Click To Tweet

“Excellence resides in quality not in quantity. The best is always few and rare: much lowers value. Even among men giants are commonly the real dwarfs. Some reckon books by the thickness, as if they were written to try the brawn more than the brain. Extent alone never rises above mediocrity: it is the misfortune of universal geniuses that in attempting to be at home everywhere, are so nowhere. Intensity gives eminence, and rises to the heroic in matters sublime.”

“The very truths which concern us most can only be half spoken, but with attention we can grasp the whole meaning. When you hear anything favourable keep a tight rein on your credulity; if unfavourable, give it the spur.”

Whenever I read a book the number one goal I have is to learn more about human nature and what makes people tick. I make a concerted effort to get to know people well enough to see what patterns may reappear to help me process how they may see the world.

“All men are idolaters, some of fame, others of self-interest, most of pleasure. Skill consists in knowing these idols in order to bring them into play. Knowing any man’s mainspring of motive you have as it were the key to his will. Have resort to primary motors, which are not always the highest but more often the lowest part of his nature: there are more dispositions badly organised than well. First guess a man’s ruling passion, appeal to it by a word, set it in motion by temptation, and you will infallibly give checkmate to his freedom of will.”

“Observation and Judgment. A man with these rules things, not they him. He sounds at once the profoundest depths; he is a phrenologist by means of physiognomy. On seeing a person he understands him and judges of his inmost nature. From a few observations he deciphers the most hidden recesses of his nature. Keen observation, subtle insight, judicious inference: with these he discovers, notices, grasps, and comprehends everything.”

Think independently and don’t be swayed by public opinion if you think it is wrong

“Common in Nothing. First, not in taste. O great and wise, to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible.”

We are absolutely our greatest enemies. Those that can tame their emotions and compulsions so they don’t rule the kingdom are often the most successful and fulfilled people.

“The passions are the humours of the soul, and every excess in them weakens prudence; if they overflow through the mouth, the reputation will be in danger. Let a man therefore be so much and so great a master over himself that neither in the most fortunate nor in the most adverse circumstances can anything cause his reputation injury by disturbing his self-possession, but rather enhance it by showing his superiority.”

“First be master over yourself if you would be master over others. You must pass through the circumference of time before arriving at the centre of opportunity.”

I hope you found these to be enlightening, thought-provoking, and applicable to your life.

Over to You:

Which intellectual genius inspire you and why?


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