The Book of the Courtier

by Baldassare Castiglione

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Practice in everything a certain nonchalance that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought.

A courtier should not to be too pushy or forceful. He should certainly have ideas and plans in mind, but he must never display them too obviously. Ideally, he should convey an impression of nonchalant ease, something which, ironically, takes a lot of time and effort to perfect. It's awfully hard work giving the impression that you're not working hard. Everything about the courtier should appear to flow naturally, not to come about through artifice and construction.

Take care lest perchance you fall into the mistake of thinking to gain more by being merciful than by being just; for to pardon him too easily that has transgressed is to wrong him that transgresses not.

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Mercy is all very well, and entirely appropriate on certain occasions, but it is always better to be just, whatever that may entail. Giving someone a hasty pardon sets a dangerous precedent. If others see that they can receive mercy for such transgressions, then that may well encourage them to behave inappropriately.

Outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness. This loveliness, indeed, is impressed upon the body in varying degrees as a token by which the soul can be recognized for what it is, just as with trees the beauty of the blossom testifies to the goodness of the fruit.

The world of the court is a shallow one, a world in which opulence and display are everything. A courtier must know how to deport himself appropriately, paying close attention to his appearance, his dress, his conversation, how he holds himself in polite society. Such external beauty will redound greatly to a gentleman's reputation, giving others the impression of inner goodness. But on the other hand:

There be also many wicked men that have the comeliness of a beautiful countenance, and it seemeth that nature hath so shaped them because they may be the readier to deceive, and that this amiable look were like a bait that covereth the hook.

Evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Beauty can be the expression of a beautiful soul; but it can also be a bait to lure us into a false sense of security.

Therefore he who wishes to be a good pupil, besides performing his tasks well, must put forth every effort to resemble his master, and, if it were possible, to transform himself into his master. And when he feels that he has made some progress, it will be very profitable to observe different men of the same calling, and governing himself with that good judgment which must ever be his guide, to go about selecting now this thing from one and that thing from another. And as the bee in the green meadows is ever wont to rob the flowers among the grass, so our Courtier must steal this grace from all who seem to possess it, taking from each that part which shall most be worthy praise.

The courtier is not so much an individual as a cipher; a mini-me of the great and the good. His public character should be determined as far as possible by his emulation of his superiors. In this way, he melts into the background more effectively, making him less of a target for the jealousies and machinations of others at court. It also makes it less likely that he'll incur the wrath of his master if he follows his example and acts just like him.

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